What Hu Jintao's New Manifesto Against Western Culture Could Mean for Chinese Arts

What Hu Jintao's New Manifesto Against Western Culture Could Mean for Chinese Arts
Chinese shoppers leave a Walmart store in Beijing
(Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

In China, James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” was so popular and its message seen as so subversive that the government suppressed its presence in movie theaters and came out with its own blockbuster alternative about the exploits of ancient scholar "Confucius," known for promoting obediance to tradition. Modern China has developed its own cultural superstars, but Western entertainment also has an overwhelming presence in the country, from movies to pop music. Recently, this tide of Western culture has spurred the Communist Party towards some new posturing against it — according to Reuters, in the latest issue of the party’s “top theoretical journal,” “Seeking Truth,” Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party Hu Jintao published an inflammatory essay decrying Western influence, describing what he sees as an escalating culture war.

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Hu said. The president’s essay is meant to fortify Chinese cultural production along the pre-established lines of party politics. But what could the motivation for this tough new policy line? Below, ARTINFO discusses three implications of these new rumblings.

The Communist Party Is Worried About Losing Its Grip

The notion that the party is concerned about the intrusion of overly Western culture is not new — the paranoia of influence is encoded in the party’s DNA, since it began out of a struggle to cast off Western colonizers. So why is Hu taking this moment in particular to call out the West? One reason might be that the party is worried about losing its grip on increasingly global Chinese citizens during a time of internal instability. Hu is leaving his post as the party’s general secretary in 2013, and along with him, “seven of the nine members of the party's highest decision making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, are expected to retire,” points out Critically China. This includes current premier Wen Jiabao, whose most likely replacement is vice-premier Li Keqiang.

The Chinese government’s recent activities — among them arresting dissident artist Ai Weiwei and cracking down on protests in the western Muslim region of Xinjiang — leave little room for hope that the party is softening on freedom of speech. To make sure their policies are continued, Hu and Wen must ensure that their successors toe the line, which this public statement may help promote.

More Government Funding for ‘Correct’ Cultural Production

Hu’s essay is more defensive than offensive: he calls on Chinese culture to protect and reinforce itself against Western intrusion. To that end, Hu writes that Chinese cultural producers should focus on creating arts and entertainment that can attract the attention of mainstream China, and meet the “growing spiritual and cultural demands of the people.” In other words, China's artists, filmmakers, and musicians must outdo the West. This could mean a renaissance for locally developed culture, but more likely it means that the funding in the party’s coffers will flow freely only to enterprises that they approve of, with less than outstanding effects.

This move would have clear precedents: the formerly provocative film director Zhang Yimou, who now enjoys the party’s full support, was commissioned to direct the 2010 Beijing Olympics’s blockbuster opening ceremony, a tremendous spectacle that served as a statement of China's cultural might. A  more unfortunate example is China’s aforementioned answer to “Avatar,” the historically minded period piece “Confucius,” which proved to be an epic bomb. Think: more re-education, less fun.

Further Censorship?

Despite his defensive posture, Hu’s language is forthright. Of the culture war, he writes, “We must clearly recognize the seriousness and difficulty of this struggle, sound the alarm bell... and take effective measures to deal with it." What these ominous "effective measures" might be is unclear, but the current measures employed by China to restrict free speech are well known — the Internet-restricting Great Firewall, police intimidation for those willing to speak out, and disappearance for repeat offenders. With Hu’s intensified line, these policies could get worse. Just as the government yanked “Avatar” from theaters after it became a rallying cry against Chinese developers evicting people from their land, the party could pull access to other forms of Western media (or anything that smacks of Western values like democracy — last year, the Party canceled the show reality contest show "Happy Girl," allegedly because audience voting smacked too much of democracy).

The good news is, though, that Internet-savvy Chinese have always been able to find a way around the Great Firewall, and it’s pretty hard for the government to monitor the contents of every pirated DVD. And there are a lot of pirated DVDs in China.