BY Rebecca Davis AND Josh Freedman in Opinion | 23 MAR 21
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Issue 217

How the Chinese Government is Using Art as Soft Power

Cultural censorship helps reinforce Communist Party narratives within China’s borders, but can easily backfire  

BY Rebecca Davis AND Josh Freedman in Opinion | 23 MAR 21

Last October, the Château des ducs de Bretagne history museum in Nantes abruptly cancelled an exhibition on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. A long-planned collaboration with the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot, China, the show was pulled months before it was set to open. The French curators released a statement accusing central Chinese authorities of intervening to remove the words ‘empire’, ‘Mongol’ and even ‘Genghis Khan’ from the show, and of rewriting exhibition materials to ‘totally erase Mongolian culture and history in favour of a new national narrative’. Just three years earlier, Chinese state newswire Xinhua had praised the same show when it was on tour at the National Military Museum in Soest, the Netherlands.

Such cancellations at the behest of Chinese authorities are disturbingly common. In other media, like cinema, they can be even more costly. Despite passing numerous rounds of censorship, the patriotic Chinese war film The Eight Hundred (2020) was pulled from the high-profile opening slot at the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival and had its nationwide release abruptly scrapped after a group of well-connected communist experts and retired cadres convinced officials that highlighting the central role of the rival Nationalist Party in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), rather than exclusively focusing on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), constituted a problematic retelling of history. The blockbuster was shelved for more than a year, leaving its production company in financial tatters. 

Genghis Khan equestrian statue  in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2008. Courtesy and photograph: Getty Images/Tuul  & Bruno Morandi
Genghis Khan equestrian statue in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2008. Courtesy and photograph: Getty Images/Tuul

& Bruno Morandi

These incidents call to mind an observation from Prisoner of Mao (1973), the autobiography of journalist Jean Pasqualini, who survived seven years in a Chinese labour camp during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution: ‘In Maoist China, it is the past which is unpredictable.’ After more than 40 years of reform, China today is much more open and globally interconnected than it was in Mao Zedong’s time, and its leaders frequently call for increased international cooperation. Yet, the CCP continues to try to control its own version of history and truth, undercutting its own efforts to build cultural soft power. Why do CCP authorities burn bridges where they want to forge mutual trust? 

To answer this question, it helps to better understand the fundamental link between politics and culture in China. In a keynote address given at a 2014 forum on literature and the arts in Beijing, President and CCP Chairman Xi Jinping criticized the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, declaring that such narrow solipsism could never give rise to masterpieces. Only art that properly distinguishes between right and wrong, and channels ‘the masses and reality’, can truly be considered good. Artists must ‘establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood and culture’, said Xi, otherwise, their work will only ‘reach a plateau, but not the peak of the world’. Xi’s words acknowledge art’s power to shape public consciousness, while declaring its subject matter too important to leave to the creative whims of individual artists. 

This idea is encapsulated in the phrase peigen zhuhun, which has begun to appear in high-level CCP rhetoric over the last two years. Although difficult to translate, it roughly means to ‘cultivate roots and mould souls.’ Party propagandists invoke peigen zhuhun to hammer home the need for artists, writers, philosophers and social scientists to keep up with the political zeitgeist and play a leading role in shaping the views of the Chinese people to align with the CCP’s understanding of Chinese history and political boundaries as well as its quest for national rejuvenation. 

Such a connection of politics to art is hardly new to Xi’s China, or even to communism. In his essay collection What Is Literature? (1947), Jean-Paul Sartre – a favourite writer of Xi’s – called for art to be infused with political purpose. Xi, however, sees ‘correct’ politics as both the inspirational source and the ultimate output of cultural production. The weight of that dual burden often results in confusion and backtracking as political winds shift – as ethnic Mongolians break out in protest, say, or government departments with

differing interests jostle for bureaucratic supremacy – unpredictably swaying the goalposts of what constitutes party-approved politics. 

Both the Nantes exhibition and The Eight Hundred were initially developed to meet Xi’s directive to ‘tell the Chinese story well,’ a phrase first mentioned in a 2013 speech that has since become a central pillar of government policy. According to the CCP, if the cause of China’s subpar global reputation is misunderstandings and prejudice, then curators, filmmakers, writers and artists can correct this by showing the world ‘a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China and [enhancing the] country’s cultural soft power,’ as Xi declared at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. But creators often find that this picture is only ‘multi-dimensional’ when it reflects the CCP’s own constantly moving vantage point. What’s more real today may be less real tomorrow – and creators bear the responsibility of trying to keep up.

Rendering of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, scheduled to open in 2022. Courtesy: Rocco Design Architects Associates Ltd.

The forthcoming Hong Kong outpost of Beijing’s storied Palace Museum is the latest example of how important Chinese leaders consider museums to be as arbiters of history and culture. Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was roundly criticized in 2016 when she announced the project as a fait accompli without soliciting public consultation, noting at the time that any opposition would be ‘embarrassing’ to Beijing. The venue is scheduled to open in 2022, on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, and is a clear attempt to promote political integration of the semi-autonomous territory through cultural links with mainland China.

Lam recently praised the project in a November 2020 speech as ‘advancing dialogue among the world’s civilizations and cultures’, but the reality is surely more monologic: telling the version of China’s story that echoes the party line du jour. The party wants culture to flourish, but as soon as the China story becomes an open conversation, it threatens to jeopardize art’s fundamental purpose of cultivating roots and moulding souls. Culture, then, must be innovative yet restricted, appealing yet politically correct, and global yet acceptably local. Xi and other leaders claim that these demands are not mutually exclusive, but so far museums, artists and myriad other cultural figures have found the quest to combine illiberal politics and cultural vibrancy to be a tricky double bind. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Party's Over’.

Main image: Guan Hu, The Eight Hundred, 2020, video still. Courtesy: CMC Pictures Holdings

Rebecca Davis is a journalist focused on Chinese cinema and culture. She lives in Beijing, China, and Cambridge, USA.

Josh Freedman is a writer and doctoral candidate in government at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA.