China’s Evolving Cultural Ambitions

Can China have it both ways—innovation and cultural expression and control over society?

“It’s very ironic,” Mr. Yue, 36, said in an interview last week. “On the one hand, they want to boost cultural development. And on the other, they call off our exhibition.”

Ironic is one way to describe it. But viewed against the language of the party’s declaration on culture — the Oct. 25 report on the annual Central Committee plenum, held last month — there is not much inconsistency at all, some analysts say.

via China Seeks a Cultural Influence to Match Its Economic Muscle –

The Party needs a strategy:

Behind the bravado lies deep anxiety about what some in China have called the “third affliction,” its negative image in the world. With its economy now the envy of the world, China has symbolically thrown off the affliction of poverty. With its powerful and modernizing military, it is no longer afflicted by the threat of foreign aggression, as it was during its “century of shame.” Yet the country’s international prestige remains constrained by the cultural dominance of the West. Each time China is castigated by the international human rights community, or criticized by the Western media, the country’s leaders feel more and more that global public opinion is stacked against them. Western culture and values have gone global in a way that Chinese culture and values have not, and Beijing wants to do something about this.

via China’s ‘Third Affliction’ –


10 thoughts on “China’s Evolving Cultural Ambitions”

  1. What irks me most about this article is China’s portrayal of a zero-sum international cultural competition. They seem determined that Chinese culture should win out and be the predominant culture in the world. This view worries me, because I believe in a variable-sum international community; that is, one where there aren’t necessarily winners and losers, but where everyone can work together to create a better future. The Chinese view of the international economy is undoubtedly zero-sum, and I fear that this cultural and economic belief dominates the Chinese view of all world interactions. Achieving a cooperative and understanding international community is far more difficult when the members of that community are constantly trying to outmanoeuvre each other and gain the upper hand. Consider this interesting article from The Economist about the world’s regression back to a zero-sum world since the end of the Cold War.

  2. I would have to say that the leadership of China cannot “have it both ways”. In an opinion article, Minxin Pei comments on one aspect in particular on which I would comment as well. As we recently discussed in my political science class, when it comes to picking winners and losers in society, governments are generally not good judges of character. I would guess that the likelihood is low of the Chinese Communist leadership correctly choosing and properly supporting the next artistic geniuses. Freedom of expression, while also allowing for people’s opinions to be heard, is imperative for the process of artistic creation. I would agree with Brett’s comment before that an increase in China’s contribution to culture does not have to mean that everyone else loses out. I would say that beautiful art, music, cuisine, or many other types of mediums can result in the betterment of all people and not just those within a close geographic proximity. One faculty member even commented on his hope that as the labor force requires more machinery and less “grunt work” that more effort would be put into culture and education. Ultimately, I see Chinese attitudes towards greater cultural contribution as a good thing, but I do not see such changes occurring any time soon without the government’s grip on innovation loosening rather than tightening. As well, I find the reference in the article to Mao’s hundred-flowers campaign rather interesting. The people of China need to have freedom of expression and the assurance that that freedom will be upheld to see much progress.

  3. As well as I can guess, the answer to whether or not China can have both creative expression and control is no, in short. I agree with the comments above; the very nature of creative expression in its most conventional forms requires a sense of security and freedom to express. The placement of obstacles at even the logistical level (publishing, showcasing, etc.), there is no way for expressionists to communicate and share their ideas. And without this, expression is pointless .Control not only stops expression but discourages it, sometimes to the point of complete annihilation. An article from yesterday titled “Pushing China’s Limits” ( highlights the work of a Chinese novelist who publishes his censored works on the internet, instead of publishing them into books. Although both he and his work have been highly popular and praised by both Chinese citizens and the West, he expressions frustration at the psychological effect of censorship on self-censorship. At times, knowing that something will probably get censored will keep him from even jotting down a sentence. Censorship does have a very real and powerful influence on creativity. Mr. Murong, this novelist, sees himself as a “coward” for engaging in self-censorship, although he is hailed as a fighter in the cause against it.
    A point I wanted to make in response to BrettJory: China is not the only country, or the worst even, that has a zero-sum perspective. Perhaps some are more critical of China because their growth, in all aspects, are much more noticeable relative to other countries. It seems a bit hypocritical to criticize their ideology without acknowledging similarities in our own nation and others. The Economist article that was linked talks about a zero-sum world, not just China. While the U.S. may be arguably more globally minded and cooperative than China, it makes sure to be so while maintaining even a small edge over others. As Prof. Ringer explained one time in his International Politics class, the formula for international power need only by n+1.

  4. This article reminds me more or less about the Soviet Union and what they were doing when it came to worldwide cultural expression and control over society (look up socialist realism). All media, print, art, and so on had to be according to what the party agreed with and anything that was against the party line was immediately censored. However, this kind of propaganda only reached other Communist states and not the Western world. China is in a similar situation where they want to show off their culture, but they do not want to cross whatever the state feels is inappropriate to them. This limits what most artists, cinematographers, authors, and the like can do when it comes to expressing themselves. It ultimately hurts what they can show to the global community and it gives a reason for the Western world to, for the most part, ignore Chinese culture. China can have both cultural expression and total control, but it will be limited and it will not achieve that worldwide cultural dominance it so desires and it will be swept under the rug by the global community. Here is one example in China where this is happening with the authors.

  5. It would be absurd to think that Chinese officials have not read many of the theoretical arguments connecting development, culture, and just the general direction of human history to democracy. They know that democracy will eventually happen. It is natural. There is no way that they can control society forever. Just like the arab dictators, England over the US, or the Kings of the Medieval Ages could control their populations and prevent democracy from happening. Democracy will eventually come. It just that sometimes regimes prefere a gradual approach than revolution. This type of phenomenon is happening all across Asia. The Economist article highlights how things are changing across Asia to welcome a gradual democratization.

  6. It would be great for China if it could have it both ways. However, even if it thinks that it is criticized and oppressed by the West, China still needs to learn some lessons from the West. Expounding on the democratization by the previous response, China needs to open up its freedom of the press. How can they “culture-ize” if there is censorship? Does China pretend to “culturalize” the world without “culturizing” its people? One of the signs of a healthy democracy is the freedom of the press for many reasons. In this case, it would help Chinese citizens be more competitive and more informed about the world. Reporters Without Borders have warned
    the Chinese authorities “against taking a road from which there is no way out,” or in other words suppressing the freedom of the press. China needs to stop putting into jail reporters and open up in order to completely flourish in the world.

  7. China is a macrocosm of the recent housing crisis here in the United States. Through leveraging and stretching the rules, they have tricked themselves into being content with a short-term solution which has potentially horrific long-term consequences. The innovation of China has been speculated by many to fall in the coming years.

    There is a school of thought that the most successful empires, nations, and states have been those which have tolerated the most self-expression and diversity. China will never be able to compete in the long-run, because it does not provide an environment which would attract the best and brightest the world has to offer. It is increasingly making efforts to compete with other Asian countries as the work-horse of the world. Certainly this is not the pathway to lasting innovation and cultural identity.

    I believe that these two forces are currently working against each other, and eventually one will give way to the other.

    Amy Chua elaborates on the theory regarding tolerance and equality here:

  8. Though I am a supporter of global cultural understanding, appreciation and respect, I do NOT fault the Chinese for striving to obtain a stronger sense of Chinese, home-grown culture. Posts previous to mine have mentioned their fears of China’s zero-sum cultural philosophy. Any culture who wishes to isolate themselves should raise eyebrows in the international community. However, please consider that China is already heavily inundated with Western culture. American movies, styles of dress, rock stars, radio hits, food, restaurants…these are all prolifically present in China. They are certainly not “zero-sum” in their own backyard. Why is it a problem that the government might like to spark some of their own, homegrown culture back into their people, rather than always being influenced by forces from abroad? I think embracing one’s culture can be a beautiful thing! Yes, cultural understanding is great, but so is living and loving your own culture.

    (There is no denying that China HAS tried to stop some of this flow of Western culture. For example, see this huffington post article about China blocking the 2D version of the movie Avatar, due to its popularity that was competing with homegrown movies: )

    Can we pretend to claim that we in America are often any different from this “zero-sum” cultural mindset though? Sure, some of us watch Bollywood movies, go Latin dancing and use chopsticks at Sushi bars, but most of these activities are Americanized versions of the real things. I think it is safe to say, America exports much more of its culture than it imports. I’m not condemning this, just asking people to realize we are also guilty of having egocentric tendencies and desiring to promote our own unique culture globally. (I mean, you must admit, there is much more of an American influence in China, than there is a Chinese influence culturally in America.)

    To answer the question posed by Cory though, in my view, China cannot treat the art situation like they’ve treated their successful economy. They will not be able to have innovation AND control in this realm. True, innovations can be made under regulation, but not when people feel afraid that their ideas may end up being out of line, and eventually suppressed. I do not feel China can have TRUE innovation while oppressively controlling their artists, confining them to “core socialist values” as a means of expression. Art by its nature cannot be confined to be fully embraced. China will have cultural innovation and influence when China can accept criticisms against the government in any form.

    (Also see this youtube video of a display of art being used to incite people to action. This is the winner of Ukraine’s got Talent, and her art was used to express political sentiments: )

  9. In addition to Chinese writers such as Murong Xuecun mentioned above, there are others such as Ai Weiwei who receive hundreds of dollars from everyday citizens simply for standing up and facing the censorship issue.

    It is amazing to see a nation such as China who has come through such depths of poverty, unrest, and economic turmoil to now stand as a global leader that continents of people look to for support.

    Many view those who are willing to stand up for their opinion as artists of a different kind. In fact, Ai Weiwei is commended for his artistry in speaking his mind. The internet has been huge in success of getting the word out, and many Chinese have been detained for expressing in such a way.

    I beg to wonder if the party can really control it before it gets out of hand.
    I argue that, no, the internet will become too huge of a giant for even China to face.

  10. China is interesting in that it accepts and takes advantage of the macroeconomic idea of capitalism while implementing and enforcing the political and micro-economic ideology of communism. Personally, I think it is going to be a fascinating country to observe in the future, since there has not ever been one like it. Do I agree with its radical censorship of the internet and media? No. Do I particularly like the way the government runs and dictates job allocation. Not really. Nevertheless, just like how the Europeans expected the American democracy to collapse, I think too many people think China will one day super implode. Hopefully it changes for the better. I do admit that recently the Chinese economy is caught in a downward spiral, but what country isn’t nowadays? I think it is due mostly to lack of private control and inaccurate financial statements. More on that:

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