Political drumbeat: cultural confidence

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Yesterday, the hypernationalistic CCP government propaganda organ, Global Times, published the following article:

"China shows cultural confidence as world shares Spring Festival’s spirit, legacy, joy", by Ai Peng, Global Times (2/18/24)

Mark Metcalf called the conspicuous expression "cultural confidence" to my attention:

It's appeared in LL twice. 

Apparently it has propaganda 'legs' and, of course, the blessing of Xi Dada – see the articles below. It has even showed up in numerous Jiěfàngjūn 解放军报 (People's Liberation Army Daily) articles in recent months.
Is it just another throwaway term or is it being used to push CCP members toward a particular goal?
Considered from another perspective, all this talk about instilling confidence could easily be interpreted to mean that CCP members don't have the desired level of cultural confidence ("Party" confidence?).

If we go back a few months to the bimonthly theoretical and philosophical organ of the CCP, Qiúshì 求是 ("Seeking Truth", an excellent, but not direct, literal, and transparent translation*), we will find the firm foundation for the current prevalence of this doctrine ("cultural confidence") in the following article:

"Jiāndìng wénhuà zìxìn 坚定文化自信"** ("Strengthen cultural confidence"), Qiúshì 求是 ("Seeking Truth").

*The title of this magazine originated in "shí shì qiú shì 实事求是" ("seeking truth from facts"), a set phrase from the Hàn Shū 漢書 (Book / History of Han [Dynasty], completed in 111 AD).

**The source of this article is from a 9/27/23 draft prepared by Xú Zhōng 徐中 for Hóngqí 红旗 (Red Flag), a major political journal of the CCP.  

The seminal Red Flag article monotonously repeats the expression "wénhuà zìxìn 文化自信" ("cultural confidence") 35 times (altogether nearly 150 hànzì 汉字 ("sinoglyphs"), most often preceded by the verb "jiāndìng 坚定" ("strengthen"), thus "jiāndìng wénhuà zìxìn 坚定文化自信" ("strengthen cultural confidence").  There are a total number of 3,582 hànzì 汉字 ("sinoglyphs").

Mark probes the phenomenon more deeply when he says:

I guess "cultural confidence" is one way to deal with the reality of the PRC today.  As Delia Lin says in her chapter "The CCP's Exploitation of Confucianism and Legalism" in The Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party: "The official ideology of the CCP still is Marxism, which is a Western idea. If tradition determines a nation’s future, how can one justify a borrowed guiding ideology?" (p. 55)

Here are some of the more recent references to "cultural confidence" in the Economist.

Chinese animated films are booming

…Just as Pixar helped animated films captivate an audience beyond popcorn-popping children, Light Chaser Animation, a studio in Beijing, has boosted cartoons’ popularity in China. Light Chaser’s first three productions were cinematic marvels but financial flops. It was not until “White Snake” (2019), a love story between a snake hunter and snake spirit (made for adults), that the studio enjoyed its first success. Its “30,000 Miles from Chang’an”, which was the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2023, featured lyrical recitals of poetry from the Tang dynasty and blended elements from Chinese culture, history and mythology.

That is a common theme among successful Chinese animations: the top three highest-grossing ones all drew on traditional themes. This chimes with the Communist Party’s drive for “cultural confidence”; in other words, China should be proud of its heritage and not in thrall to Western cultural influences…


Karl Marx and Confucius may have lived 2,400 years apart, but recently, on Chinese state television, their characters were depicted meeting. The show, “When Marx Met Confucius” is one of the latest attempts to promote Xi Jinping Thought on Culture—the leader’s new doctrine for stronger cultural confidence in China. It, and the series, are part of a larger national rejuvenation plan.


China’s Communist Party has co-opted ancient music

The party’s founders had little good to say about China’s pre-communist history. But Xi Jinping, the current leader, has backed the revival of old instruments. They feature on China’s list of nominations for UNESCO‘s record of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. This is part of a broader effort to celebrate past glories. China’s ancient culture is the “root and soul” of the nation, says Mr Xi, who aims to build “cultural confidence”.

China often uses its civilisation as a shield against criticism by Western countries over human rights and democracy. They should not try to impose their own values on China’s unique culture, suggests Mr Xi. At the same time, China is presenting a softer side to the West in the form of plucked strings and piped tunes. The party sponsors international festivals and concerts. Earlier this year Mr Xi and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, enjoyed a guqin recital in the southern city of Guangzhou.


Xi Jinping reaches into China’s ancient history for a new claim to rule

Not unrelatedly perhaps, on June 2nd Mr Xi outlined his broadest-yet claim to rule, based on China’s exceptional culture. He called China the only civilisation to be uninterrupted over many millennia. As if suggesting that convergence with liberal values would betray every dynasty that preceded him, Mr Xi declared: “The fact that Chinese civilisation is highly consistent is the fundamental reason why the Chinese nation must follow its own path.” Because Chinese civilisation is unusually uniform, Mr Xi went on, different ethnic groups must be integrated and the nation unified: code for imposing Chinese culture on Tibet and other regions, and for taking back Taiwan. For anyone puzzled that a once-revolutionary party now calls itself the “faithful inheritor” of “excellent traditional culture” (plus a dose of Marxism), the People’s Daily weighed in with commentaries explaining why Mr Xi’s emphasis on cultural confidence is vital in a perilous moment when “strategic opportunities, risks and challenges co-exist”. Economic heft is not enough, the newspaper added. If China’s economy develops but its spirit is lost, “Can the country be called strong?”

Lego, the world’s top toymaker, focuses on China

The Chinese name for Lego, Legao, includes the character for happiness. And indeed, China has brought much joy to the world’s top toymaker by revenue. Brick by brick, the Danish company has built up its business in the country, which is increasingly central to the firm’s future. Last year over 60% of the new shops opened by Lego were in China.

That brings with it unique challenges. In 2015, for example, Lego refused to sell bricks to Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist known for criticising Communist Party leaders. Mr Ai planned to use the toys in a piece on dissidents. The company eventually backed down, saying it would no longer query the purpose of large orders. More recently, a rainbow-coloured set that celebrates inclusivity, called “Everyone is Awesome”, stopped being available in China.

But the focus on China has also led to interesting new creations aimed at the local market. In recent years Lego has released a number of sets that evoke the country’s culture. The latest include a traditional lunar-new-year display and a Chinese money tree adorned with red envelopes. Duplo, a Lego line aimed at younger children, has produced a “Learn about Chinese culture” model that incorporates red lanterns and a Mahjong set.

Lego’s “Monkie Kid” theme is inspired by “Journey to the West”, a 16th-century Chinese legend. Of course, the original monkey king did not have a “dragon jet” or “galactic explorer”. But these sets seem in line with the party’s push to build “cultural confidence”. So too does “Lego Masters”, the local version of a reality-TV show in which adult builders compete. Each episode is inspired by “the profound Chinese traditional culture”, says its broadcaster, Shenzhen Media Group.


Why China is turning away from English

President Xi Jinping wants his country to show more “cultural confidence”

… China’s leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to show more “cultural confidence”. A darker side of that campaign was revealed in 2013, the year after he took power, when the Communist Party circulated “Document Number Nine”, a leaked policy paper brimming with paranoia about foreigners who fetishise constitutionalism and universal values, and who seek to “infiltrate China’s ideological sphere”. It called for vigilance against foreign diplomats, journalists and scholars. Some Chinese intellectuals believe the anti-English measures are part of this drive for ideological purity…
VHM:  This simply is not true.  We've been through this cycle of popular love and political hate of English over and over and over again, and the influence and fluency of English keeps growing and growing and growing.

The good and the bad of China on Olympic show

This China wants to be seen as modern but lovable. That explains dancing robots at Wukesong’s security checkpoint, singing the Beijing 2022 theme song, “Together for a Shared Future”. Even some Olympic venues reflect growing cultural confidence, such as a freestyle-ski ramp built among the disused cooling towers and blast furnaces of Shougang, a former steelworks in western Beijing. Unfairly mocked by foreign commentators, Shougang is actually magnificent: a slice of carefully preserved industrial heritage resembling a steam-punk film set.

A conditional welcome

But China’s confidence has a darker side. Guided in part by grievance-stoking propaganda outlets, the public mood increasingly resents foreign criticism. In this polarising age, many in China divide the world into friends—countries and organisations that praise China as a model—and the rest. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, issued a joint statement with Mr Xi just before the opening ceremony that unveiled a united front against America and its Western allies. The pair condemned powers that use “advocacy of democracy and human rights” to lean on other countries, and endorsed what sound a lot like Russian and Chinese spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia. Both hailed a moment of “redistribution of power in the world”. Pakistan is liked in China because it is a noisily loyal ally. Its prime minister, Imran Khan, in Beijing for the games, praised China’s Communist Party for its discipline and focus on ending poverty, hailing its achievements as “unique in the history of mankind”.



China’s atheist Communist Party encourages folk religion

…Mazu has competition, revealed by the Chinese characters for “Emmanuel” discreetly painted on a few ships putting to sea. Perhaps 100 boats are Christian-owned, claims Peter, a local Protestant. Party leaders see Christianity as a foreign intruder, he laments. That is why they promote folk religion and “cultural confidence”. Yet the fishing life calls for deeper faith, Peter argues: the ocean reminds man how small he is in the face of nature.


Why young Chinese are sporting 1,800-year-old fashions

…Enthusiasts claim that a million Chinese, mostly youngsters, regularly wear Hanfu, or robes inspired by traditional Han dress. The unplanned emergence of any social movement in China presents Communist bosses with a choice: scramble to the front of the parade and claim to lead it, or ban it. For now, the parade continues. State media hail Hanfu as a welcome complement to calls from President Xi Jinping to revive traditional culture and values. In April 2018 the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, a recruitment channel for party members, declared a first “Traditional Chinese Garment Day”. The league urged young Chinese to don ancient finery to demonstrate “cultural confidence” to the world. There was a caveat, however. The league’s commemorative day honours what it calls Huafu, or “Chinese dress”. That encompasses not only Han traditions but those of China’s 55 official ethnic minorities, from such places as Tibet, Inner Mongolia or the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang. The league’s caution reflects wariness about overt Han chauvinism, which threatens official narratives about a unified, multi-ethnic China.


The Communist Party is redefining what it means to be Chinese

And is glossing over its own history of mauling Chinese culture

Since coming to power in 2012 Xi Jinping, the president, has intensified efforts to build what he refers to as “cultural confidence”. In an extraordinary denial of its legacy, the Communist Party has taken to presenting itself as “the faithful heir” of traditional Chinese culture. “Our civilisation has developed in an unbroken line from ancient to modern times,” Mr Xi declared in 2012. In January the government sought to codify its attempts to “preserve” traditional culture by outlining a vast array of policies that local and national officials should advance.

Individual elements of the policy to promote “the integration of leisure life and traditional cultural development” sound rather benign. Taken together, however, they constitute an attempt to infuse daily life with a sanitised and government-sanctioned version of Chinese culture. The intention, as in so much that Mr Xi does, is to secure the enduring power of the Communist Party.

The agenda touches every aspect of life. The white paper calls for an emphasis on “our festivals”, so local and national holidays are being celebrated with new vigour. Some people are proposing that China should pick its own Mother’s Day, rather than copy the American date (China already has a native version of Valentine’s Day). State media are boosting the use of Chinese medicine when people fall ill, wearing Han robes when they get married, and keeping fit by practising tai chi and other ancient sports (a recent viral video lauds “Kung Fu Granny”, a 94-year-old who reckons she owes her longevity partly to such activities). The party is trying to bend popular culture to its agenda, too. On August 5th it announced plans to replace prime-time entertainment and reality TV shows that “hype” pop stars with programmes of higher “moral” content. Examples include a much-plugged quiz show about classical poetry and another in which children compete to write complicated Chinese characters.


It is evident that the Economist has had its finger on the contemporary Chinese language language pulse and was aware of the nascent cultural confidence before the CCP realized that it could be a convenient political tool within the last couple of years.

Regardless of when the expression first occurred, it is clear that the CCP political philosophy propaganda machinery is campaigning vigorously to make it a watchword for Chinese citizens and apparatchiks alike.

For me, the takeaway is that China lacks cultural confidence.  Elsewise, why would they be making such a to-do over it at this particular time (the New Year's celebrations, when people are supposed to be full of enthusiasm for their nation and confidence in its traditions)?  A rallying cry for the people to stand up against the onslaught of foreign culture that they love so much — from English language and Japanese anime to Lego plastic bricks and K-pop, plus everything in between.


Selected readings


  1. AntC said,

    February 19, 2024 @ 9:39 pm

    Mention of Putin is interesting. He's also trying to connect to Russia's Imperial culture, and overlook the 'blip' in 1917.

  2. KeithB said,

    February 20, 2024 @ 9:48 am

    I wonder if they are trying to coopt the Shen Yun shows which are *very* thinly veiled anti CCP propaganda which basically says that the Shen Yun folks are the *real* inheritors of Chinese ancient traditions.

  3. katarina said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 6:32 pm

    Prof. Mair's post:

    "For me, the takeaway is that China lacks cultural confidence. Elsewise, why would they be making such a to-do over it …."

    Indeed, there is a lack. Likewise, Confucianist China, over more than 2000 years,
    made a great to-do over filial piety. No doubt filial piety was
    lacking in the population so that it had to be continually drummed into people. So too in the Judeo-Christian civilization.
    "Honor thy father and mother" etc. would not be commandments if
    the population were already satisfactory in such respects.

  4. magni said,

    March 5, 2024 @ 9:29 am

    "Cultural confidence" originated as Xi's 2014 addition to the established propagandist expression of "three confidences" (三个自信). This early form had been contrived by one of the coterie of imperial scholars under former president Hu Jintao around 2012, and it consisted of 道路自信 (confidence in the socialist road), 制度自信 (confidence in the socialist political system), and 理论自信 (confidence in the whatever PRC has as its ideology).

    Xi has been relishing this "cultural confidence" as his cherished brainchild by regurgitating it over and again on any occasion he could, to the exclusion of the other three founding members of what's now known as "four confidences" (四个自信). This can be seen as one way he usurps the political legacy of his predecessor (or predecessors).

    The fact that jargon coinage and usage could get politically meaningful speaks to the essence of "Socialism with Chinese characteristics": you don't see this stuff every day with other regimes. I am fascinated by the underlying dynamics behind the production of Chinese political speak now and then. It represents something not even remotely linguistic in the guise of language, something so Chinese that not even I, a Chinese citizen, can fully grasp.

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