Confessions of a Propaganda Hitman

By Zhang Yanlong
Published: 2008-10-10

From Nation, page 9, issue no. 387-388, September 29 - October 6, 2008
Translated by Ren Yujie
Original article
: [Chinese]

As a propaganda "hitman", Yu Menghong is hired by Xi'an provincial government officials to churn out polished propaganda pieces lauding their achievements.

His stories, crafted with materials provided by his clients, are published in major local newspapers as advertorials.

Rather than target most readers of the papers, officials use his services both to garner recognition by higher-level politicians and to draw in investment to development zones, which they often have financial interests in through real estate.

Local Interests
Local authorities paid page-spread fees for publishing advertisement editorials or "advertorials", which often contained exaggerated and bold words, such as "Number One", "The Greatest", "The New Age", and "The Top in the World".

For instance, Xi'an high-tech Industry Development Zone published whole-page advertisements in several major local newspapers on September 12. The story said: "The greatest high-technology project in Shaanxi since China's reform will touch down in Xi'an. ZTE Corporation will spend six billion yuan on the Xi'an high-tech Industry Development Zone to build a production base."

But one source who worked on a Shaanxi policy consultation committee told the EO that in reality, the Xi'an high-tech Industry Development Zone had yet to reel in and develop any top-ranked high-technology businesses.

So far, neither the business recruitment nor favorable taxation policies had yet to be standardized there. Despite that, the speculation of real estate there was hot, with the help of local authorities' propaganda, said the source.

He added land and housing prices in the high-tech zone were the highest in all of Xi'an. And several real estate companies under Gaoke Group, which was invested by the local authority, were also the biggest land agents of the city.

Another development zone in Xi'an - the Chanba ecological zone - was not to be outdone. It had successively bought whole pages in local newspapers to applaud the government's achievements over the past four years.

An official from a local government news department told the EO that the Xi'an high-tech zone had spent over five million yuan each year on propaganda, and that some budgets for other development zones reached 10 million yuan. "You fall behind if you don't keep up," the source said.

The source added: "Authorities of districts' and development zones' have budgets for achievement propaganda, published in the form of advertorials, that can amount to millions of yuan each year."

Advertorials Wars
According to a section chief at Huashang Newspaper, the local paper holding the highest market share in advertisements, the paper provided a 25% discount for business' advertisements, but 30% for local authorities.

Sometimes it could be as low as 35%. The EO learned that the paper set up a special department for exploring regional projects, which focused on local authorities' advertisements.

Despite these opportunities, local authorities still preferred to publish their advertisements in the Xi'an Daily or Shaanxi Daily. For every day in September, at least one page would be snapped up by local authorities in the Xi'an Evening News, the EO learned.

All of this business has led to a form of propaganda rivalry. The government news department source told the EO that the Chanba ecological zone once published so many advertisements that other zones sent representatives to Chanba to beg for relief from the cut-throat competition.

Various development districts of Xi'an had diverging development agendas and were backed by investors from different industries, thus there was no need for them to compete for attracting business. But cities of the Yangtze River delta engaged in overlapping industries--for example, textiles and manufacturing--so they would compete for overseas investment.

The source at the government news department said their goal was to beat other regions through propaganda. "It's a war without smoke," the source said.

Yu said that local officials also used such advertisements to garner recognition among peers and higher levels of government.

"Such advertisements were not written for the citizens, but for provincial leaders. The purpose was to show off officials' achievements," he said. This competition among officials' for recognition was verified by the source at the government news department.

The source said that development zones and local government generally slated the costs of such advertisements into budgets at the beginning of the year. Some funding came from local finance department coffers, but most of them came from out-of-budget income or companies founded by government officials.

There was a folk saying in Xi'an: In the government's annual budget, for every 10,000 yuan set aside for payrolls, there was another 10,000 set for entertainment charges and 10,000 for propaganda fees.

Turning Away from "Real" Journalism
After graduating from news department of Zhejiang University, Yu went on to work for a coastal economic paper. He followed his girlfriend to Xi'an, where he took a position with Xi'an's largest circulation publication. But he was unable to adapt to the writing and reporting style, he said.

He has since become one of the most well-known propaganda hitmen in the city, having written many pieces that have appeared in the local party paper or the city paper. "I have to write two full-page stories a night,” he said. “I often stay up all night to finish my work. The government has increasingly stringent demands for the quality of stories."

Yu said it was not an easy job. "Stories must be suitable for publishing in a newspaper and thus be "newsy", but also to show local officials' achievements, and be in line with the mindset of authorities at the city level," he said. "To be good with the pen is enough, you have to know how the government works and have your ear to the ground."

Yu is well compensated for his efforts. For a 3,000-word story, he charged over 10,000 yuan. Business for Yu usually picked up in September, when major newspapers in Xi'an began publishing large amounts of propaganda pieces.

Yu said he hoped to set up a professional "news outsourcing company" in Xi'an. Though the industry was not new to China's developed coastal areas, there was still a vacuum in the west, according to him.

"Local authorities have high demands for propaganda, and they always feel like they haven't done enough. They really need the help," he said.

Despite Yu's economic comfort, Yu was not fully satisfied with his life. Most of his old journalism colleagues had become chief editors or senior journalists.

Even though their income might not be as high as Yu's, he said he still envied them, as they were professionals engaged in "real news". Sometimes, he said, he consoled himself with the thought that writing was simply a vehicle for earning money.