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What Is behind Hu Jintao’s Caution against “Western Cultural Infiltration”?

January 26, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (1)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

In an article published in early January 2012 in the Communist Party policy magazine Qiushi (求是), Chinese President Hu Jintao cautioned against Western culture infiltrating and subverting China. In fact, the warning is one of the main points in a speech he gave last October at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Party Congress. Now that it has been bill-boarded in the official Chinese press, the international media are trying to decode it. What is the actual message being sent? Is it just the same old talk of “guarding against peaceful evolution” (from one-party rule toward democracy) from the Mao era? Or is it something deeper? Below is a brief analysis.

Currently, China’s reform has reached a dead end, and the authorities are unable to offer up any halfway decent reform proposal prior to the 18th Party Congress slated to take place in October 2012. The reason for this inability is that the CPC ruling clique has completely degenerated into a self-serving special interest group. Any reform is bound to affect the interests of this elite and destabilize the one-party dictatorship—something that those in power would never allow. Below, I will look at the four plates of reform: politics, economics, society, and culture.

Political reform has been stagnant for many years now. This fact has been the crux of the intensification of all sorts of social conflict across China, yet the authorities have absolutely refused to relinquish their monopoly on power. Economic reform is also in trouble—the most prominent cause of China's social conflict has long been the pattern of severely unbalanced and unjust distribution of benefits. This has led to a situation where the people are moving backward while the nation advances, where the people are becoming poor while the officials become rich. However, any reform in China’s economic sphere is bound to affect the interests of the power elite and monopolistic enterprises and disturb the foundation of the one-party system, something that the authorities are not willing to tolerate. As for social reform, the priority task is reform of the household registration [hukou] system, which has been widely criticized for treating migrant workers from the countryside as second-class citizens. But the household registration system is the cornerstone of the authorities’ control over the entire society; once removed, they fear that they would lose social control. Moreover, they also fear that household registration reform might trigger a rise in the cost of labor, which would aggravate the current economic downtown.

In this situation, the Chinese authorities can only take the path of least resistance and make an issue of cultural system reform, which is just cosmetic. They are doing this because if they cannot produce any plans for deepening the reform program before the 18th Party Congress, they would have nothing to show for inside and outside the Party. This is the underlying reason for proposing reform of the cultural system at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Party Congress.

Further, as China’s current economic development model becomes unsustainable, the authorities—by bringing state-owned cultural and news organizations into the market—are not only relieving a financial burden but also adding a new growth point to the economy, thereby stimulating an already tired and declining economy. This is their calculation. But this is a double-edged sword. After bringing cultural news organizations into the market, the authorities are worried that these organizations would then be guided by market demands, which would make it even more difficult for the authorities to control the socially diverse public opinion that has been made possible by the Internet in recent years. This is the real consideration behind Hu Jintao’s emphasis on vigilance against the ideological and cultural infiltration of hostile Western forces—both to show the authorities’ concern over the marginalization of the Party's culture and themes, and to pre-emptively guard against the side effects of cultural system reform, tightening the control of public opinion.

When trying to decode the Chinese authorities’ implementation of cultural system reform, most international media outlets have framed their commentary from the perspective that the reform is a strategy of the “great external propaganda campaign”—to promote soft power in a great nation’s foreign affairs. This is true, but only partially and superficially so. In its core are the imperatives of internal politics analyzed above; it is an expression of the fact that reform in China is in a difficult spot and cannot find its way forward.

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