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Saturday, 4 September 2010

What's in an Action?

Last year was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on the 1st October 1949. In preparing for the event, the Chinese Communist Party tasked famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou with the organisation of a spectacular parade to take place in Tiananmen Square on Chinese National Day. Eventually, the lavish ceremony was to include Hu Jintao reviewing military and civilian units, a progress of themed floats and the usual pomp one would associate with such an important event. Of course, China's state television network (CCTV) beamed images of the celebrations into the homes of millions of Chinese watching at home.

There are several series of videos on Youtube where you can watch CCTV's coverage in full. For anyone interested in how governments use imagery to demonstrate power, the 60th anniversary ceremony is an excellent case in point. To take an example, watch the video embedded below (uploaded by user CCCP1917AK47) from about 1:50, just before the Chinese flag is raised:

Admittedly, such an action has a practical advantage. As the video shows, the flag catches the wind, so its fluttering as the Chinese national anthem booms out across Tiananmen Square. However, whereas some other countries prefer to have an attendant soldier 'feed' the flag into the breeze as it begins to rise, the option of having the People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier dramatically throw it outwards and upwards serves to show how important events like the 60th anniversary parade are in cultivating both Chinese and international perceptions of China.

When watching the video for the first time, the expansiveness of the 'throwing' gesture comes as a surprise, as it is at odds with the regimented processional marching that has come before it. In dramatically casting out the flag, the PLA soldier is representing a China that is looking upwards, almost reaching for the heavens. The holding of the completed action stance for a meaningful second after it has been completed is reminiscent of Mao-era propaganda posters that often featured Chinese men and women with their arms outstretched, and implies China's ambition and energy in the 21st century. As one would expect, the act is also perfectly synchronised with the Chinese national anthem ('March of the Volunteers'), all designed to fill Chinese viewers with a definite sense of patriotism, and foreigners with feelings of awe, however grudging this maybe.

Within the drop of a hat, the entire moment is over, with the solider having returned to a traditional military stance, saluting in the direction of the Forbidden City. However, it is the 4 seconds the actions lasts that linger in the mind- a fact that is exactly what the event's orchestrators would have been hoping would be the case. The viewer is left with a clear idea of the PRC's dynamism, ambition and confidence in today's world- far more than the other aspects of the ceremony could ever achieve. In this respect, these are 4 seconds of classic propaganda.

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