Decoding Propaganda Slogans in China: Reading Between the Lines Using Word Embeddings

Yin Yuan (University of California, San Diego)

Abstract: Propaganda slogans in China (a.k.a. “catchphrases” or “tifa”) are widely believed to be artifacts of propaganda aimed at indoctrinating the general public that convey little substantive political or policy information. This paper intends to show instead that these seemingly empty slogans send important political and policy signals--to seasoned readers--through their invention, presence/absence, frequency of usage and modifications of previous formulations. Divorced from everyday ordinary language, slogans pose particular difficulties for regime outsiders to interpret. Moreover, their meaning is often conveyed not in their own right, but through contrast with their historical usage or in relation to other slogans. This paper intends to mitigate these problems by decoding the slogans within their contexts of usage in canonical ideological texts and official party media (e.g. People’s Daily) using word embedding algorithms like Word2Vec. First, I extracted a comprehensive list of slogans from top leaders’ speeches from 1997 to 2019 (i.e. Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping) using a combination of strings matching and phrases extraction algorithms. Then I trained the word embeddings for the newly extracted slogans on a corpus containing the most important ideological texts of CCP from 1949 to 2019 (e.g. People’s Daily, top leaders’ selected works, major party documents and resolutions). Next, I clustered slogans according to similarity in their word embeddings. In particular, I show how slogans with seemingly trivial modifications could show distinctively opposite political or policy orientations. Finally, I explore the implications of my findings in terms of how we understand elite politics in China. Specifically, I show how the usage of slogans by Chinese officials reveal underlying political coalitions and contention even with a facade of elite unity. I argue that since CCP officials are better versed with the official language through their daily work and ideological training than the general public, slogans allow officials to communicate their differences in public without these subtle signs of elite division picked up by the general public.

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