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China's Leaders Aim to Expand Influence of Chinese Culture


China’s ruling Communist Party elite wrapped up a four-day annual meeting in Beijing Tuesday, which comes as the country prepares for a major political succession next year. During the meeting of nearly 400 party elite, the Communist Party chiefs approved a new plan on cultural reform that seeks to maintain internal security and boost China’s influence abroad.

At this year’s meeting, China’s communist leaders focused mainly on the important role culture plays in boosting national unity, creativity, strength and competitiveness.

In a document released after the closed-door meeting, the party stressed the need to strengthen awareness of what it called the perils and risks and the challenge of protecting China’s cultural identity. It also noted the need to enhance China’s soft-power and the international influence of its own culture.

China’s economy continues to see strong growth and an increasing role in international affairs, but state media have noted that Chinese ideas and cultural influence still lags far behind Western nations.

Dean Cheng, an Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. says the plan goes beyond highlighting China’s rich and long history. “The Chinese publishing system is - despite churning out lots and lots of books and magazines - not as strong as any single Western publisher. That the world flocks to Disney movies and not animated Chinese movies about Confucius," he said.

A commentary in the People’s Daily newspaper on Sunday argued that “a country that can only export television sets but not its ideas will never become a great power.”

Cheng Li is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “You do see some of the kind of Chinese pride in (the country’s) economic achievement, but also there’s a lot of cynicism, including some leaders have talked about moral decay in China," he said.

That cynicism is being voiced online and through social media in China. The plan that was adopted this week seeks to address the growing influence of social media and the diversity of voices in China. Some believe the attention that was given to the Internet and the media in the plan was aimed at tightening control over both as China prepares for its leadership succession next year.

“From the communiqué that was released, you do see some of the policy emphasis on cultural development and reform, but at the same time it is still unclear whether they (the government) will settle for media censorship and control but rather openness and the promotion of real dialogue," he said.

Li adds that if China really wants to focus on soft power, real political progress and civil society participation is key. "But China in the past two to three years has moved in the other direction. You see heavy media censorship, you see a lot of barriers for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and civil society," he said.

China has the world’s biggest Internet population and more than 200 million users of micro-blogging, Twitter like web sites. Officials are concerned about the use of the Internet to sow unrest and criticize the government. In its plan, the government said it would promote a “healthy, progressive, Internet culture.”

Increasingly, the Internet is being used by Chinese to address a host of social ills and the problem of corruption in China.

This week, a video that was posted on the Internet of a two-year old girl who was hit twice on a city street while more than a dozen people walked by and failed to lend her hand, has sparked outrage. Media reports and commentary online have wondered openly about how this could have happened and what is wrong with Chinese society today.

Dean Cheng said, “There is an uneasiness on the part of the public about if China is so powerful, so rich, so up and coming, what is being lost. And what is being lost in a sense is the idea of an upright ethos.”

Maintaining control for China is extremely important now because late next year, Chinese President Hu Jintao will step aside and Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to take his place. Most of the high-up positions have been settled, but analysts say there is still a lot of jockeying for other positions that is going on. “I think that we are seeing unprecedented amounts of jostling [for positions]. There is repeated rumors that while Xi Jinping’s position is set, Li Keqiang’s position may not be," he said.

Vice Premier Li Keqiang is expected to take over for Premier Wen Jiabao when the succession takes place next year, but analysts note there are others vying for his post including Bo Xilai. Bo, the party chief of the central municipality of Chongqing has been openly campaigning for his future position- a first in the history of Chinese Communist Party successions.

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