The bandwagon of soft power

CMP Staff
Editorial
David Bandurski
David Bandurski
Posted on 2011-10-24

Culture has moved to the center of Chinese politics, thanks to the hefty pronouncements emerging from this month’s full plenary session of top Chinese Communist Party leaders.

According to official Chinese news reports, the big Party meeting of the year “heard and discussed the work report delivered by Comrade Hu Jintao” — that’s China’s president — on the issue of culture as a strategic part China’s overall national strength. The meeting adopted a document with the characteristically long-winded title: “Central Committee Decision Concerning the Major Issue of Deepening Cultural System Reforms, Promoting the Great Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture.”

The gist is that China must — as Hu Jintao said during a joint study session of the politburo back in July 2010 — “deepen cultural system reforms [in order to] enhance China’s cultural soft power.” In other words, the Party must release creative forces in China (let’s not forget that political controls are still implied here) in order to become a truly influential world power.

This recent culture-focused plenary meeting in fact became part of the Party’s official agenda back in 2007 at the last National Party Congress, when President Hu Jintao pledged in his political report to “promote [the] vigorous development and prosperity of Socialist culture.” [CMP 2007 analysis here.]

This same political report was the first to mention “soft power,” or ruanshili (软实力), making it clear that Hu was talking about a renaissance in China’s global power and influence, not just a re-awakening of arts and letters.

Aside from China’s ideological goals, there is also of course an economic component. Leaders said during the recent meeting that the creative industries (文化产业), which presently account for just 2.75 percent of GDP, would account for five percent within five years.

As to what these new pronouncements could possibly mean in concrete terms for cultural creation in China, it remains painfully unclear. What substantive changes will there be to book publishing, film production, design, television, radio and the rest?

And it doesn’t help that the full text of this (we are told) crucial policy document is a virtual mystery. Here is a search for the full name of the document using the Baidu search engine. There are plenty of results, but click into each and you find only a one-line official news release from Xinhua News Agency, dated October 18:

The sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party deliberated and approved “Central Committee Decision Concerning the Major Issue of Deepening Cultural System Reforms, Promoting the Great Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture.”

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.

But the most immediate impact of the recent plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP will be a surging tide of political blather about culture and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”

That of course isn’t how cultural creation works. You cannot mandate a renaissance. Political bandwagons don’t play Carnegie Hall.


[ABOVE: Page four of today's official People's Daily newspaper, with three articles at top about cultural reforms. At far left, a piece about how the top Party leader of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions says the proletariat must serve as a "main force" in advancing Socialist culture. At far right, an editorial decrying an over-emphasis on entertainment in television programming.]


[ABOVE: In April 2010, the city of Xingning (兴宁), a county-level city in Guangdong province, gave out awards to locals who had advanced “cultural soft power” in various ways.

5 Comments to “The bandwagon of soft power”

  1. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    China misunderstands Prof. Joesph Nye’s concept of soft power. China practices state-sponsored public diplomacy or outright propaganda. Soft power comes from the people without governmental involvement. Look at Hollywood movies, Coca-cola, the cowboy commercial of cigarettes etc. They represent American soft power. China’s promotion of Confucius institutes overseas is absurd. Communists try to knock down Confucius or any form of religious belief. Remember the little Red book which taught Chinese children: not to love your father or mother, only love Chairman. Is it contrary to Confucius’s filial piety. Give me a break. Even the Chinese in mainland China don’t trust the government media.

  2. William says:

    Today’s SCMP reports that the Central gov will, predictably, limit, “…vulgar or “overly entertaining”. It singles out programmes dealing with marital troubles and matchmaking, talent shows, game shows, variety shows, talk shows, and reality programming”.

    So, I suppose cultural soft power will be won by broadcasting CCTV documentaries about 8th century calligraphy (and the such) and making sure that the whole world has satellite access to their version of CNN/Al-Jazeera that broadcasts such hot selling soft power?

    http://www.scmp.com/portal/site/SCMP/menuitem.2af62ecb329d3d7733492d9253a0a0a0/?vgnextoid=856b39398ae33310VgnVCM100000360a0a0aRCRD&ss=China&s=News

  3. tom says:

    Send me an email, and I’d be happy to tell you how the topic of culture has come up in meetings this week, tom at seeingredinchina dot com

  4. David says:

    Tom:

    Please share a news link if you have one. That’s very interesting.

    Best,
    David

  5. Tom says:

    I was actually interviewed just a few days after Hu Jintao’s speech by a local paper for the hospital I work. We are already making efforts to promote it’s “unique cultural power”, which basically means I talked about it’s history. General consensus before and after the interview was that nobody knew what this proclamation meant, but we were going to use the word “culture” as much as possible and hope that it counted.

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