With Gangnam Style gone completely viral and having taken the U.S. by storm, I thought it interesting The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos would use it as an example of something China unable to produce, caused by supposed state censorship stifling Chinese culture. Few weeks ago he got some ‘expert’ to offer this view:
“In China, culture and the arts develop under the watchful eye of the government, and anything too hip or interesting gets either shut down or bought up. In Korea, by contrast, artists and entertainers thrive in a space that is highly commercialized but also pretty much free of the heavy hand of the state,” Delury told me, adding, “I kid government officials that the moment they understand why K-pop is so successful and try to replicate it, they will destroy it.”
Culture and arts flourish when society can afford them. One should ask: How are the 700 million or so Chinese farmers busy tilling their land suppose to be working on something like Gangnam Style? The last few decades of hundreds of million of Chinese being pulled out of poverty have allowed many to pursue their dreams. Look at the international art market. Chinese painters are currently the most sought after by collectors around the world.
What is even more weird is that he implicitly suggests Gangnam Style is a specimen of great culture. Koreans certainly don’t think so, and Oh Young-Jin, managing editor of The Korea Times, wrote that the dance has more to do with Americans than Koreans. The song is even shunned in Japan. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
So, what’s the criteria? When it’s popular in America? That’d be a pretty narrow (and frankly, stupid) interpretation, wouldn’t you say?
And today, on the Fareed Zakaria GPS program on CNN, he appears presumably as the China ‘expert,’ daringly proclaims, “Why China can’t do Gangnam Stle:”
In China today, the problem ultimately, culturally, for people that are involved in the arts – whether it’s music or film-making – is that if you do anything that is truly radical that is making people uncomfortable, then there are so many points when the system will intervene.
Look, the running narrative with people like Osnos (and probably Zakaria) is that Chinese government censorship stifles creativity and hence culture. And, it is the same sort of narrative that people like James Fallows peddle when he tried to argue slow access to some U.S. web sites in China is also due to censorship. See my prior post why Fallows is wrong. A simple reason is that those web sites do not have physical servers in China. He would be equally quick to judge hence Chinese creativity is handicapped.
China’s innovation and creativity have been handicapped by centuries of foreign invasion where the society has been reduced to subsistence. Now that the Chinese are being incrementally lifted out of that, and as Warren Buffett likes to point out, their potential is finally being unleashed.
China’s censorship has everything to do with actions that are destabilizing to Chinese society or anti-China politically. Outside of that realm, Chinese society is basically very free.
One thing I must point out at this point. Notice how Osnos quotes an ‘exert’ to support his narrative. Next, he becomes the ‘expert’ on Fareed Zakaria’s show who in turn peddles that narrative. What happened to balance? Couldn’t either pieces (Osnos’ article and Zakaria’s interview) offer some sort of counter-arguments?
So, what I find disappointing is that “free” media are so incestuous in parroting each other. As far as I am concerned, that lack of balance in media is cancerous culture and our world is better off with less of it! China is very much about “中庸,” as a CCTV editor not too long ago said to a Columbia School of Journalism student.
Finally, we should ask, are Osnos and Zakaria genuinely interested in more Chinese culture proliferating around the world? Let’s look at one example.
By most accounts, the world seemed genuinely impressed with the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The Chinese were proud of it, because they saw the event as an honor and as an opportunity for China and the Chinese to be better understood. Many people around the world were genuinely impressed with the depth of Chinese history and culture, and how all that materialized at the scale of the ceremonies.
During the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, it seemed American and British media were very insecure. They constantly wrote about the London event in terms of how it would not be like Beijing.
In another article, Osnos wrote:
Four years after China whipped itself into a lather to host the most boffo Olympics imaginable, China seems, these days, a bit startled to discover that anyone is bothering to try hosting the Games again.
So, when China puts on a good show, its “whipped itself into a lather” to do it? Why can’t the Beijing 2008 success be a success for the Olympics movement?
It would be one thing if he genuinely appreciated what Chinese culture had to offer, but it is entirely another when he seemed jaded and nitpicking on Lin Miaoke lip-syncing to another girl’s voice or the fireworks animation:
Running through much of the Chinese conversation about the Games has been a recurring question that reflects the broader debate unfolding around the strains in China’s economic boom: What kind of values does it all—the money, the pageantry, the gold medals—stand for, anyway? In 2008, the opening ceremonies were, by any measure, an astonishment. But rather than contenting themselves with a fireworks display fit for the ages, for instance, organizers digitally augmented the explosions on television screens to make them yet more resplendent (and, indeed, a fat target for criticism). When it came to the singing, designers enlisted the recorded voice of one child and the smiling face of another, a search for composite cuteness that suggested, to many in China, a kind of unhinged ambition for the appearance of success.
So, when there is genuine Chinese success, it must be “a kind of unhinged ambition for the appearance of success.” What a mouthful of crap.
Going back to Gangnam Style, I wonder if Osnos (and Zakaria) have asked if India has produced something like it. Bollywood produces the most number of movies on this planet. Is that “desperately” wanting to project culture and soft power?
I believe in due time, Bollywood will have it’s share of block-buster movies that appeal to a global audience. That has much more to do with budget and size of the Indian market and whether Indians are untied from tilling their land to pursue other things.
And, looks like Ai Weiwei is capitalizing on Gangnam Style to criticize the Chinese government too.
Perhaps if Ai Weiwei would instead enact being sodomized like how Moammar Gadhafi was and shed some light on how miserable the Libyans are today (you know, with the current government being propped into power with NATO bombing), he might actually earn some credibility with the ordinary Chinese for once.