The Duck of Minerva

Hu’s Culture War

5 January 2012

Building on PM’s earlier post, “Cultural Weapons and International Relations” I’d like to look at an example that helps to illustrate the ways in which Realism misunderstands the role of culture in global politics. In his blog post titled, “China’s War Against Harry Potter,” Stephen Walt analyzes President Hu Jintao’s attempt to defend Chinese culture by increasing its production of local culture. What is interesting is that Walt has plenty to say about culture, but he wants to separate cultural production from the state and to portray the state’s attempt to manage culture as irrational.

First, Walt argues that cultural and artistic production is something which authoritarian states cannot manage well. He writes, “What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech.”  For Walt, the cutting edge of creativity comes autonomously from the state.

Walt’s argument is flawed because all states are involved to varying degrees in cultural production, including liberal democratic states. Canada and France are perhaps the most prominent examples of states that seek to enhance and shape cultural production through bureaucratic regulations. Other states effectively subsidize the arts and cultural activities through tax codes as well as national institutes and the US is no exception. Even the general income tax code can provide incentives for artists to be innovative and unique so that they can try to join the top 1% of the income bracket. The same tax code can provide incentives to patrons of the arts when they decide to donate their purchases so that they can be viewed by the plebeians. Moreover, cultural production does not have to be at the cutting edge of global culture to serve the interests of the state — particularly when the Chinese state’s main concern is to defend against a growing domestic preference for American popular culture.

Why might Walt view cultural production as ideally a distinct activity from the state? The answer probably lies in Realism’s relatively narrow and often materialistic conceptualization of power and its understanding of the proper functions of a statesman. Of course, we’ve known at least since Gramsci (and probably as far back as Plato) that states are not merely territorial actors; states must secure allegiance by colonizing the minds and  tongues of their inhabitants. This is why all states are concerned with the cultivation and preservation of culture, although some states may have a relatively more sophisticated and indirect approach.

Second, Walt depicts President Hu’s defense of culture as somewhat irrational or at the very least misguided.  Walt writes, “Forgive me, but China’s leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game.”

I would argue that Hu’s speech is in no way irrational — far from it — it was entirely predictable. Hu Jintao is widely expected to retire in 2013 when he will most likely be replaced by Xi Jinping, the son of Xi Zhongxun, a founder of the CCP. Any China expert worth his salt would already have predicted that we should expect to see increased efforts to stabilize domestic politics (through the repression of dissent) and a non-confrontational foreign policy until the transition in power is complete. As an institutional actor and a value rational actor it makes sense for the President to ensure the longevity of the regime.

Hu’s focus on culture as a key mechanism to ensure domestic stability at a time when China is being rocked by protests is not at all an irrational impulse. The management of culture is at the heart of statecraft. Moreover, claiming that protesters are only protesting because they are misguided by foreign ideas is a classic deflection strategy. Even states in a global economy can manage the production of domestic popular culture and prevent much of the penetration of foreign cultural products through censorship, although perhaps not quite as bluntly as Hu may desire. Nevertheless, the attempt to reinvigorate Chinese popular culture at this point in time may ultimately prove futile as Walt argues, but one can understand why it is a pressing concern for the Chinese Premier President simply by adding culture to the domain of state power.