Discussion Section: Cultural Warfare, Cultural Weapons

You may have seen in the news recently reflections on Hu Jintao’s essay in official Party gibberish ((Honestly, this is more a dig at the intentionally vague and hard-to-understand writing style than it is the ideology, though I don’t agree with much of that either)) theory magazine Qiushi. Here’s a good piece on it, but if you’re too lazy to click, the general gist is this: the West ((because that’s a real thing…)) is waging cultural warfare against China to Westernize and divide it.

I don’t have much interest in discussing that argument, but rather, let’s talk about how — or with what — China might respond in a cultural war. I must admit here that some of my thoughts here are essentially stolen from the folks I did the Sinica podcast with last week, as this is something we discussed over dinner after recording the show. I don’t recall exactly who said what, but to be safe, just assume anything smart I say came from one or all of them, and anything dumb I say is something I came up with myself ((almost certainly the truth)).

So, what would China bring to a theoretical cultural war? It strikes me that especially if you interpret China as the mainland, it has very little to offer. (Of course, Chinese people tend to consider anything remotely connected to someone of Chinese descent to be “Chinese” — including but not limited to the current American ambassador — but for our purposes here, let’s assume by China I mean the PRC and by Chinese culture I mean mainland culture, i.e., the culture that exists under the laws and regulations of the CCP.)

Take, for example, literature. Can you think of any really great Chinese literature from the past five years? I can think of a couple books by mainland authors, but one of them was only published outside of the mainland, and the other was published domestically but in an inferior (read: censored) form.

Admittedly though, literature is an unfair category for expats and non-native speakers, since people tend to read books in their native languages and aren’t necessarily going to be aware of what’s great in Chinese even if they read Chinese.

So fine, let’s move on to films. Can you think of any really great films China has produced in the past five years? Note that by great, I don’t just mean cool martial arts flicks, but a film that has some sort of lasting artistic value. Again, I can think of a couple that sort of fit the bill, but it’s an awfully short list unless you count independent productions which aren’t allowed to be screened in theaters in China.

TV is even more of a disaster. Chinese TV is bad and, by and large, getting worse. The only real exceptions to this that I’m aware of are some of the online TV shows that exist outside the regular system (like the wonderful and occasionally crazy Kuang Kuang animated series).

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Chinese culture from the perspective of the producers of culture. In contrast, the work of authors outside (or published outside) of China can be incredible, and Chinese indie film directors in both narrative and documentary fields have made some films that are goddamn amazing. In TV, there’s shows like Kuang Kuang.

It’s not always about politics, either. Plenty of indie Chinese films have little to do with politics except that the filmmakers’ creativity has essentially forced them to become outsiders because SARFT doesn’t want to take any risks when it comes to cultural output. There’s nothing “political” about time-travel TV shows (which SARFT banned last year). It’s just about control. The CCP clearly feels that a lack of control will inevitably lead to political and social problems, so they grasp the reins as tightly as they can.

Unfortunately, that means that in any kind of cultural competition with the West, they’re going to be bringing a fist to a bazooka fight. And the worst thing is that it’s a fight China probably could compete in, to the benefit of everyone (the West could use some competition) if it wasn’t forcing all its best players to sit on the bench.