Maoist Realism Back in Style

by Michael Auslin

One of the great debates among China watchers was whether embracing and engaging the world’s most populous country would serve to moderate its authoritarian system and ultimately, if painfully and slowly, bring about liberalization. Supporters of this proposition pushed for the United States to maintain relations and limit sanctions after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, to bring China into the World Trade Organization, and to create a unique “G2” of high-level Sino-U.S. annual meetings, among other things. It also meant not ruffling Chinese feathers over petty things like human rights, theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation, and harassment of U.S. naval ships in Asian waters.

In return for this magnanimous policy, the U.S. saw China lock up Nobel Prize winners, steal something on the order of 90 percent of some technology companies’ software property, artificially maintain a low currency, and build up one of the world’s strongest militaries, while also becoming the largest purchaser of U.S. government bonds. It also meant American consumers could buy sneakers, electronics, and toys at historically low prices, thanks to sweatshop-like conditions in many Chinese factories that pump out such goods.

Now it appears that China’s leaders are worried that Washington is getting smart, and trying to “westernize and divide China” through a culture war. Our shock troops are Lady Gaga and Transformer movies, apparently, though that might be a good thing, since combined they might well have more money than the Pentagon will after Congress is done slashing the budget. President Hu Jintao, who leaves office this year after his five-year term is up, has decided to make an Alamo-like last stand over culture.

There is certainly reason for Chinese to be concerned about the spread of Lady Gaga in their country — if only American leaders would be as worried. And, there’s no question that Chinese culture is one of the world’s greatest treasures, at least the stuff that was saved from destruction by Mao Zedong’s rampaging Red Guards back in the 1960s.

But President Hu’s new mission speaks volumes about the realities of domestic power and politics in China. #more#It reveals a deep-seated fear among Beijing’s mandarins that China’s growing middle class wants more than socialist realism in their art and entertainment. And once that’s surrendered, politics naturally comes next. It’s all about choice, and that is the thick red line that the Communist Party refuses to erase. Waging a culture war is the natural reaction of regimes that know they have no legitimacy and seek to force their citizens into ever more circumscribed boxes. From Washington’s perspective, it’s a major “tell” that China’s leaders are worried. They may not know exactly where things are headed, but they’re not confident in the direction. Economic slowdown would strip any last remaining support away from the party. Political isolation, as China has been skillfully bringing on itself in Asia, would remove much of shine attaching to Beijing’s foreign policy since the 1990s.

China will get a new set of leaders this year. They will take over a state that has grown faster than anyone imagined just a few decades ago. But it is also a state as brittle and paranoid as ever. If they continue Hu’s culture war, we’ll know they are as scared as he is and as devoid of confidence that their 1.2 billion people should be given more choice over how they waste their time.

— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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