“China’s President Pushes Back Against Western Culture” is the title of a January 3 New York Times article by its excellent correspondent Ed Wong that has been making the rounds.
The article’s focus, as the title suggests, is that Chinese President Hu Jintao claims the West is waging a culture war against China. He is quoted as saying, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”
The quote comes from an essay by President Hu printed in the party magazine Qiushi, derived from a speech he gave in October to coincide with the release of the Central Committee Decision on culture.
My first reaction was to observe, with irony and anger, that the apparently intentional evisceration of Chinese culture, as claimed by Hu, is the very thing that Beijing has been doing to Tibetan culture for the last 60 years. So I found a translation of the article and read it, substituting “Tibetan culture” for “Chinese culture” and “Chinese Communist Party” for “Western forces” where applicable.
I had planned to write a blog with excerpted phrases with substitutions that captured the tragic hypocrisy. But by the time I got to the end, my direction had changed.
Hu’s essay demonstrates that leaders in Beijing define and interpret culture in a way that is disconnected from the way the rest of the world see it. Culture, in the sense we are talking about, can be understood as “a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize an institution, organization, or group.” It is derived organically, the product of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual people interacting, sharing and creating, giving meaning, shape and a collective identity to their lives. By nature culture is an abstract concept.
According to Hu’s essay and the Decision, culture is a tool, a tangible instrument to be used by the Party in the pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Culture is something that can be manufactured, like an engine or a dam, operated by a controlling authority – an unsurprising notion given that Hu and many top leaders are engineers. As Hu writes, “we must scientifically determine the people’s basic cultural rights and interest, and diverse spiritual culture requirements, completely grasp the responsibilities and functions of government and market in cultural construction…”
Professor Stephen Walt critiques this view in Foreign Policy:
“What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a “British invasion.” Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.”
Thus, China’s leaders portray Western culture (however one defines that) as a tool by “hostile foreign powers” to undermine China. As a response, the essay and the Decision compel the Party to “raising the international influence and competitiveness of Chinese culture, vigorously expand into international cultural markets, innovate methods for culture to march out, incessantly raise national cultural soft power.” To this end, the government announced on January 5 that it would launch a 24-hour television channel in New York to “propagate information about China overseas.”
The Asia Society’s Orville Schell offers a spot-on critique:
“China confuses propaganda and public relations with cultural power. I think it has the idea that if it only tries harder, and engages its PR and propaganda machine more forcefully, then everyone will see China’s glories and will appreciate China more. But of course that’s a very strange notion of what soft power and true cultural self confidence is. It’s not something you can create, it arises naturally out of society. I think that speaks of a lingering insecurity and uncertainty about just how substantial China really is.”
Hu’s essay also reveals a contradiction in the Party’s approach to culture. Throughout the essay, the word “culture” is always used in the singular, whether in reference to socialist culture or Chinese culture. Yet Beijing recognizes a diversity of cultures in the PRC. An official White Paper says that “the Tibetan people have created and developed their brilliant and distinctive culture.” While a good Marxist may be able to resolve this contradiction by noting that the Paper locates Tibetan culture within the “treasure-house of Chinese culture,” the problem of the singular culture cannot be easily or empirically dismissed. The bubbling unrest among the Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, and now Hui populations, demonstrate that the Party’s approach to culture is not contributing to the multi-national harmony it seeks.
In the coming weeks, the International Campaign for Tibet will release a report provisionally titled “The Case for Cultural Genocide in Tibet.” The lengthy report documents the claim that a cultural genocide is happening in Tibet. It argues that the Chinese state has abjectly failed in its responsibility to protect and preserve the distinct Tibetan culture, a role it selected for itself following the invasion and occupation in the 1950s. The report further argues that saving Tibet’s culture should be a matter of concern for the international community as a matter of policy and as part of the overall trend toward the development of a more comprehensive regime for combating genocide.
This brings me back to my original point. Is it possible for government leaders to assert upon themselves the role of protectors of a culture, when they have a fundamental misunderstanding of (if not hostility toward) the very nature of culture? How can a governmental entity, whose official statement on its self-asserted responsibility to manage culture omits the notion of a diversity of cultures within the realm, be accepted as a responsible steward for the various cultures under its control?
Is there any possibility that the methods used to study and explain the (alleged) threats to Chinese culture could be employed objectively to develop understandings of the threats to Tibetan culture within the PRC? Can Chinese scholars and citizens even find space to explore these questions free from ideological shackles? Moreover, would there be space for scholars and citizens from other cultures to contribute?
China analyst Damian Ma concludes that:
“[Hu’s ] ‘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.”
Ma’s analysis begs the question of whether Beijing has the capacity or willingness to truly understand who “its own people” and their cultures are, much less genuinely respond to their grievances. If Hu Jintao the culture warrior truly wants a “harmonious society” as his legacy, it would seem that he has some fundamental contradictions to resolve first.