China’s ‘Third Affliction’: David Bandurski on Zhao Dayong, China’s New Cultural Control in the New York Times

"Ghost Town" (dir. Zhao Dayong)

In an article for the New York Times‘s “Latitudes: Views From Around the World” blog, producer of Chinese independent films and scholar David Bandurski weighs in on recent developments in the Chinese government’s control of “soft-power” artistic and ideological culture. Reflecting on the emotionally-charged reception of Zhao Dayong‘s “unflinching” documentary Ghost Town at Lincoln Center in 2009, Bandurski comments on the government’s dogmatic “decision” to “lead a renaissance of cultural creation.” Recalling a CCP Politburo announcement in Beijing last month, Bandurski reports:

…I watched the nine members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee preside over a stiffly choreographed meeting of the country’s most senior leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Against a phalanx of red flags and an enormous golden hammer-and-sickle, President Hu Jintao delivered the Chinese Communist Party’s document on “promoting the great development and prosperity of socialist culture.”

The gist of the “Decision” was that China’s ruling party, recognizing that culture is soft power, would lead a renaissance of cultural creation. The message behind the turgid ideological phrasings and the rodomontade about how the party was leading “the great reawakening of the Chinese people” was that China’s leaders would encourage culture so long as it served their narrow political ends. The Decision states emphatically that China’s rank-and-file “cultural workers” must uphold the party’s “main theme” and “keep to the correct orientation” in cultural creation.

Bandurski adds:

Controlling culture is nothing new to the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party has twisted culture to its own ends ever since Mao Zedong dogmatized on the role of literature and art at Yan’an in 1942. During the Cultural Revolution, China’s traditions were ravaged or subverted to persecute millions. What was new last month was the C.C.P.’s urgent sense that China’s power and place in the world should be reflected in its cultural strength. The party has long sought to manufacture legitimacy by “guiding” public opinion domestically through aggressive controls on media and culture. Now it also hopes to influence global public opinion in its favor.

Bandurski continues, addressing the “third affliction” plaguing China and international perspectives on China’s cultural and sociological development:

Behind the bravado lies deep anxiety about what some in China have called the “third affliction,” its negative image in the world. With its economy now the envy of the world, China has symbolically thrown off the affliction of poverty. With its powerful and modernizing military, it is no longer afflicted by the threat of foreign aggression, as it was during its “century of shame.” Yet the country’s international prestige remains constrained by the cultural dominance of the West. Each time China is castigated by the international human rights community, or criticized by the Western media, the country’s leaders feel more and more that global public opinion is stacked against them. Western culture and values have gone global in a way that Chinese culture and values have not, and Beijing wants to do something about this.

China’s leaders hope to close this “soft-power deficit” the only way they know how: by diktat. But commercializing state-controlled culture built on repression only turns the spotlight on the injustices of China’s political system. China’s “third affliction” is a self-inflicted malady. As the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said amid the official drivel in state-run media: “Governments in countries with cultural censorship may no longer fear criticism at the hands of their own country’s cultural work, but they must endure the ridicule of the whole world.”

"The High Life" (dir. Zhao Dayong)

Returning to his discussion of Zhao Dayong and other artists who “refuse to submit to government censorship, [and] will continue to endure marginalization to protect their creative freedom and work in a state of perpetual exile from their Chinese audiences,” Bandurski laments that, even amid Ghost Town‘s enthusiastic, packed-house reception at Lincoln Center, he “could not shake the bittersweet recognition that this moment would never have been possible in Zhao’s own China.”

The gap between the CCP’s attempts to exert “soft cultural” influence around the globe and the stirring work produced by Zhao and other underground independent filmmakers–or perhaps the reality of Chinese film culture worldwide–goes further:

No sooner had the curtain closed on the C.C.P. meeting in Beijing than media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan reported with unmistakable schadenfreude that an Oct. 17 showing at Lincoln Center of the 2009 Chinese propaganda epic “The Founding of a Republic” had drawn not a single filmgoer. The screening was an opener for the series “