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China Launches Culture Strategy

On January 16, China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) announced an ambitious strategic plan to make international the presence of its media and publication companies. The plan is to let the world know more about China and enhance the influence of Chinese culture, Fan Weiping, head of GAPP told China Daily. Fan hoped that China’s cultural enterprises will flourish in every corner of the world, like Chinese restaurants.

China has a huge publication industry, basically state controlled. According to records there are 1,943 newspapers and 9,549 magazines. The output of the industry was expected to reach $147 billion, according to China Daily. According to the constitutions of the state and the Communist Party, all publications are under their control. There is nothing called a free media in China. Yet, rags do exist in the far flung provinces. On a visit to Kunming, capital of the South Eastern Yunan province about 15 years ago, a local newspaper reported India had launched a nuclear attack on China. Was there a strategy behind the report? One does not think so. It is like “the world will end tomorrow” jokes.

Something that is not widely discussed is that most Chinese official journals have an open edition and a Neibu edition. Neibu means confidential or restricted, and the Neibu edition is meant for distribution only among party cadres and government officials of a certain rank and above. The Neibu edition carries reports and articles which provide reports, and analytical articles containing Information not meant for foreigners. Some of these can even be critical of work related to the government to alert senior officers of things going wrong. With the explosion of information and rising printing costs, the Neibu editions have been decreasing, but the important ones still serve the state’s and party’s interests.

Chinese journalists working abroad also have a dual role – overt and covert. This is something known to intelligence and security establishments of their host countries, but not widely known among other people. In most democratic countries including India, journalists both local and foreign have free access to political parties and others except notified government institutions. Information is, therefore, easy to collect. Foreign journalists in China do not have such freedom of access. Those who cross the line are expelled from the country and even, jailed on charges of stealing state secrets.

China still follows the practice of the old Communist States. They have one rule for themselves and another rule for others. At the same time, democratic states cannot change their own philosophies to match that of China’s. It will be self-defeating. India tried that during the emergency years of 1975-77. It will never do so again. Systems are different, which leaves Chinese journalists with an advantage. Unless, of course, the practice of reciprocity is established. But this is unlikely to work, either. The Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (August 24, 2009) carried a very interesting article on Chinese culture. Written by a former Chinese Ambassador Wu Jiamin, the article asked what China could contribute to the world? It is Chinese culture, Wu wrote.

In a very brief, but very interesting presentation for the common reader, Wu Jiamin presented that the western culture, which is based on Christian civilization, is based on binary pairs of arguments such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, orthodox and heterodox, heaven and hell. These are polar opposites and one must destroy the other. Based on this, Wu determined the aggressiveness in US policies to label and fight issues like ‘Islamic terrorism”, west versus the east and other similar development in the world. What Wu tried to convey was that the western culture was intolerant of others, there was no sense of “harmony” in the universe, and it was marked by destruction. It is difficult to dismiss Wu Jiamin’s thesis. Starting from the crusade against the Muslims, to colonialism, and more recently wars to dominate the world, western culture cannot exist with dissenting opinions. But Wu did not stop to examine wars waged by Islamic emirates and armies which were aimed at conquests, looting and killing and forceful religious conversion.

While conceding that western and Chinese cultures have similarities, Wu focuses on differences. He says that the Chinese people introduced the concept of “harmony in diversity” more than 2000 years ago. He goes on to state the obvious about all Asian cultures including that of India’s, which accept the permanence of cultural diversity but yet absorb the same making their culture more rich and vibrant. Only, Wu talks of Chinese culture alone, emphasizing that Chinese civilization is the only uninterrupted civilization.

In saying so, Wu Jiamin may have inadvertently negated the official Chinese claim that Chinese suffered under foreign colonialism and hence they must get back their reparation costs. In fact Chinese culture may have to be influenced in modern times by western music and, today, many Chinese people copy western food and attire. China’s harmony in diversity really started after 1978. This needs to be examined further. In this context, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s “View points about the Times”, which comprises five fundamental theories, is interesting. Of the five theories one is “Constructing a harmonious world”. The other four deal with China’s participation with the world. In this, “building harmonious world” is critical, as it is the vector that will carry China’s “culture” to the rest of the world.

China’s cultural thrust was not thought about yesterday. For decades they have been watching the activities of the British Council, Alliance France and others, trying to educate foreigners about their national language and culture. A few years ago, they started establishing Confucious Institues in several countries including India. This is a welcome move as it brings Chinese language and culture to students of the host countries. But this will become a problem if the effort is to brain wash impressionable minds to Chinese political supremacy. One cannot see the Chinese publication industry (the GAPP which actually is the Chinese censor organization) push so hard an international platform without some questions. It appears to have come from the ancient strategy of fighting a war without waging a war. The aim is to avoid a military conflict, but there also no rules by which the game is played. It is aimed at wearing out the mind of the adversary and mesmerizing it to see only the Chinese way.

A very recent strategy noticed is the pulling back of attacks on India by the Chinese media. It is doing what it wants on the Sino-India border areas, and protests from the Indian media is either met with a stoic silence or referring briefly to agreements between the governments of the two countries. First, the intention is to tire out the Indian media. Next, project the Indian media of unilateral belligerence. One does not know how long this tactic will last, but if a horde of Chinese publication companies take roots in India the situation will become challenging.

On the other hand, the ancient Chinese strategies were a product of a very different China. There was no outside world or global competition, or the need for acquiring energy and resources from abroad, and finding jobs for a burgeoning population. There was no Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang threatening to break out of China’s perceived territory or other Chinese territorial claims.

Aggressive Chinese cultural conflicts in recent times are marked by actions such as protests during the Beijing Olympic torch relay through different countries including India, the more recent actions on a Melbourne film festival which had a documentary on the life of Uighur leader Ms.Rebia Kadeer, and the protests and withdrawal from the German book festival because of books on the Dalai Lama. These are only examples.

Every Chinese action in these cases not only brought down the age old established practice of diplomatic etiquette, but now brinks on nationalistic hooliganism by Chinese officials. The Chinese media i.e. the publication and propaganda industry was light in the forefront of such shocking behavior. This is a very different China.

How comfortable will countries be with the Chinese propaganda machinery and secondary espionage actors right in their drawing rooms?

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New

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