Why China’s propaganda strategy in Tibet has failed

Professor John Powers has investigated China’s tactics and revealed the limits of propaganda.

China’s massively-funded publicity and propaganda campaign aimed at winning hearts and minds and control of Tibet has failed, argues Professor John Powers from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI).

Research for Prof Powers’ book, “The Buddha Party: How the People’s Republic of China Works to Define and Control Tibetan Buddhism,” was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

“The book is an analysis of the propaganda used and the effort the Chinese Government goes to, to create a world view,” Prof Powers said.

“It is also about the limits of propaganda, even though that propaganda is wielded by a government that is powerful and well organised and trying to change the way people think.”

Prof Powers, who holds a prestigious ARC grant looking at Tibetan philosophy, joined ADI last year, enhancing the Institute’s expertise in religion, specifically Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and Tibetan history and philosophy.

He first became interested in Tibet when he started studying Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Through this journey, he met the Dalai Lama and became intrigued by Tibetan Buddhism and its philosophy.

“If you work on Tibet, you get drawn into politics,” he said.

“As I became more and more familiar with the politics, I travelled to Tibet and talked with Tibetans; propaganda became a dominant theme.”

Prof Powers’ book looks at the Chinese Government’s “patriotic education” campaign – an initiative aimed at Tibetan monks and nuns, who are seen by China as leaders of resistance.

“Most of China’s leaders appear to deeply believe the official line regarding Tibet,” he said.

“This line resonates with Han notions of themselves as China’s most advanced nationality and as a benevolent race that liberates and culturally uplifts minority peoples.

“Everyone has to follow the party line, but, despite the control, the State can be resisted.”

Prof Powers said the campaign has largely failed to persuade the majority of Tibetans because the messages are implausible.

“They try to constantly undermine Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, but for most Tibetans the Dalai Lama’s integrity is unimpeachable,” he said.

“Many of the people I’ve interviewed said that they don’t know much about the details of Tibetan history or about precedents cited (or invented) by Chinese propagandists, but they deeply believe in the integrity of the Dalai Lama.

“So as long as the Chinese continue to vilify him, their audience rejects the entire message as fraudulent.”

Prof Powers said patriotic education classes forced monks and nuns to participate in propaganda sessions and repeat official dogma.

“The classes are based on often-invented historical facts about China’s relationship with Tibet,” he explained.

“The instructors often used flawed logic that monks and nuns, skilled in philosophical debate, can easily disprove, and then they resort to threats or keep repeating dogmas that the Tibetans regard as nonsense.”

Prof Powers said the failure of the propaganda campaign was reflected by the protests in Tibet in 2008-9.

“Most of the protestors were people in their teens and 20s,” he said.

“By this time there had been 60 years of propaganda, through the party-state’s patriotic education classes.

“Eight hours every day in class for six to eight months, they are bombarded with this monolithic propaganda.“

Yet the first protest was about patriotic education. This has been repeatedly cited by Tibetans, particularly monastics, as the single most aversive aspect of Chinese rule.”

Prof Powers said that following the suppression of the protests by massive military force, Chinese leaders held a meeting to discuss what had gone wrong and how to prevent future unrest.

“They concluded that the best solution was an expansion of the patriotic education program and more propaganda,” he said.

The implicit belief by the Chinese in their “story” made it hard to rethink their tactics, he said.

“All the Tibetans want is to maintain their culture and their religion.”

Prof Powers said one of the main analytical points of the book comes from social psychology and from propaganda theorists, including Jacques Ellul, who argues propagandists who attack deeply held beliefs waste time and energy.

“If the message is perceived as coming from an out-group, it’s less likely to be accepted by the target audience,” he said.

“Because the Chinese insist on forcing the Tibetans to enter into their propaganda on their terms, using their terminology, they set themselves up as the other, and their message has the exact opposite of the desired effect.”

Main picture – A Cultural Revolution era slogan painted on the wall of a Tibetan monastery.
Picture 1 – A Chinese prayer wheel, which has the names of Chinese leaders on the exterior and their writings inside – used as propaganda in Tibet.
Picture 2 – Front cover of Prof John Powers new book.

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