Chinese President Xi Jinping is channeling the late communist revolutionary Mao Zedong in a potential crackdown on China's burgeoning creative class.
Xi wants to send artists, filmmakers, and television producers to the Chinese countryside to learn about peasant life — a policy that echoes Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when Beijing's communist leaders exiled 17 million privileged urban youths to poor rural communities in a bid to purge them of their bourgeois values.
Xi was one of those kids. He spent seven years in Shaanxi Province, a poor region that the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as being "known for famine and natural disaster." During that period, he lived in a cave and learned to tolerate fleas. But rather than ruing Mao for banishing him to the sticks, Xi fondly recollects his experience as crucial in developing his sense of duty to his country.
Now he wants Chinese artists to learn the same lesson.
"The move will be a boost in helping artists form a correct view of art and create more masterpieces," said the state-owned Xinhua news agency in a report on Monday announcing the new policy.
Xinhua quotes the Chinese president as telling artists last month not to be "slaves of the market," and that their work "should not bear the stench of money" and instead "present socialist core values."
Under the new policy, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television will send artists and filmmakers to rural areas for 30 days to find inspiration in country life.
Censorship is among the duties of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. The agency recently issued an edict against puns in journalism and advertising — yes, puns, or jokes based on wordplay — because they might undermine traditional Chinese culture.
Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, was of two minds about Xi's policy.
It's not clear whether the Chinese government is going to force people to visit the Gobi Desert or the mountains of Tibet on the scale of Mao's Cultural Revolution, said Schell. But Xi's policy demonstrates that the spirit of Mao is alive in his administration, even as China develops its unique model of state-controlled capitalism. In October, Xi delivered a speech that many compared to a 1942 address by Mao that called for the arts to serve the masses and advance socialism, said Schell.
"It is completely antithetical to the Western notion of art and the media as independent voices that perform watchdog functions," said Schell, speaking to VICE News.
On the other hand, Xi is also addressing a worrisome aspect of the yawning divide between rich and poor Chinese people in the last few decades as the country's economy has boomed, Schell said. Many of China's elites enjoy lives that are completely divorced from the vast majority of people in the country. And trendy Chinese artists typify the trend.
Ai Weiwei's installation of 2,500 porcelain crabs, for instance, recently sold at Sotheby's for $605,000. China's per capita income, meanwhile, is around $4,400 a year, according to the World Bank.
"One of Mao's very strong planks is that people had to really understand what it is like to be a poor peasant, that these are the forgotten people," said Schell.
It's a laudable idea to encourage Chinese elites to learn more about their poor countryman, Schell added. He doubted a Chinese cameraman had much choice if his boss suggested he take a trip to learn about the residents of Inner Mongolia, however.
"It wouldn't be so awful if in fact it wasn't by fiat," said Schell.
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