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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A spring wind of marketization

I am currently reading a book called China Pop, which is about Chinese pop culture. It is very good so far, but unfortunately is from 1995, so I'm treating it as a sort of a historical document; if anyone knows of a more recent book covering the subject, please let me know.

In the first chapter, the author talks a lot about how Chinese culture changed in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. She seems to see the modern Chin as springing directly from that event--not just the human rights abuses and political repression aspects but the massive economic growth and urban development too--and has a lot of good anecdotes about elites who felt crushed by it, then joined the business world, and then the pop culture industry. But there are a lot of good broad observations, too, and I was especially struck by this one:

Profound cultural differences aside, though, China's post-Cold War social transition is marked by a singularly important factor that sets it apart from all others: the revolution failed in 1989, and the Communist Party stays on to guide and control the reform process.

This is a crucial fact in efforts to understand the peculiar complexities and ironies of China's current situation. It produces a half-baked, sheepish, defensive, cynical, masked, stealthy, and often comic atmosphere in which China's reform zigzags ahead. Instead of dramatic, exhilarating breakdown of old regimes, as occurred in Eastern Europe and Russia, what we witness in China is a slow, soft, and messy meltdown of the old structure. I would whimsically refer to this as "the Whopper effect": there is an impure, junky, hybrid quality in nearly all spheres of the present Chinese life--culture, politics, attitudes, ideology. This is not romantic, not a picturesque scene for the cameras. It's too blurry, too slippery, often shamelessly vulgar. Who can blame the CBS, ABC, and NBC anchors for not having rushed back since Tiananmen? To some, it might be akin to filmin a merry, grotesque banquet on the ruins of a slaughterhouse.
(She then goes on to quote former activists saying a) the Tiananmen students weren't protesting for democracy, they were protesting against economic hardship and injustice, and b) that the country would be much worse off today if those students had succeeded!)

It's an interesting little passage, because not only does it invoke a lot of the qualities I like to see in pop culture (impure, hybrid, slippery, shameless, vulgar) without actually placing an explicit subjective value on them, but it depicts these qualities as flowing directly from the political system under which the culture is created. We tend to think of political systems as reflecting the culture they come from, but in China we have a pretty clear example of the culture changing in parallel with the political system, although of course in part it's simply adopted aspects of other cultures, primarily Hong Kong but Japan and Korea as well, and amping them up. There are certainly practical reasons for this, but the pratical reasons are mainly negative freedom rather than positive freedom, and when you contrast it with the forced cultural change of Maoism, it's revelatory, I think. The culture is like the politics: new, vital, and vaguely troubling while also endlessly fascinating.

Of course, it also makes me want to map it back onto American pop culture, and wonder if maybe this country's pop culture vitality isn't due to the native qualities it's usually attributed to--individualism, entrepreneurism, ahistoricism--but rather reflects the often-overlooked fact that our political system is a hybrid, too, and indeed, this is a big reason for why it's been so vital. The phrase "Western-style democracy" is often invoked, but it lumps together a lot of different systems. American government was never really democratic, and this was one of its strengths--the republican aspects of American government are as important as the democratic ones, and the lack of republicanism in certain foreign "democracies" has been a reason for their failures.

So I think American pop culture tends to reflect both this hybridization and its privledging of democracy over republicanism with the widespread "guilty pleasures" complex. The rhetoric of American pop is often at odds with its reality, and the error people make is in assuming that this disconnect needs to be resolved by hewing to the rhetoric. But we'd all be a lot better off if we were able to acknowledge and embrace the reality of the duality.

Chinese pop seems to have a whole other set of issues, though. More on this as I go along, I hope.