Culture / 文化
UNESCO defines culture broadly as “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group that encompasses, not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” For the Chinese Communist Party, however, culture is first and foremost deeply political, one of a number of “fronts” in the Party’s struggle against its enemies and critics, both internal and external. In his remarks to the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, Mao Zedong made it clear that “art and literature [must] follow politics”.
While China’s cultural industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the post-Mao period of reform and China’s opening, the Party’s claim to be the political heart of culture has remained. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping since late 2012, culture has been renewed as a political priority around such notions as “building [China as] a cultural power” (建成文化强国), ensuring “cultural security” (文化安全) and mobilising against the “cultural hegemony” of the United States and the West. Culture is a means both to advance the power and legitimacy of the Party and to strengthen the CCP against threats to its legitimacy globally.
For much of the modern era, China’s relationship with culture has been fraught with contradictions. During the New Culture Movement of the 1920s, a new brand of scholars, writers and activists sought to throw off the influence of traditional Confucian ideas, which they blamed for China’s weakness, and create a new society based on the “Western” ideals of science and democracy. But even as China looked to the West, notions of culture were closely tied up with the experience of imperialism since the mid-eighteenth century. An influential article written in 1923, in the wake of the May Fourth Movement, sounded a warning about “cultural invasion”, characterised as the last of four means by which Western imperialism was visited upon China. In his remarks to the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, Mao Zedong famously spoke of the power “of the pen and of the gun”, and the importance of the cultural as well as the military front. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), zealous bands of so-called Red Guards went on a national rampage of cultural destruction in a campaign to crush the “Four Olds” – old ideas, old culture, old habits and old customs. This inaugurated successive waves of destruction that spanned a decade, resulting in untold cultural and human costs.
The end of the Cultural Revolution came with a growing recognition that the political excesses of the prior decade had stemmed in large part from Mao Zedong’s overwhelming dominance of cultural and political messaging. The relative openness of the 1980s brought about an environment of “culture fever”, with more creativity and truth-seeking in media and the arts. This came to a dramatic halt with the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in China in June 1989. The focus for the CCP turned to a combination of maintaining the Party’s political control over culture and the media while pushing commercial development and “a culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The idea that culture is ”an important component of comprehensive national power” (综合国力的重要标志) was introduced in 1997. A decade later, China began prioritising public diplomacy and the development of “soft power”, though only with limited results, and initiated a global media drive in which the government spent an estimated 45 billion yuan to expand state media overseas.
Since 2012, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Chinese culture as a resource of comprehensive national power has been a major priority for the leadership. Xi Jinping has spoken about the need to “strengthen cultural confidence and build a socialist cultural power” (坚定文化自信，建设社会主义文化强国). China’s leaders and state-run media argue that China’s global cultural strength, which includes its capacity to offset criticism and “tell China’s story well”, is key to “breaking through Western cultural hegemony” (打破西方文化霸权) and to changing the “unequal relationship” with the West. This interpretation of culture and its political value is closely tied to the nationalistic Xi-era notion of the “Chinese dream” of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the CCP’s promise to return China to the centre of global affairs. In his political report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017, Xi Jinping said: “Without a high level of cultural confidence, without a glorious and flourishing culture, there can be no great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
 S. Ma, ‘The Role of Power Struggle and Economic Changes in the ‘Heshang phenomenon’ in China’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, 2008, p. 29.