China’s war against Harry Potter

China’s war against Harry Potter

Chinese President Hu Jintao waded into the culture wars yesterday, but not the same culture war that has distorted American politics. No, Hu’s worried that Western powers are waging a cultural war against China, and that advanced Western weaponry like Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, and the Transformers franchise are eating away at the cultural foundations of Chinese unity. According to various news sources, he has called upon Communist Party leaders to expand China’s own cultural output and achieve a global cultural influence "commensurate with its international status."

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. It’s not that I think the Chinese people couldn’t cast a larger cultural shadow both at home and abroad, it’s that this goal is not something that a bunch of middle-aged Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats can mandate and control, especially in an era where culture spreads via decentralized mechanisms like YouTube and file-sharing software.   Government leaders don’t create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents. Oops.

What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a "British invasion."  Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.

Other authoritarian bureaucracies offer similar lessons. Stalinist Russia produced "socialist realism" (not to be confused with realist IR theory!) and a lot of clunky middle-brow fiction, but hardly any lasting cultural products. There were great artists in the Soviet Union, to be sure, but the best (Shostakovich, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) fell afoul of the authorities at one time or another and those who retained official favor didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Soviet efforts to insulate themselves from outside cultural products backfired completely, as Western jazz, rock and roll, and other forms of contemporary art became clandestine objects of desire and emulation, all the more desired for being taboo.

Similarly, the Nazis attempts to stamp out "degenerate art" and to impose a uniform Nazi culture produced a predictable cultural wasteland. Adolf Hitler may have fancied himself an artist, but his tyrannical regime produced virtually no works of lasting cultural significance and mostly a lot of trashy kitsch. 

Hu’s attempt to order up cultural influence by directive faces another problem. Innovative cultural products usually draws on diverse influences: artists borrow ideas and inspiration from various sources and combine them in new ways, adding their own genius to the mix. That’s what Picasso did, and every other major artist, writer, or composer I can think of.  True of movie-makers, playwrights, and poets too. But as Hu’s warning suggests, China’s leaders are leery of opening their society completely to outside influences and unwilling to permit a completely free exchange of ideas inside China itself. By stifling creativity, these restrictions will inevitably inhibit the ability of Chinese artists to reach the cutting edge of global culture or to devise artistic products that will cast as long a shadow as open societies do.  

Ironically, if Hu really wants to win a culture war, he’d have to abandon some of the other social control mechanisms upon which CCP rule now depends. So if he wants to launch a culture war, I’d say "bring it on." Even a Rick Santorum presidency wouldn’t eliminate our many advantages on that front. Heck, it might even enhance them, at least in the areas of comedy and satire.