Cultural Soft Power and China's "Third Affliction"

In The New York Times, David Bandurski discusses the Chinese Communist Party’s fixation on promoting socialist culture, as evidenced in a document yielded by an October meeting of the party’s Central Committee:

Behind the bravado lies deep anxiety about what some in China have called the “third affliction,” its negative image in the world. With its economy now the envy of the world, China has symbolically thrown off the affliction of poverty. With its powerful and modernizing military, it is no longer afflicted by the threat of foreign aggression, as it was during its “century of shame.” Yet the country’s international prestige remains constrained by the cultural dominance of the West. Each time China is castigated by the international human rights community, or criticized by the Western media, the country’s leaders feel more and more that global public opinion is stacked against them. Western culture and values have gone global in a way that Chinese culture and values have not, and Beijing wants to do something about this.

China’s leaders hope to close this “soft-power deficit” the only way they know how: by diktat. But commercializing state-controlled culture built on repression only turns the spotlight on the injustices of China’s political system. China’s “third affliction” is a self-inflicted malady. As the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said amid the official drivel in state-run media: “Governments in countries with cultural censorship may no longer fear criticism at the hands of their own country’s cultural work, but they must endure the ridicule of the whole world.”

A China Daily opinion piece last week shed more light on the systematic reforms and innovations needed for China to build itself into a cultural power:

To be such a power, China needs to promote its culture on the world stage, conduct cultural exchanges with other countries and enhance its cultural characteristics and influence. Facts prove that a nation’s cultural identity should be realized through international cultural trade and that cultural power dominates the pricing power of global cultural products and their dissemination. 

The volume of China’s cultural trade has been steadily growing in recent years, but some of the country’s core cultural products have failed to achieve a robust growth momentum. Statistics released by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade show that the volume of the country’s exports of books, newspapers and magazines, audio-video and electronic arts, which constitute a core part of the export of its cultural products, declined from 19 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2009. Another example is China’s TV animation, whose exports increased to 220,000 minutes in 2010 from less than 10,000 minutes in 2000. However, the export volumes of home-made animation was only $30 million in 2009, in sharp contrast to a single movie by the United States’ Pixar Animation Company, Toy Story 3, which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. 

As Bandurski pointed out, China’s recent efforts to promote its culture abroad have only gained attention only for their lack of attendance. An AFP report today surveys the elements hampering Beijing’s desire to compete with Hollywood for global cultural prowess:

“You can’t straightjacket artists and have them compete like athletes. Culture is not monolithic. It should be diverse,” cultural commentator Zhou Liming told AFP.

“Authorities are focused on broadcasting culture overseas in competition with the imported culture flooding China, but that’s wrong,” he said.

“Lots of Chinese cultural products aren’t representative of the China presented by the government.”

Mainstream Chinese films all need government approval for release, and there is a marked absence of movies that tell revealing, gritty tales set in the present day.

See also previous CDT coverage of the CCP’s newfound focus on cultural reform.