On October 7–8, Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi (蔡奇) chaired the National Conference on Propaganda, Ideology, and Cultural Work (People’s Daily, October 9). This was the third installment of a quinquennial series of conferences dedicated to such work. This year’s edition moved beyond those from 2013 and 2018 through the addition of “culture (文化)” to both the title and theme of the conference. The “most significant outcome” was the formal introduction and comprehensive elaboration of Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (hereafter, XJPTOC) (People’s Daily, October 11). This new “thought” not only builds on general Party theory on culture, but also constitutes a further offshoot of “Xi Jinping Thought,” to buttress those already promulgated on the economy, the military, the environment, legal affairs, and diplomacy.
The Party’s mouthpieces and assorted media outlets exhort their readers to “deeply study” this “powerful ideological weapon and scientific action guide” (People’s Daily, October 12). We should also heed the Party’s emphasis on culture here. It provides a window into how the Party conceives of itself and its position, with all the hubris and moral rectitude that entails. It also gives some insight into how the Party hopes to export its preferred narratives overseas, and control information beyond its borders.
The Political Dimensions of Culture
The CCP’s abiding preoccupation with ensuring its own regime stability entails refracting culture through a specific political lens. In this light, “culture” to Xi Jinping is simply another resource to draw on to buttress his own legitimacy. By wrapping himself in the trappings of an historically expansive—but substantively parochial—definition of culture, Xi hopes to stoke nationalism and shore up support for the regime. The centrality of culture—and Xi’s imprimatur—should not be underestimated. In Cai Qi’s speech at the conference, written by Xi, he states that “propaganda, ideological, and cultural work concerns the future and destiny of the Party, the long-term peace and stability of the country, and national cohesion and team spirit” (People’s Daily, October 11). The coverage followed the following day offers variations on this theme: “Culture is the soul of a country and a nation, and without a high degree of cultural confidence and cultural prosperity, there will be no great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (People’s Daily, October 12). Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the effort to disseminate news about Xi’s latest intervention was the airing of a new television program, “When Marx Meets Confucius,” on October 10. This to “achieve the popularization of the latest theoretical results” (Hunan China News, October 10).
To understand what the Party means by “culture,” one must look at how the word is deployed in official documents and speeches. Throughout all the recent reports on the conference and related meetings this year, the word “culture” is invariably collocated with “propaganda (宣传)” and “ideology (思想).” It is also closely associated with “civilization (文明),” and increasingly the “Global Civilization Initiative (GCI, 全球文明倡议).” It is also clear that the parameters of culture are defined exclusively by the Party. As an article in Qiushi, the Party’s leading theory journal, makes clear: “The historic achievements in propaganda, ideological and cultural work are most fundamentally due to the General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership” (Qiushi, October 15). And again: “Firmly resist any attempt to strip away the Chinese elements, ideology, values, mainstream thought, or historical significance of Chinese culture, and make continued efforts to fortify the common spiritual home of the Chinese nation” (Qiushi, September 13). This latter quote clearly links culture with the Chinese national project, and in turn seeks to collapse the distinction between the nation and the Party.
XJPTOC itself fits into a larger genealogy of assorted cultural dicta. These were highlighted in a speech Xi gave in June at the Cultural Inheritance and Development Symposium (China Daily, June 4). They include the “Fourteen Emphases (十四个强调)” for cultural construction, the “two integrations (两个结合),” and the “Seven Exertions (七个着力).” These have been explicated elsewhere,  but the crucial point to take away is that the most recent announcement of XJPTOC fits into a larger, expansive theoretical framework. Some of the wider framing for XJPTOC goes back to the most important Party document for the current period, the Work Report to the 20th Party Congress (Xinhua, October 25, 2022). For instance, the Report talks of “combining the basic principles of Marxism with China’s concrete realities and with China’s outstanding traditional culture.” It goes on to argue that it is “necessary to be firm in historical and cultural self-confidence, insist on the use of the past for the present and the promotion of new ideas, and integrate the essence of Marxist thought with the essence of China’s outstanding traditional culture.” But much of this goes back further. In 2010, a work report on the importance of reforming China’s cultural system emphasized culture as a component of social management and international power (See, China Brief, October 28, 2011).
When it comes to international power, the GCI provides a vehicle for achieving the stated goal of “significantly enhancing the country’s cultural soft power by 2035” (Xinhua, October 25, 2022). The four core tenets of the GCI advocate, among other things, promoting “cultural exchanges” and having countries “fully harness the relevance of their histories and cultures to the present times” (SCIO, March 19). This was picked up in Cai Qi’s speech, which exhorted officials to “strive to strengthen international communication capacity building” to provide “favorable cultural conditions,” while China Media Group head Shen Haixiong aims to “win the international public opinion and cognitive wars” (People’s Daily, October 9; (SCMP, October 15). And as the BRI Cooperation Summit this week makes clear, China’s global outreach has traction. The BRI White Paper (SCIO, October 10) notes that the Belt and Road News Network’s members “has increased to 233 media outlets in 107 countries,” while the Silk Road Think Tank Association “has recruited 122 partners in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.” But it seems that beyond repressing media freedoms in partner countries, a confused mix of Marxism and “traditional Chinese culture” is unlikely to be successful without the economic and political benefits that back it up. This is the paradox of XJPTOC: by yoking “culture” to the political, China’s cultural clout is seen as having little independent value beyond the political.
Chinese culture is seen as foundational to the Party’s legitimacy and to the cohesion of the state. As an article in Quishi this week states: “Marxism is the soul and traditional Chinese culture is the root (魂和根)” (Quishi, October 15). Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Party therefore necessitates his own personal intervention in delineating what that culture represents: a message that underwrites much of the ideology and propaganda that followed the conference where XJPTOC was announced.
As the PRC strengthens its efforts to instrumentalize culture, both at home and abroad, two things are worth bearing in mind. One is that the political power that buttresses Xi’s idea of “culture” means that pro-PRC messaging in countries that China has strong ties with are likely to increase substantially, to the detriment of those countries’ media environments. As the Party’s presence grows in those countries, its disdain for criticism of Chinese actions will push it to exert pressure on local media, until such critical expression is muted. This is already happening in countries such as Pakistan (Doublethink Lab, 2022). The second is that China’s cultural discourse, which privileges the centrality of Xi, and the homogeny of its one, hubristic message, is likely to receive backlash. Not only will many members of the culture industry balk at renewed repressive restraints, but the nationalism undergirding Xi’s cultural thinking will do little to win friends in an increasingly hostile external environment.
Xi collapses historical time, rewriting the past to serve China’s present ends. The more this strand of thought instantiates the CCP’s political hegemonism, the more Xi’s cultural thought will resemble a hollow crown.
 For a good explainer, see for instance “Xi Jinping’s Cathedral of Pretense,” China Media Project, October 13: https://chinamediaproject.org/2023/10/13/xi-jinpings-cathedral-of-pretense/.