China’s doomed cultural appeal
As Japan and South Korea have shown, the best way for governments to encourage pop culture with global appeal is probably to stay out of the way. China’s President Xi Jinping disagrees.
Take Monday’s announcement by China’s top media watchdog. Effective immediately, the government has reserved the right to send film and television actors, directors, writers and producers on all-expenses-paid, involuntary, 30-day sabbaticals to rural mining sites, border areas and other remote locations. The purpose, according to the directive, is to help Chinese artists “form a correct view of art and create more masterpieces.”
The measure is extreme - reminiscent of “sending down” students to the countryside for reeducation during China’s mad Cultural Revolution. But it’s by no means an isolated case.
Over the last few months, Xi’s government has issued several directives designed to control the country’s entertainment industries. They include new restrictions on the streaming of foreign programs, bans on specific types of plots (adulterous affairs, for example, can no longer be portrayed in dramas), shutdowns of independent sites that subtitle foreign programs for Chinese viewers, and even a prohibition on punning.
These directives sit awkwardly with Xi’s very public ambition to expand China’s “soft power” - a term that embodies everything from movies to bugle-playing - beyond its borders. The Chinese president is a child of Communist royalty; his formative years were during the Cultural Revolution, when entertainment was viewed as an ideological pursuit whose role was to propagandize. In Xi’s worldview, artists who don’t produce “correct” movies are doing a disservice to the nation and need to be reminded of their duty - say, by spending more time with the hardworking peasants they’re supposed to be championing in their works.
Xi and his supporters have sometimes characterized the soft-power campaign in military terms, suggesting an ideological battle or war against Hollywood and U.S. values. Those values are more than a commercial threat to China’s booming film industry (China’s box office is second only to America’s). In Xi’s eyes, they threaten to undermine faith in socialism and the party in China.
This supposedly epic battle has clearly troubled Xi for years. A 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks recounted a dinner conversation between Xi and then-U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt on the topic of movies. Xi, a film buff, revealed that he enjoyed Hollywood World War II films, in part because they were built on a strong moral framework. “Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil,” he told Randt. By contrast, he added ominously, “Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.”
Xi didn’t specify to Randt what those values were. But in October, at an unusual forum on art and literature that the Chinese president hosted in Beijing, he offered up some hints. Great art and literature, he told the assembly, “should disseminate the value views of present-day China, reflect the spirit of Chinese culture, mirror the aesthetic pursuits of Chinese people, which organically integrate ideology, artistry and enjoyability.”
That hardly sounds like a recipe for a good movie night with the family, and ideologically driven, patriotic films have been box-office poison in China no less than anywhere else. Indeed, Hollywood blockbusters continue to be so popular in China that cultural authorities have had to limit their schedules to give locally made films a chance. Meanwhile, the Chinese movies that do succeed often feature storylines that are pure, crass entertainment - anything but “correct.”
Banning or curtailing production of those films in favor of ideologically pure ones won’t make for great, much less globally appealing art. Rather, it’ll just serve to alienate Chinese who know good entertainment when they see it, and guarantee that Xi’s soft-power battle is lost at home, long before it ever has a chance to be waged abroad.
The author is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade.
by Adam Minter