Xi Jinping’s Culture Wars

A ChinaFile Conversation

Given China’s tightening restrictions on film, TV, art, writing, and journalism, and the reverberations from President Xi Jinping’s recent speech on culture, we asked contributors why they think Beijing has decided to ramp up its involvement in the business of culture, what this increased meddling may mean, and what its results are likely to be. —The Editors


Xi Jinping’s high profile forum with China’s cultural elite has generated a great deal of discussion, both inside and outside China, particularly since state media has drawn comparisons with Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature in 1942, where the appropriate relationship between artistic and political considerations was clearly delineated. However, Xi’s admonition to integrate ideological and artistic values and avoid “becoming the slave of the market” and “the stench of money” cannot succeed because China’s current and contradictory goals virtually dictate that not only does the separation of these two values continue but, even worse, the artistic criterion of so much concern to Mao has now been replaced by crass commercialism and the box office bottom line. Even within Xi’s speech, the seeds of contradiction were clear. For example, in common with frequent comments by Chinese film authorities, Xi noted the importance of promoting Chinese films abroad so that they could compete with Hollywood, while at the same time promoting socialist core values at home. Earlier this year, Politburo member and propaganda chief Liu Qibao made very similar comments, praising the box office success China has had in the domestic film market and noting that China also needed to be an international movie power, while at the same time calling for Chinese films to take “socialist core values as a guide” and “contain more elements of the Chinese dream”. Liu’s comments may appeal to Xi and his colleagues on the Politburo, but they reflect a lack of knowledge of audience preference.

An examination of some of the most successful films even within China – and Chinese films currently have virtually no international market – suggests that they have arguably been more about the American dream than the China dream. For example, among the top ten films in 2013 were Finding Mr. Right, loosely based on Sleepless in Seattle, in which the leading characters successfully pursue the American dream by leaving China to live in Seattle; Tiny Times, which has become a franchise film with multiple sequels, and which has been compared to Sex and the City, without the sex (while still clearly meeting Xi’s standard of market slave and money worship); and American Dreams in China, which does have patriotic values, although it is nevertheless based on the true story of a successful Beijing school set up to teach English to Chinese who wanted to go abroad to America.

When political considerations have trumped audience demands, the result has been embarrassing, whether it is the removal of Avatar from Chinese theaters early to accommodate the patriotic film Confucius or the release of three Lei Feng films in 2013 to commemorate Lei Feng Day on March 5. The decision to promote Confucius was even ridiculed in the official press while theater owners made it widely known that they couldn’t sell a single ticket for the Lei Feng films.

China has to decide whether to privilege ideology or the audience. Based on discussions with film officials, I would argue that while Xi has now made his position known (biaotai, 表态), the goals of competing successfully against Hollywood domestically and seeking to enhance soft power abroad will, at least in film, trump ideological considerations.

In recent years the Chinese government has taken several actions that have pushed "culture" into the spotlight and brought government sponsorship of various "cultural industries" under the scrutiny of Western media. Some of these moves include the establishment of Confucius Institutes, new programs to fund translations of Chinese literature into foreign languages, the rapid expansion of the Chinese film industry, and the theme of "sending Chinese culture to the world" as advocated by the CCP in 2010. In this context, President Xi Jinping's recent remarks on culture can be seen as a further extension of these policies.

What does all of this mean? Using culture as a propagandist's tool is certainly nothing new in China. The far reaching influence of Mao's 1942 Yan'an Talks on Art and Literature, during the so-called golden age of socialism in China, should not be underestimated. Even in the modern era of reform and "socialism with Chinese characteristics," governmental units such as the Ministry of Culture and the China Writers Association continue to regulate culture and hold fast to many of the policies from the socialist days. (Case in point: the controversy that erupted in 2012 when the China Writers Association invited several of China's leading writers to copy excerpts from Mao's 1942 Yan'an Talks for a commemorative edition).

But things have changed. The state's ability to regulate culture pales in comparison to the period between 1949 and 1976, when art and propaganda were virtual synonyms. In the 1980s the propagandistic vise on culture loosened and the grip of the market had yet to fully tighten, giving rise to an extremely fertile and exciting period for the arts. The Culture Fever of the 1980s saw the rise of the Fifth Generation in film, misty poetry, and the Today group in poetry, the Stars collective in painting, and several important literary movements, from the scar movement to the avant-garde.

China's contemporary cultural scene is multifaceted and diverse with state-endorsed works coexisting alongside iconoclastic works and of course more popular mainstream works, for like virtually every other industry in China today, cultural products are also increasingly beholden to market forces. So while state-endorsed cultural works persist, their stake in the overall real estate of culture has fallen, hence the most recent wave of efforts to advocate a new cultural policy.

In some sense, there is nothing new about this in China, even during the aforementioned Cultural Fever of the 1980s there were periods when more conservative cultural policies prevailed, such as during the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of the mid-eighties. What is new here is President Xi's attempts to combine Mao's views of culture, which were used primarily to regulate cultural policies within China, with notions of "soft power," which are often used as a means to shapes of China from the outside. The other change comes via the ways in which politically inspired cultural policies can now be tied even more powerfully to economic and market forces of cultural products. This is done not only through hard policies and directives, but even more powerfully through the state's pure economic power which can provide new economic incentives to achieve propagandistic goals.

Mao's 1942 Yan'an Talks laid out draconian prescriptions for creative work (aimed at serving the needs of workers, peasants and soldiers, featuring black and white characters, clear stories that illustrated the socialist struggle, etc.) and spoke of "correct art" and "incorrect art," and while these policies seem hopelessly out of step and of another time, President Xi has made it clear that China still isn't ready to let them go.

President Xi Jinping’s recent lengthy statements on culture—and even the apparently tightening restrictions in some areas of arts and entertainment—are not evidence of a culture war.  Instead, they are manifestations of a long-term goal—the PRC’s quest to become a global cultural power—and a long-term policy pattern, song yi duan, jin yi duan ( 松一段,紧一段), loose for a time, tight for a time.
It is interesting to read Xi’s statements—who knew that, Abe Lincoln-like, he once walked nine miles to borrow a copy of Goethe’s Faust?!—but important not to read too much into them. Instead, they should be viewed within the context of the general crackdown on corruption and effort to tighten government control and social accountability. It should be recalled that Xi has something of an insider’s perspective on culture—his wife, Peng Liyuan, is one of the most famous singers of her generation and Chinese artists generally assume that she influences Xi when it comes to arts policies.  There are, in fact, many artists and writers who agree that, as Xi put it, “Literature and art cannot become slaves of the market, and must not be stained with the stink of money.”

Most importantly, much of what Xi has said is the standard Party line on culture, political rhetoric that is regularly recycled and embellished with a flourish or two. Xi, for instance, stressed in his much-quoted October 15 speech to artists and writers that:

…the people are the sources of flowing water for literature and art creation, whenever they are removed from the people, literature and art will change into rootless duckweeds, baseless groaning, and soulless bodies. Whether or not we can produce excellent works fundamentally depends on whether or not we are able to write for the people, express emotions for the people, and express the compassion of the people… Xi Jinping pointed out that every age has a spirit … literature and art workers are engineers of the souls.

Deng Xiaoping said much the same thing in an important speech he made to artists and writers back in 1979:

Writers and artists should conscientiously study Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought…. We hope that more and more comrades in their ranks will become real “engineers of the human soul”. In order to educate the people, one must first be educated himself; in order to give nourishment to the people, one must first absorb nourishment himself. And who is to educate and nourish our writers and artists? According to Marxism, the answer can only be: the people. It is the people who nurture our writers and artists. The creative life of all progressive writers and artists is rooted in their intimate ties with the people. Creativity withers when these ties are forgotten, neglected or severed. The people need art, but art needs the people even more.

Political verbiage has changed a little over the years—“comrade,” for instance, has taken on a new meaning—but not much. It has always been standard practice for Chinese leaders to reference the talks at Yanan, to declare that foreign things should serve China and to demand that art should serve—and spring from—the people. The difference, perhaps, is not in what Xi is saying, but in the fact that people are actually listening to it.