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China’s president pushes back against Western culture

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BEIJING » President Hu Jintao has said that China must strengthen its cultural production to defend against the West’s assault on the country’s culture and ideology, according to an essay in a Communist Party policy magazine published this week. The publication of Hu’s words signaled that a new major policy initiative announced in October would continue well into 2012.

The essay, signed by Hu and based on a speech he gave in October, drew a sharp line between the cultures of the West and China and effectively said the two sides were engaged in an escalating war. It was published in Seeking Truth, a magazine that evolved from a publication founded by Mao Zedong as a platform for establishing Communist Party principles.

"We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration," Hu said, according to a translation by Reuters. "We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond."

Those measures, Hu said, should be centered on developing cultural products that can draw the interest of the Chinese and meet the "growing spiritual and cultural demands of the people."

Chinese leaders have long lamented that Western expressions of popular culture and art seem to overshadow those from China. The top grossing films in China have been "Avatar" and "Transformers 3," and the music of Lady Gaga is as popular here as that of any Chinese pop singer. In October, at the sixth plenum of the party’s Central Committee, where Hu gave his speech, officials discussed the need for bolstering the "cultural security" of China.

"The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status," Hu said in his essay, according to another translation. "The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak."

Hu’s words suggested that China would not lift anytime soon strict limits that it sets on imports of some cultural products. Each year, the agency in charge of regulating film allows only 20 foreign movies to potentially make a profit off their box-office take here. Hollywood studios have long criticized that system and lobbied the U.S. government and international organizations to pressure China into scrapping or loosening the quota.

People involved in the arts here say the policy also means more government financing for Chinese companies to create cultural products, ranging from books to live musical productions. At the same time, officials have been encouraging many cultural industries to become more market driven and rely less on government subsidies.

Some investors might see the government’s announcement of support for more creative works to be positive, but the policy also runs counter to market freedoms, emphasizing the need to censor cultural expressions that the government deems unacceptable.

In his essay, Hu did not address the widespread assertion by Chinese artists and intellectuals that state censorship is what prevents artists and their works from reaching their full potential. Last week, Han Han, a novelist and China’s most popular blogger, discussed the issue in an online essay called "On Freedom."

"The restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud," Han Han wrote.

The publication of Hu’s essay and other articles in Seeking Truth about bolstering China’s cultural power signaled that this would be a central initiative in 2012, which is a transition year for the Chinese leadership as seven of the top nine party members, including Hu, step down from the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Hu appeared keen to enshrine the culture drive as a final defining moment of his decade-long tenure at China’s helm.

The Central Committee meeting in October established the ideological foundation for a tightening of a cultural sphere that is only now beginning to unfold. Right after the meeting, officials announced a sweeping new policy to wipe scores of so-called entertainment shows off the air. That took effect Sunday. Television stations have been racing to come up with new programs that will be deemed "socially responsible" by the censors.

Last month, officials in Beijing and other cities ordered Internet companies based there to ensure that people posting on microblogs, called weibo in Chinese, had registered their accounts using their real names, though they could still post under an alias. Officials have been putting pressure on executives and editors running the microblog platforms to self-censor, and many microblog users say the microblogs have been getting less interesting.

At the same time, China has been making a push to increase its cultural influence abroad, or its "soft power." The government has opened up Confucius Institutes around the world to aid foreigners in learning Chinese. The state is also lavishing money on opening operations of large state-run news organizations, including Xinhua, the state news agency, and China Central Television in cities around the world. Officials from those organizations say they hope their version of the world events becomes as common as those from Western news organizations.


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