At a new Communist Party-built facility in Shanghai designed to cultivate civilized thought and behavior, a recent schedule of events led off with a speech about the city’s role as site of the party’s first official meeting in 1921.
From there, the offerings grew more eclectic: yoga classes, a cappella singing and, listed under a section called residents’ education, a free Wednesday afternoon showing of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 action film “Batman: The Dark Knight.”
The facility is one of more than 100,000 rolled out nationwide in the past four years as part of a sprawling propaganda effort that casts new light on the party’s drive to reinsert itself into the daily lives of Chinese people.
Virtually unnoticed outside China, the campaign to build what the party calls New Era Civilization Practice Centers was quietly launched in 2018 and has since spread to some 500 urban and rural counties across the country, according to a report published Monday by ChinaFile, an online magazine run by the New York-based nonprofit Asia Society.
The centers combine instruction on party ideology with a hodgepodge of cultural activities and volunteer work, which vary widely depending on where they are located, according to state-media reports and government documents collected by ChinaFile and verified by The Wall Street Journal.
In the wealthy southern metropolis of Guangzhou, the centers offer visitors a chance to learn cooking from a master Cantonese chef, be introduced to the latest drone technology or take a virtual tour of a state-of-the-art wastewater-treatment facility, according to local state-media reports.
In the impoverished mountains of southwestern China’s Guizhou province, centers organize volunteers to go house-to-house teaching villagers thrifty spending habits.
By building the centers, the Communist Party is trying to both convince people of its generosity—and to mold them into model citizens, ChinaFile’s researchers write, thus “restoring an intimacy between ‘the masses’ and their rulers that decades of economic liberalization have worn thin.”
Survey-based research suggests that Chinese people are growing less interested in politics in general, according to
an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who studies political participation in China. In one sense, it’s a sign that China’s leaders have succeeded in building a stable society that gives people the luxury of worrying about other issues.
“But at the same time it can also diminish the role for the party, and I think that’s been a serious concern,” Mr. Gueorguiev said. “The problem is you can’t really will people into being engaged.”
In line with the rise of the mobile internet, Chinese leader
and his officials have expanded their efforts to disseminate his ideological vision for the country using short political videos that can go viral and bolster feelings of nationalism.
The New Era Civilization Practice Centers represent a softer version of the same campaign, carried out in the real world, according to ChinaFile and state media articles examined by the Journal.
The first centers were built in 50 counties as part of a small pilot program launched in 2018. The program expanded roughly 10-fold the following year, when party agencies in charge of propaganda and moral education issued an implementation plan that hailed the centers as helping to “truly open up the ‘last mile’ in terms of ‘propagandizing to the masses, educating the masses, leading the masses, serving the masses.’ ”
Guangzhou is now home to nearly 3,000 of the centers. Branches also exist in most neighborhoods in Shanghai, as well as in most districts in Beijing, the port city of Tianjin and the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Local governments and institutions spent as much as 700 million yuan, equivalent to $110 million, on projects related to the centers between August 2018 and September 2021, ChinaFile estimated, based on government procurement documents.
One center in Shanghai recently held a daylong event in which volunteers from the neighborhood offered to repair umbrellas and watches free of charge. A bulletin board nearby encouraged staffers and volunteers to “transmit new thinking and model new behavior.” On another occasion, the same center offered bottles of cooking oil and laundry detergent to encourage area residents to get their Covid-19 booster shots.
a senior editor at ChinaFile, likened the centers to Mao-era work units, which were once responsible for both propaganda and social services. But where work units had a captive audience, the party no longer has the same leverage over individual behavior and thus has to work indirectly, she said.
“It’s like when missionaries go and set up a school,” Ms. Batke said. “Maybe they’re not explicitly teaching about religion, but the goal is for people to think: ‘This benefit is coming to me from someone associated with that religion, and maybe I should take more of an interest in it.’ ”
China’s cabinet, the State Council, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the centers.
The centers in Shanghai appeared to attract mostly elderly residents, some with grandchildren in tow. Visitors seemed to gravitate to the free movies and take advantage of the free medical advice, but they showed little interest in lectures on Mr. Xi’s ideology.
The popularity of the centers elsewhere is difficult to determine. According to state media, one center in Guangzhou’s Panyu district had by November 2020 held more that 1,000 activities, attracted more than one million visits and organized 90 volunteer teams comprising 3,200 people.
Another center in the suburban Beijing district of Huairou was virtually empty when the Journal visited late last year. Pictures of previous gatherings at the center adorned posters arranged under Chinese characters reading: “The Last Mile.” A staff member said that many activities had been canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions, but that it was still arranging volunteers for outside events.
One outside event listed on the Huairou center’s website was a children’s workshop about the discovery of gunpowder—celebrated in China as one of the country’s great inventions—run by the Candy Bookstore, a local bookshop. Staff at the shop said they had never heard of the New Era Civilization Practice Center and didn’t know why the event was listed on its website.
Mr. Gueorguiev of Syracuse University said elements of the campaign were likely for show—a way for local officials to demonstrate to Mr. Xi that they are answering his call to expand the party’s influence at a grass-roots level.
But the centers could also come into play as Mr. Xi tries to recalibrate China’s economy away from the capitalist excesses of the past few decades to a new phase of development based on “common prosperity,” he said. That shift has prompted some of the country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs to vastly expand their philanthropic efforts.
“That’s going to be a big part of everyone’s status. It’s going to be measured,” Mr. Gueorguiev said, referring to volunteer work. “I’m curious to what extent these centers will be tied into social evaluation, and that might be really meaningful.”
—Jonathan Cheng contributed to this article.
Write to Josh Chin at email@example.com
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