Guest post by Niklas Hageback & Daniel Hedblom
What to do when an authoritarian regime has complete control over the media, knowing that their survival hinges on framing reality according to their political discourse and anyone daring to question it risks serious repercussions? Well, even in such a hermetic environment, news (read: propaganda) still must relate to the actual conditions on the ground and the regime’s need to manage its subjects’ expectations. An insight was discovered already during WWII when Allied intelligence analysts took German propaganda broadcasts at face value and arrived at astonishingly accurate forecasts of the development of the much feared V2 rockets. Or the observation of the remarkably repetitive hollow propaganda of the Soviet Union in the 1970/80s that rang so false vis-à-vis reality and gave the first clues to brewing troubles under a superficially stable surface that would spell its demise only a few years later, an event that took the world by complete surprise.
Today, the earlier ambitions to seek political domination by Nazi Germany and later on the communist Soviet Union have been replaced by an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian China trying to impose its dictatorial doctrine on the world. It is, much like its predecessors, portraying itself as an unstoppable force of nature against which any resistance is futile, but are these claims really true? To question news domestically from Chinese media outlets is virtually impossible but also international analysts face sanctions if critically examining Sino political and economic ‘facts.’
By augmenting previously successful methods of analyzing propaganda with the tools that artificial intelligence provides, such as deep learning and predictive analytics, Chinese propaganda broadcasts can be viewed through an entirely different spectra. Namely, what is the Chinese regime, probably unbeknownst to them, actually conveying in their attempts to constantly realign their power narrative to an unbending reality. Then, for them deeply concerning picture starts to emerge.
The Tale of a Wunderwaffe that Vanished into Thin Air
When the fortunes of war started to turn against Germany in WWII in 1943 after the humiliating defeat at Stalingrad, being thrown out of North Africa, and increased Allied bombings over Germany itself, the Nazi regime noted and much feared faltering morale and war fatigue amongst its population. The German propaganda outlets then started to make boisterous claims about a coming wunderwaffe, an air bombardment vengeance weapon with the potential to change the outcome of the war, at least so they claimed.
We now know that this was no propaganda lie. They referred to the mythical V2 rockets and their predecessors, an impressive feat of German engineering, which, if they had been deployed earlier and on a larger scale, might actually have saved Germany from an unconditional defeat, according to some historians. Its chief engineer Werner von Braun came after the war to provide the technical edifice of the U.S. space program and is probably the only person that managed to be both a celebrated Nazi as well as an American hero of science.
However, at the time, the Allies did not know what to make of it, was it merely empty words to reinvigorate war fever in the German population, or was it actually a new sinister weapon nearing completion?
A group of Allied intelligence analysts was called to analyze Nazi propaganda broadcasts to ascertain whether they provided any clues. However, they could not find any historical patterns between earlier propaganda behavior and ensuing actions and initiatives, it appeared to provide no apparent forecasting values. Instead, they attempted an indirect method. They reviewed each propaganda campaign in isolation, realizing that there was likely no all-encompassing coherent approach but that propaganda was deployed in a rather fragmented manner. Thus, this indirect method would only be applicable when the intended actions of the Nazis involved some pre-planning and deliberation, such as launching a battle campaign or a wonder weapon. This as they would need to use preparatory propaganda as a means to prepare and manage expectations, mainly of their own populations, and then seek to enhance and exploit the emotions attached to this forthcoming action. Of course, it meant that any spontaneous or unexpected reactions that might arise needed to be excluded as these would be difficult to preempt in a pre-planned campaign. However, by adjusting for such events, they expected this method of analysis to yield some prognosticative power. Whilst they were in the midst of a war, they recognized the method’s generic potential, meaning that it could be used also for economic, political, and diplomatic events. This propaganda analysis method would work best in dictatorships, where the regime has complete control over media, as none of their efforts would be domestically challenged, and therefore could be analyzed without any rhetorical contaminations. The Allied intelligence analysts were ambitious on what details they might be able to discover, not only to understand the German’s intentions, timing, the nature and magnitude of the wonder weapon, but also its whereabouts, and the objectives assigned to them as well as the leadership’s expectation of its success and any opposition within senior Nazi echelons. So, what did they manage to find out?
First and foremost, they concluded that the propaganda was not empty words, the Germans really were working on an unconventional airborne weapon with the potential of causing some serious damage and they were putting high hopes in it. This conclusion was made in November 1943, eight months before the commencement of the first rocket attacks. Promises about a new wunderwaffe had begun to appear in German broadcasts as early as June 1943, and from historical precedents, they had never previously deliberately misled the German people in matters involving an increase in its firepower. However, they still had not been put into action. Why could that be? The intelligence analysts were able to infer that the prolonged delay, after it had been repeatedly promised, must have been due to delays in its timetable that were not anticipated. It appeared that something had unexpectedly happened. The analysts could even pin down the actual days on which something had occurred to cause the delay, as they noted that references to a wunderwaffe suddenly had dropped out of German propaganda broadcasts for ten days beginning 19 August 1943, and later, for seven days beginning on the 11 September 1943. They then learned about a British air raid on 17 August at a secret weapons station in Peenemünde by the Baltic sea and an Allied air raid in the Boulogne-Calais area in France which was suspected of holding launch platforms for the rockets. Searching for other reasons, and not finding any plausible alternatives, they eventually concluded that the bomb raids must have been the cause of the production and launch delays.
They were now equipped with some vital information, namely locations and the level of efficiency of the bombing raids and how these had affected production status and launch platforms. These insights would prove important in how the Allied would counter the threat of the rockets, and with that, they caused the regime a crushing propaganda failure, as the Nazis, even Adolf Hitler himself, had high hopes that these would prove decisive for the war. This was also a major intelligence breakthrough as the German had made considerable efforts in trying to deceive the Allies about the locations of the V2 rockets but instead, inadvertently through their propaganda, had given away important clues.
This method of analysis was used to interpret other propaganda campaigns and came to prove successful in predicting an aborted offensive on the Eastern front and forecasting German diplomatic initiatives.
Repetitive Tales from a Stagnating Empire
The fall of the Soviet Union took everyone by surprise. There had been very few, actually no consistent predictions of its demise, surprisingly given that the monitoring and assessment of Russia and its satellite states employed thousands of analysts, not only working for Western intelligence organizations but also in academia, media, think tanks, and for various business interests. These Kremlinologists had, to various degrees, access to official statistics and records of shifting quality in terms of accuracy, sometimes being deliberately distorted, even falsified, satellite photos, and so-called HUMINT, physically gathered intelligence including clandestinely collected from various sources. Yet, leading up to the events of 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequently the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, historians have struggled to find any credible and consistent forecasts that correctly predicted the downfall. But it was not easy to predict as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its ideological empire was remarkable in that it was not preceded by a violent revolution like that of 1917, no sudden coup d’etat, or as a consequence of a significant military loss. So, conventional wisdom discounted the possibility of an imminent collapse. And on the surface everything looked good, the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow became a showpiece of what appeared to be a well-functioning country. Whilst the living standard was lower than that in the West, and the economy had started to stagnate, these were differences of degree rather than magnitude, and the Soviet regime pointed out that it had no unemployment and an economy that was not burdened by debts, much unlike Western Europe and the US that had suffered badly from the economic crisis of the 1970s.
However, there were a few that started to sense that not everything was as it appeared to be. Foreign visitors to Russia and the other Eastern Bloc countries were struck by the dullness and how lifeless these societies appeared. These previously culturally vibrant countries appeared to have lost their spark, instead being replaced by highly repetitive slogans dominating all public life with a kind of 1984 doublespeak connotation. This falseness by clinging on to empty platitudes that could come to mean really anything and which changed frequently led some to note that it had turned the Soviet Union into a world without meaning, without events, and without humanity. Such a psychologically detrimental environment does not go without negative consequences, something that the French historian Emmanuel Todd highlighted in his La chute finale: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphère Soviétique in 1976. He had studied official demographic statistics such as infant mortality rates, birth rates, life expectancy, and suicide rates, all of which painted a disturbing picture of a society in decline, reflecting the culturally adverse attitudes that reigned not only among the population but also the leadership. Todd described how the sentiment of the Soviet elite had started to shift in the early 1960s as a result of recognizing the limitations of the communist system in delivering the ambitions set out in the 5-year plans, and that they had ideologically given up, merely focusing on protecting their power privileges. As the state was so exceptionally totalitarian, there was little room to take a proverbial breather from the mentally suffocating environment, and with no opportunity to vent their dissatisfaction against a dysfunctional government, the negativity was turned inwards. Large segments of the population basically started to give up, to the point that national demographic statistics showed highly unhealthy trends, much to the embarrassment of the leadership. With dropping birth rates, declining life expectancy, raging alcoholism, and increased levels of suicide, all due to the same psychological root cause, the statistics highlighted a population that had given up on the system, and through radicalized means, embarked on a path of collective self-destruction, as such the societal edifice began to wither away. In such a hypocritical atmosphere where words had come to mean nothing, the ideological foundation had been so watered down, and as the regime’s only interest was to hang on to power, so when attempts to reform from within, perestroika, commenced, the system collapsed quickly as it had already become so fragile through this intellectual corrosion.
The Morphology of a Dictatorship
Propaganda, whilst typically never referred to as such, is a key tool for a dictatorship to uphold its legitimacy, as it helps them to impose its worldview on its citizens. It highlights its aspirations, beliefs, and norms, in all, the narrative around which it guides itself and that it expects its subjects to follow. For an analyst, it is a valuable source to understand the thinking and inner workings of an authoritarian regime, and it becomes particularly interesting when things do not go according to plan and how failures in one way or another have to be communicated. Lies, half-lies, scapegoating, and reframing can only gloss over misfortunes so much so, that it is at these insertion points that the dictatorship’s psyche tends to reveal itself. Thus, there are, at a minimum, three important questions that an analyst should seek answers to when reviewing propaganda material;
When studying how German propaganda during WWII was designed to counter events expected to come with negative consequences for its population, the Allied intelligence analysts could reverse engineer a suite of rules that the Germans appeared to apply;
An interesting observation is that while propagandists are crafting rules to the point of being mechanical, they often become so bound by these and the doctrine they are endorsing that, unbeknownst to them, they are forced into a predictable pattern that provides clues that can be deciphered to understand the underlying situation. After the war, it became evident that the Germans at no time realized that they, through their propaganda campaign, had been disclosing important information on the status of the V2 rockets.
The Tale of the Emperor’s (of the Middle Kingdom) New Clothes
When the Chinese Communist Party came under the rule of Xi Jinping, appointing himself as de facto leader for life, the control apparatus and politicization of pretty much all aspects of an ordinary citizen’s life reached a totalitarian height not seen since the days of Mao Tse Tung. It has turned China into one of the most repressive societies in the world, where tolerance for any form of dissidence has become almost non-existent. The Chinese regime, like that of Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union earlier, has not been shy in proclaiming that it seeks to impose its worldview on the rest of the world; however, unlike its predecessors, violence has, for now at least, not been the preferred tool to achieve this goal, but instead using the size of its economy to allure and then as required blackmail and coerce foreign countries and corporations to fall in line. So far, this strategy has had mixed success.
To independently ascertain and understand China’s economy has become critical as the regime’s political status, both domestically and internationally, and likely its survival depends on it. However, that is not an easy quest; examining the composition of national statistics, economic and otherwise, can under the very flexible Chinese legislation be considered as prying on state secrets, something that comes with severe consequences. International reporters based in China have seen their work visas quickly withdrawn and they have been expelled from the country when they have critically questioned the official view of the economic situation. And international banks know well that their bank licenses allowing them to operate in the country depend on playing along in the charade, with their macroeconomic reports always being in line with government numbers. There have really been very few, if any, studies that have attempted to understand the true conditions of the Chinese economy. It is remarkable as many of their statistics simply do not add up (deliberately or not), regional statistics and national statistics often look unrelated, and the export numbers they present sometimes do not tally with the corresponding imports in the recipient countries nor do they match shipping statistics, their foreign currency reserves appear erroneous, and to many, China’s heavy borrowing given where they claim to be in the economic development curve lacks historical precedent, it should not really be necessary to borrow this much if the growth if supposedly so high. Also, some of the statistics are significantly tweaked; for instance, migrant workers, a considerable part of China’s workforce, are excluded from the official unemployment statistics. Exempting this weak socioeconomic group would be the equivalent of U.S. unemployment statistics excluding Afro-Americans and Hispanics. In all, many key statistics come across as unreliable.
Could Chinese propaganda then provide us with answers about its true economic situation?
Maybe, it is a reasonable assumption that they operate under similar rules when using propaganda to communicate current and future events, as previously Nazi Germany and Soviet Union had done. This as China also has total control over the media, and, whilst being totalitarian, they still need to manage the expectations of their citizens, especially when things do not go according to plan. Xi Jinping's regime has made monumental promises of a glorious economic future to the Chinese, however, these are promises we anecdotally noticed that they started to backtrack on and downplay both in terms of deliverables and dates already some years ago, which was what piqued our interest in commencing this study.
By collating and analyzing their propaganda broadcasts, the study sought to answer two key questions;
What is the actual status of the regime’s pet projects that they have claimed will propel China to its next elevated economic level and to which so many resources and much prestige have been invested?These include, amongst others, The Belt and Road Initiative, developing a new Silk Road trade route being under the control of China, and The Greater Bay Area, which would in effect amalgamate cities in southern China, including Hong Kong, to form a gargantuan mega-city, comprising of the equivalent of a Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Las Vegas as well as being Asia’s leading manufacturing and transportation hub turning this Greater Bay Area into an economic powerhouse.
Audacious and massive undertakings, no doubt, and the key for China’s (economic) future, but are they all what they seem to be, and are they going according to plan?
The other key question relates to the viability of the regime itself; it often boasts how it, in one voice, speaks for the entire Chinese population of 1.4 billion (soon 1.3 billion). But under the increasingly repressive milieu that its citizens are being forced to adhere to, which is promoted by slogans parroted across media channels that come across as having little to do with everyday life, the status quo is appearing unsustainable. Is this a Soviet situation in the making, where the regime is running dry on fortitude, the ideological vigor and dynamism is gone, and staying in power at all costs is now the only goal for Xi Jinping’s regime? One can for a while hide behind platitudes, but when they start to deviate too much from reality, and no one any longer believes in them, merely paying lip service when required to do so, the corrosion of the fabrics of society has often already advanced too far to arrest and recover. A notion supported by some disturbing demographic statistics that China now shares with the last stagnating years of the Soviet Union, where for instance, birth rates now stand at a record low, defining the future of the Chinese population as aging and shrinking.
By leveraging the previous methods of propaganda analysis that were developed with the impressive insights of both psychology and the politics of authoritarian regimes, and through augmenting these with the analytical power that artificial intelligence can provide, including techniques for big data, deep learning and predictive analytics, we developed a model that aspires to detect underlying trends in propaganda over time. The collated and analyzed material came from Chinese state media outlets, such as China Daily, Global Times, and Xinhua from 2010, as applicable, onwards, but also referencing earlier Chinese propaganda campaigns drawing inferences of the actual outcomes of the initiatives they were set to promote. Basically, taking the Chinese regime’s propaganda at face value, the way they have chosen to present their view of events and how these unfold without being distorted by any 3rd party reporting. We adjusted for circumstances that specific propaganda campaigns could not have pre-planned for things such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing trade war with the US. (The focus was on its English language media, which is the only language our model currently can analyze.) So, what did the analysis show then?
For the aforementioned projects that China has invested so much in and put great hope into, there has been a noted change in tone and reporting frequency since they were first launched to a degree that deviates from what historically would be expected. Some of the insights from our proprietary model, which can be applied generically, highlight the following key features;
To sum it up, much points to the fact that the regime is trying to lower the expectations of what economic deliverables the Belt and Road Initiative might bring in, these are being mentioned less and less in the media. It is currently rarely referred to in economic terms at all, and overall, significantly less commented than what would be expected, a trend that had already commenced well before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and the trade war. It appears to be a project that the regime is preparing to withdraw from its narrative. The Greater Bay Area project shows similar characteristics, albeit playing out faster in time, given its much later launch than the Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, this project might come to be scrapped altogether or vastly re-defined to cover a much smaller scope.
Then what about the more general propaganda, are there changes to its sentiment?
There is a noted stagnation in the variety of slogans and contents used to describe the regime’s aspirations. The language has become simplified with sentiment going from active to passive; it now more often references ‘defending’ something such as the motherland, etc., putting the regime in a defensive posture. There is an increase in a ‘back to history’ narrative, mentioning historical occasions of suffering, hardship, and/or glorious endeavors, typically used as subtle references made to prepare the population that earlier promises of (economic) benefits might not materialize at all. Predictions about the future have gone from detailed to general and vague, with previous goals being pushed further and further into a distant future. Instead, there are attempts to refocus the narrative, providing highlights of cultural and moral superiority, and dropping economic aspects. There has also interestingly been a significant increase in the insistence on referring to ‘truths.’ This is a prevalent feature when a regime needs to ensure itself that the buzz words its promoting really are accurate. It indicates that their narrative is being challenged by the population, but also to set matters straight amongst diverging party factions. Scapegoatism and blame games, both domestic and international, are propaganda features on the rise, a general blame on others for both specific mishaps but also as a general reference with the language describing these becoming more vitriolic.
Much like the last years of the Soviet Union, this is a regime losing its ideological vitality, being on the defensive both in front of its home audience, where further repressive measures can be expected to quickly clamp down on any perceived dissident activities, but also internationally where the attempts to promote its world view has largely failed, and it will be expected to reduce such campaigns, seeking isolation instead. Propaganda is referring to slogans and platitudes so worn out that they by now really have come to mean nothing, or rather anything. The lifeless ideal the regime is promoting is taking its toll on the population with adverse demographic trends it will be hard to reverse in such a quite literally sterile environment. In essence, there is little likelihood that the current regime will be able to reinvigorate society but will continue to maintain the status quo with adverse consequences both for the overall economy and social dynamics further stagnating Chinese society.
Niklas Hageback and Daniel Hedblom are consultants with a focus on predictive analytics and automated human reasoning, and they have a book shortly due for publication Blitzkrieg in the Digital Age - Weaponising Artificial Intelligence. Mr Hageback has also a keen interest in psychoanalysis and politics, and his books The Downfall of China or CCP v3.0? and The Death Drive: Why Societies Self-Destruct were recently published by Histria Books
George, Alexander L. Prediction of Political Action by Means of Propaganda Analysis (RAND, 1955).
Havel, Vaclav. En dåre i Prag: brev, tal, texter 1975-1990 (Stockholm, Sweden; Symposion, transl. Karin Mossdal, 1990).
Malia, Martin. Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum (Cambridge; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000).
Thom, Francoise. Le Moment Gorbatchev (Hachette, 1989).
Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Subscribe to our evening newsletter to stay informed during these challenging times!!