Elephants Must Learn to Street Dance: The Chinese Communist Party’s Appeal to Youth in Overseas Propaganda

Posted: 3rd February 2022
Elephants Must Learn to Street Dance: The Chinese Communist Party’s Appeal to Youth in Overseas Propaganda


Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

This report assesses the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic thinking regarding influencing young people’s perception of China globally. It draws on leadership speeches, authoritative documents, the actions of party-state media, and the writings of communication theorists in China related to international communications, especially those that discuss targeting young audiences outside of China. See Appendix A: Methodology for more information on methods and sources. This report will be of most interest to government and industry professionals seeking an understanding of the strategic concepts shaping China’s contemporary propaganda and information influence activities. Information about the author, Devin Thorne, can be found at the end of this report.

Executive Summary

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda and thought work apparatus is an "elephant”. It is weighed down by decades of tradition, party politics, and a complex bureaucracy that strives to coordinate domestic and international influence efforts among multiple leading bodies, work units, media outlets, and other entities. Some aspects of this system are nearly as old as the CCP itself. Yet the propaganda apparatus must adapt, or, as a vice minister of propaganda has put it in recent years, “learn to street dance”. This system must become adept at modern modes of communication to cultivate a positive view of China and the party among global youth. Driving this ambition is the goal of establishing a long-term advantageous international environment for the party’s mission of maintaining leadership over China and fulfilling a great rejuvenation of the nation.

This report draws on CCP leadership speeches and authoritative texts –– including the Propaganda and Thought Work in the New Era publication collectively authored by the Central Propaganda Department Cadre Bureau –– as well as the writings of Chinese academics and analysts to assess the party-state’s strategic thinking on how to influence young people around the world. It shows that the focus on youth stems from the top of the CCP hierarchy and entails orchestrating a vast array of national resources online and offline, new and traditional, to shape youth views as part of a “great external propaganda pattern” (大外宣格局) in development since 2004. Some of the tools that party authors and academics emphasize for youth-focused propaganda work are directly controlled by the CCP, whereas others, such as the entertainment industries, may be independent but act in ways that support the broad goals of party-state messaging. Some of these messages are overtly political, but many are rooted in building cultural allure. 

The CCP’s underlying youth strategy is not entirely new, and the party has hoped to increase China’s cultural influence and “soft power” for over a decade. However, party and academic discourse around these issues deserves a fresh examination given the surge in disinformation and influence efforts in recent years and the evolution of international propaganda strategy that is currently underway. This evolution is pushing the propaganda apparatus to become increasingly targeted and capable of influencing specific communities of people overseas, renewing attention to international youth. Ultimately, this research concludes that vigilance towards the party’s efforts is warranted, but many obstacles will likely inhibit the CCP’s goal of building rapport with international youth.

Key Judgments

  • The CCP’s focus on influencing global youth –– broadly defined as anyone ages 35 and under –– stems from the belief that young people are impressionable, will hold foundational opinions and ideologies well into the future, and can serve as a bedrock of support for the party and China once they mature into positions of influence.
  • Interest in international youth is not a new aspect of propaganda work, but it is almost certainly receiving renewed attention as part of a wider effort by the propaganda apparatus to achieve “precise communication” (精准传播) and produce more targeted content.
  • The underlying goal of China’s external propaganda efforts, including through the influencing of youth, is to build a good external environment for safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security, and development interests, as well as to protect the CCP itself.
  • Content identified by academics and propaganda officials as appealing to young people includes global challenges such as human rights and environmental protection, real discussion of issues in China beyond positive publicity, and modern and traditional Chinese culture.
  • Suggested channels for influencing global youth include personal experiences, such as organized visits to China and participation in topical forums; entertainment media, such as animation, comics, games, novels, and movies; and the use of social media platforms, including through influencers and creating opportunities for young Chinese people and foreigners to create media broadly in line with CCP messaging.
  • The wide variety of resources, tools, and methods advocated by party and non-party writers offers insight into the CCP’s concept of a “great external propaganda pattern” –– the coordination of all resources to project an image of China internationally that serves the strategic interests of the party-state.
  • A significant concept within China’s propaganda efforts is “polyphonous communication” (复调传播), which seeks to coordinate the voices of multiple communicators –– major news outlets, new media companies, private media firms, and civil society –– as in a choir, reflecting a fuller, more powerful vision of China beyond the single voice of official media alone. Turning overseas youth into such communicators is a theme in youth-targeted propaganda theory.
  • The sources reviewed for this study demonstrate several weaknesses that will likely inhibit the implementation of the strategy, including a poor definition of “the youth”, limited description of this group’s characteristics, poor differentiation in descriptions of youths in different countries, and very few evidence-based assessments of alleged successes in propaganda and international communication work.
  • Still, there have been cases of success in the past year and a half in both the cultural and political spheres. The CCP is working to address some of its weaknesses, including through international audience surveys, procurement of targeted research projects, and party-state media talent reforms.

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.