When Ji Shuanzhong was younger, every house in his village was fitted with a small loudspeaker so his ‘production brigade’ could blast propaganda directly into homes.
Over the years the speakers were replaced with communal ones on each street and later, as China modernised, they too fell out of fashion – as televisions and mobile phones became the key disseminators of information.
Now the street speakers are making a comeback as part of President Xi Jinping’s drive to bring the Party closer to the people. “The broadcasts are longer and more frequent than when I was young,” says Ji, now the Party boss of Jinzhuang village in Hebei. When asked if residents find the thrice-daily broadcasts intrusive he says “there isn’t anyone who doesn’t want to listen”.
Typically the programmes last about 20 minutes and often begin with music, such as the Mao era song Without the Communist Party there would be no New China.
The local authorities follow up with standardised messages, on topics like African swine fever or the latest Belt and Road summit in Beijing. The rest of the broadcast is done from the village Party headquarters with the help of a resident who makes local announcements in the regional vernacular.
This ‘New Village Loudspeaker Project’ was first launched in Hebei’s Zhengding county in December 2016. By January this year the campaign had already covered nearly 3,800 villages in Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei, the Global Times reported.
“The content is about 70% agricultural information, 20% other stuff, and 10% politics,” one of the officials who set it up told WiC. It is now present in 14 provinces. The plan is to roll out the system in 21 provinces over the next couple of years, he said. But why does the Party want to return to a propaganda method so closely associated with collectivisation and the Cultural Revolution? After all, it already exerts huge amounts of control over what people can see on their smartphones or watch on TV.
The obvious answer is that the loudspeakers can’t be switched off – they blare out at breakfast, lunch and dinner whether people like it or not.
A second explanation favoured by state media is that a public address system is good for older people who might not be able to read, and more convenient for farmers who can listen while they work.
Part of making the radio programmes palatable is their incorporation of useful information such as the latest planting techniques, or news about agricultural subsidies.
“Of course you want to occupy the ideological front. But in the countryside if you don’t talk about real life no one will listen,” said a recent article in Yongcheng Today, a Henan based newspaper.
And while spreading news about agricultural best practices is desirable in a country which still largely relies on small-scale farming, there is also evidence that the speakers have been used to deliver other messages.
According to Yongcheng Today the speakers in Henan’s villages ran a campaign against “feudal” practices last year – a term that covers areas that range from warning against ancient superstitions to discouraging burial in favour of cremation (a response to China’s shrinking acreage of arable land).
The loudspeaker rollout offers a bizarre counterpoint to those in the US fretting about China building backdoors into global 5G infrastructure or capturing information through Big Data, facial recognition and cutting edge AI. In its poorest villages – where China’s status as a developing economy is more evident – the ‘tech’ being employed is much more Maoist.
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