Less nationalism builds more cultural muscle

2011-10-20Asia Times

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 [1] and the official report of the plenum. [2]

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 expression.

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. [3]

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 handling.

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.  (2011-10-20 Asia Times)


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