“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree….”
Like the Yuan Dynasty emperor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name, the current Chinese government thinks that it can decree a stately paradise of Chinese culture and “soft power” for the world to marvel at. The Chinese government is as deluded in the power of its handiwork as was Kubla Khan.
The Chinese coastal city of Qingdao recently hosted a gala ground-breaking for the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, attended by Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, and other stars paid untold sums of Chinese cash to lend their faces and names for the event. In addition to film and television production facilities, plans for the “movie metropolis” include tourist attractions and real estate projects. A headline in the state-run Shanghai Daily breathlessly announced, “Qingdao film hub may rival Hollywood.”
The money for launching China’s would-be cinematic Xanadu comes from the nation’s richest investor, Wang Jianlin, who has poured at least US $8.2 billion into the project. The hand of the Chinese government is never far away, however, as evident in Wang’s remarks at an inaugural ceremony attended and endorsed by Communist Party officials. Here, Wang told the audience that the Qingdao project would help boost China’s “cultural power” globally, echoing government calls to promote Chinese soft power around the world. Wang himself is a Communist Party member with high-level ties to the Chinese government and military. Like Kubla Khan, China’s rulers today think that they can get what they want simply by issuing decrees and spending lots of money on things that look big and important.
“The future of the world’s film industry is in China because we have 1.3 billion people,” Mr. Wang said, “We will have the biggest film business in the world by 2018.” Mr. Wang is dreaming, of course, since for this to happen would require the Chinese government relinquishing its control of film content, which it clearly has no intention of doing. Foreign film producers are unlikely to flock to Qingdao to make films subject to Chinese government censorship, and global moviegoers are unlikely to flock into cinemas to watch them.
In the five years I have spent teaching at Chinese universities, a great number of my Chinese students have told me that they have little interest in Mainland Chinese films, TV shows, or popular music, because of the limited subject matter and lack of imaginative content due to government censorship. Instead, they turn to cultural products from America, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese films enjoy little success abroad for the same reason. Witness the unremarkable performance of Flowers of War, a highly-anticipated 2011 effort by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou starring Christian Bale, which enjoyed little box-office success abroad and was widely panned by critics as melodramatic, sentimental, and pandering.
China’s effort to become the new Hollywood echoes its 2010 effort to launch an English-language international TV news channel, CNC World, to compete with CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera. This effort sadly fizzled, of course. Viewers around the world watch CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera because they know that those news channels are not controlled or censored by the governments of the countries from which they broadcast. These same viewers are not going to watch a news channel they know is nothing but a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.
Another noted Chinese soft power effort, its state-run network of Confucius Institutes at universities around the world, has come under fire as an instrument of Chinese government propaganda masquerading as a cultural institution. Alarm bells rang when a high-ranking Communist Party official was quoted calling the institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Population Research Institute president Steven W. Mosher testified to the US Congress that a chief purpose of Confucius Institutes is “to subvert, co-opt, and ultimately control Western academic discourse on matters pertaining to China.” A number of universities have barred the institutes from their campuses.
China’s nationalistic efforts to promote “traditional Chinese culture” at home are an equally sad charade. As almost anyone familiar with the region will tell you, traditional Chinese culture is more authentically experienced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even Chinatowns overseas than in Mainland China. What you’ll see in Mainland China is mostly a government-approved, communist-kitsch version of traditional Chinese culture: 5000 years of Chinese civilization yoked to the propaganda wheels of the current regime, and historic sites turned into cheesy tourist traps.
Authentic culture doesn’t happen by decree or to serve the narrow power interests of an unelected government. It happens under conditions of free and spontaneous expression. China has enormous talent and creative potential. Its talent won’t flourish, however, its potential won’t be realized, and its soft power efforts are doomed to fail until the Chinese government takes its boot off the throats of China’s creative and intellectual communities. If freedom of expression can work in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most of Mainland China’s other Asia-Pacific neighbors, it can work in Mainland China.
Without freedom of expression, there will be no Chinese Renaissance. There will be only a Xanadu built of lies and illusions.