Monday, November 7, 2011
China’s ‘Third Affliction’
HONG KONG — “Almost a full house!” Zhao Dayong said, his eyes glinting as we gazed over rows of filmgoers shuffling into their seats. It was a moment neither of us could have imagined two years earlier, as we filmed the Lisu tribespeople through a chilly Christmas in mountainous Fugong, in southwest China, not far from the border with Myanmar.
Zhao’s unapproved independent documentary, “Ghost Town,” an unflinching look at a remote community on China’s margins – one of those left behind by the country’s breakneck development – was having its moment at last. But the ovation that followed the film’s world premiere in 2009 at Lincoln Center in New York could not shake the bittersweet recognition that this moment would never have been possible in Zhao’s own China.
My thoughts drifted back to that screening last month, as I watched the nine members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee preside over a stiffly choreographed meeting of the country’s most senior leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Against a phalanx of red flags and an enormous golden hammer-and-sickle, President Hu Jintao delivered the Chinese Communist Party’s document on “promoting the great development and prosperity of socialist culture.”
The gist of the “Decision” was that China’s ruling party, recognizing that culture is soft power, would lead a renaissance of cultural creation. The message behind the turgid ideological phrasings and the rodomontade about how the party was leading “the great reawakening of the Chinese people” was that China’s leaders would encourage culture so long as it served their narrow political ends. The Decision states emphatically that China’s rank-and-file “cultural workers” must uphold the party’s “main theme” and “keep to the correct orientation” in cultural creation.
Controlling culture is nothing new to the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party has twisted culture to its own ends ever since Mao Zedong dogmatized on the role of literature and art at Yan’an in 1942. During the Cultural Revolution, China’s traditions were ravaged or subverted to persecute millions. What was new last month was the C.C.P.’s urgent sense that China’s power and place in the world should be reflected in its cultural strength. The party has long sought to manufacture legitimacy by “guiding” public opinion domestically through aggressive controls on media and culture. Now it also hopes to influence global public opinion in its favor.
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.
China’s leaders hope to close this “soft-power deficit” the only way they know how: by diktat. But commercializing state-controlled culture built on repression only turns the spotlight on the injustices of China’s political system. China’s “third affliction” is a self-inflicted malady. As the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said amid the official drivel in state-run media: “Governments in countries with cultural censorship may no longer fear criticism at the hands of their own country’s cultural work, but they must endure the ridicule of the whole world.”
While the government backs slick propaganda epics with blockbuster budgets – like this year’s “Founding of the Party” – real creativity will continue to struggle to survive in the gaps. Independent artists, writers and filmmakers like Zhao Dayong, those who refuse to submit to government censorship, will continue to endure marginalization to protect their creative freedom and work in a state of perpetual exile from their Chinese audiences.
No sooner had the curtain closed on the C.C.P. meeting in Beijing than media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan reported with unmistakable schadenfreude that an Oct. 17 showing at Lincoln Center of the 2009 Chinese propaganda epic “The Founding of a Republic” had drawn not a single filmgoer. The screening was an opener for the series “Eastern Promise: Popular Cinema from China,’’ a soft power ploy plain and simple. But not even the organizers from China’s Ministry of Culture bothered to show up. By DAVID BANDURSKI
David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project and a producer of Chinese independent films through his Hong Kong-based production company, Lantern Films.