13 January 2008

China Media Project’s David Bandurski points out that Hu Jintao’s political report to the 17th Party Congress placed some emphasis on increasing China’s “cultural soft power”. China’s soft power pundits, apparently, believe that culture is a tool in “international struggles” and that America uses its music and movies to promote its strategic interests. Hu Jintao proclaimed:

“[we must] create more excellent, popular works that reflect the people’s principal position in the country and their real life… vigorously develop the cultural industry, launch major projects to lead the industry as a whole, speed up development of cultural industry bases and clusters of cultural industries with regional features, nurture key enterprises and strategic investors, create a thriving cultural market and enhance the industry’s international competitiveness.”

Of course, this all must be done under “correct guidance” - nothing “very yellow, very violent”, I presume, would be one of those things. Bandurski ends by saying:

Suppression, macro-meddling, nationalism and cultural snobbery. Now there’s a recipe for a cultural renaissance.

But the proof, as Hu would tell you himself, is in the business. And the question is now set: when the flowers of China’s “soft power” are brought to market, will the free world care to buy them?

The simple answer is no. And to provide the answer, I turn to the philosopher-poet Will I Am, producer and member of the Black Eyed Peas, who have turned out “some of the catchiest, most shamelessly commercial, unapologetically stupid hit songs of the 21st century”, when asked about why his band isn’t compared to more high-brow groups like the Roots anymore:

People always want to say you’ve lost your mission, but you can’t let that distract from what you love to do. I love to make music. If I were a painter, I would paint beautiful bodies—I would paint nipples, and I would paint Bibles. Am I going to say, “I’m not going to paint this woman’s neck because people will think I just want to lick on necks?” Please! That’s not what art is about. Some people could say “My Humps” isn’t art, and I’d say, cool. But I think it is. Also, our biggest hit ever was “Where Is the Love,” which is a very political song…

No one really thinks of the Black Eyed Peas as a political band (at least I don’t), but I’ll say one thing for them: in the summer of 2005, I heard the song “Let’s Get Retarded” in Urumqi (where all my Russian and Central Asian friends played it endlessly), Shanghai, Vienna, Budapest, Hvar, Mostar (nice clubs next to the new bridge), Belgrade (where I also saw on Euro MTV that they were performing it in Ibiza), and then finally the radio edit version “Let’s Get It Started” on American television for the NBA. The entire Western hemisphere. And it’s about being “retarded” (under the influence). And one of their other songs was lip-synched by the Backdorm Boys.

If China wants to make some big bucks spread their cultural products around the world, pop music and movies are where its at (and comic books, but they totally botched the 5155 Project, which just proves how doomed these campaigns are). And globally, nothing sells like booty shaking and giant robots. But all that is going to be too low brow for the Chinese state-dominated media. China’s not going to have much cultural soft power until the State Council loosens up. Which ought to be some time around, oh, never. And a nations turns its lonely eyes to Hong Kong…

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