What Part of Western Culture is Beijing Really Afraid of?

Sunday, January 8, 2012 23:05
Posted in category The Big Picture

While I know I am coming in a bit late on this,many of you probably know that last week Hu Jintao put together an essay that was taken by foreign media that China needed to protect itself from the incursions of Western culture. It came on the heals of yet another round of editing TV content for “inappropriate” content the week before (not the first time this has happened), and essentially provided for the cherry on top of what was generally seen as the year that China tighten up on a lot of things.

So far, the media’s take on it has been pretty consistent.  Hu is concerned about China’s diminishing culture (from foreign intrusion), is frustrated by China’s deficit in “soft power”, and is concerned that the “West” is going to start a bonfire in China like “they” have in other nations. Not necessarily an inaccurate line to take if you are a China hawk, and believe that it was Twitter and Facebook that cause all those people to move their furniture out into the street and light it on fire.   Which leads to the standard line of defense is that China needs to build walls.  Walls that keep out “Western” cultural, or more broadly influences, so that the plans for harmonious society can move forward.  Again, not necessarily an inaccurate line to take if you are a China hawk, and believe that it was Twitter and Facebook that cause all those people to move their furniture out into the street and light it on fire.

I have a different theory.  A theory that this really about regaining power over the domestic media and that the influences of “western” culture he is speaking of is a press that feels it has the power to report stories without the help of a larger body.

It really has nothing to do with the CONTENT of the TV shows being canceled, the proliferation of Western DVDs, or even the “western” content on the internet, and if it were, then Hu wouldn’t have needed to write this op-ed to make the changes happen.  All three are regularly “managed”  as is and do not require any more assistance politically.

But what has become politically difficult to manage since the Sichuan earthquake 4 years ago is all the Jon Anderson’s in training at SMG, CCTV, Caixin, and Southern Weekly who think they can write sensitive investigative reports about milk power, roads to no where, and officials wearing expensive watches…reporters, and reports, that have grown in frequency and level of discomfort for many in power here.

And it is here that Hu’s real “cultural” target lies.  A culture of “westernized” press that feels it can do, say, and print whatver it wants for commercial purposes.

the op-ed, in my eyes, is therefore part of the wider movement to rein in a media that has increasing push for transparency and accountability domestically while being equally resistant to pressure from editors.  And, at times, is willing to outright flaunt the censors as an act of civil disobedience on stories that have a “wow” factor.

And what better way to do that than to remove their cash flow that funds by removing their only financially viable content.  “Westernized” TV shows that bring in 50 million viewers bring in lots of sponsors, and with that money brings a new level of cockiness.  A cockiness that is rooted in knowing that they (the owner) no longer need Beijing’s money, and therefore no longer need to adhere strictly to the rules that Beijing has in place.

This is in the end my conclusion, and my read on Hu’s comments is that one should only expect more tightening in the future of the various mediums in China, which could actually make working with the media more difficult as they go on the hunt for juicy corporate stories.

Stories that some say can be bought, or sold, depending on what the angle is and who is behind the piece.



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5 Responses to “What Part of Western Culture is Beijing Really Afraid of?”

  1. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    January 9th, 2012 at 1:46 am

    A third theory could suggest that much of the reality TV, talent shows and related programs shown on the West are so dire that China doesn’t want to import or copy them. While the West is dumbing down its viewers to accepting the banal and trite as mainstream entertainment, Hu and his gang are taking a stand and promoting quality educational programming as a greater priority. If so, I’d applaud that perspective. – Chris

  2. Vam says:

    January 9th, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Opaqueness is a traditional chinese characteristic, as is prophetic clarity. Two of the biggest champions of truth and clarity in chinese history were zhu xi and qu yuan. And they both suffered for it. These struggles have gone on within the sinosphere since forever and commentators are right to point out the domestically focused nature of hu et al’s powerplay. BUT as crazy as it seems, there are people from the most senior echelons of the ccp down who really believe that there is a project afoot amongst foreign communities to bring china down. A significant piece of info that brought me to this belief was news of ai weiwei’s detention, when his interrogators insisted that they tell him about the international plot that he was part of. Let me put it this way: would hu let himself be made to look a fool on the international stage by adumbrating an outlandish conspiracy theory? Or would he only say that foreign forces were conspiring to bring down china if to his ears it carried some kind of a ring of truth to it?

  3. Rich says:

    January 9th, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Chris – I watch (sometimes willingly) quite a bit of Chinese TV, and were there rich content available, then I don’t think this would be the issue it is. But the fact is that TV in China sucks.. horribly. Dubbing, even over the Mandarin soap operas is just the least of the problems of other shows, with the greatest problem being he fact that there (like porn) are three basic plots… overcoming the Japs, overcoming internal family struggles, and overcoming bitterness. Outside of that you have the news (not all that bad to watch), and a number of variety shows which often include fish with magnets, kids dressed like cabbage, or two old men bantering on a stage at each other as if you are watching a 1940s radio show.

    Which is why, even the worst trash that the West has to offer, gets 40 millino viewers. It is engaging, it allows the little guy to win, and there is real (to the viewer) suspense. Theoretically, if the show is not rigged, you don’t know the end of the plot until the last show (3 months) later. Which is a great business model.

    Where I guess it is wait and see for me (with regard to your theory) is to see what they replace these shows with. Will it be educational and rich in content,or just another rehash of the standard three programs.

  4. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    January 9th, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Fair enough, maybe an issue to revisit in 3 months time. Meanwhile we can look forward to all the amazing programming and entertainment that is the focal point of the Chinese New Year TV extravaganza, and lots of ethnic minorities in costume singing patriotic songs about the Motherland. Fantastic! – Chris

  5. Rich says:

    January 9th, 2012 at 9:10 pm


    I agree with you on most counts, although I am not fully up on the AWW details. However, if what your saying is true, then I feel the need to point out that it was not a foreign “culture” aiding him… it was foreign technology. Technology which has been blocked, but AWW still accesses to this day.

    Which is where I ultimately come back to the domestic angle on this. Were Hu out speaking about technology, then it would have been very clear.