Can North Korea Learn From Coca-Cola? (China Did)

Evan Osnos suggests that North Korea’s blustery Soviet-style propaganda has grown hopelessly outdated, and may even end up forcing its hand. Pyongyang should modernize its rhetoric, he argues, as China has. From The New Yorker:

[…] In China, the uprising at Tiananmen Square convinced some members of the Party that the old method of indoctrinating people—which relied on the kind of threats and denunciations we hear from North Korea today—was no longer working in the modern age. Since Soviet-style P.R. had failed them, the Chinese turned to the holy land of public relations—America—and found a new, if unlikely, role model: the late Walter Lippmann, columnist, editor, and advisor to Woodrow Wilson. They were willing to overlook his early anti-Communism in order to embrace his efforts to sway U.S. public opinion to enter the First World War. The Chinese comrades took to quoting Lippmann’s belief in the power of pictures, which, in his words, “magnify emotion while undermining critical thought.”

While the late Kim Jong-il was still threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” Chinese propagandists were becoming admiring students of Coca-Cola’s strategy, observing, as one Party textbook put it, that Coke proved that “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” To learn the art of modern spin, the Chinese Communist Party studied the masters: a five-day seminar for top propaganda officials made case studies out of Tony Blair’s response to mad-cow disease, and the Bush Administration’s handling of the U.S. media after 9/11.

This revamp has struggled to keep pace with more recent developments such as the growth of weibo and other social media, however. The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini writes that Beijing is “losing the virtual propaganda war” in the face of a “wave of mockery and cynicism against government”.

In just the past few years it has become fashionable to be anti-establishment and in private, senior party officials worry they have lost control of the public discourse, which now revolves around Weibo.

The fact that the party used to exercise such a stranglehold over all forms of public expression – from newspapers to television to theatre and fine arts – has probably made the online awakening of petty dissent so much more shocking to the mandarins in Beijing.


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