The Danger of China's Cultural Protectionism


On my first trip to Beijing, what I liked most wasn’t the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven. It wasn’t the city’s history, art, or its cuisine. It was the simmering mix of locals, Chinese transplants, expats, and travelers. Beijing roared like an engine in low gear, ready to shift from the likes of Pyongyang to Seoul or Tokyo. In other words, an international center of culture and commerce. Alas, Beijing has apparently since decided it isn’t ready for the world stage, and that it wants to be left alone.

The People’s Republic of China initially closed its doors to everyone but the Soviets and experimented with juche-like self-reliance, which was an abject failure. But China was quick to rally. The 1978 reforms introduced market competition, rapidly turning the nation into one of the most impressive economic engines on the planet. It’s a rising tide that has failed to lift all boats, however, and those left to turn in the waves have little to cling to but the flag. For its part, the government encourages nationalism, perhaps hoping it will pacify the masses.

This is best illustrated by the recently leaked Document 9, wherein Beijing officials openly regard Western influence as a harmful invasion. In the document, leaders insist that Party leadership is above the law, that human rights are not universal, and that the concept of a civil society is merely a political tool used by the West to undermine Party power in China.

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It’s not surprising that such an attitude would also stunt the city’s cultural growth. Take beer, for example. My friend Tom is a true beer aficionado. When he heard Beijing had its own I.P.A. on tap, he was ecstatic. It’s a great thing living in a country where you can get a decent beer, he said. Even better if you can get domestic brands of the first water. The more sophisticated methods required to make craft beer, and the more sophisticated palates required to enjoy it, are a sign of evolving techniques and tastes. From this point of view, events like the Beijing Craft Beer Festival are milestones of multicultural growth.

Yet this year’s Craft Beer Festival was preemptively cancelled following a citywide crackdown on cultural events. Archie Hamilton, general manager of the music company Split Works,* believes the crackdown is an attempt by the government to cure China of foreign influence, noting the sudden cancellation of a Japanese rock show after the band was already in China. Those aren’t the only examples of cultural events being shut down. Beijing’s first-ever Earth Day event was also cancelled, due to “improper paperwork,” and the 330 Metal Fest was shut down too, allegedly over “safety concerns.” INTRO Festival had to move outside Beijing; MIDI Festival, one of China’s oldest and largest rock festivals, moved to Suzhou. The Strawberry Music Festival was cancelled, along with a concert by the Slovenian metal band Noctiferia and the Gaymazing Poker Race, a pub crawl poker fundraiser for the Beijing LGBT Center.

China seems to subscribe to the cultural version of the infant industry argument first put forward by Alexander Hamilton in Report on Manufactures (1790). The argument says that budding industries lack the economies of scale needed for international competition and must therefore be protected. Yet Beijing is no infant culture, and would benefit from abandoning this juche manner of thinking.

For one thing, China ranks among the least culturally diverse and least ethnically fractionalized societies in the world, so it’s likely Beijing would profit from a competitive market of ideas just as surely as China has profited from market competition. But then, cultural events aren’t cancelled because they threaten Beijing’s culture. They’re cancelled because they pose “political risks” to powers who consider themselves above the law and sneer at human rights or the notion of a civil society. In the end, it all comes back to corruption. According to the Jingjiao Daily, the Craft Beer Week was shut down because it had become too commercial, i.e. “a business festival.” So why were the venues for all 50 beer gardens moved to the city’s biggest commercial centers? As Chinese author Murong Xuecun once put it, in China, “business deals are hardly ever carried out fairly. Mostly it’s a matter of who you know, or who you pay off.”

Beijing can regard internationalism as a poison if it chooses, but plugging its fingers in its ears and chanting its own name to itself isn’t likely to yield positive results. And as long as Beijing thinks it has more to offer the world than the other way around, it will fail to reach its true potential.

*Added company affiliation.

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