Why’s Beijing So Worried About Western Values Infecting China’s Youth?

by Eric Fish / February 4, 2017/ ChinaFile

In early December, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the country’s universities to “adhere to the correct political orientation.”

Speaking at a conference on ideology and politics in China’s colleges, he stressed that schools must uphold the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership and “guide the broad masses of teachers and students to be strong believers” in Marxist theories and socialist core values.

The conference had the highest profile attendee roster of any education event in recent memory: top university officials, representatives from the country’s military and propaganda apparatuses, and four of the seven members of the all powerful Politburo Standing Committee. In case Xi’s speech left any doubt as to the meeting’s purpose, China’s education minister explained it in an article the following day. “Schools,” he wrote, “are the prime targets for the infiltration of hostile forces.”

For years, China’s leaders have feared that they’re losing their grip on the ideological loyalty of the country’s youth. According to official rhetoric, the forces wresting away young minds are cultural warfare waged through alluring foreign pop culture and the infiltration of “Western values.”

With the Party firmly in control and no obvious stirrings of a youth-led insurrection, it would be easy to write off this sentiment as paranoia. But according to researchers who study youth attitudes and how they are shaped by popular culture from the West, the commissars may not be so far off the mark. A series of surveys conducted over the past decade have found that many Chinese college students—perhaps even a majority of them—prefer elements of liberal democracy to China’s one-party system. “I think there is a real threat,” said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California political scientist who researches the relationship between Chinese youth and the state. “Certainly they’ve interpreted [the collapse of Communism] in Russia and Eastern Europe, at least in part, to the infiltration of Western culture.”

When actor Alan Thicke died in December, there was an outpouring of sympathy on Chinese social media among a generation that had come of age with Thicke’s affable father character on Growing Pains. One of the first U.S. TV shows to air in China in the early 1990s, it presented a lifestyle and culture in stark contrast to what Chinese state television offered. “Although this show was from the other side of the world, ordinary Chinese people could relate to it,” one Chinese man recently told the Los Angeles Times.

Growing Pains’ early 1990s broadcasts in China may be as good a marker as any separating the Chinese generations that came of age before and after an explosion in access to foreign culture. Those born in the late-80s and ’90s grew up as American entertainment rapidly became accessible—both through censored official channels and uncensored mediums like bootleg videos and the Internet.

Today, Hollywood imports still offer an attractive alternative to state television’s tightly controlled lineup dominated by historical costume dramas and anti-Japanese war films. Yang Gao, a Singapore Management University sociologist who researches foreign entertainment’s influence on Chinese youth, says that American TV is massively popular among young Chinese for its perceived authenticity. “This fascination is coinciding with the rise of the new ‘golden age’ of quality television in America, with complex characters and unconventional storytelling,” she said. “By comparison, Chinese TV can feel uninspired with relatively predictable plotlines and unambiguous characters. Heroes are heroes and villains are villains.”

Gao says that the Chinese generation born in the ’80s and ’90s came of age amid a clash between traditional collectivist culture and the emergence of individualism. In this atmosphere, Hollywood characters have provided young people a basis on which to interrogate their own identities that isn’t often found in state-sanctioned sources.

“Growing up we were taught to obey,” Gao said. “It’s written all over the political discourse and goes down to the very cultural fabric of society: We value conformity and harmony. But at the same time, economic development is arousing this neoliberal ideal: You must be independent and autonomous—you’re on your own now.”

In research Gao conducted with university students in Beijing, she found that Hollywood themes of spontaneity, nonconformity, and self-realization particularly resonated with young Chinese fans of American TV. “While many students applaud misfits, oddballs, or otherwise unconventional figures on US TV, what seems to have more forcefully struck a chord is the image of a ‘challenger,’” she wrote. “Someone who fights against powerful social establishment or authority.”

One of Gao’s subjects, a 21-year-old undergraduate, reported being inspired to go to law school by the TV drama Boston Legal’s depiction of lawyers suing government agencies like the FDA. “. . . [To] me, it’s a gesture of challenging authority, which suggests that the authority is challengeable,” the woman said. “But in China, I’ve never been exposed to that idea at school, not to mention watching the government get blamed or sued on TV.” Said another interviewee, “Whatever the reality is, American TV always reflects a distrust of and challenge to authority, whereas Chinese media basically dodge the issue.”

These values are at direct odds with what the state tries to instill in its youth. Every September, all incoming college freshmen must attend weeks of military training designed, in part, to instill collectivism, love for the Party, and obedience to authority—the culmination of an education that stresses socialist values and the unchallengeable supremacy of Communist Party rule. Extensive censorship of Chinese entertainment likewise insists on messaging conducive to social stability and the “correct” moral values.

China’s censors have attempted to clamp down on popular websites offering American TV shows like NCIS, The Practice, and The Good Wife, and then met withwidespread anger among the shows’ Chinese viewers. In 2014, when The Big Bang Theory was removed from streaming sites, livid fans went online to deem China “West North Korea.” The term was quickly blocked on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform.

Gao said that even seemingly innocuous characters on apolitical comedies like Friends and Sex in the City can leave identity-altering impressions with young Chinese, and prompt them to question the values promoted by their schools, parents, and the government.

“There is a generation gap that is greater when it comes to interpretation of the sub-textual messages in those shows,” she said. “With ideas of individualism, democracy, more liberal thoughts, and this elevation of ambiguity and complex individual attitudes over unification and conformity—this is something I think younger generations are more appreciative of than the older generation.”

How deeply Hollywood’s influence has penetrated China’s young generation is unclear, but over the past decade, its members have demonstrated what appears to be a small but growing willingness to challenge authority. Read more…


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