Pop Culture Leads -- Freedom Follows

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

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.

The political liberation of culture and wealth is not unprecedented in Chinese history. In the early decades of the 20th century, the old ways had been discarded and the new was everywhere intoxicating the young. But war destroyed this efflorescence, and communist victory brought back a stricter political regime. Now, however, the openness is even headier. Globalized communications and transportation make virtually any cultural form anywhere available to the Chinese. And they seize the opportunities with passion.

Oddly enough, globalization has also reconstituted a Chinese universalism of sorts. Imperial universalism was founded on the notion that (almost) anyone could become Chinese; now, universalism is a matter of Chinese becoming (almost) anything.

There is an important political aspect of this new universal China: It opens up new avenues of freedom.

The party can no longer control the cultural sphere. It can harass large cultural organizations, like Falun Gong, which have obvious political characteristics. But it no longer has the capacity to chase down the many who are subverting what used to be called “socialist spiritual civilization.” There is no effort at all to counter the flood of insipid pop cultural products and productions, none of which uphold socialist values. At the margins of society, in the avant-garde studios and back-alley clubs, much more challenging messages are pouring forth.

Taken all together, the bland and the brash, culture has become a realm of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom of individual taste and opinion. And this freedom will have political effects over the not-so-long term. Just listen to what the punk rockers are saying:

Red flag in this sky, but it means


Red flag doesn’t need a star,

like freedom doesn’t need a flag.

So many [damn] rules, but I don’t


Let’s burn this flag,

Now it’s the time.

It seems that the new universal China cannot be comfortably contained by the old powers that be.