Hu: China in Cultural War
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Hu: China in Cultural War

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Chinese President Hu Jintao says China and the West are engaged in a “cultural war,” and China’s cultural integrity should be defended from “international hostile forces [which] are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”

The comments came Monday in an editorial in the Party journal “Seeking Truth” as a follow-up to discussions of “cultural security” at the October meeting of the Party Central Committee. Yesterday’s article added little to what was said back then, but the publication of a signed editorial by Hu is a sign that the slogan is unlikely to be forgotten in the near future. 

The precise reason for penning the editorial now is still unclear, but it seems likely intended to address both concerns about a crisis of values in Chinese society, and the Chinese leader’s keen interest in developing the country’s soft power by creating internationally popular media.

Both the place of publication – a socialist theory magazine founded by Mao Zedong – and the stilted language mark the essay as intended for internal consumption by Party members rather than the general public. It’s essentially an agenda-setting slogan for Party leaders to use to guide rank-and-file members’ policy experimentation. The essay was accompanied by an editorial defending the morality of contemporary Chinese society, a hot topic in China. Many Chinese citizens argue that, lacking both traditional culture and Maoist socialism, China has become a country without values, drawing moral lessons from cases like the October Wang Yue incident in which a child struck by a car was ignored by dozens of passersby.

Paradoxically, the call for strengthening Chinese culture may mean pulling popular (and apolitical)  homegrown content off the air and out of the cinemas – there has been a recent spate of bans directed at popular Chinese TV, including dating shows and, most eccentrically, dramas that involve time travel.  Of course, this type of cultural censorship has a long history in China, including a previous ineffectual effort to force moviegoers to watch a martial arts epic about Confucius instead of Avatar.

Censorship is likely to cripple the international prong of cultural security – the effort to build a high-powered cultural industry.  China’s efforts, such as the recent “Flowers of War,” which starred Christian Bale in what was an effort to communicate the Chinese perspective on World War II to a foreign audience, are frequently overshadowed by negative stories. In this case, Bale was forcibly prevented from meeting a rights activist under informal house arrest.

Despite the ham-fistedness of its efforts, we shouldn’t dismiss the soft power of the Chinese government too soon. They aren’t going to succeed by turning culture into a mass-produced and quality-controlled product, but they will gain influence in the “global south” as an increasing number of developing countries are seeking opportunities to join the fast-growing world of the BRICS.

Having pulled an estimated 600 million people out of poverty in the past few decades, China is increasingly attracting developing world politicians who hope to imitate its self-reliance and rapid growth in growing programs of party-to-party exchange and policy training at party schools. This gives it the potential to build organic influence that doesn’t rely on aping Hollywood blockbusters. 

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