Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Chinese Culture and State Control

 From Dan Wang's long, interesting letter on the year in China:

While it’s too soon to say that regulatory actions have snuffed out entrepreneurial dynamism in China, it’s easier to see that a decade of continuous tightening has strangled cultural production. I expect that China will grow rich but remain culturally stunted. By my count, the country has produced two cultural works over the last four decades since reform and opening that have proved attractive to the rest of the world: The Three-Body Problem and TikTok. Even these demand qualifications. Three-Body is a work of genius, but it is still a niche product most confined to science-fiction lovers; and TikTok is in part an American product and doesn’t necessarily convey Chinese content. Even if we wave nuances aside, China’s cultural offering to the world has been meager. Never has any economy grown so much while producing so few cultural exports. Contrast that with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which have made new forms of art, music, movies, and TV shows that the rest of the world loves.

The reason for China’s cultural stunting is simple: the deadening hand of the state has ground down the country’s creative capacity. The tightening has been continuous. Consider that the Three-Body trilogy had been published in Chinese by 2010, which was a completely different era. I think it’s quite impossible to imagine that this work can be published or marketed today. It’s not just the censorship related to direct depictions of the Cultural Revolution. A decade ago, the CEO of Xiaomi went on Weibo to share his thoughts on the book; today, few personalities speak up to say anything except the patriotic or the mundane. Therefore I’m not terribly optimistic about the future of Chinese science fiction, which today has almost as many people studying the field as actual practitioners.

Throughout the last decade, Xi and the rest of the leadership have proved successful at convincing or coercing elites that it’s not worth their while to ponder such abstractions as whether the country is on the right path. These elites should keep their heads down and make money. . . . . 

There’s little prospect of loosening in sight. Writer friends say that there’s no way that they can publish interesting work in 2022, given that the 20th party congress will be held at the end of the year. We have to accept that the direction of travel is towards still-more tightening. Just as a house can never be too clean, a city can never be too protected against Covid-19, and the country can never be too free of spiritual pollution. One of Xi’s legacies has been to push officials to err on the side of implementing controls too tightly, such that party officials are now trying to prove themselves to be more Marxist than the general secretary. It’s a safe bet that the government will control too much rather than too little.

No comments: