Culture and the 18th Party Congress

In “China Stands Still at the Crossroads” (WSJ, November 12), CMP Director Qian Gang shared his thoughts on the issue of political reform as it was reflected in President Hu Jintao’s political report to the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. But what does Hu’s report have to say about culture (including media), which has had a bigger political profile in China ever since the term “cultural soft power” made its debut in the 2007 political report?

Well, there are slight differences from the report five years ago, but nothing fresh or surprising. In fact, the media, culture and “soft power” portions of last week’s political report seem to take their cues from the “Decision” on cultural reforms emerging a year ago from the Sixth Plenary Meeting of the 17th Central Committee. It might be helpful, therefore, for readers to refer back to this post, in which we picked the 2011 document apart.


[ABOVE: Hu Jintao delivers the political report to the 18th National Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.]

In this year’s political report, media and culture are again (as in 2007) characterized as having three fundamental roles: 1. raising the “civilized” conduct and character of the nation generally; 2. contributing to economic growth (culture being a new “pillar” industry); 3. increasing China’s cultural profile internationally, “soft power” now official regarded as a critical component of the country’s comprehensive national strength.

How has China fared on the cultural development front over the past five years? Hu Jintao outlines the Party’s achievements on page 20 of his political report:

一一 A remarkable increase in cultural soft power. The socialist core value system (社会主义核心价值体系) is deeply rooted in the people’s hearts, the civilized character of citizens and the degree of sophistication in society has been raised substantially. Cultural products (文化产品) are more abundant, the system for public cultural services has been basically established, the cultural industry has become a pillar industry for the national economy, there have been greater strides in taking Chinese culture out [into the world], and the foundations are much firmer for [the building of] a strong socialist cultural nation.

The term “strong socialist cultural nation” is a newcomer to this year’s political report. It did not appear Hu Jintao’s 2007 report, but in fact made its debut in the 2011 “Decision” on cultural reform. The phrase encompasses the Party’s ultimate objective on media and culture — a country that is culturally strong and vibrant in a way that serves the Party’s own political objectives.

The basic math: vibrant domestic media and culture + strong soft power resources internationally = STRONG SOCIALIST CULTURAL NATION.

We’ll leave it to you to ask your closest Chinese friends whether the “socialist core value system” (会主义核心价值体系) has indeed deeply rooted itself in their hearts — and how they feel about this mentally or spiritually (medically?). But what exactly is the “socialist core value system”?


[ABOVE: Get your copy of the epic page-turner Socialist Core Value System Study Reader, available through China Culture Web! Or just read our summary and get on with your life.]

The “socialist core value system” first appeared in the 2007 political report. You can think of it as China’s official alternative to any universalist or “Western” notion of core values, necessary because some members of the Chinese Communist Party feel threatened by the perceived encroachment of so-called “Western values” or universal values (a perennial debate inside China).

As I’ve written frequently before, the overarching narrative driving official China’s development of media and culture is one of strategic opposition to the West and to Western values that are being foisted on the world — or so the meta-narrative grumbles — by Western dominance of communication and “global public opinion.”

That’s where the “socialist core value system” comes in. And it probably won’t surprise the reader to learn that this “value system” is steeped in Chinese Communist Party ideology:

Adhering to the socialist core value system demands that we must consolidate and strengthen the guiding position of Marxism, persevering in using the latest theoretical results in the sinicization of Marxism to arm the whole Party and educate the people. [We must] use the common ideals of socialism with Chinese characteristics to create cohesion. [We must] use the national spirit, with patriotism as its core, and the spirit of the age, with innovation as its core. [We must] use the socialist view of honor and shame to define the direction. [We must use all of these to] cement the whole Party and the peoples of various ethnic groups together with a common ideological foundation for unity and struggle.

That’s a lot of language to process. A bit of Marxism. A bit of socialism with Chinese characteristics. But it is essentially cultural nationalism.

The idea is that China has its own “cultural subjectivity” (文化主体性) — something like its own cultural parallel universe — and this subjectivity has to be defended and advanced against Western cultural hegemony. (We’ll just ignore for the moment the curious and inconvenient fact that two Western political theories/worldviews constitute the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s “core value system,” which unravels from the core this particular argument for cultural subjectivity).

Here, the words of Chinese historian Yuan Weishi on the topic of nationalism and culture are apropos:

What exactly is cultural subjectivity? When you leave the core values of a culture or a civilization, there’s no such thing as cultural subjectivity. In an era when the world is moving toward integration, the core values of modern civilization are individual freedom, human rights, protecting the rights and interests of citizens, and the progressive implementation of the rule of law and constitutional governance. These form the basis of our cultural subjectivity in the modern world. To depart from these values when talking about national or cultural subjectivity is to promote isolationism. In a nation that has not yet achieved full modernization, such assertions of cultural subjectivity are a snare by which rulers can deny the rights and benefits of citizens, or a fig leaf with which they can legitimize autocratic rule. Giving credence to such notions would risk dragging China once again onto a dangerous detour. . .

If we talk grandly about subjectivity, regardless of our ultimate designs, in the end we can only be of use to champions of nationalism and we will produce ideological trash.

Or, if you push the commercial imperative while putting culture in a social and political straightjacket, you get what some fussbudgets would call popular trash.

There is thick and poetic irony in the fact that while China’s leaders are pushing a narrow, restrictive, nationalistic and repressive idea of “China’s voice” — in which, for example, some of the finest works by writers like Yan Lianke don’t count, just as Ai Weiwei doesn’t count — the television program currently most popular in the country is “The Voice,” a domestic derivative of a reality singing competition cooked up by a Dutch producer. Or perhaps this is what the political report means on page 37 when it talks about “actively adopting and drawing on excellent cultural fruits overseas”?


[ABOVE: "The Voice of China" is now the country's most popular television show. Did it take a Dutch producer to discover China's voice.]

In any case, China’s “soft power” as presently conceived is the international dimension of the policy of cultural nationalism. “Soft power” was first addressed at the most senior Party levels in the 2007 political report, and it therefore makes sense that Hu Jintao should make the claim in this year’s political report that the Party has engineered a “remarkable increase in cultural soft power.”

Soft power is notoriously difficult to quantify — though not impossible, says the father of the concept. It would be interesting to know how Party leaders have made their determination. Some calculus involving Mo Yan and Andrea Yu, perhaps?

Yuan Weishi suggests “cultural subjectivity” is a “snare by which rulers can deny the rights and benefits of citizens.” And in this year’s political report we see cultural rights being denied even as they are affirmed. I hope readers can forgive this longer translation from page 34 of Hu Jintao’s political report, which forms the bulk of the material about culture in the document:

6. Soundly promoting the building of a strong socialist cultural nation
Culture is the circulating blood of the nation, the spiritual home of the people. In order to fully build a well-off society (小康社会), and realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, [we] must promote the great development and great prosperity of socialist culture, reaching a new climax in the building of socialist culture, raising our nation’s cultural soft power, bringing into play the role of culture in leading trends, instructing the people, serving society and promoting development

To build a strong socialist cultural nation, [we] must take the cultural development road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, persisting in the direction of serving the people and serving socialism; persisting in the direction of letting a hundred flowers blossom and letting a hundred schools of thought contend; persisting in the principle of closeness to reality, closeness to life and closeness to the masses; promoting the full development of socialist spiritual civilization and material civilization; building a socialist culture that is national, scientific and popular that faces modernization, faces the world and faces the future.

To build a strong socialist cultural nation, the crux is to enhance the creative vitality of all the people. [We] must deepen cultural reforms, releasing and developing cultural productivity, developing academic democracy (学术民主) and artistic democracy (艺术民主), providing the people with a vast cultural stage, letting all wellsprings of cultural creativity spring forth to their fullest — creating a new situation in which there is a sustained outflow of cultural creative vitality among all the people, in which the cultural life of society is richer and more diverse, in which the people’s basic cultural rights and interests are better protected, in which there is a comprehensive improvement in the ideological and ethical, scientific and cultural character of the people, and in which the international influence of Chinese culture steadily increases.

That is fecund language indeed. Flowers blooming. Thoughts contending. Climaxes of socialist culture followed by fulsome releases of productivity.

But the fine print reminds us that this burst, this renaissance, is supposed to happen under an atmosphere of control. A hundred flowers will blossom? Perhaps. But what kind of flowers, and under what restrictions?

The second half of the first underlined portion above is a reference to the Three Closenesses, a media policy introduced at the outset of the Hu Jintao era. The basic idea of the Three Closenesses — closeness to reality, life and the masses — is that media should become more palatable and relevant, partly in order that they become more salable in an era of rapid commercial development.

But listen to how Li Changchun characterized the Three Closenesses quite early on, in September 2003, as he addressed a gathering of top editors from Party-run media:

Li Changchun emphasized that correct guidance of public opinion is the life of news and propaganda work, and closeness to reality, closeness to life and closeness to the people reflect the basic demands of maintaining correct guidance of public opinion. Using the important ideology of the “Three Represents” to lead news and propaganda work, [we] must earnestly carry out the principal of “Three Closenesses,” bringing the will of the Party and the reflection of the aspirations of the people together as one . . .

The Three Closenesses in fact represents a latter-day makeover of the idea still central to the Party’s policy on media and culture, “guidance of public opinion,” which is synonymous with control. The crux, then, is that media and culture can thrive — so long as they do so in a garden under the Party’s stewardship.

Only once has “guidance of public opinion” ever appeared in a political report, and that was in Jiang Zemin’s report to the 15th National Congress in 1997. But make no mistake; the idea of “guidance,” the Party’s control of media and culture in order to maintain social and political stability, remains core. Hints of it can be seen, in fact, on page 37 of this year’s political report, which says,

[We must] enhance and improve online content construction, singing loudly the online main theme (网上主旋律). [We must] strengthen online social management (加强网络社会管理), promoting the regulated and orderly operation of the internet.

The “main theme” is typical Party language, a reference to the Party’s ideological line, and to the need for everyone to stay in line.

The idea of “online social management” should prick our ears up. This sounds very much like a mega-merger of social media controls and social management, the latter typically associated with the Central Politics and Law Commission (formerly run by Zhou Yongkang) and the policy of “stability preservation.”

This new phrase is one to watch closely. The earliest reference I can find to the phrase is a Guangzhou Daily article from February 2008 discussing the Edison Chen sex-photo scandal. But the phrase has been used specifically in a domestic security and social management context only since about March 2012.

On May 12, 2012, Chen Xunqiu (陈训秋), deputy secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, toured Shandong province, where his business was reportedly to research “work innovation in social management.”

He said [we must] place the innovation of social management in the same position of importance as economic development . . . working to break through systemic obstacles in social management, arriving at effective methods based on experience that can be rolled out in the areas of migrant population management, online social management and basic social services.

Repeat: keep an eye on this one.

Readers may also have noticed that I underlined the terms academic democracy (学术民主) and artistic democracy (艺术民主) in the translated passage from page 34 of Hu Jintao’s political report. Again, that sounds like promising language — until you put it into context.

These two terms are making their political report debuts too this year. But they are not new terms. They date back to at least the 1980s. This more liberal piece published in the Party’s Study Times points a finger at those who fail to recognize the important role of academic freedom and instead want to talk about “academic democracy”: “There are some who still do not have an accurate understanding of why academic freedom must be maintained in academic research, and there are even those who are apprehensive about academic freedom.”

And then we have Hu Jintao speaking in November 2006 about “giving full play to academic democracy and artistic democracy.” Let’s listen in:

[We must] fully carry out the Party’s policies on literature and the arts, giving full play to artistic democracy and academic democracy, adhering to the unity of social responsibility and creative freedom . . . constantly understanding and grasping the rules of literature and the arts, respecting the creative work of cultural workers, leading literature and the arts in a way suited to its rules.

I don’t need to draw the hand of political imposition for you. Its dirty fingerprints are all over that passage. The point being that these phrases, “academic democracy” and “artistic democracy,” speak to the same idea of restricted license that we see in ideas like the Three Closenesses, and in fact in current Party policy on media and culture more generally.


[ABOVE: In this cartoon, artist Kuang Biao depicts a self-ensnared China trying in vain to take off on wings of laurel. Could this image also sum up the tension between China's cultural ambitions and its cultural controls?]

We cannot promise you artistic freedom. But we’ll let you work in the corner while we keep our eyes on you and remind you of your obligations. We can’t give you academic freedom. Our universities don’t work that way. But we can set some parameters — that’s what we’re best at — and let you rattle around freely within those confines.

As I had my head buried in Hu Jintao’s political report yesterday, I was suddenly recalled to the present with a phone call from a close friend, a Chinese film director. He let out a deep sigh before filling me in on his latest feature project. His rough treatment, which had cost several months of labor (and a decent stash of hard-won pre-production money), was still being held up at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Everything had come to a standstill for the 18th National Congress, and it would be at least a few more weeks before the censors came back, hopefully with their thumbs up. The director had to have SARFT’s preliminary approval before the process of finding investors could begin in earnest.

Until then he could only sit on his hands, watching “artistic democracy” in action.

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