With all the talk in recent months in China of “new civilizational splendor” (文明新辉煌) in everything from sports to Marxism, heritage protection to village life, it is impossible not to sit up and take notice of the country’s fulsome messaging on culture. Surely, something must be happening. No? As officials emerged last weekend from the latest Chinese Communist Party work conference, the language mounted further. They unveiled yet another eponymous phrase for the country’s top leader: Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (习近平文化思想).
In the Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, a front-page tribute on Wednesday deemed the phrase a “significant milestone” (里程碑意义), suggesting excitedly that the general secretary had “accurately grasped the trend of mutual ideological and cultural agitation worldwide.” What does all of this nonsense mean? Why is China building the rhetoric over culture and civilization to such dizzying heights?
If we avoid becoming distracted by the monumentality of the cathedral of language before us, and gaze past its gothic flourishes, the answer is deceptively simple. Xi Jinping’s obsession with culture is about the need to disguise basic questions of power and legitimacy behind the elaborate stonework of political discourse.
Grab your chisels. Let’s break this down.
The Nine Adheres
According to explications of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” provided this week by the People’s Daily and other official media, Xi’s brand-new cultural concept is actually the culmination of a “series of important speeches” he delivered around two previous meetings on propaganda and ideology.
During these meetings, which have traditionally been called National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conferences (the word “culture” was tellingly added for this latest one), Xi outlined the nature of the CCP’s work on several facets of what can be included under the broader umbrella of culture: “work on literature and the arts” (文艺工作); “the Party’s work on news and public opinion” (党的新闻舆论工作); “cybersecurity and informatization work” (网络安全和信息化工作); “philosophy and social science work” (哲学社会科学工作), and “cultural heritage development” (文化传承发展).
These conferences, in other words, laid the foundation for the “significant milestone” the leadership claims to have reached just six days ago.
To better understand the foundations of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we can unpack the first of these conferences, held in August 2018, during which Xi Jinping laid out what he called the “Nine Adheres” (九个坚持).
Not surprisingly, given that they are important components of the “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the “Nine Adheres” have been dragged out again this week by Party-run media, and even graphically represented. They are drawn from various speeches Xi has made during his time as the Party’s top leader, including during his first meeting on ideology in August 2013.
Read through the “Nine Adheres” and you will be hard-pressed to find anything whatsoever related to culture or civilization outside the guardrails of political power. There is nothing to do with the arts or artists, with cinema or filmmakers, with publishing or writers, with choreography or dancers. There is nothing to do with music or melodies — save for references to the “main melody” (主旋律), a phrase about the imperative of ensuring the CCP’s voice is dominant.
This point, that the CCP’s driving motivation is the control of culture, may seem painfully obvious. But it is crucial, nevertheless, to clearly acknowledge the foundations. The danger, otherwise, is that we read too much into the elaborate discourse of civilization, and imagine China under the CCP is tipping toward a cultural renaissance, or trying to empower one, rather than cynically leveraging culture to legitimize a one-party authoritarian dictatorship under an emerging cult of personality.
In this vein, one cautionary tale comes from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who after a visit to China in 2009 in which he was inundated with the latest CCP-speak on “cultural sector reforms” claimed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that the country was in the constructive throes of a “New Cultural Revolution.”
So let’s look at the “Nine Adheres,” which the People’s Daily tells us is foundational to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture.” I include the full list below, with remarks.
- Adhering to the CCP’s leadership authority over ideological work.
This should be self-explanatory. It is the claim by the CCP under Xi’s leadership to have an exclusive and ultimate say over matters concerning ideology, which encompasses the entire universe of ideas and their expression through media, the internet, the arts, philosophy, the social sciences, and so on.
- Adhering to the fundamental task of the “Two Reinforcements” (两个巩固) in ideological work.
Here, a catchphrase is used to explain a catchphrase, again reminding us that its important to pick apart the edifice of CCP discourse, brick by brick. This refers to “reinforcing the guiding role of Marxism in the ideological sphere” and “reinforcing the common ideological foundation for unity and struggle by the whole Party and the entire people.” The explication by the People’s Daily Online also mentions Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the need for both “a correct political orientation and guidance of public opinion,” the first self-explanatory and the second an explicit reference to the need for CCP control of the media and information to maintain political control.
- Adhering to the use of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era to arm the entire Party, and to educate the people.
Here within the cathedral, in the chapel dedicated to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we see the recurrence of the motif that gives purpose to the entire cathedral — the god-like dominance of Xi Jinping. The CCP’s leadership is established first, followed by the guiding role of Marxism, and then the emphasis on the leadership of Xi and his inspirational contributions to the governance and belief system — at base, a claim to his legitimacy as top Party leader.
- Adhering to the cultivation and fulfillment of socialist core values.
This is, yet again, about obedience to the Party-led value system. For more on “socialist core values” and their rigid interpretation, see “The Battle of Brick Lane.”
- Adhering to cultural confidence as the foundation.
This is where Xi Jinping’s claim to legitimacy, a bare-bones structure of power assertions to buttress his leadership and that of the Party, is filled out with the finer details of traditional Chinese culture. This is not really about culture, however. It is about the populist appeal to the inspirational nature of Chinese culture — populist because it is about affirming China’s rise in the contemporary world against a backdrop of historical exploitation and disrespect (a key part of the CCP narrative). “Chinese civilization” (中华文明) is referenced here, using a May 2022 passage from Xi Jinping, to advance the notion that the CCP has a cultural-political claim on the entire global Chinese population, including the diaspora. “Chinese civilization . . . is the spiritual tie that binds all the Chinese of the world, and a treasure of Chinese cultural innovation.” Civilizational pride is a keystone of Xi’s claim to legitimacy in his third leadership term.
- Adhering to the communication power, leading power, and influence power of news and public opinion.
Now that the list of adheres has established the dominance of the CCP, Marxism, and Xi Jinping, and filled this hard superstructure with frescos of cultural/civilizational glory, it is time to think about how the messages of the Party can be most effectively communicated. It’s not surprising to find language here about the need for “media convergence development” (媒体融合发展), and the remaking of the “mainstream media” (主流媒体), which in the CCP context refers to Party-run media exclusively. That also means CCP control of the message, of course, and we should note that the language of information control dominates. The People’s Daily Online emphasizes quotes from Xi that stress “adhering to the leadership of the CCP [over news and public opinion],” and the “correct political orientation.”
- Adhering to the people-centered orientation of creation.
Now that claims to power and its underlying value orientation have been handled in 1-6, the final third of the “Nine Adheres” can deal with more peripheral matters of importance. Here, the CCP insists upon innovation and creation within the guardrails already established. Essentially, within the bounds of control, culture should consider the needs of the population and the proclivities of the audience. This is about “satisfying the spiritual demands of the people.” For more on how the CCP applies the notion of “the people,” see Ryan Ho Kilpatrick’s recent post. We can also note that this combination of control and audience positioning is not new in the reform era. During the Hu Jintao era, for example, it was conveyed through the idea of the “Three Closenesses” (Find out more in the CMP Dictionary).
- Adhering to a clear and positive online space.
Through the 1980s and the 1990s, before the rise of the internet as the primary means of communication, enforcing the political and cultural guidelines of the CCP was in many ways a far simpler matter — even if, in the midst of broader social and economic change, it was never simple. Since Xi Jinping came to power, the focus has shifted decisively to the internet when it comes to information control, evidenced by the growing dominance of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), created through an agency shakeup in 2014. The control of cyberspace is now paramount to the Party. The language from Xi Jinping in the People’s Daily Online explainer for the “Nine Adheres” comes from Xi’s speech at the April 2018 work conference on cybersecurity, in which he said the CCP “must strengthen positive propaganda online, [and] adhere with a clear banner to the correct political direction, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and [correct] values orientation.”
- Adhering to the telling of China’s story well, and the communicating of China’s voice well.
In a new world of mobile digital information, it is no longer sufficient for a ruling political party in an authoritarian system to focus on domestic information and ideological control alone, as the Chinese are potentially exposed to alternative systems and values despite a massive information control infrastructure. Therefore, it is important that the CCP reinforce power and control back home through greater “discourse power” (话语权) on the global stage. So the last of the “Nine Adheres” is fundamentally about soft and sharp power development, and what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣).
While official Party media claim this week that Xi Jinping has “put forward a series of new ideas, new perspectives, and new assertions” that have culminated in the concept of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the hard stone of the “Nine Adheres” reminds us that the foundational assertions are about CCP power and the necessity of cultural control in defense of that power.
Of course, even if Xi was a culturally accomplished president — a Havel, Disraeli, or Franco — the suggestion that he has grasped a “cultural agitation worldwide” would be preposterous. The point, however, is that “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” has nothing whatsoever to do with culture, though we will surely hear in the months to come about Xi’s designs for a cultural refulgence.
To understand this latest new catchphrase, just imagine a soaring cathedral of lavish discourse. The monument, which is named “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” embraces the empty core of CCP power, giving it a seeming solidity. For some time now, there have been five chapels along each side, each a place to worship the god-like achievements of the top leader. There are chapels to foreign policy (习近平外交思想), rule of law (习近平法治思想), the economy (习近平经济思想), environmental policy (习近平生态文明思想), and national defense (习近平强军思想).
Now, in Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term, the monuments must be all the grander to disguise the hollowness at the core and to expand the space for the necessary rituals of power. A new chapel, the sixth, is erected, giving new symmetry to the structure.
Now unveiled, the chapel of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” can be visited, worshipped, and talked about. A grand distraction for China’s grandest leader in generations.