Referring to what went on at the annual Central Committee plenum in October 2011, Russell Leigh Moses wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog: “That was quite a head-fake that the Communist Party gave to the rest of the world. Much of the international media spent the last few weeks speculating about changes in the Chinese leadership that were supposed to take place at the Central Committee plenum that concluded last week. With the formal transition of political power to a new group of cadres looming next year, more than a few observers believed that major announcements were in the offing. [Source: Russell Leigh Moses Wall Street Journal blogs, October 24, 2011]

But while a lot of people were looking in one direction, the Party went in the other. The plenum ducked personnel changes and continued to hew to the hardline. So, at the very time when the economy here is slowing and some of the leading financial indicators are dancing in different directions, the Central Committee sidestepped confrontation and presented an initiative in apparently the one area that it could agree on: protecting and expanding Chinese culture.

At first glance, there is nothing stunning about that decision. China’s international influence---it’s so-called “soft power”---has been expanding. Even while parts of China’s artistic community have become more activist about shortcomings in society and unafraid to utter criticism to overseas audiences, Beijing’s cultural clout has also been growing abroad. The Communist Party has been active in promoting its view of the glories of Chinese traditional culture and history through traveling exhibits, and established Confucian Institutes to foster the study of Mandarin in foreign lands.

At the upper levels of the Communist Party, conservative leaders have been outspoken in recent months about the need to support national initiatives in publishing and filmmaking, theaters, community centers and schools. Party officials made almost weekly pilgrimages over the past summer to various locations, carrying forth the notion that, as Hu Jintao noted at the Party plenum, “cultural reform and development significantly improves the nation’s ideological and moral qualities---and provides a powerful spiritual force." Many cadres have enjoyed riding the wave of higher prestige for China, especially as more than a few provinces have benefitted from China’s higher profile through foreign investment and tourism.

Paternalist, Moralist Aspects of Culture in Communist China

Ying Zhu wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: “The subservience of media to politics remains China's official ideology today. Such an ideology is not entirely the invention of the Chinese Communist Party--it is rooted in a longer tradition of Chinese aesthetics that defines art (and entertainment). According to Chinese aesthetics art is meant to represent the 'good and the beautiful.' This perspective can be traced to a moral and ethical fabric grounded in Confucianism. [Source: Ying Zhu, Asian Creative Transformations, April 2, 2012. Ying Zhu is author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television (New Press).

Cultural policy in China has been interventionist since the Chinese Communist Party established the League of Left Wing Writers in 1930. Cultural centralization and homogenization were the result of Chinese cultural policy. This is not to establish a hoary adage, but rather to acknowledge a greater relative emphasis, compared to Western traditions of art as a critical vanguard-the responsibility of art in the normalization of society.

In China, entertainment is supposed to teach moral lessons instead of pushing cultural/artistic boundaries or expanding markets. Thus the Chinese state is constantly waging a cultural war against Western influence. The paternalistic Chinese cultural guardians have yet to come to terms with the reality that pop culture is the logical extension of a market economy, which the Chinese state has embraced. Instead of blaming the West for eroding its cultural mores, China needs to take ownership of its self-inflicted cultural dilemma. The cultural war is internal, between China's own vernacular and the genteel, both ignoring the discredited propaganda culture.

The moral panic registered by the Chinese over vulgar content on its national television is no different from what the FCC chairman Newton Minow registered in 1961 as he referred to American commercial television programming as a "vast wasteland" and advocated for programming in the public interest. With morally challenging reality shows of all sorts on the rise on US television, the Chinese better brace themselves for what is yet to come.

The current cultural tightening in China is the continuation of a top-down project propelled by political needs, yet it does reflect an organic, bottom-up response to Chinese society's loss of moral grounding. Viewed in this light, the recent ideological and cultural tightening in China is symptomatic of the ambivalent march towards a market economy. Historically, the infiltration of the market and its profit logic into every fabric of a society has triggered society's protective mechanism in preserving its social and cultural integrity, through means of state legislation and other forms of societal intervention. In addition to the often-highlighted Chinese state intervention, what we witness in China is also a spontaneous moral response to the shocks of a free market that threatens to tear apart China's moral fabric.

Ying Zhu is a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. She is the author and editor of seven books, including "Chinese Cinema during the Era of Reform: the Ingenuity of the System" and "Television in Post-Reform China: Serial Drama, Confucian Leadership and Global Television Market." Her co-produced documentary, "Google China Standoff" aired on the Netherlands National Television in 2011, receiving wide attention.

How the Communist Party Aims to Make China a World-Class Center of Culture

In October 2011,Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “the cream of the Communist Party leadership gathered here to proclaim a national effort to make China a cultural tastemaker, one whose global creative influence matches its economic clout. “A nation cannot stand among great powers,” the official party newspaper People’s Daily said on its front page,”without its people’s spiritual affluence and the nation’s full expression of its creativity.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 7, 2011] Some analysts have suggested the Communist Party leaders” approach to building a world-class culture is not all that different from the one that powered China’s economic miracle: set a long-term goal, adopt rigid specifications, pour in copious amounts of public money, monitor closely to ensure the desired result. In this case, as the report repeatedly stated , the specifications are to adhere to “core socialist values” in cultural activities. The desired result is “to build our country into a socialist culture superpower.”

Not a few officially approved commentaries cast Chinese culture as a sort of zero-sum contest with its rivals. Xinhua, the government news agency, described the challenge last month as an “international cultural competition,” in which controlling the world stage is one more hurdle to surmount in a triathlon toward global greatness.

“Chinese cultural companies have yet to produce a world-famous brand,” that commentary groused, offering a litany of shortcomings: China’s television programs have an “embarrassing” export record; its total published literature does not approach the output of a single German firm, Bertelsmann. Most embarrassing, the 1998 animated film “Mulan,” based on a Chinese heroine, was produced by the Walt Disney Studios in California. “China has yet to produce an animated film as internationally successful,” the commentary said.

Liang Xiaosheng, an author and a government-appointed member of China’s legislative advisory body, said last week that Mao’s statement and other clauses in the report are a muted call for more artistic freedom, at least over the long haul. “In China, the policy won’t be quickly carried out because the executors need a digesting and understanding process,” he said. “Even a small step for China may take as long as 10 years.”

What’s Behind the Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform

Russell Leigh Moses wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog: “What’s the purpose of all this effort at putting the need for a uniform Chinese culture front and center now, at a major Party conclave? One aim is that many officials want to put the Party back front and center in the lives of people---be that through revolutionary nostalgia or providing cultural guidance. An increasing proportion of Party discourse has taken note of the mental pressures of modernization and the concomitant decline in social morality. Some officials write and act as if a lot more guidance from the top is needed, and that cultural direction supplied by the Party will address moral shortcomings in society. More than a few cadres clearly believe that using “the greatness of Chinese culture? is one way back into the daily lives of citizens---that is, something that they think all Chinese can agree on and celebrate around, and therefore thank the Party’s brand of socialism for. [Source: Russell Leigh Moses Wall Street Journal blogs, October 24, 2011]

There was another agenda being pushed at the plenum: combatting the deepening influence of social media. The speed and reach of micro-blogging---and the competition that Weibo and others now pose for the official media---worry many cadres who think that it is the public, and not the Party, that is shaping society. While Chinese officials cannot yet agree on how to move against those netizens who are nasty towards political authority, the more conservative in the leadership continue to push for a harder line. Phrases such as the “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in an editorial in People’s Daily last week (in Chinese) may strike some readers as the same old celebratory rhetoric. But these are, in fact, important keywords: a “national culture,” secured and delivered from above if hardliners have their way, could well be accompanied by a deeper crackdown on netizens.

That the plenum concluded that Chinese culture as defined by the Party is something special and deserves protection is unobjectionable to many cadres. But the focus on that issue to the exclusion of a number of others leaves many questions unanswered. For example, does cultural construction really provide for a soft landing for a slowing economy? How exactly will a celebration of national culture address the diverse travails of small businesses in China? Can stimulus packages to cultural industries truly compensate for, say, the fall-off in funding for high-technology projects? Delegates to the plenum may be pretty certain about Chinese culture---in large part because it is something that just about everyone can agree on. But the current Party leadership is still struggling to shape a unifying strategy for economic and political restructuring to hand over to the next leadership. The Party plenum showed that there’s no faking that.

China, at Party Congress, Lauds Its Cultural Advances

In November 2012, during the 18th Party Congress, Ian Johnson wrote in New York Times, “China’s government extolled the fruits of 10 years of reform in its cultural sector, saying it had privatized thousands of publishing companies, newspapers and cultural groups while promoting industries that can spread China’s influence abroad---all firmly under party control. Speaking to reporters during the Communist Party’s 18th congress, several leading cultural regulators praised the achievements of the party leader, Hu Jintao,” over the pervious decade, as Hu prepared to step down and turn over power to Xi Jinping. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 11, 2012]

Earlier. “Mr. Hu declared at the opening of the Congress that “culture is the lifeblood of a nation” and that “the strength and international competitiveness of Chinese culture are an important indicator of China’s power and prosperity and the renewal of the Chinese nation.”

The officials who praised the achievements under Hu’s watch “made their case with a blizzard of statistics: China produced 558 feature films in 2011 compared with 140 in 2003; it now has 9,200 movie screens versus 1,953 in 2003; it has listed 43 cultural sites with the United Nations, the third-highest number in the world; it has set up 600,000 rural reading rooms and offers a free movie each month in villages; and it has 2,115 museums that do not charge for admission. Last year, it published 370,000 books, which officials said was more than any other country in the world. China Central Television has 249 million viewers in 171 countries. And the government has spent $30.4 million over the last decade to support 55 minority ethnic groups in China. Another theme was privatization. More than 2,000 cultural troupes have been privatized, although the government continues to sponsor worthy productions from a public fund that now has a treasury of $1.2 billion. None of this means that the government has relaxed control, officials said. “Guidance is the soul” of these moves, said Tian Jin, party secretary of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. “We always insist on political responsibility, social responsibility and cultural responsibility.”

Mr. Tian said some industries were facing challenges.For filmmakers, an agreement this year with the United States allows more American companies to distribute more movies and reap a greater share of the box office in China. He said that from January to October, box office revenues amounted to $2.1 billion. Chinese films, however, lost their dominance in their home market, accounting for 41.4 percent of this gross. But Mr. Tian refused to blame the influx of foreign films, saying Chinese films needed to improve.

Cultivated and the Vulgar: China's Cultural War

Ying Zhu wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: “A speech delivered by China's President Hu Jintao at the annual plenum of the party's Central Committee in 2011 reasserted the party's control on culture and ideological affairs and efforts to fend off Western Culture pollution . The battle against Western popular culture is equated with ensuring what the Party likes to call "cultural security". [Source: Ying Zhu, Asian Creative Transformations, April 2, 2012. Ying Zhu is author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television (New Press).

With Avatar dominating the Chinese box office in 2011 and Lady Gaga becoming a popular icon among Chinese youth, a prevailing sense of cultural anxiety among Chinese cultural guardians echoes Hu's assertion that "The West is trying to dominate China by spreading its culture and ideology and that China must strengthen its cultural production to defend against the assault" . Pitting Chinese culture against Western culture, Hu declared that an escalating culture war between the two sides has begun.

Published in the party magazine Seeking Truth, certain passages in Hu's speech register a cold war tone. Hu urges Chinese cultural policy makers to "clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration... We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarm and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond." The apparent militancy of Hu's speech and the ensuing new rules on Chinese prime time television are reminiscent of cultural cleansing movements during the earlier CCP era.

Reviving Confucianism to Fend Off Western Intrusions

"The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China's international status," as Hu puts it. He encourages the development of a Chinese national culture rooted in Confucian tradition capable of countering Western cultural influence. [Source: Ying Zhu, Asian Creative Transformations, April 2, 2012]

Ying Zhu wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: “Now as the influence of communist ideology withers, the Chinese state is resorting to Confucianism in its reconstruction of "national culture." The Chinese state is not alone in this. The effort to revive Confucianism and Classical Chinese learning is nothing new among traditionalist Chinese scholars and cultural commentators. Over the past decade or two they have actively participated in ritual recitation of the Classics, exhorting traditional private schools to soak up on traditional Chinese virtues and values.

Responding to the demand for learning the Classics in elementary education, Chinese universities have begun to train scholars of Confucian Classics. The first College of Chinese Classics was inaugurated in 2005 at the People's University in Beijing. The revival of Confucianism at the grassroots among the traditionalists has paved the way for the state's call on an all out cultural war against decadent Western culture.

However, the Chinese versus Western rhetoric in Hu's charge of amoral Western influence is deceptive, or at least misguided. The current cultural clash is not China versus the West but an envisioned nationalistic high culture versus the vernacular pop culture ushered in by a market economy. The real clash is therefore between the mandate of a cultural tradition dictated by morality and the demand of a market system dictated by profit maximization.

Cultural Heavy-Handedness

Questions have been raised about China fulfilling the goals of ‘spiritual affluence” and “the nation’s full expression of its creativity” in light of what happened to the artist Yue Luping and Yu Jianrong, a painter and photographer whose works---on the petitions prepared annually by thousands of ordinary Chinese whose grievances have been ignored by the government---were banned two weeks ago from being exhibited in Songzhuang, a suburban Beijing artists’ colony.

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Yue, a professional artist for more than 10 years, was preparing his works for an exhibition in the Shunyi District of north Beijing last month when government officials and police officers abruptly canceled the show. The next day, he said, agents of the local Public Security Bureau interrogated him about one work, a collection of peppercorns arranged to form numbers. Security officers had already photographed the piece, studied it for an entire night and consulted cryptography experts to divine its message. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 7, 2011]

As they eventually discovered, the numbers were in a computer language, Unicode, spelling out five phrases that Chinese censors have banned from the results of Internet search engines. And the pungent peppercorns were a metaphor for what Mr. Yue called people’s undue sensitivity to ordinary words. In a microblog post reported by The South China Morning Mr. Yu wrote that exhibition officials in Songzhuang had told him that “the situation this year is tense, and no sensitive topics are allowed.” “It’s very ironic,” Mr. Yue, 36, said in an interview last week. “On the one hand, they want to boost cultural development. And on the other, they call off our exhibition.” Mr. Yu declined to be interviewed.

Ironic is one way to describe it. But viewed against the language of the party’s declaration on culture---the Oct. 25 report on the annual Central Committee plenum, held last month---there is not much inconsistency at all, some analysts say.

Communist Party Control on Art and Culture in China

Those that view the newly declared Cultural Reform campaign as an effort to clampdown on artistic freedom point to quotes in the report---led, ironically, by a famous statement by Mao Zedong, made just before the anti-rightist campaign in the 1950s. In 1956, Mao made a famous speech in which he summoned ordinary Chinese to speak out about their needs: “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said, “and a hundred schools of thoughts contend.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 7, 2011]

The report repeated those words verbatim, citing them as a guiding principle for China’s cultural development. Other passages call for an “opening and reform” in China’s cultural development, echoing the economic approach to the rest of the world that spurred China’s growth over the last two decades.

Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University of China, told the New York Times. “The government is overconfident about controlling art,” he said. “They think as long as they provide money and they provide a value orientation, there can be good art produced. This is not surprising at all, because they have never experienced the process of free expression.”

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “In that view, the notion is lost on Chinese leaders that a great culture---whether in painting, science or journalism---rests on people’s abilities to push the boundaries of creativity, no matter whom it offends. There is much to support that view, including the arrest in April of the internationally famous artist and dissident Ai Weiwei and the banning of literature like “The Fat Years,” Chan Koonchung’s bleak depiction of a China-dominated future.

People here pay great attention to history. Mao’s hundred-flowers campaign was a disaster. Freed to say their piece, intellectuals denounced government repression and incompetence, and party leaders quickly reverted to a crackdown on expression. It may not be lost on the creative community that Mao quickly replaced his hundred-flowers campaign with an anti-rightist movement in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were stripped of their jobs, with many of them sent to labor camps. Mao later said he had been seeking to lure the snakes from their dens in order to cut off their heads.

In China, then as now, liberalization and crackdown reliably---and unpredictably---ebb and flow.Free-thinking students spawned the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which, in turn, provoked a new crackdown that has lasted to this day. Which may explain one genuine irony: when asked, some of the artists who organized the Shunyi and Songzhuang exhibitions chose to pretend that their colleagues were not censored at all.

Free-speech principles or not, some artists here appear to have no appetite for trouble.”There is some misunderstanding going on,” Shen Qibing, an organizer of the exhibition that was to have shown Mr. Yue’s peppercorn art, said in a telephone interview. “The exhibition was called off because more and more artists are trying to sign up for the exhibition, and we feel we have a lot of work to do. “I am the executive organizer,” he said. “I know what is going on. Some of the artists try to exaggerate things.”

Ban on Racy Chinese Shows

Ying Zhu wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: “In October 2011 Chinese authorities banned scores of racy and overtly materialistic entertainment shows on primetime television. Within days Western media were abuzz with speculation on China's tightening cultural policy. I received a fair amount of questions from deadline-chasing journalists soliciting my "expert" opinions on the "crackdown." Unsurprisingly, the official Chinese line of "curbing excessive entertainment" is met with dismissive skepticism.[Source: Ying Zhu, Asian Creative Transformations, April 2, 2012]

A Chinese dating show, If You Are the One is frequently cited as an example of "excessive entertainment" . In this program provocatively dressed young women publicly embrace materialism, opting for wealth and affluence over romance and relationships, all of which evidently defies traditional Chinese morality. This and similar shows featuring material girls, and boys, have overwhelmed old party comrades, conservative cultural commentators, and viewers who believe that such programming constitutes the increasing vulgarity and cultural degradation of Chinese television.

In 2011 new rules were issued that forced 34 satellite stations across China cut vulgar entertainment programs. Under the new rules, each television station can broadcast only two entertainment shows during prime time each week, and each is expected to broadcast at least one show that promotes traditional Chinese virtues and core socialist values.

The apparent "harsher" turn on entertainment has alarmed some China observers, who see the tightening as signs of China retreating to a more militant past. The intrigue keeps China in the news, as if there weren't enough news about China already, including the recent Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's US visit and the dismissal of Bo Xilai as CCP secretary of Chongqing municipality and a potential member of the Party's Politburo Standing Committee.

Obviously the tightening up cannot last long when the bottom line is at stake. Some speculate that the top-down tightening up is symptomatic of the state-commerce cronyism rooted in China's television structure in which the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the state agency regulating the industry, is financially linked to China Central Television (CCTV), the only national network that serves as the party's mouthpiece. CCTV's market share has been eroded over the years by entertainment shows on provincial television. Yet CCTV remits a fraction of its annual revenue to SARFT. Indeed, SARFT has been consistently criticized for suppressing attempts by provincial TV stations to expand regionally and nationally, thereby securing the network's national monopoly.

Arrest of Intellectuals and Writers in China

The Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of “Beijing Coma” wrote in an article published by Project Syndicate: The arrest and disappearance of the arest Ai Weiwei “along with the severe prison sentence imposed on the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, are driven by the same motivation: to dam the potential for political unrest and purge independent intellectuals.” [Source: Ma Jian, Project Syndicate, April 19. 2011]

“This process is nothing new. The writer Li Hong received a six-year prison sentence and died in a hospital under police supervision last year. Another writer, Li Xianbin, was sentenced to 10 years. According to the Writers in Prison Committee of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, more than 30 of the country's writers are currently locked up.” Liu was sentenced to prison for incitement to subversion, the same charge leveled against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, now serving an 11-year term. Others who have been targeted include Ye Du and Teng Biao.

“To be sure, the regime considers Ai's arrest a preemptive measure to prevent the outbreak of public demonstrations. But Ai never participated in the many Internet appeals for such protests. And his arrest seems to be just the beginning. The next targets will likely be independent writers like Ai Xiaoming, Dai Qing, Cui Weiping, and Han Han. The regime will not stop the persecution until the only voices to be heard are its own "official" artists.“

20111030-Wikicommons  Mcdpn.jpg
Jasmine Revolution “Protest on Wangfujing Street in Beijing

Crackdowns on Culture After the Jasmine Revolution in 2011

Travel restrictions on Chinese critics of the regime and cancellations of dozens of cultural forums and other events that Western embassies were imposed in the spring of 2011 “as the Chinese government has shown a growing suspicion of foreign influence and Western ideas. That suspicion has followed calls for the Arab world’s “jasmine revolution” to take hold in China as well, although there has been little sign that these calls have drawn any broad response except from Chinese security forces, who have turned out in force at gathering places suggested for protests.” [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, May 9, 2011]

“There are some sour and smelly literati these days who are utterly abominable,” a retired military officer reportedly told a gathering in February 2010 in Beijing. “They attack Chairman Mao and practice de-Maoification. We must fight to repel this reactionary counter-current.” [Source: The Economist, April 14, 2011]

Reasons for Crackdowns on Culture After the Jasmine Revolution

The Economist reported: Since the late 1970s, when China began to turn its back on Maoist totalitarianism, the country has gone through several cycles of relative tolerance of dissent, followed by periods of repression. But the latest backlash, which was first felt late last year and intensified in late February, has raised eyebrows. It has involved more systematic police harassment of foreign journalists than at any time since the early 1990s. More ominously, activists such as Mr Ai have often simply disappeared rather than being formally arrested.” [Source: The Economist, April 14, 2011]

This “abnormally heavy-handed approach suggests that shifting forces within the Chinese leadership could well be playing a part. China is entering a period of heightened political uncertainty as it prepares for changes in many top positions in the Communist Party, government and army, beginning late next year. This is the first transfer of power after a decade of rapid social change. Within the state, new interest groups have emerged. These are now struggling to set the agenda for China’s new rulers.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012

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