What’s Behind the Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform? (Updated)

At the recent CCP Central Committee plenum in Beijing, the focus seemed to be not on the leadership transition coming up next year, as pundits predicted, but instead on “cultural reform,” (at least, from the glimmer of information the foreign media has been able to obtain on the highly-secretive meetings). The main document released after the meetings was titled, “Central Committee Decision Concerning the Major Issue of Deepening Cultural System Reforms, Promoting the Great Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture.” (Update: Full text now available) Russell Leigh Moses writes on the Wall Street Journal’s 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.

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.

An article in the Economist looks at the Central Committee plenum
in light of the hit-and-run accident which killed toddler Yueyue in Foshan, which has ignited an outpouring of sorrow and condemnation among Chinese netizens:

This outpouring began even before the central committee wrapped up its typically secretive meeting. The furore thus created a problem for the party’s propagandists. The central committee’s resolution may have implied that China was lagging behind in the development of soft power, but officials certainly did not intend to signal that China was in a state of moral collapse. The party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, tried to rally enthusiasm with a commentary on October 18th saying the meeting had ended “victoriously” and that the party had already succeeded in “raising the ideological and moral qualities as well as scientific and cultural qualities of the entire nation”. Little Yue Yue’s mourners have begged to differ.

The Economist does mention one bright spot for “civic consciousness” in China: the online and real life effort to support Chen Guangcheng, an activist now under house arrest in Shandong. Yet the government’s harsh crackdown on activists and journalists who try to visit him, and the resulting international media coverage, does not bode well for their “cultural soft power” efforts either. As David Bandurski clarifies on China Media Project, the new focus on “cultural soft power” is not really about culture at all, but is about politics:

Given the fog surrounding this proclamation on the role and development of culture and creativity, it’s fair to say that China’s political culture is the real focus here. The point is that China’s political culture has now taken up the idea of culture in a big way.

Typically, when the central Party makes a big fuss about this or that new policy buzzword — they are called tifa (提法) in Chinese — everybody in the Party leadership, from the top down to the bottom, jumps on the bandwagon.

When Hu Jintao tossed out the term “cultural soft power” in his 2007 political report, he ushered in months of feverish creation — not by writers, artists, filmmakers or comedians — but by lower-level Party leaders scrambling to implement an abstract idea they scarcely understood. Even leaders at the county level across China were holding “mobilization meetings” to “accelerate the raising of cultural soft power.”

If there are aspects of this Party “Decision” that might have an appreciable impact on the creative industries, they remain to be seen. If changes in the media over the past two decades are any measure, the most interesting things we can expect are the unintended consequences of changes in the cultural sector as creative people try to push the political bounds and “hit line balls” in areas like film.


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