“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Five-Minute Intro to the Chinese Government and Culture

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The following is a short speech written by the freelance journalist Zhou Wenhan, translated by Jonathan Rechtman, on the subject of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which China attended as the Guest of Honor. Having found his remarks succinct, insightful and generally applicable to the Chinese government's promotion of Chinese culture abroad, we present them here as a five-minute introduction to the Chinese government and how it perceives its role vis-a-vis its own culture.

Kristin has asked me to talk about the broad strategic issues surrounding the communication between the German and Chinese organizers, but since I'm no member of any government think tank or anything, I can't really say much about strategy. I can only relate some of my observations regarding the Chinese government's desire to manage information in all its interactions with other countries, whether in the form of cultural exchanges, international conferences, or the Olympics.

My first observation is that Chinese officials generally like to promote flatly positive images of and information about China.

Since the rule of the emperor Qin Shihuang, China has always been a country marked by strong centralization of power. There has always been a monolithic unity, whether in institutions of government or of culture and ideology, and this tradition has been further strengthened under Communist rule, not only internally, but also in China's dealings with the world at large. The Chinese government and many Chinese themselves are eager to present a singularly positive image of China.

The problem is that with advancements in technology and increased communication between China and the world, it has become harder and harder to maintain centralization. Chinese government officials therefore strengthen their control over the flow of information and personnel at events like the Olympics or this Book Fair, creating, in my opinion, an unnecessary and very expensive waste.

For example, this Book Fair could have been organized primarily by the publishers themselves, with government organizations playing a supporting role. This would have saved a lot of public expenditure. Yet the Chinese government is accustomed to being in control; so, the General Administration of Press and Publication was tasked with organizing this event, and the entire procedure became unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Moreover, government officials treat these large events as personal political accomplishments, so we start to see a dual-purpose emerge: on the one hand, it's about promoting a government-approved image of China for the world to see, while on the other hand, it's a pursuit of commercial interests (in this case, the trading of publishing rights), which can in turn be counted as a political victory for the GAPP and reported as such to their superiors.

My second observation is that China has a bureaucratic system in which the higher-ups decide everything, which leads officials to appear rigid and inflexible when dealing with the media.

Please note the two rules of the Chinese bureacracy: Firstly, higher-ups decide everything, including the promotion and advancement of their subordinates, which means that subordinates do everything they can to meet the goals set by their superiors. And secondly, the bottom line for all public relations is to not give the media anything to make a scandal about. I'm sure the bureaucracies in Germany or America have a similar problem, but in China its especially serious. It means that the government official in charge does everything he or she can to control the situation at hand. But often the situation, or information about the situation, is simply too much to control, and so the only thing the official can do is, essentially, "stonewall" or say "no" to the media, making them look rigid and unwilling to engage.

Officials can still keep a tight control over what its subsidiary publishers say in public, either via direct orders or through its control of specific related interests, but in private these people might express a completely different point of view. And, of course, now there's also a lot of extra-governmental channels of communication.

My third observation is that the censorship of the news and the media's appetite for conflict make it almost impossible to hold meaningful dialogues.

The Frankfurt Book Fair featured a lot of controversial topics about China, including writers-in-exile and the issue of Tibet. As a journalist, I don't think that this amounts to a "negative portrayal," because these are real issues that China is confronting. But I also think that the German media's heavy coverage of these controversies was excessive, and oftentimes overshadowed reports on other important aspects of China such as literature and environmental protection. This has a lot to do with how mainstream media appeals to its readers and shapes the news agenda, and I think its something that members of the media need to be aware of and vigilant about.

As for the Chinese public, the biggest problem is that government censorship leaves many people unaware of a lot of important issues and information. For example, a lot of China-related issues were discussed at the book fair, but domestic media in China almost exclusively reported on the export and sale of publishing rights.

Because the information accessible to most Chinese people is so one-sided, there emerges a kind of public single-mindedness. Most people assume that foreigners are always trying to demonize China. In fact, I've found that most communication itself is generally accompanied by some degree of mutual demonization-- I don't know if you have seen the movie Inglourious Basterds with Brad Pitt, which thoroughly demonizes both the Allies and the Nazis.

My fourth point is that Chinese officials' plan to export Chinese values is going to be a very expensive failure.

Recently, in both private and public, many Chinese officials and university professors have talked about how China can export its values, referring to a uniquely Chinese worldview that differs from Western-style systems of democracy. For example, Confucian thinking, or the model of government-dominated economic development, or the "harmonious world" theory. But what's special about China is that while each of the above ideas all have their own advocates, there's not a real common mainstream ideology. The government has put out a lot of propaganda and spent a lot of money to promote Marxist values, but there's still an enormous gap between these ideas and people's actual lives. These values are nothing more than slogans, and not many people (government officials included) actually live according to them.

In civil society, meanwhile, there's no basic consensus between the wide range of Buddhists, liberals, Confucian scholars, left-wing intellectuals and others. The truth is, what's become most popular in China right now is a loosely defined nationalist fervor, which of course can consolidate the population internally but which can never be exported outside of China. What foreigners fear the most is an ideology of radical nationalism carrying China off into an unforeseeable future.

While this variety of different outlooks struggle amongst themselves, the government's strategy of exporting "Chinese values" is left in an awkward position. I think that this talk about exporting values is to a large extent more about China trying to protect itself than about an actual aggressive campaign, that is, it wants to use more foreign-language media to give everyone a look at China's good side, whether in terms of its exquisite traditional culture or its modern prosperity and bright economic prospects. But of course China's model of development certainly isn't perfect – just look at its increasingly serious environmental pollution.

Finally, I'd like to emphasize that to some degree China currently has established an "internal empire." With its enormous population and increasingly powerful economy, China can largely afford to ignore what the outside world says about it. But within this internal empire, one-sided education is leaving people with a very simplified world-view, and the inability to communicate or find common ground between the numerous competing values and ideologies internally could in the end lead to serious social conflict. This is something worth being concerned about.

As to China's communication with the outside world, my only strategic suggestion would be to allow for as much flow of information from as many perspectives as possible. The only truly effective strategy will be more interaction with a range of different types of people, a true plurality of exchange.

Thank you.


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