The ‘Grassroots’ Propaganda Trip to Yunnan

Doorway of home in Yunnan province ethnic village. Christmas wishes aren’t sanctioned Party messaging, a producer explained.

In late January, CGTN sent me to Yunnan province in southwestern China. This was as part of a “grassroots trip” to “bring foreigners a better understanding of China”. I was on a four-person crew — cameraman, planner, producer, and myself. We were joined by crews from CGTN’s other foreign language channels: Russian, Arabic, Spanish, and French. There were about 25 of us in total.

CGTN regularly holds these trips to China’s farther-flung regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet. The tours are meant to give the impression that they in involve genuine in-the-field reporting. Not coincidentally, these regions are where China draws the sharpest rebukes internationally over its oppressive policies. They are home to many of the country’s “ethnic minorities”, as opposed to the main Han ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population.

Yunnan has a natural, exotic beauty. It abuts the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is known for its rich diversity of plant life. We traveled mostly by bus through the mountains and lush valleys of this subtropical region.

Our job at CGTN is to tell a “different narrative, from a Chinese perspective”. In Yunnan, we would gather a trove of cheerleading propaganda material. Look at how wonderfully “upgraded” these ethnic people’s lives are under the able and benevolent hand of the Han-led Communist Party. They have been lifted out of an elemental existence, with their colorful cultures intact.

The organizers took us to see economic and infrastructure improvements in villages, markets, farms, and factories. All carefully managed. The crews get footage of anodyne cultural performances and traditional life while smiling foreigners talks about how charming it is. Pure propaganda. This is to better ensure that the foreigners on staff actually believe the Party line. Presumably, they also hope we will carry these positive observations back to our homelands and media jobs someday.

We intruded on people’s lives everywhere we went, even in their homes in some instances. Local officials awaited us at each spot to help orchestrate the coverage. We filed off the bus to watch people weaving, making wicker, tending to donkeys, working sugar cane. Villagers and officials dutifully showed us their traditional ways and said what they were supposed to say. Their lives are great and their way of life protected thanks to the central government.

The Chinese staff, it is worth noting, largely are not fooled by any of this. Some of them seem to take it harder than the foreign staffers do, cringing at the euphemistic “grassroots”. The Chinese word jiceng (基层) could also be translated as “basic level”, conveying typical central government paternalism. If it had a symbol it would be that of a Beijing official patting a peasant on the head. When they say “grassroots” in English to me, they do so with a pained expression as though expecting a disapproving reaction. Not all Chinese, even those who work in the propaganda machine, mindlessly swallow the state’s messaging.

Despite my jaded view, the trip did provide me with memories that will last a lifetime and a view into a different part of China, if for no other reason than it finally got me out of Beijing. A big part of that came from two days at the ancient salt village of Nuodeng, for which I have made a separate gallery.