In China, a morning commute to work with a cupful of government propaganda

People joke that it’s now easier in many Chinese cities to use Communist Party slogans rather than street names to give directions. 

Looking for a bank in downtown Beijing? 

Walk past the screen proclaiming, “The people have faith,” take a right at the poster glorifying President Xi Jinping and cross the footbridge with the banner declaring a new era of prosperity for China. 

Even as China grows increasingly confident on the global stage, Xi is using propaganda at home to protect his strongman rule and extend the party’s dominance over everyday life. 

At the most recent party congress, Xi’s name and ideas were made part of the constitution. Now, “Xi Jinping Thought” is pervasive, butting up against advertisements for hair transplant surgery, luxury cars and Danish butter cookies. 

Xi’s Beijing bristles with adulation for the party and the president. During my half-hour commute to work at The New York Times bureau here, I encounter more than 70 pieces of propaganda. 

Billboards emphasize the importance of taking care of parents and being loyal to superiors. Banners urge people to remember the original intention of the Communist Revolution. 

Even at home, propaganda is inescapable. I look out a window to see a screen describing China as “united by one heart” and Xi, China’s most influential leader in decades, as the architect of a national renaissance. 

Here are some of the hidden messages in China’s street propaganda. 

Chasing a Dream 

Xi’s signature slogan is the “Chinese Dream,” a vaguely defined promise of prosperity and rejuvenation that ties China’s quest to become a superpower to the hopes and struggles of its people. 

A poster shows a path to an idyllic village in the style of a traditional Chinese painting, part of Xi’s efforts to justify the party’s rule by presenting it as the heir and steward of 5,000 years of Chinese culture. 

The image plays into the idea that a better life is around the corner for China’s nearly 1.4 billion people — “under your feet” — so long as they maintain faith in Xi and his dream, expressed by the large red character. 

The poster alludes to the belief that China is close to restoring its rightful place as a leading power in the world after decades of poverty, strife and embarrassment by other countries. A caption reads, “Chinese spirit, Chinese image, Chinese culture, Chinese voice.” 

One Family 

Xi, who rose to power in 2012, sees strife in areas that are home to large populations of ethnic minorities as one of the biggest threats to the party’s dominance. That includes the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where conflict has broken out between security forces and residents who have protested severe limits on religion and free speech. 

The government says it is stamping out separatism, but advocates say Xi is leading a campaign to undermine minority culture and to promote the dominance of the Han ethnicity and the Communist Party, which is officially atheist. 

In public, the party often embraces the idea of ethnic harmony, broadcasting videos on prime-time television of minority groups performing traditional rites, for example. 

One image that shows people from a variety of ethnic tribes reiterates the party’s position that China’s more than 50 ethnicities are “united by one heart.” It is a warning to any group in a faraway region that may consider challenging Xi’s policies. 

Loyalty at Home 

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, the party was at the center of everyday life. Mao Zedong’s image hung in homes as a symbol of the hopes of the people, and families studied his speeches and writings assiduously. 

Xi has called for a return to the days when offices, schools and community groups were lively hubs of party worship and families united behind a singular leader. He has presented himself as a transformational figure in ways that recall the personality cult of the Mao era. 

In one image that shows a woman sewing a communist flag under the words “heart toward the party” the government is reviving the idea of sacrifice for the party and suggesting that socialist ideals should inform daily decisions. 

A Clean Party 

Xi, who is general secretary of the Communist Party, has led a withering campaign against corruption that has ensnared thousands of officials, as well as many of his political rivals. 

One poster highlights his campaign by quoting a Chinese proverb used to describe a person free of corruption: “Pure wind in two sleeves.” The idea is that clean officials do not hide anything up their sleeves. 

Xi has said the party can survive only if it eliminates corruption, and he is preparing, as he begins his second five-year term, to expand the campaign to millions more people. 

While graft is still rampant in China, Xi’s efforts to fight corruption have made him popular in many areas. Propagandists are reminding the public of the president’s commitment to the issue. “Keep the alarm bells ringing,” the poster says. 

Common Values 

In China, criticizing Xi can land you in prison. The news media is under the constant watch of censors. Local elections, when they are held, are often a farce. 

But the government sees things differently. Officially, the Communist Party embraces a dozen “core socialist values,” including freedom, rule of law, justice and democracy. These values are memorized by schoolchildren and immortalized in song-and-dance routines. 

The values, shown in one intertwining the hands of several people, are meant as a rebuttal to those in the West who criticize China’s authoritarian system and human rights abuses. They are a rejection of the idea that only Western leaders can define what it means to be free.

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