SINOGRAPH Less nationalism builds more cultural muscle
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The Chinese Communist Party plenum, which closed this week, may be a
breakthrough in party orthodoxy, but it also poses great challenges to China
and the world, according to a lengthy People's Daily article  and the official
report of the plenum. 
The article, describing the spirit of the plenum, linked culture to wealth and
to China's international influence in very practical terms. It argued that over
500 Chinese publishers altogether do not make as much money as one German
publishing company, Bertelsmann. That is, then, they are a failure, and the
cultural industry in China does not work. How can it be made to work? By paying
attention to the public, argues the author.
A crucial problem for China, which is growing rich but still has a
very poor public image, and which has a long history but little impact on the
modern cultural industry, is how it can make its culture work to bring money
and influence. How can the power of hard cash be translated into soft power?
The answer may be by paying attention to the mechanisms of culture and how the
media works. This, in turn, can be done by catering to the public's desires -
that is the obvious reply, and this can be done through more freedom of
The party is not disappearing from this picture, but in this new environment,
certainly the party would have to adapt and change. This alone will not bring
about freedom of expression, but more freedom appears necessary given the
spirit of the article in the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, and the
pronouncement of the plenum possibly pushed forward by President Hu Jintao
himself. More freedom has important structural consequences as it can open the
door to larger political reforms.
This is not the conclusion of a few liberal minds: it is a necessity because
China feels pressure from not being able to explain itself and being squeezed
by powers with less money but far stronger cultural muscle. It is a matter of
survival: China knows that, bluntly put, wars are won by propaganda before they
are won with weapons.
The symbols of this new effort have long been apparent: the campaign to spread
Confucius Institutes around the globe and the giant Xinhua neon sign in New
York City, announcing that China is coming. 
Here smaller and greater difficulties appear. The small difficulties include
that China's system is looked at with suspicion, and therefore the spread of
Confucius Institutes may be regarded simply as a blunt tool to enforce a
political vision that challenges the Western one, a little bit like the old
Soviet friendship associations. But this can be solved by careful and liberal
The bigger question is, what kind of message is China spreading to the world?
This is a more complicated issue touching on the very definition of China as a
nation, an empire, or whatever.
In fact, with China spreading its influence in the world, the real question is,
what does China really want the foreigners to do? The answer to this question
is not easy.
China is saying, "Look, I am not dangerous, I am not bad, and I have a nicer
house. Come and have a look." Foreigners can believe the message but then are
foreigners invited into the house, or are they just left outside to look at
China's wonders from behind a window? If the answer is the latter, the effort
could easily backfire.
You tell me that China is beautiful and nice - but then, sorry, you cannot come
inside China, and you cannot be Chinese. You tell me the dinner is nice and the
house is warm - but sorry, you have to stay outside with no food. If you came,
waited outside the door, and then I slammed the door in your face, what would
you do? You would hate me.
Here, the issue of nationalism plays a great role, and it is a historical
irony. The Chinese empires were not nationalistic. They hired "foreigners" to
serve in the court: Japanese, Koreans, and even Germans and Flemish, like
famous Jesuits Schall and Verbiest. There were "foreigners" ruling China, like
the semi-Turkic Tang, the Mongols, or the Qing.
And although they have a long tradition of respecting families and family
origin - an idea that should have created something like the ancient Roman
concept of "gens" (people) - through much of time, Chinese people
defined themselves as "hua ren" (flowery people or cultivated people)
that is: if you behave like a Chinese, you are Chinese. This is very similar to
the idea of American, as in the US everybody assumes that everybody is
American. It is very different from the Western notion of people and race, the
origin of the concept of nation in the 19th century.
However, in the 20th century, just as the West was starting to shed the idea of
nation, the Chinese picked it up in their fight for unity against domestic
threats (the warlords and the old imperial forces) and foreigners. It worked
well, as it created a united people and reestablished the state, but now, as
China needs for its own survival to spread its influence abroad, nationalism is
a drag - and it may become more than a drag.
If nationalism is not handled squarely, the necessary spread of Chinese culture
may be construed as a fascist effort: I tell you that I am different (maybe
superior, some would whisper; certainly superior, some would state), and you
can't become like me because I am Chinese. It is like the tenet of the old
aristocracy: I am noble and thus rich, and even if you are rich, you are not
like me. In that circumstance, people who are not noble, whether poor or rich,
will rebel. The capitalist dream works because, although is difficult to become
rich, everybody can become rich.
The same is true for the American dream. It is difficult to become American,
but everybody can become one - so much so that a person who is ethnically
Chinese, Gary Locke, is representing the US in China, totally loyal to
Washington and not to Beijing.
In a way, the very person of Gary Locke in China provides a logical
contradiction to Chinese nationalism and a wedge in the conscience of many
Chinese who see him and think, "I can be American." He is one of many. Similar
processes are also ongoing in Europe, as people of different ethnic origin,
while first marginalized, are now being absorbed into mainstream society. But
few would think of it in China, as there are extremely few examples of
"foreigners" who are "Chinese".
1. "Wenhua Qiangguo 'Zhongguo de Daolu,'" Ren Chongping (People’s Daily), October 15, 2011.
2. See report on the sixth plenum of the 17th congress of the Communist Party of China with an address by president Hu Jintao.
3. I have to thank Robert Blohm for this observation, and for a chat that lead to this essay.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and
can be reached at[email protected]