Coverage of the recently passed constitutional amendment in China in Western media outlets was freighted with equal parts shock and derision.

Among the complete set of amendments passed in March, the item that abolished presidential term limits in China was treated as the headline issue, with reporting enshrouded in derogatory undertones. 

The New York Times called it a form of "cultish obedience", while Al Jazeera pointed to a "consolidation of control".

Sure, the idea of indefinite rule sounds almost despotic when viewed through the lens of Western democratic norms, but to single out this specific amendment is to miss the forest by zooming in on a tree. 

Other amendments touch on a wide range of issues, like environmental protection, anti-corruption and the Belt and Road Initiative, which have been initiated or significantly scaled-up since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012. 

Recent polling suggests that the outcome is one with wide popular support.

Their inscription in both the constitution and the Chinese Communist Party's charter is therefore not merely prescriptive: these policies have already been implemented, and depending on who you ask, have already seen positive outcomes.

The same goes for the abolition of term limits on the presidency. 

The kind of media diplomacy undertaken since 2014, featuring organisational change, cross-platform content experimentation, novel political rhetoric, and the integration of online and offline communities, has given rise to a form of populist governance that in turn paved the way for the almost unanimous vote on abolishing presidential term limits.

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Coverage of the voting on constitutional amendments by the National People's Congress often noted the overwhelming majority of the 3,000 delegates who voted "yes" – with only two "no" votes and three abstentions. 

Explanations for how this came to pass were rarely provided, so you'd be forgiven for just assuming that the Chinese legislature merely acts as a rubber stamp for the Chinese Communist Party.

But recent Pew polling results, which have long been considered trustworthy by political scientists, suggest that the outcome is one with wide popular support. Chinese people regularly express a high degree of confidence in their president – and such polling puts the country in the upper echelons of countries when it comes to popular support of their president.

You'd be forgiven for just assuming that the Chinese legislature merely acts as a rubber stamp.

Explaining this away as a simple case of heightened authoritarian control doesn't do the situation justice.

Since 2014, rapid and deep reform in Chinese media, especially of the internet and social media, has brought the public closer to party leaders. The most prominent and never-before-seen example of this media diplomacy was the series of political cartoons that have been produced since late 2013. 

The first of the sort is the animated cartoon "Lingdaoren shi zenyang liancheng de领导人是怎样炼成的 (how leaders were made)" –  a five-minute long cartoon video comparing China with other nations like the US and the UK, with respect to the way political leaders in each country are tempered. 

The video was launched on major video-sharing platforms in October 2013, and drew more than 10 million views within five days of its posting. 

The viral spread of the cartoon also sparked online debate in the same month, where netizens widely regarded the video as being "down to earth", "friendly" and "cute".  

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The message of the cartoon was two-fold: first, it explained that, before candidates could become qualified to be the national leader, they must put in hard work. The second was that the supposedly over-simplified admiration for Western democracy should be abandoned. 

The animation compares presidential elections in the USA and the UK to talent shows like American Idol and points out that the chance of winning a US presidential election is largely determined by the amount of campaign funding. 

While similar ideas about Western electoral systems had long been discussed and circulated among Chinese intellectuals, it was the new image of political leaders – unseen in any previous representation of Chinese leaders in any form of propaganda – that made the cartoon exciting.

In the cartoons, the six standing committee members of the Politburo and President Xi Jinping are introduced only with images of their heads cut from documentary photographs and attached to animated cartoon bodies.

The voiceover speaks in a jovial tone that frequently resorts to popular online phrases to explain political terms and concepts. 

The unconventional use of new media, which saw leaders typically fossilised in images on mainstream TV transformed into exciting characters, meant the videos quickly went viral both within and outside China. 

Austin Ramzy of The New York Times, known for covering political dissidence in China, grudgingly extolled the video as "an effort to humanize China's leader [that] had hardly been seen before". 

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In November 2014, a catchy song that all Chinese netizens have heard of, "Papa Xi Loves Mommy Peng", produced by a young man from Henan, became popular online, gaining 20 million views within five days. 

Inspired by these huge successes, a series of similar animated cartoons entitled "genzhe dada zou跟着大大走 (Follow Uncle Xi)" were made to explain Chinese foreign policy, such as the promotion of multilateral economic cooperation with periphery countries in Asia. 

The animations also introduce and promote the China initiated pan-regional projects like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The subsequently made "Shi san wu shenqu 十三五神曲 (Magic song of the Thirteenth Five-Year-Plan)", described by The Wall Street Journal as "a psychedelic music video", not only brought similar viral success, but also become a widely known internet meme thanks to its catchy lyrics and rhetoric. 

Most of these cartoons have been credited to Road to Rejuvenation Studios 复兴路上工作室, a mysterious film production studio that has no official website. 

The word "rejuvenation" comes up time and time again in Xi Jinping's talks, and was oftentimes equaled by Xi himself with the "Chinese dream." 

Digital anti-corruption campaigns have become a new norm of political communication in China.

The Chinese name of the studio can alternately be translated into English as "The Studio on Fuxing Road", best known as the street where not only state television broadcaster CCTV, but also the General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (GAPPRFT), are located. 

Major media organisations Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, and other state-owned media outlets have reposted more than a half dozen short films produced by the studio since late 2013, some animated, some not. 

Several of the films were released to coincide with important events such as the the release of the country's five-year plans, high-level foreign summits and Xi Jinping's official trips abroad. 

Shortly before the 19th Party Congress, the People's Daily, now with a mature new media section, launched an automated WeChat conversation app with a few to making citizens feel involved in the political process.

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Users enter a simulated WeChat messaging window by clicking a link shared by other users, and would find themselves greeted by Premier Li Keqiang, who invited questions about the governmental work that was going to be reported and discussed at the congress. 

Users could type in simple replies, to which they received responses about the policies, visions and achievements of the Chinese government.

In other words, users felt like they were chatting over WeChat with the Premier of the country about the economy. Not surprisingly, official WeChat accounts were launched for Xi Jinping and the 19th Party Congress. 

There are no control nodes or master switches by which you can turn off the internet

The latter included schedules, topics, discussions and other information for the public and for journalists – marking the first time that the Chinese Communist Party launched a social media account. 

Meanwhile, digital anti-corruption campaigns have become a new norm of political communication in China. WeChat accounts and mobile clients have been set up by the central and provincial committees with respect to the inspection of discipline. 

There have also been proactive efforts with respect to reporting real-time progress on the economic crime investigations of corrupted officials, in encouraging anonymous reporting of corruption and monitoring the behaviour of officials.

In general, governments in China have formed an online matrix to improve credibility and to enhance communication between governments and the public since 2014. 

Governments and their departments have become increasingly skilful in managing online portals and social media accounts to promote credibility.

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The latter included schedules, topics, discussions and other information for the public and for journalists – marking the first time that the Chinese Communist Party launched a social media account. 

Meanwhile, digital anti-corruption campaigns have become a new norm of political communication in China. WeChat accounts and mobile clients have been set up by the central and provincial committees with respect to the inspection of discipline. 

There have also been proactive efforts with respect to reporting real-time progress on the economic crime investigations of corrupted officials, in encouraging anonymous reporting of corruption and monitoring the behaviour of officials.

In general, governments in China have formed an online matrix to improve credibility and to enhance communication between governments and the public since 2014. 

Governments and their departments have become increasingly skilful in managing online portals and social media accounts to promote credibility.

The number of Facebook followers of CCTV and the People's Daily surpassed that of CNN and The New York Times

The political implication of this is massive, given the number of internet users in China. 

The efforts also indicate that Chinese media has moved from having a reactive role (of reporting the state's and the Party's new developments) to a proactive one (in shaping public opinion and creating consensus). 

New media and the internet are the key channels for propelling this transformation, while the state is experimenting, already with success, with a model for proactive political communication  that avoids falling into the "post-truth" trap, where sentimental news on social media polarises public opinion and gives rise to radical right-wing forces. 

In 2014, the Central Internet Security and Information Leading Group (CISILG) was established under the direct leadership of Xi Jinping, with the goal of streamlining the country's media operations.

The outcome is what is now called a "new type of mainstream media" that merged state-owned broadcasting media outlets with new media and online media outlets, with the goal of producing highly engaging communication campaigns with close cross-departmental cooperation, from news editing, to visualisation and content production. 

China is proof that its growth need not be met with a loss of political power.

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State organs like the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV) have undergone a rapid sea change organisationally – essentially becoming "new-mediatised". 

In 2015, the number of Facebook followers of CCTV and the People's Daily surpassed that of CNN and The New York Times, making it the world's most popular mainstream media outlet on social media. 

In 2014, a new relatively stable discourse system came into being, with government departments opening official microblogs and public WeChat accounts and launching mobile clients. 

By the end of the year, based on the 36th internet development report of China, there had been 120,000 Sina Weibo accounts, and over 100,000 public WeChat accounts specific to government services. 

And since 2014, Chinese Communist Party documents frequently include items on deepening media reform. 

The latest document, published in March this year, furthers the reform by merging all state media outlets – CCTV, China Radio International and China National Radio – into one mega external communication organisation called the Voice of China. 

The government can use these channels to ascertain public opinion and figure out how its policies are being received

Media reform strengthens again the familiar Chinese story of reform in general, a strongly centralised but flexible government with determination and efficient implementation. 

The popular reaction to the series of animated political cartoons has demonstrated the success of media reform. State-supported political messages have been recast in jovial internet lingo – and sailed into the hearts of traditionally apolitical citizens, drawing them into an understanding and support of state politics. 

This is further proven by the "2018 Trust Barometer" polling report from the US leading public relations and communications firm Edelman. Its "Global Report" section tracks China's continuous upward climb to the top rank of the general population's trust in public institutions, such as the government. 

China moved from third place to the top in this ranking between 2017 and 2018, while the US dropped from 8th to 18th. 

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Further analysis reveals that Chinese people have the highest trust in their government.

From its early inception, the internet and the new media have been characterised as the dictator's dilemma. 

That is: it is very difficult to reap the benefits of the internet, such as economic growth and social progress, without potentially paying a political cost in terms of a loss in control. 

The internet is supposed to represent decentralisation: it was essentially designed to be resilient to control. 

There are no control nodes or master switches by which you can turn off the internet. Even if you turn off one node, there are other avenues by which information could flow in.

It is supposedly very difficult to reap the benefits of the internet without losing political control

Chinese media scholars often focus on the dichotomies of "state-society", "control-resistance" and "stratification and commercialisation." 

But the recent developments in China have pointed to a different kind of scenario. 

Rather than resistance, state-controlled content was met with popular support. This isn't really censorship at play, but rather state-controlled media taking pro-active steps to engage the public.

These communication methods are bi-directional, too: the government can use these channels to ascertain public opinion and figure out how its policies are being received.

On the one hand, China's new media political communication practices have demonstrated its effectiveness in using new media to popularise its rule and rebuild the government's image. On the other hand, new media has also precipitated a major transparency push.

Explanations for the increased popular support of Xi Jinping within China cannot be made without zoning in on his proactive and considered use of social media.

Above all, however, it demonstrates the need for a new way of thinking about the internet and how it interfaces with politics: China is proof that its growth need not be met with a loss of political power.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.

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