SPEAKING FREELY China still doesn't get 'soft power'
By Mark C Eades
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Anyone who has spent much time in mainland China knows what the government's official version of "Chinese culture" looks like: Communist Party propaganda with a bit of Beijing opera sprinkled on top for color. Communist-kitsch Chinoiserie.
With this mish-mash and hodgepodge of dubious delights, China plans to win the hearts and minds of the world. Good luck with that.
Among the less-noted "key decisions" to emerge from the
Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee's recent Third Plenum is China's aim to become a world "culture power". This decision was outlined in a statement published by state-run news agency Xinhua.
When it comes to "soft power", the statement vividly shows, China still just doesn't get it. This statement and others like it reveal a utilitarian mindset on the part of China's leaders that views culture merely as a tool to be harnessed to the engine of the state.
The title alone is a dead giveaway: "China ambitious to become culture power: CPC decision". So China is going to become a major global "culture power" because this is what the party has decided. Unfortunately for China, it doesn't work that way. None of the world's cultural powerhouses got there because of a decision handed down by any party or government.
The statement clumsily continues: "China has vowed to deepen the cultural system reform and build itself into a socialist culture power. To enhance the national soft power, China must adhere to the development path of a socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and consolidate the guiding role of Marxism in the ideological areas".
Such a statement shows a lack of even the basic communication skills one would expect of a presumed 21st-century world leader. Lurking behind the bad communication skills, however, are even worse thinking skills.
"Cultural system reform"? Culture is not a system that can be "reformed" like the banking system or the tax system. It must simply be allowed and enabled to flourish freely, then promoted for the world to enjoy. Such a notion would of course be wholly alien to the CPC, whose leaders firmly believe that every aspect of human life must be controlled and regulated and made to serve the interests of the party and the state.
Consider the success of other Asian "culture powers": Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, India. Their cultural products have enjoyed far more global success than mainland China's. Even within mainland China, the movies, TV shows, music, and other products of these Asian "culture powers" are more popular than mainland Chinese products. Why? Because their artists enjoy full freedom of expression, and because their governments support and promote culture without getting in the way.
On this point, China's leaders might do well to take a look at Evan Osnos' piece in The New Yorker: "Why China Lacks Gangnam Style".
China, too, could enjoy far more global success than it does in the cultural realm if the government would just get out of the way. There is certainly no shortage of cultural talent in China. I wouldn't expect that to happen anytime soon, however. Getting out of the way just isn't what the Chinese government does. A lot of Chinese talent is going to waste thanks to the Chinese government.
What would French culture look like if the French government issued a statement reading: "France must adhere to the development path of a capitalist culture with French characteristics and consolidate the guiding role of Bonapartism in the ideological areas"? If not Bonapartism then Gaullism, or whatever-ism. God only knows what it would look like, but it certainly wouldn't look like anything hanging in the great museums of Paris today.
It might be helpful also if the Chinese government would stop obsessively referring to culture as a form of power. Efforts by the Chinese film industry to gain greater international appeal have also been described as a way of boosting China's "cultural power". Such statements give the impression that Chinese leaders lie awake at night thinking about power. Culture isn't supposed to be all about power. It's supposed to be about culture.
Soft power is most effective when it isn't explicitly expressed as power. Soft power is the power of attraction, not coercion or manipulation. That's what makes it different from hard power. Such subtleties as this, however, seem to utterly elude Chinese leaders.
Moreover, a nation's culture doesn't exist solely to serve the power interests of party and state. It exists for its own sake, and for the sake of creative expression and public enjoyment. A nation's culture shouldn't be enslaved to ideology. I wouldn't expect China's leaders to understand that concept, either.
Now for the icing on the cake: "[The CPC] also asked authorities to stick to a correct guidance of public opinion and improve management over the Internet". In other words: more censorship. China hopes to attain soft power through, not less censorship, but more. Please feel free at this time to bang your head against the wall in frustration.
Bang! China. You. Just. Don't. Get. It. Do. You? Bang!
If there's any bright side to all of this for anyone, it's that China's competitors for world cultural influence have very little to worry about. China won't be taking their places anytime soon.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Mark C Eades is an American writer and educator based in Shanghai. He has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai.