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Pop Culture Leads -- Freedom Follows

August 03, 2003|Sam Crane | Sam Crane teaches Chinese politics at Williams College and is the author of "Aidan's Way." e-mail: scrane

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Chinese punk rock. Chinese hip-hop. Chinese NBA stars. Twenty years ago, we could have hardly conceived of such things. What would Chairman Mao have thought of the playful and prosperous possibilities of Chinese cultural expression in the 21st century? What would Emperor Qian Long have thought?

The dignitaries of the imperial past and the commissars of the socialist period would probably reject as "un-Chinese" many of the contemporary cultural currents in Beijing and Shanghai and Guangzhou. Scantily clad models gliding down runways of internationally renowned fashion shows? Immoral, the old men would have intoned. Yet, in spite of derision from traditionalists and communists alike, the remarkable variety of current Chinese cultural practice is historically and politically significant.

A powerful link among culture and wealth and politics has been broken: In imperialist and socialist times, the Chinese government closely controlled both culture and economy, but now the weakening Communist regime has relinquished both.

In imperial times, a universal ideal of Chinese-ness was to be found in the Confucian classics. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, could learn to live the good life. Qian Long was Manchurian, not Han Chinese, yet he was, in his time, the epitome of Chinese culture. Indeed, the primary means to political power and wealth was cultural attainment, tested by the rigorous bureaucratic examination system. Independent merchants may have made fortunes through their entrepreneurial wiles, but, once successful, they quickly took on the trappings of the Confucian gentleman and made sure their sons studied the classics and practiced the rituals.

The tightly knit triumvirate of culture, power and wealth was slowly shattered by 19th century Western imperialism, which demonstrated new forms of power and wealth, thus undermining faith in the old culture. But before the new freedom could be institutionalized, Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party rebuilt the troika, this time giving greater prominence to politics.

In communist China, the party monopolized political power and the state controlled how wealth was produced and distributed. The party-state was also in the business of regulating culture. Mao even launched a Cultural Revolution in a desperate effort to destroy any possible challenge to his own preeminence. The Confucian gentleman was dead and the Red loyalist supreme.

China's universalist aspiration was also killed. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, that traditional Sino- centrism might be replaced by socialist internationalism, that China would be a part of a grand global revolutionary project. But nationalism proved the stronger force. Mao was, in the end, much more interested in socialism in one country -- his own -- than in building a worldwide movement.

Socialism ultimately failed, and by the late 1970s China was, in Deng Xiaoping's view, poor and backward. He devised a strategy for rebuilding China's stature in the world, but it was a deal with the globalization devil. The party would hold on to political power but let go of the economy. Private enterprise would be allowed. Foreign capital would be invited to invest and build new factories and offices. China would be integrated into the world economy; it would trade with all. The resulting economic growth, Deng believed, would enliven the country and reinvigorate the party's legitimacy. He was only half right.

If the enormous Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 proved anything, it was that economic growth did not automatically translate into wider popular support for party dictatorship. People were happy for the new prosperity, but they chafed at the old politics. And the bloody aftermath proved that the cost of political resistance was just too high.

So, Chinese, especially young Chinese, have turned to new cultural expressions: conspicuous consumption or pop music or drug-induced raves or whatever is fun and happy and not tied to the tired old China of traditional rectitude or communist asceticism.

Deng knew he was taking a gamble on opening up Chinese society to new forms of economic and cultural behavior. He thought he could let the economy run while he used state power to regulate culture. But what has happened is that culture and wealth have broken free from politics. Communists must now invite capitalists to join their party, an organization founded to overcome capitalism. Only a handful of intellectuals bothers to read Karl Marx anymore, but millions clamor for the latest Hong Kong or Taiwan pop star.

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