by Andrea Monti – originally published in Italian by Formiche.net
How and why the Chinese satirical video is a masterpiece of propaganda, that contrasts with a factual and calm narrative American action based on illations and not on facts. The analysis of Andrea Monti, adjunct professor of Order and public security at the Gabriele d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara
China officially responds with a video titled Once upon a virus to the accusations launched by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with Abc. This video is a masterpiece of propaganda that counters with a factual and calm narrative the American action based on illations and not on facts. But this is just the tip of the iceberg because Once upon a virus is an incredible PsyOps exercise.
ANALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN OFFENSIVE
To summarise, it is quite clear that the American strategy exploits classic expedients of the rhetorical attack, hurled with vehement tones to the limit of arrogance:
- self-referential agenda-setting: the question is asked so to necessarily imply one and only one answer (China has something to hide and therefore must prove that it is not true. If it does not, then it is true that it had something to hide).
- beating the bush: just as hunters shake sticks to draw out their preys from their hides, so launching provocations not based on evidence is a way to force a (naive) opponent to defend himself even if it is not necessary because there are no factual accusations.
- argumentum ab auctoritate: there is no need for evidence (which we have anyway) because you have to trust us.
- argumentum ad judicium: other countries have the same opinion.
The American attack moves along four lines:
the first is the start of hostilities with a series of public statements by President Trump consisting, at least officially, of illations without any concrete evidence and introducing the thesis of the “moral duty of transparency” against China.
the second is the use of the media to filter information, if not secret at least confidential. The newsmagazine The Daily Telegraph talks about a document prepared by “concerned Western governments” and “received” from The Saturday Telegraph, from which it would emerge that: to the “endangerment of other countries” the Chinese government covered-up news of the virus by silencing or “disappearing” doctors who spoke out, destroying evidence of it in laboratories and refusing to provide live samples to international scientists who were working on a vaccine.
that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.
The fourth is the announcement of the existence of a “coalition of the willing”:
The Australians agree with that. You hear the Europeans beginning to say the same thing. I think the whole world is united in understanding that China brought this virus to the world.
THE RESPONSE OF CHINESE PROPAGANDA
The response of Chinese propaganda is summarised as follows:
- escape from the attack by building a narrative that reduces the American accusations to a “fairy tale”,
- use of the new narrative to redirect the hits towards the attacker who appears as inconsistent as the accusations he moves,
- change of the interlocutor: the USA speaks to China, China speaks to the Americans.
- use of non-verbal communication techniques to increase the effectiveness of the response.
THE EXTERNAL ELEMENTS OF COMMUNICATION
Let’s start with the title: Once upon a virus is an (apparent?) reference to Once upon a time in the West by Sergio Leone, which tells of the story of a boy who – once grown-up – seeks his revenge against a ruthless killer who had killed the boy’s family leaving false evidence to avoid being involved. Or, more likely, according to the analysis expert Carlo Disma, a way to reduce to “fairytale” the American action by opening the video with the classic “Once Upon a Time”.
The American action is based on a traditional format, that of interviews without contradictions typical of totalitarian regimes, in which the politician on duty says what he wants. On the contrary, the Chinese response is based on a rational and democratic argumentative technique: it enunciates and juxtaposes facts.
Let’s move on to the tone:
- the more the American theses are “shouted”, the more the Chinese ones are expressed civilly and factually.
- instead of using articulated reasoning, the arguments are presented with direct sentences, which recall the technique of the “unique selling proposition” typical of advertising communication,
- the “infantilisation” of the West is exploited to more effectively convey the message,
- the interlocutor in the response is changed (not America, but the Americans).
Let’s examine the choice of using a cartoon, instead of answering with a press conference or an interview with a Chinese Communist Party official.
The use of simplified forms of communication in advertising and then in the use of smartphones is the most obvious symptom of the infantilisation of Western culture.
Professor Simon Gottshalk from Nevada University analytically describes the phenomenon in this article:
it makes sense to use cartoon characters to sell products to kids – a phenomenon that’s been well-documented. But why are advertisers using the same techniques on adults? To me, it’s just one symptom of a broader trend of infantilisation in Western culture. It began before the advent of smartphones and social media. But, as I argue in my book “The Terminal Self,” our everyday interactions with these computer technologies have accelerated and normalised our culture’s infantile tendencies.
The effect of this infantilisation, according to Gottshalk, undermines the foundations of democracy:
Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation. What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.
It is not unlikely that Chinese communication strategists have intended to take advantage of the “infantilisation” of the American public to get their message across more effectively and to change the recipient of the communication as well. The US has spoken to China, China has spoken to Americans.
THE USE OF FACT-CHECKING TO DISMANTLE AMERICAN ILLATIONS
The cartoon reconstructs, placing them on a timeline, the phases of the spread of the contagion. The defensive thesis is clear:
- in December 2019 we reported the existence of atypical pneumonia.
- for almost four months, the US ignored the warning, what we were doing and what was happening in other countries.
- so China has no responsibility and the accusations made by the US are instrumental to the undeclared soft-war between the two powers.
If we were in a criminal trial, we would say that China has “broken the causal link” between its action and the follow-up because it has shown that from January 2020 there would have been time (as happened in Germany) to deal with the spread of contagion, if the US had not minimised the risk.
USE OF MULTIPLE REPRESENTATIONAL SYSTEMS AND SUBLIMINAL MESSAGES
Once upon a virus transmits the visible and immediately perceptible message, using the representational systems of neurolinguistic programming: it communicates simultaneously with the “visual”, the “kinesthetic” and the “auditory” kind of audience.
It also contains a series of “subliminal” messages that amplify its effectiveness:
- the “soundtrack” of the cartoon is Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, a piece used by US ice cream vendors to attract customers’ attention.
- China is portrayed as an ancient warrior (he has a bow in his hand and wears an ancient armour) and then by people (doctors and health workers) who do things (build hospitals, help the sicks, die on duty) while the US is represented by a monolithic and obtuse Statue of Liberty that gets progressively ill, continuing to deny the alarms coming from China.
- Italy is involved with the image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that loses its stability. In this part of the animation, the Statue of Liberty uses the Italian condition of contagion to challenge the truthfulness of the numbers that demonstrate the reduction of cases in China and the effectiveness of the measures taken. The perception is induced that the US remained in their denial state without lifting a finger, while one of their allies suffered severe damages.
The risk of such analysis is that of “over-reading” the messages, going to look for meanings where, in reality, there is no logic or planning. Even when faced with a reasonably-sounding analysis, therefore, it is always appropriate to adopt an attitude based on doubt and scepticism. That said, however, it is quite unlikely that in the soft-war between the US and China, PsyOps play a secondary role. And so, like the devil of Roger “Verbal” Kint, it is reasonable to think that his greatest deception was to make the world believe that he does not exist.