Beijing's 'Culture War' Isn't About the U.S.—It's About China's Future

A controversial essay by Chinese President Hu Jintao may be more about the leadership's concerns about their own rule than about clashing with the West

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Hu meets with U.S. business leaders in Honolulu / AP

On the first day of 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao published an essay on culture in a Communist Party journal, Seeking Truth. The language, lifted from Hu's speech at a party plenum on "promoting culture" in October last year, has been interpreted as largely hostile toward the "west" and its machinations to divide China. Here's Ed Wong of the New York Times on this:

The essay, which was signed by Mr. 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," Mr. Hu said, according to a translation by The Associated Press.

And the Wall Street Journal seems to accuse Hu of launching a "new cultural revolution":

No, it won't be as destructive as the original, in which Mao Zedong brought China to its knees in the late 1960s and early '70s. But his successor Hu Jintao has launched another culture-rectification campaign with goals that Mao would recognize: step up ideological struggle and fight back against Western encroachments.

Hu's words were largely construed as a call for a "culture war" against the amorphous West (see a sensible take from China Geeks on just how Beijing would wage this coming battle) or as an indication that the leadership will tighten domestic censorship and speech. That the Chinese president's opening salvo made western audiences recoil did not go unnoticed in China. The Culture Minister responded on Wednesday by stating that 2012's "culture work" is not a "great leap forward," clearly attempting to defuse any fears of a repeat of the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions killed from 1966 to 1976. It's all about promoting soft power, stupid, says the Culture Minister -- an eerie and Orwellian label.

I have a bit of a different take on Hu's politically charged essay. I am of the view that the "politics" of it are predominantly aimed at the Communist Party itself rather than an abstract "external enemy," in this case the West or specifically the United States. It serves as a warning to both current party members and incoming leaders to remain vigilant, not simply because it is a political transition year but because of the existential fear that peaceful evolution (和平演变) may just be around the corner. Indeed, one of the longstanding fears for the party-state is not that it will go out with a bang but that it will fold quietly in a whimper of irrelevance.

First propounded by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War, the concept of "peaceful evolution", which essentially meant promoting policies that would induce a peaceful transition to liberal democracies within the Communist bloc, preoccupied Mao Zedong dearly. The chairman became suspicious of the Soviet Union falling prey to Dulles' cunning ploy and eventually grew so concerned that one of the justifications for launching the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1966 was to counter the threat of peaceful evolution. Bo Yibo, one of the "eight immortals" who fought with Mao and whose son is turning Chongqing "red" with revolutionary zeal and Maoist campaigns, explained in his memoir Mao's thinking (courtesy of China Heritage Quarterly):

History suggests that although the armed aggression, intervention, and economic blockade launched by Western imperialists against socialist countries can create enormous problems for socialist countries, they have great difficulty in realizing their goal of overthrowing socialist states. Therefore, imperialist countries are inclined to adopt a 'soft' method in addition to employing 'hard' policies. In January 1953, U.S. Secretary of States Dulles emphasized the strategy of 'peaceful evolution'. He pointed out that 'the enslaved people' of socialist countries should be 'liberated', and become 'free people', and that 'liberation can be achieved through means other than war', and 'the means ought to be and can be peaceful'. He displayed satisfaction with the 'liberalization-demanding forces' which had emerged in some socialist countries and placed his hope on the third and fourth generations within socialist countries, contending that if the leader of a socialist regime 'continues wanting to have children and these children will produce their children, then the leader's offspring will obtain freedom.' He also claimed that 'Chinese communism is in fatal danger', and 'represents a fading phenomena', and that the obligation of the United States and its allies was 'to make every effort to facilitate the disappearance of that phenomena', and 'to bring about freedom in all of China by all peaceful means.'

Chairman Mao paid full attention to these statements by Dulles and watched carefully the changes in strategies and tactics used by imperialists against socialist countries. That was the time when the War to Aid Korea and Resist America had just achieved victory, when the United States was continuing its blockade of the Taiwan Straits and its embargo, and when our domestic situation was stable, 'the First Five-Year Plan' was fully under way, economic construction was developing rapidly, and everywhere was the picture of prosperity and vitality. At that moment, Chairman Mao did not immediately bring up the issue of preventing a 'peaceful evolution'. The reason for his later raising the question has to do with developments in international and domestic situations...

...Considering the situation in both the Soviet Union and at home, Chairman Mao took very seriously Dulles's remarks. In a speech to the directors of the cooperation regions[6] on November 30, 1958, Chairman Mao noted that Dulles was a man of schemes and that he controlled the helm in the United States...

Among these passages, this remark stood out for me the most: "He [Dulles]...placed his hope on the third and fourth generations within socialist countries..." (for those interested in the Chinese, Mao supposedly said "帝国主义的预言家门把和平演变的希望寄托在中国党的第三代或第四代身上", which roughly translates into "imperialism's prophesiers have pinned their hopes for 'peaceful evolution' on the shoulders of the party's third or fourth generations.") Well, depending on how leadership generations are counted, China is in that third or fourth generation, preoccupied by a leadership change that is breeding considerable caution regarding any potential destabilizing factors. Mao's warning (or prescience?) may have added resonance, given the year that China just had, which began with the Arab Spring and ended with Wukan. In some quarters in China, these developments are likely viewed as manifestations of western-inspired peaceful evolution. It is a process made much more efficient with the penetration of social media, which are of course western-invented weapons of mass dissemination as potentially powerful as nuclear bombs.

Indeed, the Hu administration has seen a personal communication technology boom like none any previous Chinese leadership has dealt with, unintentionally creating a public that is exerting vigorous bottom-up pressure. Perhaps in an indirect admission of the challenges of a new era of information pluralism, the propaganda chief recently bemoaned the immense challenge in propaganda work and "maintaining reform stability."

Mao's disastrous Cultural Revolution may have "saved" China from peaceful evolution, but the chairman lived to see neither the disintegration of the Soviet Union nor the "color revolutions," which spooked the Communist Party. Hu's essay, then, is perhaps signaling that the party is facing head-on the unprecedented challenges in dealing with a Chinese society that has increasingly moved away from the party's rule. Successor president Xi Jinping and the new cohort will inherit these complex dynamics, not exactly an envious position to be in.

The "culture war" is not truly meant to be waged against nefarious U.S. cultural encroachments. It is instead part of a battle to sustain the confidence of its own people -- via nationalism, Confucian tenets, wealth, cultural renaissance, or whatever substitute that can be dreamed up -- or risk the consequences. The war is, and has always been, about defining the soul of the modern Chinese nation.