On Beijing vs. Culture

Right now I think two different stories are colliding in interesting ways- first, the CCP’s latest offensive on entertaining television shows, and second, their whining about how China lacks cultural power. It seems that this year there will be even stronger limits on television programs, with Chinese rulers seemingly trying to direct more attention to ‘educational’ material, rather than entertainment.

It’s odd that they would do this. When I was in China three years ago I remember speaking to tons of students and getting nearly unanimous responses to the effect of ‘we always watch American tv shows, Chinese shows are too boring.’ This year that’s still a common refrain, but shows like Feichang Wurao and the knock-offs it inspired have definitely provided something of an alternative to Gossip Girl and whatever else. Hunan TV is producing a few shows that keep peoples interest, and now Beijing wants to muzzle them? They’ve made it clear in the past that they want Chinese people to watch Chinese films and television, but now that some people have started to do that they’re going to eliminate the shows that are making it happen?

From the NYT:

“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,” Mr. Hu said, according to a translation by Reuters.

“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond,” he added.

Those measures, Mr. Hu said, should be centered on developing cultural products that can draw the interest of the Chinese and meet the “growing spiritual and cultural demands of the people.”

Chinese leaders have long lamented the fact that Western expressions of popular culture and art seem to overshadow those from China. The top-grossing films in China have been “Avatar” and “Transformers 3,” and the music of Lady Gaga is as popular here as that of any Chinese pop singer.

Mr. Hu’s words suggested that China would not lift anytime soon strict limits that it sets on imports of some cultural products. Each year, the agency in charge of regulating film allows only 20 foreign movies to potentially make a profit off their box office take here. Hollywood studios have long criticized that system and lobbied the United States government and international organizations to pressure China into scrapping or loosening the quota.

People involved in the arts here say the policy also means more government financing for Chinese companies to create cultural products, ranging from books to live musical productions. At the same time, officials have been encouraging many cultural industries to become more market driven and rely less on government subsidies.

In his essay, Mr. Hu did not address the widespread assertion by Chinese artists and intellectuals that state censorship is what prevents artists and their works from reaching their full potential. In late December, Han Han, a novelist and China’s most popular blogger, discussed the issue in an online essay called “On Freedom.”

“The restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud,” Han Han wrote.

This obsessive need to have their cake and eat it too comes crashing down every time the latest state-sponsored historical propaganda piece gets demolished in the box office by something from America. When I ask people here what their favorite movie is, they always reach for something American first. If I specifically ask about what their favorite Chinese movie is, there’s invariably a lengthy pause, followed by an unenthusiastic mention of a recent comedy piece.

If Beijing follows through on its promise to further restrict Chinese entertainers they’re going to keep running into the same problem- the censorship that makes Chinese movies safe enough for Beijing to tolerate is the exact same force that keeps it too boring for anyone in the world to want to watch.

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Filed under censorship, Communist Party, culture

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