The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China crafts a pro-Beijing image for Nelson Mandela

A man walks past an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Embassy of South Africa in Beijing. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

BEIJING – The instructions from China’s propaganda ministry to local journalists spelled it out in detail:  when reporting on the funeral of Nelson Mandela, no mention should be made about his views on human rights and democracy.

No mention should be made, of course, of Mandela’s relationship with the Dalai Lama, or of his links with Taiwan, and no reports on his personal, married life, according to a copy of the notice seen by The Washington Post.

The ministry frequently issues instructions to local journalists about topics not to be reported on.

Mandela, the Chinese foreign ministry proudly proclaimed last week, was an “old friend” of China.

But the former South African president, the nationalist Global Times newspaper argued on Wednesday, was definitely not to be compared to China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the fifth anniversary of whose imprisonment fell in the same week as Mandela’s funeral. Western media were wrong to cast Liu as China’s Mandela, it argued.

“Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for leading African people to anti-apartheid victory through struggles, tolerance and efforts to bridge differences,” it wrote in an editorial. “However, awarding a Chinese prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by mainstream Chinese society derides China’s judiciary system.”

Liu was detained in December 2008, convicted of subversion the following year and sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing an appeal for democracy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Although Liu’s name is banned on the weibo microblogging service by censors, there was considerable skepticism online about the government’s selective reading of Mandela’s legacy.

“Chinese Mandelas are now in prison,” said one weibo user  named CuiXXwawa.

“Old friend?” another user called Akay Tongxue mocked. “He pursued justice, fairness and freedom. Does he have anything to do with you? Don’t blow your own trumpet.”

South Africa’s government appears to have heard the message from its Chinese counterpart. Its ambassador to China this week compared Mandela to Chinese Communism’s founding father Mao Zedong.

“They were both very strong leaders who fought for the liberation of their people, and who also contributed to laying the foundation for further development in society,” Ambassador Bheki  Langa was quoted as saying by China’s official news agency Xinhua. China is South Africa’s largest trading partner.

Mao, still a hero to many in rural China, is remembered in the West for the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961, an industrialization campaign that triggered mass famine and up to 45 million deaths, and for the Cultural Revolution, a violent effort to refresh and renew communism that began in 1966 and saw millions persecuted during the subsequent decade.

Chinese state media reported that Mandela had read a copy of "Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung," also known as the Little Red Book, while in prison on Robben Island, and claimed that he had expressed his admiration for Mao’s work on many occasions.  However, Mandela's praise of Mao may have been more limited, and confined to his admiration for the Chinese leader’s “determination” and military tactics in leading his communist forces to power.

Mandela met the Dalai Lama once, in 1996, and tried, but failed, to maintain diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan while president.

Chinese media’s job in covering the Mandela funeral was also eased by the fact that the Dalai Lama did not attend, after twice being denied a visa to enter the country in the past, including to join Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations in 2011.