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Julian Baird Gewirtz

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'Foreign Trash' and China's Soft Power

Posted: 05/29/2012 12:46 pm

It's a strange day when a man who has been called "one of the faces of China's soft power push" calls Westerners in China "foreign trash" on his microblog, railing:

Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can't find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West ... We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

This extreme nationalist vitriol comes from Yang Rui, an anchor on China's flagship English-language news and interview program, Dialogue. Cultural products like the English-language Dialogue have been developed in recent years as part of a major Chinese Communist Party attempt to bolster China's cultural soft power internationally. Yang himself had said in a 2008 interview, "I do not only have to represent myself, but am also the spokesman for a country's image." Yang's trash-talking tweet has ignited a firestorm of criticism and controversy, both in China and among China watchers around the world.

What does it mean that Yang Rui, a supposed ambassador of Chinese soft power, turns out to be a xenophobe who sees foreigners as "trash" and, at a minimum, wants to "send then packing"? It would be easy to rush to one of two conclusions: either that China's whole soft power push is fraudulent, or that this is simply an isolated incident. Yet neither of these takes comes close to telling the whole story.

Yang's comments recall a much more politic essay, touching on similar themes, that China's outgoing president Hu Jintao published on January 1, 2012. That essay decried "international hostile forces" seeking to "westernize and divide China" by assaulting China's "ideological and cultural fields," bemoaning China's weak "cultural soft power" and calling for China to "strive to build a powerful socialist culture." The placement of Hu's essay -- in the Party magazine Seeking Truth on the first day of a political transition year -- signaled key themes for both the transition and the new administration.

Following the essay's release, commentators clamored that Hu was promoting a culture "war" and called the ideas "China's new cultural revolution." Such characterizations are too extreme, but, more importantly, they miss the key point of Hu's essay: it's China's soft power, as much as China's culture, that he's worried about. Taken together, Hu's essay and Yang's rant signal important changes concerning the place of culture in China's "rise" as well as China's intentions about its relationship to the West. These developments fit into the larger story of increasing distrust of the United States among China's leaders -- and have troubling implications for the future of the U.S.-China relationship.

In Hu's essay, he presents "culture" as a tool in, and site of, "fierce international competition." Hu says that the popularity of Western music, film, and other cultural products, without corresponding Chinese cultural success, is inherently "hostile." In doing so, he expresses broader anxieties about the negative effects of foreign values and involvements on China. But if China is to attain what he sees as its proper greatness, Hu argues, China's relative weakness in cultural soft power must be remedied.

In one sense, these statements signaled a renewed push to control culture within China. Chinese culture czars have demonstrated increasing hostility to Western-style dating shows and other "vulgarities." Reports following the essay's publication about new censorship rules that went into effect starting January 1 -- including bans on reality TV shows spawned by the saucy megahit dating program If You Are the One, which the English-language Party organ China Daily called "morally ambiguous and visually electrifying" -- have made clear that culture is becoming even more fully a terrain of government enforcement and monitoring. As a result, tamer shows like Dialogue have been pushed to the forefront.

However, especially in light of Yang Rui's virtual vociferation, the global dimensions of the CCP cultural agenda merit close attention. Hu's essay presents Chinese culture as an integral component of China's broader development, what has been called the "China Model" of political and economic development. This China Model, Hu suggests, can be a crucial source of not only China's domestic strength, but also China's global soft power. Developing countries around the world want to emulate China's economic success, and authoritarian leaders see in China a path to economic reform that will allow them to maintain political control.

Crucially, Yang Rui, like Hu Jintao, suggests that Hu's "international hostile forces" -- what Yang Rui might call "foreign trash" -- are "infiltrating" China's economic and political base, threatening to corrupt the foundation of the "China Model." It is easy to imagine what angry Chinese might have in mind, from diplomatic spectacles like the recent Chen Guangzheng case to business incidents like those that have plagued mining giant Rio Tinto. Taken together, Hu's essay and Yang's tweet point at a crisis of Western political, economic, social, and cultural "infiltration," seeking to "westernize and divide China." From this perspective, China can follow Yang's advice to "send them packing" or Hu's call to fight back against these forces by developing strong cultural soft power of its own.

China's future is at stake in navigating these dynamics -- and not just with regard to China's domestic questions, such as the ability of the CCP to govern effectively and of the "China Model" to continue to produce good outcomes for the Chinese economy. China's cultural agenda, and the tensions that Hu and Yang target in very different ways, may prove to be the decisive factor shaping China's relation to the world in the coming years. China's quest for soft power, at its best, is a quest to join more fully the world order, to engage internationally and have the world look to China with respect. Yet statements like Yang's represent the forces within China pushing for China to disengage from the world and exist only in isolation.

Yang's particular position, then, embodies the powerful tensions shaping China's relation to the world today. His comments reveal that the CCP's soft power agenda has become a dangerous fault line, both domestically and internationally. It will be an extraordinary challenge for China's new leadership to strengthen the country's cultural sphere while also maintaining the kind of global engagement that will make greater soft power useful. If they fail, the loss in either direction will be enormous. But if they succeed, the Chinese Communist Party will significantly enhance its authority on the world stage and at home.

 
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