Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.” The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is a force these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).1
Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power. 2
Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms: the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it. Cultural dissidents—be it new leftists in the ‘60s or reactionary conservatives now—will always see something more sinister in the hegemonic ideology. So too the Chinese party theorists, who attribute the fall of the Soviet Union partly to the CPSU’s failure to exercise discourse power within Soviet borders or shape the larger discourse norms outside of it.
Elsa Kania, “The Right to Speak: Discourse and Chinese Power,” CCP Watch, November 27, 2018; Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, NBR Special Report (The National Bureau of Asian Research: Seattle, 2020), 7-12
Consider Joseph Nye’s definition:
Hard power can rest on inducements (carrots) or threats (sticks). But there is also an indirect way to exercise power. A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries want to follow it, admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness. In this sense, it is just as important to set the agenda in world politics and attract others as it is to force them to change through the threat or use of military or economic weapons. This aspect of power-get ting others to want what you want-I call soft power.
Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 8.
The Party is happy to include censorship, propaganda, corruption, and other sorts of “influence” or “interference” activities as part of their campaign for greater discourse power.3 But these tools are mostly negative. They can restrict the circulation of ideas but have a far more difficult time painting a positive vision of the good. This is a lost opportunity for the party faithful: Across the world we find men and women disenchanted with liberal values and disgusted with American crassness. There is space here for a countercultural insurgency. The party has—thusfar—failed to lead one. Part of this is a big picture problem: the leaders of party state know what they hate about the current world order but have difficulty reaching a conclusive consensus on what the exact shape of a replacement world order should be. The task of developing these visions has been outsourced to academics, but in the words Nadege Rolland, “the closer one gets to the inklings of an affirmative vision [in the writings of these academics], the more elliptical and deceptive the discourse becomes.”4 Neither the theorists of the party-state nor China’s homegrown intellectuals have been able to craft a future all agree is worth fighting for.
Matt Schrader, “Friends and Enemies: A Framework for Understanding Chinese Political Interference in Democratic Countries,” (Washington DC: German Martial Fund, 22 April 2020).
Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, 4.
But there is an even larger problem niggling the councils of Zhongnanhai. Even if Chinese thinkers are able to develop a compelling vision of the future, there is patent worry that China will not be able to sell this vision to the rest of the world. Outside of its own borders, post-Deng China has a poor record selling the intangible. Chinese cultural influence is not commensurate with China’s economic power or geopolitical heft.
For the last two decades observers of China have pondered this mystery. Why has China’s growing global prominence, prosperous commercialized economy, and huge global diaspora not led to cultural influence? Why have both China’s intellectual high culture and its expansive pop culture offerings failed to take root outside of the Sinosphere?
Dan Wang presents the consensus Western position with concision:
A decade of continuous tightening has strangled cultural production. I expect that China will grow rich but remain culturally stunted. By my count, the country has produced two cultural works over the last four decades since reform and opening that have proved attractive to the rest of the world: the Three-Body Problem and TikTok. Even these demand qualifications. Three-Body is a work of genius, but it is still a niche product most confined to science-fiction lovers; and TikTok is in part an American product and doesn’t necessarily convey Chinese content. Even if we wave nuances aside, China’s cultural offering to the world has been meager. Never has any economy grown so much while producing so few cultural exports. Contrast that with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which have made new forms of art, music, movies, and TV shows that the rest of the world loves.
The reason for China’s cultural stunting is simple: the deadening hand of the state has ground down the country’s creative capacity. The tightening has been continuous. Consider that the Three-Body trilogy had been published in Chinese by 2010, which was a completely different era. I think it’s quite impossible to imagine that this work can be published or marketed today. It’s not just the censorship related to direct depictions of the Cultural Revolution. A decade ago, the CEO of Xiaomi went on Weibo to share his thoughts on the book; today, few personalities speak up to say anything except the patriotic or the mundane. Therefore I’m not terribly optimistic about the future of Chinese science fiction, which today has almost as many people studying the field as actual practitioners.
Throughout the last decade, Xi and the rest of the leadership have proved successful at convincing or coercing elites that it’s not worth their while to ponder such abstractions as whether the country is on the right path. These elites should keep their heads down and make money. There are lots of reasons for Chinese not to speak up: fear of the state; pragmatism from a sense that nothing they say can change the situation; as well as resentment against western voices for invalidating some of the positive aspects of the country. At the same time, the propaganda authorities have weaponized the public sphere to wring out dissent. A critical comment posted to Weibo or WeChat might prompt the platform to delete one’s account. If that doesn’t happen, then the internet mob will pounce. In spite of the greater visibility of this internet mob, I think we are still only scratching the surface of Chinese nationalism.
There’s little prospect of loosening in sight. Writer friends say that there’s no way that they can publish interesting work in 2022, given that the 20th party congress will be held at the end of the year. We have to accept that the direction of travel is towards still-more tightening. Just as a house can never be too clean, a city can never be too protected against Covid-19, and the country can never be too free of spiritual pollution. One of Xi’s legacies has been to push officials to err on the side of implementing controls too tightly, such that party officials are now trying to prove themselves to be more Marxist than the general secretary. It’s a safe bet that the government will control too much rather than too little.
The consequence is that there’s little way for Xi to achieve his exhortation this year for China to make its image more “lovable and respectable.”
Instead, the country is more likely to be seen as a land of censorious commies. In the developed world, China’s unfavorability ratings have reached an average of 60%, according to Pew Research. Foreign agitation against the regime used to be contained to Chinese dissidents and niche groups on the political spectrum; today, it is a generalized phenomenon.5
Dan Wang, “2021 Letter,” danwang.co, 1 January 2022.
Wang actually undersells Chinese success somewhat. To ByteDance and the Three Body Problem we must add the break-out video game of 2020, Genshin Impact.
Despite its Japanese sounding name and anime stylings, Genshin Impact was a Chinese product through and through. It was also extremely successful, winning the Apple App and Google Play awards for best title of 2020, receiving laudatory reviews across the Youtube/Twitch/gaming press matrix, and most importantly of all, earning more revenue in its first year than any other video game to date. Only 30% of that revenue came from China (around 20% came from users in the United States). Just short of 60 million people played Genshin Impact last month. That is more than seven times the number of copies of Three Body Problem sold across the globe.6
The fantastic success of Genshin Impact is an instructive case study for understanding what it takes for Chinese cultural products to spread abroad—as well as the challenges the creators of these products face. We will return to this example shortly.
Ava Thompson Powell, “How many people play Genshin Impact? Player count & population tracker (2022),” Dextero, 22 April 2022; “Genshin Impact statistics and facts 2022,” Levell, 9 March 2022.
The broader debate over the sterility of Chinese culture is not new. Wang’s discussion is anchored in the politics of the last few years, but we have been hearing versions of this basic story since China’s 2008 coming out party. Most observers place fault exactly where Dan does: the claustrophobic cultural environment of enforced political orthodoxy. A common ancillary argument is that party-state calls for innovative cultural production are themselves the problem. Cultural innovation happens at the level of the individual artist, this argument goes. Steven Speilbergs cannot be produced on demand.
I do not find this logic totally convincing. After all, China’s neighbors have done the exact thing Western critics and artists claim cannot be done.
Consider the “Korean wave.” What Ford was to the automobile, the Korean companies SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment are to pop. The stars and starlets of Korean popdom are selected, trained, choreographed, and publicized with a Tayloresque efficiency that would make the manager of any Amazon warehouse proud. The founder of the first of these companies famously declared that “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology.”7 In the ‘90s he reversed engineered this technology with methods that mirror Korea’s famous chaebol: he began by consciously breaking down the constituent parts of successful American and Japanese pop hits, simplified these parts into scripts that could be easily replicated, hired foreign expertise to shepherd the design process, and then secured government funding to jump start his new export industry. From the beginning, South Korea’s pop record labels positioned themselves as “national champions” of the same mold and make as Samsung and Hyundai.8
John Seabrook, “Factory Girls,” The New Yorker, October 9, 2012.
This draws on Gil-sung Park, “Manufacturing Creativity: Production, Performance, and the Dissemination of K-Pop,” Korea Journal, 53, no 4 (2013); Andrew Salmon, “Korea’s S.M. Entertainment: The Company that Created K-Pop,” Forbes Asia, August 2013. See also note 7.
The success of K-pop hinged on two connecting tissues that bound together the South Korean music industry with Japan and the West. The first I referenced above: much of Korean pop is actually the work of foreign hands. Take this mega hit:
Click on the video and look at the credits: To replicate the success of Michael Jackson, SM Entertainment hired a producer of a Michael Jackson’s albums to work with their stars! This was standard during the genre’s rise: throughout the aughts and early 2010s, the most famous K-pop performances were arranged, composed, choreographed, and produced by Western composers, mixers, choreographers, producers, and videographers.
K-pop was not entirely the work of foreigners: after delivering a new composition or developing a new choreographic routine, the Western expert would retreat to the background. Record executives would then review songs beat by beat, dance move by dance moves, making adjustments and reworking material until they were satisfied they had created something the masses would clamor for. K-pop was thus not just a self conscious appropriation of foreign music styles, but an attempt to create the next iteration of those very styles. If art can be thought of as a conversation, K-pop succeeded in part because its creators presented their music as the next turn in an existing dialogue.
Their ability to make this bid brings us to the second tie between the K-pop industry and the wider world. Most of my readers would have been first exposed to the genre with the music video of “Gangnam Style,” for several years the most popular viral video in the world. My first encounter with genre came several years earlier. My two younger sisters became K-pop fanatics in their middle school years. Day after day I would walk in the front door and see the two of them flopping about in front a computer screen, mimicking the choreography of their favorite bands. As with “Gagnam Style’s” viral rise, YouTube was the main mechanism of transmission.
These are not anomalous anecdotes. K-pop was the first musical genre to intentionally embrace streaming. From the beginning, K-pop labels sought to save on costs and circle around foreign gate keepers by bringing their product straight to Youtube.9 The website was popular in Korea early; as users of Youtube themselves, the executives at the big three record labels quickly realized that it was the shortest route to the foreign mass consumer. The Korean Wave would not have been possible without American social media. Silicon Valley built the highway that connects Korean producers and fans with audiences abroad.
Ingyu Oh and Hyo-Jung Lee, “Mass Media Technologies and Popular Music Genres: Youtube and K-pop,” Korea Journal, 54, no 4 (2013),
This gets to heart of China’s problems—and these are not problems of cultural sterility. In my experience, Chinese intellectual life is often more vital and vibrant than what I see in the West. Back in 2017 I did a stint of copy editing work for China News Service. Many of the articles were boiler plate propaganda, but the most interesting covered controversies and happenings in Chinese literature, history, and social life. I was constantly surprised, even amazed, at the vast number of fascinating thinkers never making their way into English language reporting on China. Something similar happened when I discussed political theory with Chinese of my generation. They would relate Zhihu debates between anons belonging to the “industrial party,” the “ruguanists,” the “auntologists,” and so forth. These debates were far more interesting—and intellectually serious—than America’s own anon flame wars. Even the teenagers and weebs posting on Bilibili seemed to be doing more intellectually compelling things than the long, reblogged whines emanating from Tumblr! 10
Only a slice of this is ever available in English. The websites Chaoyang Trap House and Reading the China Dream provide a tiny view into the vitality of Chinese internet culture and high intellectual life, respectively.
The claim that the Chinese state has fostered an intellectual environment too calcified and stifling for genius does not resonate with my experience in Beijing. Things may have changed since I left China in 2018—geopolitical competition has notched up several degrees since then, and Chinese friends report their fear of a nationalist cancel culture that, much like its counterpart in America, chills speech without any active government intervention needed.
But for the purposes of this essay, the vitality of China’s intellectual scene does not much matter. Back up a decade to a looser past: Chinese culture had no more cachet abroad than it does now. The strictness of the censors does not correlate with China’s cultural successes and failures abroad.
This does not to let the party-state off the hook entirely. But their influence, I suspect, is indirect. My sisters became K-pop fanatics under the swayof Youtube channels and Facebook groups. Where are the center points of Chinese fandoms? Websites like Bilibili, Tieba, and WeChat. There are few bridges to link these Chinese sites with their counterparts in the West.
To the natural obstacle facing any logographic language in a latinate world, the Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind. The seal is permeable. In fact, it is breached every day—but these breaches are not free. The transaction costs of jumping the firewall and moving between platforms put Chinese producers at a disadvantage. The cyber infrastructure of the global commons is simply not as intuitive to Chinese executives and artists as it was to the Koreans who engineered the Korean Wave. Even most of the Chinese who live abroad interact with it surprisingly little; they bring the homegrown ecosystem with them in their pockets, and have no reason to leave it.
This is the first, and probably most important, challenge to building sustainable cultural hegemony. The Party-state’s decision to strengthen its hold on the discourse inside China came at the direct expense of its own discourse power abroad.
Since 2015 or so I have thought that the easiest place for Chinese culture to break the chain is video games. The global spread of Chinese games was long hampered by the Beijing’s decision to keep proper consoles—like PlayStation and Xbox—banned commodities. When that rule changed in 2018 I expected China’s gaming industry, already a titan inside China’s borders, would start producing games intended for international export. The success of Genshin Impact partially justifies my expectation.
Chinese would call Genshin Impact part of the “Second Dimension” (二次元). This “Second Dimension,” meant to contrast with the “three dimensional” world of everyday life, is the Chinese catch-all term for anime, manga, and all video games, merchandise, cosplay outfits, music videos, and live gatherings inspired by the anime aesthetic. What Harry Potter is to American millennials, these Japanese stories are to Chinese youth today. China is the largest market in the world for this stuff—and consequently, a host of copy-cat Chinese animation studios and video game companies sprouted up to cash in on the windfall. Industry leaders in Japan have viewed this development with trepidation. On the one hand, working with these Chinese companies promised rich profits. On the other, not a year went by without some prominent Japanese executive or animator warning that their Chinese competitors were on the cusp of creating “2D” products equal to their own. If not the realization of this future, Genshin Impact, as successful in Japan as it was in China, should have been its herald.
It was a herald many Chinese did not want to hearken. I outlined the essential problems three years ago in a piece I wrote on the politics of “2D culture” for Foreign Policy: most Chinese of the older generation, including many functionaries in the Chinese party state, view 2D culture as a foreign infection.11 There are exceptions (the Communist Youth League regularly creates anime videos to propagandize the youth), but they are few and far between. Instead of viewing Chinese anime as a vehicle of cultural influence capable of hijacking a global industry and making it China’s own, older Chinese tend to view it as a trojan horse for Japanese corruption of Chinese culture. Few Chinese recognized Genshin Impact‘s breakout success for the success it was. The party-state did not reward it: Within a year of Genshin Impact’s release, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on all things tech would freeze the entire gaming industry in place.
Tanner Greer, “Super-Patriotic Anime Youth Wars” Foreign Policy, 23 January 2019. See also on the topic Tanner Greer, “China’s Anime and Cosplay Obsession,” Los Angles Review of Books, 12 April 2019; “The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers,” Scholar’s Stage, 19 April 2019.
This points to the second problem with all the Chinese proposals for the rejuvenation of Chinese culture. Chinese thinkers often assume that “discourse power,” “soft power,” and its like will come from exporting something uniquely Chinese to the rest of the world. Many look to traditional China for that something. I suspect that they would have more success if they focused more on publicizing unique Chinese ‘spins’ on genres already popular in the broader world.
Genshin Impact is one example of this at the pop culture level. I am convinced this approach has just as much potential in the high intellectual realm. There is palpable excitement in young conservative circles every time a new piece drops describing Chinese treatments of Leo Strauss or Carl Schmitt.12 If these works were translated into English they would cause a minor sensation among post-liberal right. Getting these people to read Xunzi or Wang Yangming is to labor in vain—they have no context to understand thinkers from China’s ancient past, and no reason to find these thinkers especially enticing. But a modern Chinese take on thinkers they are already reading and debating? These perspectives would be given a welcome, even eager, reading.
I am convinced that if Chinese culture manages to jump the firewall and bridge the gap between the Chinese intellectual ecosystem and the Western, it will happen along these lines. When the obsession with building a “self confident” Chinese culture is replaced with a focus on the Chinese response to global trends and debates that are already happening there will be a space for Chinese artists and philosophers to make an international impact.
There has been a small dribble of articles on this topic over the last decade. See Matthew Dean, “Reading Leo Strauss in China,” Tablet (1 February 2022); Chang Che, “China Looks to Western Classics,” Sup China, 13 January 2022; Addis Goldman, “Why Carl Schmitt Matters to China,” Hedgehog Review, 21 October 2021; Chang Che, “The Nazi Inspiring Chinese Communists,” The Atlantic (December 2020); Vincent Garton, “Jiang Shigong’s Chinese World Order,” Palladium, 5 February 2020; Flora Sapio, “Carl Schmitt in China,” The China Story, Oct 7, 2015; Wang Tao, “Leo Strauss in China,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2012; Mark Lillia, “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” New Republic, 2010;
Interesting article from Spengler on a potential China-India detente in the face of WokeOceania (Anglo-American) antagonism against their mutual friend Russia and beyond (and this analysis doesn’t even mention the growing antagonism ‘based’ Hindu Twitter has for the woke Globalist American Empire or GAE):
Mr. Goldman can be overly deterministic if not doomerist regarding Western and Chinese demographics, hence his handle (I think the CCP looking at the disastrous birth dearth of JPN, TWN and SK can find incentives to boost Han birth rates). But his piece Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Play Chess written in the aftermath of the Russians thrashing the US trained Georgian Army in 2008 (which the woke CNN general Mark Hertling maintains he’s proud of training despite the Georgians getting their butts handed to them and retreating to Tblisi in less than 72 hours) proved prophetic regarding Ukraine’s eventual fate being partition. Spengler was wrong about a Muslim majority Russia by mid century and in fairness could not have anticipated the Chechens becoming Russia’s most feared infantry, but he was not wrong about this:
‘The Russian Federation’s scarcest resource is people. It cannot ignore the 22 million Russians stranded outside its borders after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, small but loyal ethnicities such as the Ossetians. Strategic encirclement, in Russian eyes, prefigures the ethnic disintegration of Russia, which was a political and cultural entity, not an ethnic state, from its first origins.’ or this ‘Russia intervened in Georgia to uphold the principle that anyone who holds a Russian passport – Ossetian, Akhbaz, Belorussian or Ukrainian – is a Russian. Russia’s survival depends not so much on its birth rate, nor on immigration, nor even on prospective annexation, but on the survival of the principle by which Russia was built in the first place. That is why Putin could not abandon the pockets of Russian passport holders in the Caucuses. That Russia history has been tragic, and its nation-building principle brutal and sometimes inhuman, is a different matter. Russia is sufficiently important that its tragedy will be our tragedy, unless averted.’
Bringing the topic back to Tanner’s question of Chinese soft power, beyond the difficulties of learning Mandarin for foreigners, I do think we will see a Sino-Russian identity emerge in the next ten to fifteen years.
That is to say, historically the Celestial Kingdom and the Han Emperors married off princesses to the strongest barbarians to forge alliances, and used them to fight other steppe barbarians. From the other side of the equation, the myth of Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky submitting as a vassal to his friend and overlord the Buddhist/Tengrist Batu Khan over Rus losing her Orthodox soul to the Catholic Teutonic Knights and aggressive Swedes invading from the West already existed, as a canonized form of Eurasianism and Russian exceptionalism, long before Alexander Dugin picked it up. While Washington, London and Brussels ‘cope’ with the notion that the Sino-Russian nexus won’t outlive Putin and Xi, watch for the Tiger Moms of Slavic-Sinic children in Moscow to become a very real thing in the next decade…
He gives reasons for why China may want India on its side but little for why India would trust China. Like many conservatives, he gives too much weight to cultural crap like wokism when clear-eyed realists can see that India’s and China’s interests run counter. Already, India is looking to speed up its own native weapons development (encouraged by the US) as it’s aware of the dangers of relying on a Russia that will become a client state of China. There are key items to watch:
1. Is the Quad strengthening or weakening? I believe it will strengthen in the future.
2. Will India trust China enough to allow China to enter the Indian internet again. I don’t see that happening (and you can thank Chinese ineptitude for that).
And yes, China and Russia, 2 countries with terrible demographics, will form a New Axis (with Russia very much in the Italy role), but the liberal democratic alliance will still possess far more economic power (and will eventually incorporate India in too).
Oh, BTW, your beloved Russia is getting its army destroyed in Ukraine while NATO has currently suffered zero losses.
Slowly now, take that hand of that joystick, take off the Occulus, smell the coffee, and look at the real world.
And we haven’t yet gotten to the stage where Europe’s economy grinds to a halt because of a lack of electricity and most of the world starts running out of food, people discover that they cant eat Dollars or Netflix, and start to make deals with the only two countries that have significant food reserves – Russia and China.
Oryx is a lying Dutch Turkish Twitter propagandist who knows full well his beloved Bayrektar drones have been BTFO since the first week of the war as the absence of new TB2 strike videos and wreckage all over Telegram proves it. Nonetheless he’s done a lot of damage in terms of misidentifying charred Ukrainian T64s as Russian armor and convincing Western mil observers that Ukraine can simply pour more men and Javelins at the gaps Russians are blasting with artillery through UAF’s Donbass lines. A textbook example / future case study of frenemy social media disinformation (and a contributor to Anglo Dutch SBU spook front site Bellingcat naturally who bashes Turkey’s pro Armenian / Hellenic critics in Congress) targeting 5Eyes natsec / miltwitter with lies they want to believe.
Meanwhile look at what the right hand is doing while you focus on the shiny object in the left hand: the Turks are accepting Mir payments system for Russian tourists and refusing to join the sanctions profiting hand over fist from transit fees / soon reselling ‘EU embargo’ed’ Russian crude. But hey sending more TB2s to be shot down paid for by American taxpayers is a good racket for Erdogan’s son in law.
Russia and China won’t be the only countries with food surpluses but India’s export restrictions won’t help matters. On paper the 5Eyes bloc with Canada and Australia should be more than food sufficient. In reality the sanctions-exacerbated fertilizer shortage is really starting to bite farmers across the post-Western world and could be a nightmare for poorer countries regardless of whether or not they’re Western aligned. Russia’s price preference Ag and crude discount diplomacy is a powerful lever against any secondary sanctions compliance in the vast majority of the populated world that exists outside the 5Eyes/EU bubble.
Speaking of which, it is interesting to note that the core European bloc against the EU slashing its wrists energy-wise for Uncle Sam/John Bull via an embargo on Russian crude are the old Hapsburg lands of Austria-Hungary and Slovakia. PM Viktor Orban’s Ambassador to the Vatican is a Hapsburg who is on Twitter. But it’s also true the Italians and Germans plus o a lesser extent the French hide deflect the State Department’s wrath onto the Hapsburg bloc. There is definitely a nexus between Russenverstehers in the German auto, chemical industry and mittelstand lobbies and Orbanism. And not coincidentally, these are the same European lobbies for China’s BRI beachhead via the Piraeus and enhanced rail from Greece through Serbia to Budapest. Hungary has prospered under Orban as a huge outsourcing center for German industrialists and champions what’s left of the Continent’s economic volition to stand up for itself versus Atlanticist browbeating.
Pro Russian Ukrainian Red Victory banner babushka depicted in Chinese art:
BTW, I believe that American conservatives now being essentially cosplaying LARPers better at fighting emotions-driven virtual/propaganda wars and riling the rubes than fighting real wars and actually having an effect on the world makes them fantisists disengaged from reality.
So while I believe China and Russia will form the New Axis (though still tough to execute successfully as the Chinese industrial/commercial heartland is on the east and south coast while the Russian industrial/commercial areas are in the far west of their vast country), and Chinese propaganda is definitely pro-Russian, the reality on the ground is that China’s fear of the West is still greater than their desire to help Russia, as seen by UnionPay suspending ties with sanctioned Russian banks due to fear of secondary sanctions.
its the same thing we saw in 2004-5 but in reverse, as American conservatives, so used to discounting the “mainstream media” as the source of all evil, insisted that Iraq could not be falling into a civil war, that it was all narrative spinning by journalists who who desperate to see their ideology justified on the ground. And hell, Iraq was filled with journalists desperate to see their ideology justified on the ground—it just turns out, what they were reporting was largely true. This is a brain worm of right wingers who live in blue spaces and I don’t know how to solve it.
Some lefty scienceblogger way back in the Bush era uncharitably described movement conservatism as young-earth creationism applied to politics. If you can believe that the earth is only 6000 years old and that thousands of scientists are engaged in a worldwide Satanic conspiracy to cover that fact up, you can believe that there’s no civil war in Iraq. The next two decades would show that you can also believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that Italian spy satellites rigged the 2020 election, and that Russia is handily winning in Ukraine.
I have a far more charitable explanation. It basically goes like this:
A conservative who lives in a blue space daily sees their own beliefs mis-characterized and maligned. Day after day they see the communities they are a part of either lied about or described in lazy stereotypes that do not approximate anything real in their life. Living under this discourse umbrella leads to two habits:
1) A quick eye for liberal hypocrisy
2) distrust in all “establishment” information sources and establishment narratives
They could look the other way on Iraq, claim it was all lies, because the normal media coverage of what they knew best–themselves–was marred by ideologically motivated misrepresentations. And coverage of Iraq was marred by such things–the best evidence being the long refusal to accept the (temporary) success of the surge in 2007-2008.
But that is the thing: the discerning reading could see the success of the surge behind the journalistic spin: there were kernels of reality behind the narrative shaping, and when the conservatives had a reason to search for it, they did. The opposite was true 2003-2005, and the kernels of truth were ignored.
So too with a lot of right wing thought today, which is so used to treating the media as the enemy that is has completely lost the ability to discern the truths within the spin. The best analogy really is the far left back in the ’90s and early aughts, who could see in America nothing but evil and “manufactured consent.” its the same warped way of viewing the world, just from the right instead f the left.
‘…the reality on the ground is that China’s fear of the West is still greater than their desire to help Russia, as seen by UnionPay suspending ties with sanctioned Russian banks due to fear of secondary sanctions.’ Ruble was supposed to be rubble by now. Chinese AND Indian refiners buying discounted Russian crude hand over fist one of the many reasons this is not so.
Reuters posts stuff like this with the same messaging as above: the Chinese have been tamed. They need to sell us their stuff too much. They wouldn’t DARE be shipping substantial components of including the chips for those Kalibrs Russia was supposed to have run out of weeks ago that keep blowing up NATO equipment and more importantly the electrical switching stations to power locomotives to get it to Mykolaiv and to the Donbass.
Even The Hill’s contributor/s are starting to suspect reality not quite what they expected.
‘The fact is that Russia is the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, including serving among the world’s largest exporters of natural gas, uranium, nickel, oil, coal, aluminum, copper, wheat, fertilizers and precious metals such as palladium, which is more precious than gold and used largely in catalytic converters…’
‘After its initial missteps that resulted in heavy Russian casualties, Russia is now militarily focused on consolidating its control in the resource-rich east and south of Ukraine. Russia has carved out a land corridor to Crimea and gained control of regions that hold 90 percent of Ukraine’s energy resources, including all its offshore oil and much of its critical port infrastructure. The Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov and four-fifths of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline are now with Russia, which earlier established control over the Kerch Strait that connects those two seas.’
‘Can the flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine undo these new military realities? If Russia stays focused on narrow military objectives centered on establishing a buffer zone in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s south and east, it could avert a quagmire, while remaining free to continue systematically targeting military infrastructure across that expansive country.’
Just two Irans with nukes.
This comment begs the question of which *actual* wars should New Rightists be fighting?
‘its the same thing we saw in 2004-5 but in reverse, as American conservatives, so used to discounting the ‘mainstream media’ as the source of all evil, insisted that Iraq could not be falling into a civil war, that it was all narrative spinning by journalists who who desperate to see their ideology justified on the ground.’ Respectfully Tanner I think you’re confusing New Rightists who utterly reject the Dubya legacy with NRO and Fox News cerca 2005-2007.
Legacy media have a hard time getting away with blatant lies of commission such as ‘the Hunter Biden laptop was a Russian psyop’, thank God. But lies of omission still work, albeit more slowly. Still ‘Internet autistes’ and a few contrarian vets like @armchairw can read articles like the AFP one below and read between the lines about what a 21 year old lieutenant leading a bunch of late forty and early fiftysomething conscripts means for Kyiv’s manpower situation:
About the Chinese allegedly shunning Mir-UnionPay bank settlements for fear of American secondary sanctions…it looks like China’s Ambassador to Russia explicitly promised to solve this issue this week. So another case where western media crowed too soon about the Chinese being intimidated from supporting Moscow.
Depending on which version of this TASS story you read in translation, Zhang Hanhui also said that China welcomes Russians use of yuan and that the two countries would enhance military technical cooperation (euphemism for drones/loitering munitions that PLA has taken away as being even more necessary to swarm Taiwan?)
“watch for the Tiger Moms of Slavic-Sinic children in Moscow to become a very real thing in the next decade…”
Dude, I think you’ve had enough.
Incidentally, the history is incorrect on his part as well. The heqin system was not alliance with barbarian powers, but extortion by them. I have an entire essay about this, believe it or not: https://scholars-stage.org/what-edward-luttwak-doesnt-know-about-ancient-china-or-a-short-history-of-han-xiongnu-relations-pt-1/
I think we might be discussing different periods where the barbarians were extorting the Han, or when the Han were stronger and used various barbarians against other barbarians.
What’d I say that was so bad? 🙂
Oh, I believe realist theory has a lot of good points.
Where realists like Mearsheimer go wrong is when they are out of touch with reality (the reality being that Russia is essentially 2 Iran’s with nukes).
And the US/Australia DEFINITELY has effed up in the South Pacific. They seem as asleep there as the “analysts” who thought Russia would conquer Kyiv in 72 hours.
Oh, I believe realist theory has a lot of good points.
Where realists like Mearsheimer go wrong is when they are out of touch with reality (the reality being that Russia is essentially 2 Iran’s with nukes).
And the US/Australia DEFINITELY has effed up in the South Pacific. They seem as asleep there as the “analysts” who thought Russia would conquer Kyiv in 72 hours.
Good essay Tanner.
Regarding the point about Chinese contribution to American intellectual life: I think that the main reason a Chinese perspective on American political/cultural issues would matter is precisely because (as you mentioned) China evolved a different intellectual ecosystem behind its firewall.
I contrast this to India: it’s been plugged into Anglo-American cultural currents for so long that there is nothing unique or useful it has to say. Its Lefties extol gender theory and rage about Elon Musk, its Righties read Hanania and cheer on DeSantis. I’m not being metaphorical, these are all actual, specific events that happened quite recently.
Somehow I don’t think Chinese thinkers will be as obsessed with the American cultural mudpit as Indians are.
“Something similar happened when I discussed political theory with Chinese of my generation. They would relate Zhihu debates between anons belonging to the “industrial party,” the “ruguanists,” the “auntologists,” and so forth. These debates were far more interesting—and intellectually serious—than America’s own anon flame wars.”
I have to say that I would take great issue with the idea that the “ruguanists” or “auntologists” are “intellectually serious” or have anything useful to say. The first group are just repeating the nationalist, anti-Western line that you can hear everywhere in China (the West is in decline; they are prejudiced against us, and we have to change the world order). The second trend was started by a man, Liu Zhongjing, who frankly sounds like a total nutter, as well as a promoter of the worst kind of anti-liberal discourse dressed up as pseudo-history, and who moreover had to seek refuge in America because of his promotion of what the government would consider “splittism”.
If these are the best examples you can come up with of how China’s intellectual scene is actually thriving, or even “more vital and vibrant than in the West”, well, I don’t buy it. China’s intellectual life is indeed stifled, and the fact that its online political debates are so full of aggressive nationalism and attacks on Western “baizuo” (“stupid leftists”) proves my point. No doubt America’s “anon flame wars” can also be pretty stupid; but then again, America’s most interesting intellectual debates don’t happen anonymously in internet forums.
As for the appeal of Chinese pop culture, you have a point about them lacking access to Youtube and other international websites. I would also point out, though, that foreigners who live in China for years and learn to speak Chinese still don’t really seem that engrossed by Chinese music, tv shows and films (with the odd exception), in spite of being surrounded by them. I don’t think that’s the main issue here.
“Things may have changed since I left China in 2018—geopolitical competition has notched up several degrees since then, and Chinese friends report their fear of a nationalist cancel culture that, much like its counterpart in America, chills speech without any active government intervention needed.”
With all due respect, I think the comparison with American “cancel culture” is quite misleading. Yes, Chinese nationalists may attack and “cancel” people online without the government directly asking them to do it. But everyone understands that state power is on their side, and fears them for that reason. If liberals get organized and try to fight back against the nationalist narrative WeChat and Weibo will censor them, and they may well become the victims of direct government repression.
This site needs a “like” button.
” I would also point out, though, that foreigners who live in China for years and learn to speak Chinese still don’t really seem that engrossed by Chinese music, tv shows and films (with the odd exception), in spite of being surrounded by them. ”
Well, many Chinese films are terrible. The is an inverse relationship between Chinese box office success and quality of film.
With that said, I think an abnormally high number of Western expats are strangely detached from Chinese life, and this is a good example of what I mean by that.
I don’t think the comparison is that misleading–especially when you move off the the internet. The comparison occurred to me after a Chinese friend related how he was afraid to say things like “COVID probably didn’t come from America” in informal business settings, for fear of being judged by his clients and losing business and maybe friendships. It isn’t state sanction that is leading to those outcomes except in a very round about way. My personal guess is that at this point it is a self sustaining system: the CPC could be replaced by a less censorious government tomorrow and the nationalists would keep the liberals down. Social pressure is all that is needed at this point.
“With that said, I think an abnormally high number of Western expats are strangely detached from Chinese life, and this is a good example of what I mean by that.”
I think Western expats in China are about as open to enjoying local culture as foreign immigrants are everywhere. If we are talking about the minority who have gone to the trouble of learning Chinese, I am pretty sure they would be open to watching good Chinese films and shows. The problem is there just aren’t that many of them. This is true of many other countries of course, but one does feel that China has a lot of unfulfilled potential in this field.
As for “strangely detached”, well, in my experience non-Western foreigners from Africa and Asia are just about equally detached from Chinese life. The reality is that modern Chinese society just isn’t that appealing to outsiders and/or doesn’t really let them “in” anyway.
But regardless, my point remains that if Chinese pop culture fails to captivate even those who live in China, it’s not going to have much success beyond its borders.
As for nationalism in China, the fact that most people never hear counter-arguments against nationalistic talking points in the media and online, because people are afraid to make them, is a big part of the reason why it is so socially unacceptable to make them even in private. I don’t doubt a less censorious China would still be a very nationalistic country, but I imagine the nationalism would become less extreme and less widespread than it is now.
“The reality is that modern Chinese society just isn’t that appealing to outsiders and/or doesn’t really let them “in” anyway.”
That just wasn’t my experience! I do not know–when I lived in Beijing I had few Western friends. One, really; I’d play board games at his house on friday nights. Every other person in my life was Chinese. I felt veru much like I was being let “in” — a warmness I would not expect to have, say, in Japan. But my experiences may be atypical.
Re: nationalism — I don’t know. My view is that rabid nationalism is the default for most literate humans. Most countries across the world are filled with it, and do not need authoritarian structures to propagate it. Europe, and to a lesser extent Japan, are the strange and weird exceptions to the rule, and those exceptions were created by historical tragedies of the most terrible scale and enforced by generations of anti-nationalist intellectual elites and even state education. Europe might need censorship for nationalism to sink in: everywhere else it is the default condition.
See also my post “Chinese Are Partisan Too” https://scholars-stage.org/chinese-are-partisan-too/
Oh, I’m not saying foreigners in China can’t have Chinese friends. I’ve had/have many. And indeed, once they get to know you they can be very warm and friendly, and so can their families.
But the way your friends see you isn’t the way society in general sees you. Try taking part in those intellectual debates you admire so much, or even just leaving a slightly critical comment under a Chinese pop star’s Weibo page, while openly identifying yourself as a foreigner. It won’t fly. You will never be allowed to forget your foreignness when in China, like it or not.
As for nationalism, I think popular nationalism in most countries in Latin America, Africa and even Asia has a long way to go before it reaches the intensity it does in China. I have found the Vietnamese to be highly nationalistic, but then they live under a similar system and have a similar cultural background to the Chinese. But while most Asian societies are far more nationalistic than European ones, I don’t find them, in my limited experience, to be as uniformly or aggressively nationalistic as China. Take Indonesia for instance, a country I have spent time in. Yes, you see a lot more national flags than you would do in Western Europe. But most people are still far more open to hearing criticism of their country from foreigners than they would be in China, and there isn’t anything close to the same readiness to take a “my country, right or wrong” line. People may also feel a loyalty to their religion which trumps national loyalties, not something you would get in China. But I do agree that in most of the world, including China, nationalism is the default condition right now.
Hmm. I could raise your Indonesia with one Cambodia… or America? Less the America of the moment than the America of 2000-2010ish.
What sets Chinese nationalism apart IMHO is what Taiwanese call 玻璃心 （“glass hearts”). Chinese are surprisingly fragile nationalists, easily insulted and set on edge. Its a nationalistic narrative built on victimhood. Such identities train the mind to magnify slights and to reactive aggressively when so slighted.
But IMHO Chinese nationalism is not greater than what you see in more democratic systems like India or Pakistan. And those fellas are glass-hearty as well. Can’t lay that at the feet of a censorship regime–some other factor decides it.
Or at least that is how I see it.
I wanted to point out one more area of pop culture where Chinese products are successful: cultivation novels and anime. This is pretty nerdy stuff, but novels about wannabe Daoist Immortals have become really popular in the West, along with anime about said Immortsls and their struggles with the heavenly bureaucracy. They’re available on Amazon, Audible and Netflix and there’s a sub genre of English language fantasy devoted to telling similar stories in a lighter less specific idiom.
I would like to hear more about the cultivation novels!
OK, disclaimer that I’m just a nerd and probably will make some mistakes, but my understanding is that cultivation novels aka Xianxia are kind of a distinctively Chinese response to Japanese Light Novels. You can get them as books and also audiobooks, manga and even anime in some cases but they all started out as web novels, published chapter by chapter online. As a result, they have a distinctive flavor and pacing — the protagonist usually starts off at the bottom of the food chain, in a small town somewhere, and has to work their way up step by step, encountering plenty of rivals, monsters and other cliffhangers along the way. The plot and characterization tend to revolve around the protagonist meditating, seeking secret doctrines, medicines and treasures in order to improve their cultivation and get stronger, which means they encounter stronger foes and take on even bigger challenges, in an endless cycle of adventure. Also noteworthy is that they usually take place in a colorful but extremely cold-blooded fantasy setting where cultivators strive against each other and the higher ranks exploit their juniors ruthlessly. There’s a website called WuxiaWorld which features the webnovels in close to their original form, in ridiculously large numbers, but you can get the most popular ones on Amazon as well.
Some of my favorites Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mao Xiang Tong Xiu and Heaven Official’s Blessing, by the same author, both strongly homoerotic, and maybe not typical of the genre? A very solid recommendation is also I Shall Seal the Heavens by Ergen. People tell me I am missing out by not reading them in the original.
There are also some very successful English-language authors writing original Xianxia in a more digestible form for Western readers, and even a “How To” book explaining the tropes readers look for.
It’s difficult how to respond to this. Did Schmitt or Bentham care about how their works would be percieved in China or India? Probably not the slightest. The West before 1950 knew they were masters of the universe, and acted like it. Hobbes was really not a product for export, and only came to be so over time. China should simply wait for its sheer weight to bear on the world -and if it wants to export, the poorer nations would be far better targets than the West. How much do Russians know of China? Zero. Could they find Chinese debates useful? Without a doubt. Same goes for India, Egypt, etc.
Schmitt didn’t even care how his work might be received in the rest of the Western world. Perhaps he should have.
There is an argument for China not caring for “discourse power.” But it isn’t one people in China itself seem to care much for. My post is simply an attempt to answer why they haven’t got the cultural popularity they want.
Doors and windows allow access in both directions. South Korea may have given the world K-pop, Mukbang, webtoons and makeup styles, but at the same time it has had to accept crazy religious sects, mainstreaming of circumcisions, incel rhetoric and radical feminism, immigration and multiculturalism, etc.
Of course, if one believes that these things would have crept in or emerged anyway then accepting this Faustian pact was the rational choice – but I think it should be taken into account when we measure the successes and failures, as well as the rationales, for various cultural policies of any nation.
This is a good point, but in the Korean case they really never had the choice (and also immigration? what wave of immigration and multiculturalism has swallowed South Korean society? That’s a common NK propaganda line but what evidence it describes SK?)
China is an interesting case study in a place with far more choice than the Koreans had about the boundaries of outside influence–but still they have their share of incel rhetoric and radical feminism?
Tanner, I do think your recent comments on illiberalism were frankly silly. There are numerous illiberal leaders out there. Orban, Xi, Prayut, Putin. You can add the Vietnamese, Emirati, and Cuban regimes to those as well, as well as Duterte’s government in the Philippines. All are believed by the postliberals to be vastly preferable to the current order in most of the rich countries, despite their obvious flaws. Even Cambodia and Morocco have redeeming features.
Cambodia has many redeeming features. But it is exactly the sort of place I describe in that post. Which is the point of it all really. We are going to destroy our economy, kill a a few hundred thousand, and have a revolution so that we end up with… what? A political system that looks and functions like Thailand’s? That’s where the RAGE stuff will end up, and it isn’t worth it.
The pivot from Old Right dislike of Mexican corruption ‘taking our jobs’ and pouring across the wide open Border to New Right appreciation of Mexican familia and Mexico as an Xer gringo expat haven from woke insanity is indicative. Not saying it applies to all of them, but Mexico and even kind words among some MAGA folks for the ‘based’ Presidente AMLO is a good illustration of the difference between the old Right and the new more cosmopolitan Latina/Asian wife new Right.
Xeno, you have spammed this thread with comment after comment after comment on topics unrelated to the original post. This post is not about Ukraine, nor media narratives on Ukraine, nor about the new right (who I am actually quite chummy with), or where I live (I left TW in 2019 for what it is worth), nor the defensibility of Taiwan. I have essays on those things; really you probably just be putting this stuff on twitter. I’m going to delete most of this.
Is it also possible the deadening hand of the (communist) state has extinguished the capacity for self reflection and a determination of what Chinese culture is beyond headlines? Japan pre and during ww2 expended much effort on determined what was Japanese, down to determining exactly how many hand tools were necessary to construct a traditional home (192). Post war they exported this Japan – sushi, soy sauce, woodworking tools, etc. (with some modifications). China doesn’t seem to know what it is (recent Chinese language books on classical furniture will mostly rehash what westerners decided was good 80 years ago) or how to sell it. Even food. The most diverse and wondrous cuisine and the find it difficult to sell.
“China doesn’t know what it is”
–> I don’t know how much I blame the CPC for this one, but I think this is true. China is also far, far, far more diverse than Japan. Just imagine choosing one “traditional home” to represent the lot–there are literally hundreds of traditions to choose from.
I’m late to this discussion, but I’ll add my thoughts anyway.
Dan Wang must consider Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to originate from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the USA, because the outside world sure appreciated it. With a Taiwanese director who trained in America (Ang Lee), writers from Taiwan (Wang Hui-ling) and America (James Schamus), and a choreographer from Hong Kong (Yuen Woo-ping), the film supports your thesis that countries can develop globally-admired works by getting help from foreigners. The Chinese government’s actions following the film illustrate one of the ways in which censorship inhibits Chinese art—domestic considerations always take precedence over international popularity, and the authorities cannot allow any story to be told except on their own terms.
Ang Lee got international audiences to read subtitles. He also created a work in which a Hong Konger, a Taiwanese actor, an overseas Chinese, and a Beijinger could all portray characters in a mythical Chinese setting. Historical divisions disappeared into a broader cultural tableau. The Chinese authorities should have admired Lee’s ability to tell a good Chinese story that appeals to foreigners. They should have given him an honorary professorship at the Central Academy of Drama and an open invitation to film almost anything in China.
When Lee made Lust, Caution in China, the authorities objected to sexually explicit scenes in the film, as well as to its portrayal of Second Sino-Japanese War collaborators. Much to Lee’s chagrin, they ended up taking their anger out on Tang Wei, the film’s lead actress. It does not surprise me that Lee turned to making films about American shepherds and Indian castaways. If the authorities had been able to cool their fury, he might have done further work in China, bringing international attention to China and its actors and providing on-the-job training to locals that worked with him.
Zhang Ziyi was the breakout star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The attention she got from the film culminated in her starring role in Memoirs of a Geisha, with fellow Chinese actress Gong Li taking a supporting role. Having notable Chinese actresses appear in major Hollywood films should have been a coup for Chinese cinema, as western audiences who enjoy their performances might seek out their Chinese oeuvre. The Chinese government should have encouraged the film’s producers by ensuring the film was successful as possible in China (the Chinese film market was very small at the time, but Hollywood studios could see China’s growth numbers and wanted in). Instead, the Chinese government banned the film because the actresses portrayed Japanese courtesans (the film takes place during the Sino-Japanese War, but the war happens in the background, and the characters do not serve as comfort women). Hollywood stayed away from casting Mainland Chinese actors in prominent roles for a while, Zhang’s western career fizzled, and later attempts to produce Hollywood films with major Chinese elements have often flopped.
Cultural works can be great with censorship. The Hays Code was in effect throughout much of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Yet stories told only on a government’s preferred terms are unlikely to resonate with foreign audiences. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depicts American corruption, yet it is also a testament to democracy that proved popular abroad. If the Beijing authorities can allow Chinese stories to reflect the full range of their beautiful culture, contradictions and all, Chinese products may meet similar success. Alas, with Xi Jinping in charge, it is unlikely that Chinese culture will peacefully “conquer us all”.
I am interested in further exploring the concept of “China’s cultural stunting” as proposed by Dan Wang.
You seem to imply that this may not be happening, that cultural output is instead being directed into an ecosystem that doesn’t interface with the rest of the world but is (narrowly?) disseminated into some circles in China. Also, that cultural outputs will have greater Western influence if both the ‘inputs’ are Western and the distribution mechanism is Western.
This is compelling, assuming I have this correct, but it doesn’t directly address if Chinese culture is in fact ‘stunted’ in some way beyond inputs and outputs syncing to a larger global commons. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine how a culture can not be ‘stunted’ without this bidirectional interchange.