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?
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;