Is China at war with the West? Hu Jintao, China’s leader, evidently thinks so, and to go by his recent words and actions, the greatest threats are blockbuster movies and reality TV. While the state has been increasing its restrictions on outside cultural products and keeping old barriers in place—limiting the number of foreign movies to 20 a year, for instance—Hu brought the scaremongering to a new level in a recent essay. “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,” he writes in Qiushi, the leading Communist Party magazine.
Hu deserves credit for recognizing that the standing of his country’s culture—and, more particularly, its influence abroad—is “not commensurate with China’s international status.” What he misses is that the root of the problem isn’t foreign infiltration, but China’s own repressive government, which has forfeited its claim to soft power by acting increasingly repressive at home and belligerent abroad. Hu’s very essay is a contradiction in terms: Why would a government that is so bullying as to demand an end to “excessive entertainment” expect that its own cultural offerings would be welcomed with open arms?
In his Qiushi essay, Hu Jintao did not discuss, among other things, censorship. And that omission highlights the most important problem with Mr. Hu’s slogan-filled rant. Communist leaders these days give the impression of being an especially insecure lot, an indication of the increasing volatility in Chinese society. There may have been as many as 280,000 “mass incidents” in China in 2010, way up from the 80,000 or so in the middle of last decade. Yet it is not the growing number of demonstrations that must worry officials—it is the increasing violence. China is not only seeing increased protests and strikes, but also insurrections, riots, and bombings. This is what Hu Jintao is trying to get at with his calls for ideological warfare against outsiders. There is, as he suggests, a struggle going on in the minds of the population, and he’s right that Communist and authoritarian ideals are losing ground to democratic principles and Western values.
But what does any of this have to do with popular TV? In the minds of Communist Party functionaries, these shows are corrupted irredeemably by their Western origins. A few shows, like Super Girls, have incorporated audience voting, a daring concept for a dictatorial state. Moreover, this “vulgar” programming has been growing so fast that it is crowding out more ideologically inspiring fare. But Beijing authorities put an end to that. Among other changes earlier this month, dating show Take Me Out was replaced by Ordinary Hero, which promotes socialist virtues.
China has seen the same dynamic at work at movie theaters, with Hollywood blockbusters drawing far larger audiences than Beijing’s lavishly funded historical productions, such as last September’s Xinhai Revolution, to commemorate the fall of the Qing dynasty, and The Founding of a Party, released last June to mark the 90th anniversary of China’s leading political organization. It is not that these films fail to resonate with China’s audiences—for many people they do tap into a deep reservoir of national pride—but it is that, after a lifetime of incessant propaganda, the Chinese bristle at being told what to watch.
And when the Chinese do choose, they make decisions that unsettle their leaders. Perhaps this was most apparent in the overwhelming popularity of Avatar in 2010, which led the authorities to severely restrict showings of the James Cameron smash. Beijing evidently viewed the film’s message as highly subversive: China at the time was—as it is now—plagued by high-profile land grabs by officials, and many ordinary Chinese saw their own struggle as similar to that of the film’s fictional Navi, who eventually organize an insurgency against invaders.
When a regime is as obsessed with control as is China’s, then most anything—even a story about blue-skinned creatures living in trees—can be interpreted as a threat to security. If Hu sounded aggressive in his Qiushi essay, it was undoubtedly because he realizes that more is at stake than the current limitation on Hollywood films. More than three decades of engagement by the West have not mellowed China’s Communist Party. But what engagement and especially trade has done is turn the Chinese people into a vibrant and independent-minded force that is difficult to stop: A billion citizens who don’t like taking instructions put the notion of a one-party system at risk. If there is one theme apparent in China today, it is that most Chinese think authoritarian control is no longer appropriate in a modernizing society. As one Shanghai resident said to me a few years ago, “I don’t know anyone who believes in the Party anymore.”
Consequently, China’s hardline Party leaders are increasingly concerned about their ability to rule, and they no longer believe they can safely continue Deng Xiaoping’s transformational policies of “reform and opening up.” Since the middle of 2006, there has been an evident change of paradigm, as Hu Jintao has embraced a new model of partial renationalization and a closing-up of the economy. This disadvantages not only foreigners, but Chinese entrepreneurs as well. As they say in Beijing these days, “the Communist Party is now the economy.”
This xenophobic, anti-reform atmosphere is out of step with most of China’s people, but Hu’s goal with his current campaign is to target and reassure Beijing elites. The Party and the central government for some years have been caught up in a once-in-a-decade political transition, as the so-called Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu, are giving way to the Fifth. The success of this transition, which will effectively last for years, will depend foremost on assuaging the concerns and satisfying the ambitions of high-level members of the Communist Party.
Yet the Communist Party’s inward focus is not just the product of political calculation. It’s also the mark—together with increasing coercion, worsening corruption, and progressive rigidity—of a more general and prolonged decline of the Party’s effectiveness. China, it seems, has gone about as far as it can within the limits of its existing political framework.
Hu Jintao’s off-key broadsides against foreign culture, then, are not an aberration, but a real reflection of a regime fearing for its “cultural security.” They are best viewed as a ruling group’s desperate salvo in a fight to regain the authority it correctly feels slipping from its grasp.
Gordon G. Chang is a Forbes.com columnist and the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang