The opening of a Chinese patriotic film, The Eight Hundred, scheduled for July 5 at the Shanghai Film Festival, has been canceled. Apparently, its portrayal of a Nationalist army unit that stood against the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937 was too positive. Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times reports “. . . the cancellation came amid a broadening political crackdown on cultural works that are not sufficiently in tune with the ideology of China’s leader, Xi Jinping.” Agence France-Presse said, “Censorship has increased in China since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012. The most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has sought to whip up patriotic sentiment in the country.”
What’s the back story?
The concentration of power in China under Xi Jinping has political, military, economic, informational, and ideological dimensions. On information, the internet, and the social media, the Communist Party sets boundaries on what may or may not be expressed, and the mission of the “Great Firewall” is to keep out unwelcome knowledge and opinion from other countries. The reach of the Chinese Communist Party, however, extends even farther – into art and culture.
Here’s it’s worth reviewing a 2015 China File commentary on Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art. The text was only released a year later. Journalist Sky Canaves concluded that “the control of arts and culture continues to preoccupy China’s leaders, and . . . freedoms gained through reform are still subject to control.”
Excerpts from Xi’s speech follow. (The ellipses are in the China File text; the subheads are here presented in a different order than the original.)
A Conservative and Patriotic View of Arts
- Contemporary arts must also take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood, and culture while firmly building up the integrity and confidence of the Chinese people.
Striking out at Vulgar Popular Culture
- Some works ridicule the sublime, warp the classics, subvert history, or defile the masses and heroic characters. In others good and evil cannot be distinguished, ugliness replaces beauty, and the dark side of society is over-emphasized. Still others blindly chase and cater to public tastes, vulgar interests, chase financial gain, and provoke the “ecstasy” of the senses. Others churn out baseless works of shoddy quality and make irrelevant comparisons, creating a kind of cultural “garbage,” while others pursue luxury . . . flaunt wealth and ostentation, and emphasize external appearance over content. There are also those obsessed with the so-called “art for art’s sake” . . . who remove themselves from the masses and reality. All of these should be a warning to us: the arts must not lose their direction within the trend of the market economy, they must not deviate on the question of whom they are for, otherwise art will have no vitality.
The Market Value of the Arts is Secondary to Social Value
- Compared to social benefits, economic benefits are secondary. If a conflict arises between the two . . ., economic benefit must be subservient to the social benefit, and market value must be subservient to social value. The arts cannot be a slave to the market, they must not be covered in filthy lucre. When it comes to outstanding works of art, it is best if they first achieve success in terms of ideology and art, and subsequently are welcomed by the market. The ideals of aesthetics and the independent value of art must be maintained, and while we cannot neglect and ignore indicators such as distribution, ratings, click-through rates, box office gross, and others, we also cannot prioritize these indicators and be led by the market.
Arts Must Not Chase After the Foreign
- If we treat the foreign with reverence, treat the foreign as beautiful, only follow the foreign, take overseas prize-seeking as the highest goal, blindly following and unsuccessfully impersonating others . . . there is absolutely no future! In fact, foreigners have also come to us seeking inspiration and source materials, with Hollywood making Kung Fu Panda, Mulan, and other films using our cultural resources.
On the Need to Sanitize Foreign Art Forms
- After reform and opening, our country widely studied and borrowed from the world’s arts. Nowadays, circumstances are still the same, and many art forms arise from overseas, such as hip-hop, breakdance, etc., but we should only adopt them if the masses approve of them, while also endowing them with healthy, progressive content.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.