China Tries to Add Cultural Clout to Economic Muscle

China Tries to Add Cultural Clout to Economic Muscle

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

An art exhibition this month at the Sunshine International Art Museum in Songzhuang, an artists’ colony in suburban Beijing.

Published: November 7, 2011

BEIJING — Last month, the cream of the Communist Party leadership gathered here to proclaim a national effort to make China a cultural tastemaker, one whose global creative influence matches its economic clout. “A nation cannot stand among great powers,” the official party newspaper People’s Daily said on its front page, “without its people’s spiritual affluence and the nation’s full expression of its creativity.”

The question is how to square that goal with what just happened to Yue Luping.

Mr. Yue, a professional artist for more than 10 years, was preparing his works for an exhibition in the Shunyi District of north Beijing last month when government officials and police officers abruptly canceled the show.

The next day, he said, agents of the local Public Security Bureau interrogated him about one work, a collection of peppercorns arranged to form numbers. Security officers had already photographed the piece, studied it for an entire night and consulted cryptography experts to divine its message.

As they eventually discovered, the numbers were in a computer language, Unicode, spelling out five phrases that Chinese censors have banned from the results of Internet search engines. And the pungent peppercorns were a metaphor for what Mr. Yue called people’s undue sensitivity to ordinary words.

“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.

Rather, they suggest, the leaders’ approach to building a world-class culture is not all that different from the one that powered China’s economic miracle: set a long-term goal, adopt rigid specifications, pour in copious amounts of public money, monitor closely to ensure the desired result.

In this case, as the report repeatedly stated, the specifications are to adhere to “core socialist values” in cultural activities. The desired result is “to build our country into a socialist culture superpower.”

The monitoring affects artists like Mr. Yue and Yu Jianrong, a painter and photographer whose works — on the petitions prepared annually by thousands of ordinary Chinese whose grievances have been ignored by the government — were banned two weeks ago from being exhibited in Songzhuang, a suburban Beijing artists’ colony.

Mr. Yu declined to be interviewed. But The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong quoted a microblog post, since deleted, in which Mr. Yu wrote that exhibition officials in Songzhuang had told him that “the situation this year is tense, and no sensitive topics are allowed.”

Such tales show that there is nothing ironic about the current censorship, said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University of China.

“The government is overconfident about controlling art,” he said. “They think as long as they provide money and they provide a value orientation, there can be good art produced. This is not surprising at all, because they have never experienced the process of free expression.”

In that view, the notion is lost on Chinese leaders that a great culture — whether in painting, science or journalism — rests on people’s abilities to push the boundaries of creativity, no matter whom it offends.

There is much to support that view, including the arrest in April of the internationally famous artist and dissident Ai Weiwei and the banning of literature like “The Fat Years,” Chan Koonchung’s bleak depiction of a China-dominated future.

Not a few officially approved commentaries cast Chinese culture as a sort of zero-sum contest with its rivals. Xinhua, the government news agency, described the challenge last month as an “international cultural competition,” in which controlling the world stage is one more hurdle to surmount in a triathlon toward global greatness.

“Chinese cultural companies have yet to produce a world-famous brand,” that commentary groused, offering a litany of shortcomings: China’s television programs have an “embarrassing” export record; its total published literature does not approach the output of a single German firm, Bertelsmann.

Most embarrassing, the 1998 animated film “Mulan,” based on a Chinese heroine, was produced by the Walt Disney Studios in California. “China has yet to produce an animated film as internationally successful,” the commentary said.

There is an alternative view in the party’s report last month on culture, one that hints at a less rigorous official stance. That view points to other snippets of the report — led, ironically, by a famous statement by Mao Zedong, the leader whose Cultural Revolution plunged China into years of repression and torment.

But before that, in 1956, Mao made a famous speech in which he summoned ordinary Chinese to speak out about their needs: “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said, “and a hundred schools of thoughts contend.”

The report repeated those words verbatim, citing them as a guiding principle for China’s cultural development. Other passages call for an “opening and reform” in China’s cultural development, echoing the economic approach to the rest of the world that spurred China’s growth over the last two decades.

Liang Xiaosheng, an author and a government-appointed member of China’s legislative advisory body, said last week that Mao’s statement and other clauses in the report are a muted call for more artistic freedom, at least over the long haul.

“In China, the policy won’t be quickly carried out because the executors need a digesting and understanding process,” he said. “Even a small step for China may take as long as 10 years.”

People here pay great attention to history. Mao’s hundred-flowers campaign was a disaster. Freed to say their piece, intellectuals denounced government repression and incompetence, and party leaders quickly reverted to a crackdown on expression.

It may not be lost on the creative community that Mao quickly replaced his hundred-flowers campaign with an anti-rightist movement in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were stripped of their jobs, with many of them sent to labor camps. Mao later said he had been seeking to lure the snakes from their dens in order to cut off their heads.

In China, then as now, liberalization and crackdown reliably — and unpredictably — ebb and flow.

Free-thinking students spawned the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which, in turn, provoked a new crackdown that has lasted to this day.Which may explain one genuine irony: when asked, some of the artists who organized the Shunyi and Songzhuang exhibitions chose to pretend that their colleagues were not censored at all.

Free-speech principles or not, some artists here appear to have no appetite for trouble.

“There is some misunderstanding going on,” Shen Qibing, an organizer of the exhibition that was to have shown Mr. Yue’s peppercorn art, said in a telephone interview. “The exhibition was called off because more and more artists are trying to sign up for the exhibition, and we feel we have a lot of work to do.

“I am the executive organizer,” he said. “I know what is going on. Some of the artists try to exaggerate things.”


Shi Da and Edy Yin contributed research.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 8, 2011, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: China Tries to Add Cultural Clout to Economic Muscle.


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