Thursday, 16 March 2017

On Chinese Cultural Diplomacy post-Brexit/Trump

In February 2017 I was invited to deliver the opening address to a two-days conference on Chinese cultural diplomacy in Prague. This is the text.

We are told that the Chinese have a saying: May you live in interesting times. And I understand this is intended as a curse rather than a blessing.

Every generation claims its own interesting times. Every generation embraces what it assumes is the uniqueness of its experience.

I can say without a doubt that I am now living through some of my own most interesting times. It is difficult to recall such an unpredictable, volatile, and often frightening moment since the we lived under the shadow of imminent nuclear war in the early 1980s - a time of unchecked populism, sweeping racism and bigotry, a time when being an "expert" is suspect, a times when "alternative facts" bleed into everyday narratives. The normalisation of abnormal politics is perhaps the most disturbing and distressing development of all.

At such times, we must turn to and depend on the Arts to make sense of our world and our place in it. Culture is not only a sanctuary from chaos - who doesn't want to see La La Land to escape the dismal Trump Land - but Culture also provides another voice to challenge the powerful and give succour to the powerless.

Of course this is not new. At every troubled turn in history, pain, confusion and terror have been the catalyst for artistic achievements. In the 20th Century alone think of Picasso's Guernica, the novels of Erich Remarque, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and John Steinbeck; Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the music of Shostakovich; and the whole wave of artistic expression that reflects and comes to terms with the trauma of the Vietnam war. Here in Prague, Franz Kafka is a justly celebrated figure, and much of today's political turbulence might well be labelled Kafkaesque. Meanwhile, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a seminal account of life during the Prague Spring. Since President Trump's inauguration the 20th January, no book has been referenced more than Orwell's 1984, with 'alternative facts' resembling Big Brother's Newspeak. In the UK, 1984 has experienced an increase in sales of over 90% since January,

Sometimes the dry treatises of philosophy and political science speak to us with less urgency and less relevance than Culture.

In opening a conference examining Chinese cultural diplomacy I make no apologies for these reflections - for what may seem digressions from the subject we have all gathered to discuss.

For since the unfortunate turn of events on 23 June 2016 when a majority of my fellow countrymen decided we should leave the most successful and peaceful trading alliance in recorded history, I've been returning again and again to soft power and I have reason to question my longstanding agnosticism. What is soft power? How is it accumulated? How is it exercised? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we maintain and nourish it? And in unpacking the concept into its component parts it seems we must pay far more attention to cultural diplomacy and cultural relations than we have in the past.

Certainly in the first few weeks of what will be an interminably long Trump Presidency - four years might as well be forty - US soft power has been challenged and undermined at every turn. For soft power is about moral authority, the legitimacy and credibility of a government's actions that is rooted in how a government treats its own citizens and how it behaves abroad. I don't need to labour the relevance of Trump, nor of Theresa May and Boris Johnson for that matter. How can the US and UK with any degree of credibility continue to lecture countries like China on the need to advance universal rights and values? When the Foreign Secretary likens the French President to a Nazi POW officer, how can we take seriously his - and British - moral authority?

In a speech to the UN in Geneva in January 2017, the Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the world to "build a community of shared futures of mankind and achieve shared and win-win development." While Xi advanced a compelling commitment to China's economic growth, exports, and overseas investment, he also said: "We always put people's rights and interests above everything else and have worked hard to advance and uphold human rights".

In the past, such claims would have met with ridicule, having little credibility among those who know the full extent of the Chinese government's commitment to human rights.

But these are interesting times ... And the US's credibility in upholding moral values or exercising moral authority is weakening by the day. Why should we judge Xi Jinping's claims to be any less legitimate than Donald Trump's?

 Soft power RIP ... almost ... but not quite.

First, the eruption of protests around the world in response to some of the more disturbing policies of the Trump administration demonstrate the formation of new ways of understanding soft power - one that arises spontaneously in civil society and challenges the defilement of cherished values. The democratic spirit embodied in these protests is a powerful narrative that has resonated around the world; they have created new relationships, new senses of community and empathy - the very embodiment of of cultural diplomacy and cultural relations.
And secondly, as I noted, culture often thrives best in troubled times. Art feeds off tormented souls.

And speaking of souls ...

The US State Department once said that 'Cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation'.

It is the act of telling stories about ourselves to others, defining who we are and from where we have journeyed. This is why thousands around the world have chosen to highlight the inconsistencies in American values forged in history (and values which have contributed to both soft and cultural power) and American actions.

While there is no settled definition of cultural diplomacy, words that crop up in all discussions include 'mutual understanding', 'tolerance', 'respect', 'challenging prejudices', 'shared interests'. Cultural diplomacy is therefore a normative project.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao alluded to a more sinister understanding of cultural diplomacy and talked about culture and tradition as areas of international conflict. In 2012, he wrote in the magazine Qiushi that "we must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields", he said, "are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration ... We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarm and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond".

This view echoed  Lu Shulei from the Central Party School who warned China about "some powerful nations" who "wish to use culture as a weapon against other nations" and urged China to "work hard to raise our country's soft power".

Even Xi Jinping and the present leadership declines to discuss "mutual understanding" as a goal of its cultural outreach, preferring instead to continue to lament our allegedly distorted view of modern China. His talk of a "cultural renaissance" to rejuvenate Chinese values, strength, and moral superiority over western values is designed to renew what he calls "cultural self-confidence".

Thus taking Hu Jintao's assessment of the risk of western cultural imperialism one step further, Xi Jinping has linked this cultural renaissance to a nationalist agenda through the China Dream. Artists have been instructed to make the Chinese nation central to their work to spread Chinese values and promote the Chinese spirit.

For example, China's Film Industry Law which came into effect on 1 March calls on movies to "serve the people and socialism". It will not allow co-operation with foreign organisations engaging in what are considered to be "activities damaging China's national dignity, honour, and interests, or harming social stability or hurting national feelings," and subjects that "defame the people's excellent cultural traditions" are banned.

As one of my MA students noted when we discussed this in class, this is a method of regulating both content and access by foreign organisations to the Chinese market unless they meet politically-accepted and ideologically-driven criteria. What those criteria are remains anyone's guess, as the vagueness of the regulations is what gives them power. National dignity, defamation, the national feelings can be whatever the Chinese state wants them to be and under whatever circumstances.

And this politicisation of culture appears to be working. The Pew Opinion Poll organisation found in 2016 that around three-quarters of Chinese who responded to the poll (c.77%) believe there is a real need to protect China from foreign influence. Contrast this with a mere 37% who see the widening gap between rich and poor as a major problem.

It is unfortunate that China has chosen not just to politicise its culture in this way, but also to situate Chinese culture within a perceived global competition for cultural hegemony. Perhaps I am naive in rejecting such claims and dismissing the twin threats of Americanisation and cultural imperialism.

I prefer a more complex picture of the world where culture flows in multiple directions, and where the original source is often forgotten or is irrelevant. It is rare I disagree with my literary hero, George Orwell, but I cannot accept his conclusion that all art is propaganda; and therefore I cannot accept the Chinese view of cultural conflict.

At the same time, it would be naive to pretend that power and culture are not bound together. Questions that arise from any discussion of cultural diplomacy must include, Whose culture is represented? Who gets to decide?

As a Brit I am all too aware that the image of my country abroad is dominated by the Queen, Castles, Shakespeare, poor food, warm beer, Harry Potter, Sherlock, and cricket. But this is a tiny snapshot of a complex cultural landscape that covers four different countries, not to mention socio-economic experiences within them. Why would Shakespeare represent the working class community in which I grew up? His concerns are universal and timeless - love, death, cruelty, power, superstition. But might the films of Ken Loach or the television scripts of Paul Abbott have greater resonance and narrate those themes in more appealing ways?

For a country the size of China with huge demographic and ethnic differences, the question of Whose culture? is perhaps more relevant. Who has the authority - and the legitimacy - to decide whose cultural experience is communicated and for what purpose? This is a question I would ask any nation-state promoting a cultural agenda. For China, the answer is clear and straightforward: the CCP and Xi Jinping gets to decide.

The current Chinese commitment to resisting western culture is a form of Occidentalism, a way of understanding the intersection of identities and cultures that complements the Orientalism associated with Edward Said. In historical terms, there is little difference between the way Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have viewed western culture and, for example, the Japanese scholars who gathered together in Kyoto in 1942 to discuss "how to overcome the modern". And the modern meant to the Japanese, as it does to the Chinese today, the west. We are told in accounts of this meeting that the participants compared Westernization to "a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit". One film critic advocated a war against "the poisonous materialist civilization". Writing on Occidentalism, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit observe the following: "All at the conference agreed that culture - that is, traditional Japanese culture - was spiritual and profound, whereas modern western civilization was shallow, rootless and destructive of creative power ..." Such sentiments certainly echo Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping and all the others in modern China who rail against western culture as poisonous, who describe Chinese culture as superior, and call for the protection of Chinese culture from western influence.

When such Occidentalism determines cultural policy in China, the situation is bad; when such Occidentalism justifies terrorist atrocities committed by Al Qaeda and Islamic State, it becomes reprehensible.

In 2010, outspoken journalist and blogger Chen Jibing discussed the limitation of China's international outreach:

[I]f we truly want China's voice to gain a foothold on the stage of world public opinion, I am afraid it is far from sufficient to put our energies into communication channels and the technical side alone. ... But the difficulty lies in making the world accept China's viewpoints. In the final analysis, the origin of the influence of the media or any cultural product lies in the true and credible nature of the facts of the news and in moral values with appeal.
The moral and credible nature of the facts ... Suspicion of experts and the media ... alternative facts ... fake news ...

In short, as I have said on many occasions when speaking about this subject, there is no obvious correlation between enjoying and liking China and Chinese culture, and liking the Chinese political system and its behaviour at home and abroad.

And so we arrive back at our starting point: That soft power is about moral authority. We do well to remember that while the moral authority of governments is weakening, the renewed importance of art and Culture, relocates soft power away from the political centre and in civil society and the cultural industries.

May you live in interesting times indeed ...

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