Chunwan, Art and Authoritarianism

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Chunwan, Art and Authoritarianism

Can art flourish under an authoritarian regime?

Chunwan, Art and Authoritarianism
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Chunwan, or Spring Festival Gala, is a household name in mainland China. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a special variety show produced by the Chinese Central Television Station (CCTV) that has aired on the eve of every lunar new year since 1983. The latest version was broadcast live on the evening of February 7, with an audience claimed to be 1.033 billion, a dazzling figure easily dwarfing any comparison. For what it is worth, the most watched broadcast in American TV history, the 2015 Super Bowl finale, drew a record viewership of 114.4 million. So it is not at all an exaggeration to say that Chunwan is the most watched show in television history.

However, for any four-hour-and-half performance with that many viewers, the reception is necessarily mixed. A article last year by Rachel Lu in Foreign Policy was headed: Why 700 Million People Keep Watching The Chinese New Year Gala, Even Though It’s Terrible. The headline is revealing: For years many Chinese have had a love-hate relationship with the Chunwan, which is why it makes perfect fodder for post-holiday water cooler conversation: People always like to debate the good and bad of Chunwan. Nevertheless, what most Chinese have in common, as indicated by the enormous viewership, is that they are still watching the Chunwan year in and year out. The reason, as Lu rightly notes, is that “watching the Gala is inseparably entwined with fond memories of going home, seeing family, and being in the festival spirit. Whether the audience actually finds each individual act entertaining is beside the point. Without this loud and colorful spectacle, a Chinese New Year’s Eve would simply seem too quiet.”

This year’s extravaganza was no exception, albeit with a different twist. A confession at the outset though: I have not watched it, at least not attentively. Therefore I am not going to make judgments about the show itself. What caught my attention is rather the fact that there was an overnight crackdown on negative online comments about the Chunwan. While the show was still going on, many Chinese netizens began to have a spree mocking and spoofing what seemed to them an overly politicized show. Some suggested that the short-lived circuit breaker mechanism that was originally applied to the bumpy Chinese stock market should be brought back and deployed against the Chunwan. Others made reference to the other big news on that day and suggested that while North Korea was approaching China in terms of rocket launches, China was getting close to matching North Korea in the showbiz realm. Still others compared Chunwan, apparently sarcastically, to Xinwen Lianbo, calling it an excessively extended episode of the latter since much of it was more indoctrinating than entertaining.

To be sure, neither the politicization of Chunwan or the outpouring of critical comments about it is anything new. Both have been going on for years, if not decades. Yet the campaign on such a scale to censor and squelch the viewers’ negative feedback is, in my memory, unprecedented. And it has made me ponder the relationship between art and authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism and the Threat to Art

One widely held view holds that authoritarianism, by definition wanting of freedom of expression and abound with censorship and self-censorship, is inimical to art. The logic is straightforward: Artistic freedom is part and an aspect of the freedom of expression. Without a guaranteed space to explore and articulate their thoughts, emotions, imaginations and sentiments, artists will not be able to function or flourish. For a long time, Western societies have prided themselves on protecting artistic freedom from government restriction, from the First Amendment to the American Constitution to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a word, it is generally believed that authoritarianism is a threat to art.

In a 2012 South China Morning Post piece, Eric X. Li sought to cast doubt on that consensus. Admittedly, he has a point. Counter-examples are easy to find and Li was not shy about listing them: from Michelangelo working for the Pope to Chinese literati painters serving the emperors, and from the Pharaoh-honoring pyramids to the rapidly bourgeoning market of contemporary Chinese art. He even mentioned Ai Weiwei, calling him the exception that proves the rule, which is that many more creative artists are actually working within authoritarian restraints. Ultimately, Li was correct, for better or for worse, in saying that “in the long history of man’s endeavor to create art, the so-called artistic freedom is a very recent anomaly.” As in his better known TED speech “A Tale of Two Political Systems,” Li urged us to rethink and eventually discard the widely believed proposition that freedom of expression is a necessary condition to artistic development and that authoritarianism smothers art.

I agree that it is time to abandon the over-simplistic understanding that in authoritarian regimes art can never prosper. As human history has amply demonstrated, artistic freedom is no prerequisite to artistic achievement. To claim the opposite would be simply incorrect. However, to jump from that to the conclusion that authoritarianism is not damaging to the flourishing of art is a error of logic. The fact that A is not necessary to B does not mean that the lack or absence of A causes no harm to B – it is just that the harm is often not grave enough to extinguish the latter. Certainly, it is difficult to arrive at a definitive correlation between freedom of expression and artistic accomplishment since both are non-quantifiable and cannot be easily and accurately compared across time. Yet for at least three reasons, the suppression of freedom of expression by authoritarian governments does impair art.

First, all artistic work should ultimately be, if not always is, judged in the market of public opinion, which does rely on freedom of expression. It is true that appreciation of art forms often requires long-term nurturing, yet banning and removing critical comments about a piece of art is a bad way to go about promoting it. Yes, Mozart did compose at the pleasure of a rather overbearing Holy Roman Emperor and Shostakovich composed, with real discomfort, beautiful music under Stalin. But when citing these examples to dismiss the damage done by authoritarianism to art, Li seemed to forget that neither Mozart nor Shostakovich earned their popularity by virtue of political coercion, especially through governments’ muzzling critics. Instead, their positions in the musical pantheon is secured by the voluntary choices made by millions of people across different cultures and generations. In stark contrast, the Loyalty Dance, one of the most iconic art forms during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, disappeared soon after the opening and reform era. Today it hardly rings a bell among younger Chinese. It may be argued that it snuck back into public consciousness through the backdoor of Square Dancing. But no one can deny that these are two very different forms of dance: the former centered on paying homage to the then paramount leader, the latter all about exercising and socializing.

Second, not only is repressing criticism of art unhelpful in fostering popularity, it is actually counterproductive. Watching the 2016 Chunwan, many netizens were actually commenting on the propagandistic content rather than the artistic forms through which that content was delivered. True, it is hard sometimes to differentiate between criticism about form and that about content. But indiscriminately shutting down all criticism is more likely to exacerbate, not attenuate, audience dissatisfaction of the audience.

Interestingly, a commentary published just two days after the 2016 Chunwan on the website of a state-run newspaper made the following point: Some people always complain about the lack of entertainment in Chunwan, but they are missing the point. If you wanted to be entertained, then turn off the TV and get the whole family to tickle one another! In my view, it is the author here that has completely missed the point. No one is saying that Chunwan should be all about mindless and tasteless sensual stimulation. Much of the criticism about Chunwan is simply calling for better entertainment with higher artistic standards, as compared to dull and in-your-face political education. The ideal situation is one in which both can be achieved, one enhancing the other. In fact, “creativity” is the key word that President Xi Jinping emphasized in his speeches at the 2013 National Conference on Propaganda and Ideology Work and the 2014 Beijing Forum on Literature and Arts, urging more creativeness in the Party’s own PR initiatives so that they can be better received. Imposing a blanket ban on critical comments about Chunwan, particularly those focusing on the art side of the show, is practicing ostrichism and unwisely giving up a chance to learn what the people really want. More importantly, it further devalues the brand of Chunwan as an artistic product.

Last but not least, we all know that parody and satire can potentially be great art. The 2005 Chinese film The Promise (Wu Ji) by Chen Kaige was famously caricatured by a fan-made parody, which in many ways is more acclaimed than the original. Lu Xun, arguably the greatest modern Chinese author, is best remembered for his satirical novels A Madman’s Diary and The True Story of Ah Q. Works that are reflective and critical of the status quo are a crucial element of artistic expression. The success of imported TV shows such as House of Cards indicates that there is a huge appetite among the Chinese audience for this kind of drama that exposes and confronts the dark side of the world of the powerful. There is little room for this type of art in an authoritarian environment, where critique of the absence of critique itself is suppressed.

So even though freedom of expression is not essential for art to bloom in any given society, the lack of it is undoubtedly adverse to artistic development. Under authoritarianism, the opinion market for arts is distorted at best and shut down at worst, depriving a society of the opportunity, if not the capability, to distinguish good art from bad. It also makes it more difficult for state-funded art projects to avoid ossification and regain credibility before an audience when any critical voice is silenced. Moreover, a big chunk of possible artistic expression is taken out. Authoritarianism does not destroy art altogether, but it surely prevents it from developing to its fullest extent. Eric X. Li only tells part of the story. The other part of the story he overlooks warrants more serious attention: For China, the promotion of soft power has to begin at home; censoring and deleting comments on Chunwan is not the way to go.

Chun Peng is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Peking University Law School. He has a DPhil in Law from the University of Oxford.