Good Citizens, Splendid Civilization: Culture in the 13th FYP

In Part 3 of our series on the 13th five-year plan, Jessica Batke shows how the CCP hopes to foster a sense of national identity by instilling cultural and moral values among the population. A key part of this constructed identity is closeness with the Party itself.

Originally published as part of MERICS’ blog series on the 13th Five Year Plan

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Government or the Department of State.

Lei Feng is back! Or at least the Party wants him to be. In its recently released 13th five-year plan, Beijing makes clear that it means to take an even more active role in shaping the contours of modern Chinese culture and morality.  The CCP seeks to harken back to a time when—in the official narrative, at least—the Party’s and the people’s ambitions were one and the same.   This is the idea behind reviving Lei Feng, the Mao era soldier who was posthumously lionised for his public service and selfless devotion to the Party.

Many of the ideas espoused in the document are not entirely new, but the plan offers one of the clearest, most concise statements of the Party’s efforts to mould the values of Chinese people and society—and yes, Lei Feng gets a name-check. The cultural prescriptions in the five-year plan are part of a larger nation-building project in which the CCP hopes to construct a strong sense of national identity that is closely aligned with the Party itself.

The 13th plan, with its reaffirmation of the Party and state’s normative role in the cultural sphere, stands in contrast to the two previous documents, which treated culture more like an economic good. The focus was on constructing “cultural infrastructure” (such as establishing more museums and increasing the reach of television and movies), building a “cultural industry” (such as promoting private investment in cultural production and increasing products’ “market competitiveness”), as well as addressing disparities in cultural access (such as creating increased access for the poor, the disabled, and those living in rural areas). Though these plans did contain normative statements, they featured less prominently than in the current plan.

The 13th five-year plan shares many of the practical concerns of the older documents, like increasing free museum access and protecting ancient cultural objects and heritage. But it also identifies social and cultural values that it wants to instil into all members and all aspects of society. The respective passages contain normative language (as if to say: “Here is what a good citizen looks like.”), but they also discuss ways to expand the reach and appeal of the value system they describe.

Notable cultural aims in the 13th five-year plan include:

Push “core socialist values” into all aspects of society and individual life, heightening individuals’ sense of patriotism, morality, social responsibility, social trust, as well as respect for the law and the environment; cultivate individuals’ “correct moral judgement” as they internalise “core socialist values;” increase large-scale activities to promote a “civilized” society in cities, villages, work units, homes, and schools. These dictates mirror the CCP’s call last year to increase the presence of Party members in NGOs, trade unions, and neighbourhoods.

Promote the expansion of “excellent” parts of traditional Chinese culture, including traditional moral tenets as well as holidays and rites, into daily life and into the education system.  A revival of government support for Confucianism, already underway for several years, presages this proposal.  In addition, the plan itself references Communist traditions like the above-mentioned Lei Feng as well as the May Fourth movement as relevant cultural touchstones.

Bulk up the philosophical underpinnings of Chinese governance, including developing an academic discipline based on “socialist political economy with Chinese characteristics” and establish 50-100 think tanks to this end.  These new institutions feed into the larger effort, endorsed at the Party’s 3rd Plenary Session in 2013, to create a network of think tanks to support Chinese policymaking.

Actively use the internet as a cultural platform, encouraging the growth of a “civilised” online space that includes art and literature, as well as lessons for youth on how to be a “good Chinese netizen;” blend the management of “old” (television, newspaper) media with “new” (online) media in order to increase the influence and credibility of the state’s media messaging.

Expand further into the international cultural arena, both in terms of developing media outlets that can spread China’s messages abroad, as well as running Chinese language and culture centres. Though not a state-managed deal, the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda’s purchase of a major Hollywood studio earlier this year certainly supports the CCP’s goals in this regard.

Why a stronger ideological emphasis this time around? For one, the Party is trying to fill the spiritual vacuum resulting first from the forced break with traditional Chinese culture and then from the slow hollowing out of Communist ideals. The CCP is concerned that its population no longer has a positive sense of national identity and values associated with Chinese culture and the Party. This sense of cultural or moral emptiness has been blamed for a number of negative social phenomena, such as the unwillingness of strangers to help those in danger. It has also been linked to the growth of Christianity, which provides adherents with a social identity separate from – and possibly threatening to – the CCP. Thus the Party is seeking to create a new centre of gravity around an idea of modern Chinese identity that includes CCP-approved traditional and “revolutionary” cultural norms.  

Secondly, the attempts to create a top-down definition of cultural norms align with both traditional Chinese as well as Leninist concepts of governance. These concepts posit that the state has a normative role in the cultural sphere and acts as a moral compass for society. In this way, the desire to push “civilisation” into all levels and types of social structures also reflects how the Chinese government views itself in relation to its citizens.

Of course, it remains to be seen if these decrees will have any lasting impact on an increasingly culturally diffuse Chinese society. The Party may still love Lei Feng, but will the people?