China strikes at West through pop culture wars
By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
BEIJING – When Chinese leader Hu Jintao recently warned his nation's ruling Communist Party of an imminent risk from the West, he wasn't talking about the United States boosting its military capabilities in East Asia. He was alluding to things such as video games.
"International hostile forces" use thought and culture "to Westernize and split" China, Hu stated in a speech publicized in January in the party magazine Seeking Truth.
At least China's embattled youth can strike back at the West come May when Glorious Mission, a civilian version of the Chinese army's first training simulation game, goes on sale, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. Co-developed by the People's Liberation Army, the online, first-person shooter game allows players to destroy enemies that resemble U.S. forces.
Glorious Mission and other "serious games" supported by Chinese authorities form one front in Beijing's multiheaded cultural offensive, launched last fall. There's been fighting talk from Hu's likely successor, Xi Jinping.
China's universities are "a key ideological front to equip our youth with the core values of socialism," he told the country's deans last week. Xi, 58, is likely to succeed Hu, 69, as party general secretary this year.
Through massive investment, and countless censors, the Communist Party aims to boost China's "soft power," or cultural influence, abroad and shore up "cultural security" at home by reinforcing state control of the sector and guiding audiences back to "socialist core values." Neither goal will come easily.
"The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak," Hu Jintao admitted.
China is the home of pandas and kung fu, yet it took Hollywood to make the smash-hit animated movie Kung Fu Panda, the sequel of which was China's most popular film in 2011. The fast-swelling ranks of young, urban consumers here have proved highly receptive to the pop culture of the USA and Asian neighbors South Korea and Japan.
State censors launch regular crackdowns, sometimes with bizarre targets: Last year, authorities restricted time-travel TV dramas and banned downloading of certain foreign pop songs, including The Backstreet Boys' seemingly non-political 1999 hit I Want It That Way.
In recent weeks, the government has stripped two-thirds of entertainment programs, mostly talent, talk and dating shows, from the schedules of China's popular satellite stations. Citing "excessive entertainment and a trend toward low taste," regulators have forced satellite channels to switch to programs promoting "traditional virtues and socialist core values," the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Some viewers reject the changes.
"I can't understand why the government deprives us of the right to enjoy TV entertainment programs, as they are so mild and interesting," complains Zhu Qiansheng, 23, an unemployed graduate from Zhengzhou, central China.
As authorities shrink his options, Zhu has gone online for U.S. shows such as House and Prison Break and Chinese websites' own shows that dare to air "more open" content, he says.
"But I worry the Internet will also be more controlled this year," Zhu says.
The clamor of cultural rhetoric reflects the political atmosphere of this transition year for China's leadership, says Sheila Melvin, a U.S. writer working on a book exploring China's cultural rise. Some party analysts hope to buttress China's cultural strength against the Western culture they see spurring the "Arab Spring" revolutions and the collapse of another communist dictatorship, the Soviet Union. There's also a deeper, moral purpose, Melvin says.
"The Communist Party has inherited the ancient belief that culture transforms — exposure to high culture can make you a more moral person, exposure to low culture can cause you to behave immorally," she says. "The party sees the many problems in Chinese society and hopes to address them with culture; to some degree, it can be seen as a substitute for religion."
Grabbing the world's attention will remain a tough task unless the government relaxes its decades-long control of "cultural products," cautions Yin Hong, a professor of film and television studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
"The restrictions on culture always make it hard for China to produce world-influencing literature and cinema," writes China's most popular blogger, novelist Han Han.
Despite stiff odds, Chinese video game creator Linus Xin hopes his "serious games" achieve some impact by enlivening the ideology and morality classes every Chinese college student must take.
Being tested in the capital's colleges, the Emotional Quotient Gas Station game teaches students, often nervous and naive, how to tackle the opposite sex in a respectful manner, says Xin, CEO of Intellect Valley Communications.
China's Ministry of Culture promotes the "serious game" category, characterized by strong educational and moral messages, although Xin and fellow game developer Zheng Yaqi say they have not received funding support.
"I hope the name 'serious game' won't scare off players," says Zheng, CEO of Pipilu Culture and Technology, who is transforming the popular children's stories of his father, Zheng Yuanjie, into educational games. "Games can also show a country's soft power," says Zheng, who hopes U.S. players and readers will develop a taste for his dad's creations.
Online game fanatic Liu Bowen, 23, has never played a "serious game" and dismisses EQ Gas Station for its "boring and silly" name. But he looks forward to the PLA's Glorious Mission "if it's violent and bloody." Otherwise, "I have no interest."
"I don't think it's good for government to control or encourage which type of game we should play," Liu says.