Cultural Power Battle Threads

From the May Fourth Generation to Today

– The Telegraph reports in alarmist fashion about Hu Jintao warning, as the newspaper headline puts it, of “cultural warfare from the West”

– A closer examination of the story indicates that Hu Jintao’s “battle cry,” above, was a speech given on October 18, 2011, that was republished yesterday in the preemminent journal for CCP theory, Qiushi (Seeking Truth / 求是).

In fact most of the speech is not at all about the West, but the need for more powerful socialist culture.  However, the key detonating sentences in this long and rather boring speech are, after a discourse on China’s rising soft power, as follows:

同时,我们必须清醒地看到,国际敌对势力正在加紧对我国实施西化、分化战略图谋,思想文化领域是他们进行长期渗透的重点领域。我们要深刻认识意识形态领域斗争的严重性和复杂性,警钟长鸣、警惕长存,采取有力措施加以防范和应对. At the same time [that we develop our cultural industries and gain international advantage thereby], we must see with utmost clarity that hostile international forces are currently stepping up the implementation of Westernization in China, attempting to do so via in a variety of strategies; their long-term focus is on infiltration [渗透/shentou] in the ideological and cultural fields. We should thoroughly understand the seriousness and complexity of this ideological struggle, remaining vigilant (lit. “always keep the bell ringing“), ever alert, and taking effective measures to prevent and respond to [the challenge of cultural infiltration].

The full text of the article is available in rough English via Google Translate here.

– My own evidentiary contribution to the discourse on Hu Jintao’s retrograde and conservative tendencies with regard his extensive work in “socialist culture” are described in this essay about some materials I found about Hu Jintao in East German archives in 2009.

– As usual, with reference to cultural diplomacy and the soft power discourse, JustRecently is already well ahead of the curve.  His website has the most extensive open-source translation available of the Party’s “cultural document”, a document which stemmed out of the same meetings at which Hu Jintao weighed in above.

– In reading headlines about Hu Jintao’s fear of Western “infiltration,” I think it’s important to note that there are far more nuanced Chinese examinations of soft power out there.  PRC scholar He Zengke published a rather wide-ranging article this past December 23 in a reformist journal surveying French and German modes of exerting soft power, noting:

France was one of the first countries to understand the role of cultural soft power. Napoleon once said that a pen was equal to 1,000 Mauser rifles*), and a former French minister of culture said that culture and the economy are one and the same battleground. French people believe that a cultural mission can take the place of a country’s military power.[9] In 1883, France established the Alliance Française to promote French culture. Starting in 1959, France began to define the “First Five-Year Plan for the Expansion of French Cultural Activities”, and afterwards, 25- and 35-year plans etc. were gradually developed. From the total amounts spent and per capita, France belongs to the first-ranking countries worldwide.[10] From that, it can be seen that France attaches great importance to the development and use of soft power.

法国是最早懂得文化软实力的地位和作用的国家之一。拿破仑曾经说过,一支笔等于1000支毛瑟枪。法国前文化部长曾经说过:文化和经济是同一场战斗。 法国人认为,文化使命可以代替国家武力。[9]1883年法国就建立了法语联盟,在世界各地讲授法语,推广法国文化。从1959年起,法国开始制定“关于 在国外扩张和恢复法国文化活动的第一个五年计划”(1959-1963),后来又陆续制定了“二五”、“三五”计划等。法国的国际文化交流支出从总数和人 均来看都居于世界第一的位置。[10]由此可见法国对发展和运用文化软实力的高度重视。[Translation here by JustRecently]

He’s essay reminds us again:

-For all the huffing and puffing about Confucius Institutes, the “hanban” is still behind such institutions as the Alliance Française when it comes to enrollments and influence globally, a fact which I reported in July 2010 (from a cafe in Seoul, awash in K-pop, WiFi signals, kimchee and bubble tea) via a translation of a Huanqiu Shibao interview with the Hanban head.

– Finally, the magazine Monocle (which I fittingly tend to read in international airports; this one was in Tokyo) recently did some comprehensive “soft power ratings” in which the US was #1 but France not far behind.  China, by the way, was #17.


  1. The resistence by the Chinese is futile. There are several factors/reasons working against China’s wishes to expand its cultural soft power: (1) The fact that the PRC is a non-democratic, authoritarian state is detrimental to the expansion of Chinese cultural soft power as such a nature is an automatic turn-off to a lot of people, especially those in the “democrazed” western world. (2) The fact that culturally the world is still very much dominated by the west, especially the United States means non-western countries such as China will have a long long long way to go to vie for cultural popularity, let alone cultural dominance. At this time most non-western countries can only play the “exotic” card. Even Japan, who is by any means a very successful example in terms of exerting cultural soft power, is for the most part still being considered an “intriguing exotic culture” by westerners. South Korea on the other hand has once agained exaggerated the impact of Hanryu, K-pop and Korean food (even though dishes like Bibimbab have become more accepted). They are really insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  2. Soft power for the French has always been its education system going back to colonial times. The locals getting to be too nationalistic, give them a scholarship to Paris.
    Bristish soft power has been a mixed bag of sanitary engineering and cricket.
    Korea doen’t need to exert cultural soft power, due to global dependence on its digital products. # Japan digital products and cars.
    Who need literature and cinema! Buying into a perception of their product excellence is as good as it gets for both Korea and Japan. (I don’t know, but Japanese cinema is pretty mainstream in my part of the world.)
    China’s problem is the surfeit of negative charisma it generates, and this has everything to do with its system of govt, even though its cuisine is a favourite in most countries across the globe.
    I am beginning to think that aysmmetrical Sino-West soft power discussions are a bit of a cul de sac. All they do is provide opportunities to jeer at aspects of contemporary Chinese governmentality and the society it is attempting to construct.

  3. “China’s problem is the surfeit of negative charisma it generates, and this has everything to do with its system of govt,”

    Pretty much every serious exploration of soft power in the PRC context boils down to versions of this.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Slim! Makes sense, esp. in in the sense that they are rearranging deck chairs. Intimations of control, Mao’s 1942 Yanan forum hasn’t been too meaningfully revised in many ways.

  4. I’d add one more point, which is the fact that the PRC is still a poor, developing country does not help. No poor, developing country is beaming with cultural clout that others want to emulate and immitate.

    Until the west ceases its total domination of the world (which is unlikely) and the PRC democratizes, western cultural infiltration and its 和平演变 efforts will continue, to the chagrin of many.

  5. @Jushecchosunmanse. You have stated things far too baldly.

    Think about music, one of the most important tranmission belts for cultural soft power. Countries like Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal and even land locked Mali, all with crap economies, hopeless govts etc, still manage to attract massive listening audiences with their indigenous musical output. Go to Paris and then turn the dial on the radio. This is an evidence based post.

    1. King Tubby,

      Perhaps I have. I certainly do not doubt your experience, however I’d like to think the followers of those music are mostly French of African descent? Just like the South Koreans love gloating about the popularity of K-pop and they say it has somwhat conquered Europe and America. Really? Until millions of young American and European boys and girls make the switch from Justin Bieber (or his European counterparts) to some overrated South Korean troupe (소녀시대? Wonder Girls?), I’d like to think it is just hype.

      Plus, music alone doesn’t necessarily extend one’s soft power, I’d think. I for one enjoy Indian music and dancing but does it change how I see India? I always thought first it is the country behind “it” (whether be music, fashion, whatever) that sells “it”, like the mighty US helps extend the influence and the popularity of the American pop culture, and subsequently that country rakes in the dividends – making people become more attracted to that country. If you are country that has very little to offer, no amount of nice music etc. will convert into soft power that in the end helps the country. I mean no offense, I just don’t see French and other foreigners flocking to Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal..

  6. If you are country that has very little to offer, no amount of nice music etc. will convert into soft power that in the end helps the country. I mean no offense, I just don’t see French and other foreigners flocking to Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal.
    (I was thinking of Western caucasian audiences not African diaspora communities which goes without saying.)

    Agreed. But at least folk in other countries don’t view the above governmental disasters I mentioned in a hard negative light as they do the PRC.

    Factoid. the world sales of ethnic music cultures as the ones I mentioned (I could cite additional examples) are vastly under rated and undercounted because they are distributed by a diverse range of independent distributors.

    I live in the southern hemisphere and can access about 30 hours of such sounds every week on govt funded stations, and believe me they have large audiences. Not to mention a ton of packed out music festivals.

    Lady Ga Ga’s global gloss hides a large and very diverse global music culture of ethnic sounds.

    Thanks for the response.

    1. King Tubby,

      Of course, countries like Jamaica, Nigeria and Senegal can not compare to the PRC when it comes to the negative vibes it emits (or so we are told it does). Rightly or wrongly, the PRC these days has become the new “Evil Empire” that the west loves to hate. Often I feel it doesn’t really matter what China does, it just can’t win. To the suspicious and more or less brainwashed western mind who is brought up to believe nothing good ever comes out of “socialist”, authoritarian countries and that communism is pure evil second only to terrorism, of course China is being narrated the way it is currently.

  7. @Juchechosunmanse – “Chinese Economic Miracle” – It’s real, it happened and it’s very compelling to countries poorer than China.

    On whom does Beijing wish to exert this so-called soft-power? Typically, countries without legitimate democracies.

    I think you guys have got it wrong about this democracy thing. No one gives a rat’s ass. People want IPads before the right to vote.

    1. I like the succinctness of the “I-pads trumping democracy” notion. After 2011 where whole careers were spawned by people writing about how Facebook and Twitter or whatever changed the entire world political landscape, the CCP seems rather bound to prove those particular pundits wrong. As has been written in a few other places, the Party is continually mobilizing a rather formidable apparatus well beyond the standard censors to ferret out Western “soft power” implements like Voice of America, student exchange programs, etc., and effectively quarantine those which may be harmful to China’s perceived national (read “Party”) interests.

  8. Adam,

    it’s a bit confusing that the Telegraph would react so strongly to a speech by Chairman Hu, who is almost on his way out, while there had been so few reactions to the central committee’s “cultural decision” last year, which, after all, was most probably drafted by a politbureau where both the outgoing and the incoming leadership had their (unknown) shares of influence.

    Besides, the CCP is seeking control at home first and foremost. They certainly want to have everything in place which could help to project a nicer picture of China abroad, but whenever the choice seems to be between a safe environment for totalitarian rule at home, and a nicer picture abroad, domestic concerns will carry the day.

    Frankly, I can’t tell if they believe that their propaganda concepts could have any appeal abroad (even democratic politicians can be carried away by their own potential as they see it), or if the CCP leaders just see successful propaganda abroad as something that might work some time in the future, and possibly in the rather distant future. Given that at least a small collective was at work there, the foreign-propaganda aspect may be little more than a booby prize for the minority which thinks of a postive global image as a thing that matters.

    China’s foreign-diplomacy industry will care for sure. But I’m not that sure if they have meaningful influence among the CCP’s top-nine officials / the politbureau’s standing committee.

    1. Precisely — another opportunity for more drive-by journalism. Remind everyone that China is on edge, intractable, whatever, and “setting the tone” for the new year. With material that is three months old? I suppose so. Some poor graduate student is going to be parsing over this stuff ten years from now and wonder how we as Anglophone readers put up with such schlock. By the same token, in spite of its false alarmism, I am glad to have read the Telegraph article simply because I am not a regular reader of Qiushi and welcome the chance to bathe so to speak even briefly in those rather frigid waters. “A journal founded by Mao” — scary!!! Would that there were more discussion of Hu Qiaomu, old Mao’s pen (after Chen Boda, that is), and his role in crafting what was safe and what was unorthodox in the PRC.

Leave a Reply to kingtubby1 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s