China’s Cultural Assault From Within

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos digs beneath the surface of a recent essay and speech written by Chinese President Hu Jintao, which called on China to boost cultural production to combat Western efforts to divide the country:

It’s tempting to take the vitriol on its face, as directed at the West. But there is another reading: Party hard-liners know that the more potent threat lies within its own borders, in the race to maintain support around a hollowing ideology. As Damian Ma of the Eurasia Group puts it in a smart post at The Atlantic: “The ‘culture war’ is not truly meant to be waged against nefarious U.S. cultural encroachments. It is instead part of a battle to sustain the confidence of its own people—via nationalism, Confucian tenets, wealth, cultural renaissance, or whatever substitute that can be dreamed up—or risk the consequences. The war is, and has always been, about defining the soul of the modern Chinese nation.”

China’s culture wars have been joined from all sides. One wing to watch is a strain of tolerant thinking coming out of the South, where Guangdong party chief Wang Yang recently succeeded in resolving a village standoff without bloodshed and now proposes that as a template for other crises. “People’s democratic awareness is increasing significantly in this changing society,” Wang said in a speech delivered to the provincial party congress on Tuesday. “When their appeals for rights aren’t getting enough attention, that’s when mass incidents happen.”

UC-Irvine’s Jeff Wasserstrom writes in an Asia Society post that recent speeches from Hu about Chinese culture are “troubling” when considered in the context of historic patterns:

First, we’ve seen things like this before. Both Hu’s call for a tougher line on cultural imports and related pronouncements, such as Xi Jinping’s telling university administrators to “step up” efforts to control ideological trends on their campuses, have past parallels — and not just Mao era ones. In the mid-1980s, calls for “opening” up to the world were offset at times by campaigns against the “spiritual pollution” coming from the West. A more dramatic cultural and campus chill set in after 1989’s June 4th massacre. And when NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, television stations pulled American programs from their schedules and ran various patriotic Korean War epics in their place. (Or maybe just back-to-back showings of the same film. I was in China at the time, and when I flipped on the TV, one of two or three scenes always seemed to be on.)

Second, this call for “vigilance” seems in some ways to have come out of nowhere. There isn’t the same sort of obvious explanation to fix on for a lashing out against Western culture or a ramping up of paranoid talk of foreign “plots” to undermine Chinese stability. Yes, there have been plenty of protests, but there have been these at many points in the last decade. There hasn’t been a broad-based social movement affecting multiple cities like there was in 1989. And it is hard to compare any of the efforts Washington has made to pivot in Asia to the sort of cause for a backlash provided by the Belgrade Embassy bombing.

Third, what is particularly dispiriting to me about this current move is precisely its lack of a tangible obvious cause. This makes it seem part of an unpleasant “new normal” for the PRC, in which any excuse can be used to justify a tightening of control. Prior to the Olympic year of 2008, the basic pattern seemed to be of a gradual loosening of the Party’s hold over many features of cultural life, mixed with a continued monopoly on formal power by the old men in Beijing. There were occasional slides backward toward greater rigidity, but the trends seemed to be promising. No more.

See also: “What’s Behind the Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform?” from CDT.