Faculty lecture series: Crane speaks on China and Globilization

Comparing Chinese identity and culture over the past few centuries, Sam Crane, professor of political science and chair of the Asian studies department, spoke on “The Return to a Universal China” as part of the Faculty Lecture Series on Thursday.

Throughout the lecture, Crane referred to his own experiences in China, which he visited for the first time twenty years ago while working on his dissertation.

China had begun to open up to the outside world at the end of the 1970s, so in 1983 the changes were just beginning. At the same time, Crane said, the country was run in such a way that many admitted that “without the Communist Party there would be no new China.” Crane described hundreds of students at Beijing University all wearing blue shirts and Mao caps.

The Chinese state exercised strict control over the cultural development of the country. During the 1980s, the government initiated a campaign to “eradicate spiritual pollution,” labeling activities like curling hair, wearing high heels or listening to music late at night the “polluting” influence of the West. For this reason, Crane and other foreigners were often called “Mr. Pollution.”

But, taking a leap forward in time, Crane described a modern Shanghai businessman walking out of his BMW, while talking on his cell phone. “Now, that’s spiritual pollution,” he said.

He continued with China’s evolution, elaborating on how the relationship between culture, wealth, and politics has always played a central role in the Chinese state.

Even in the imperial Chinese period, which lasted hundreds of years, there remained a sense of a universal Chinese culture. A person’s Chinese heritage was always a cultural definition, not an ethnic one.According to Crane, access to power meant access to wealth in the centuries of China’s prosperity. At the same time, independent merchants helped carry the Chinese economy.

In the 19th century, Western imperialism fell over the country, mediated through Japan. Gradually, the strong culture-wealth-politics triangle began to break apart as people slowly lost faith in the old culture. In China, the revolution, civil war and numerous wars over the past 150 years mirrored an internal struggle.

During that period, Chinese culture began to depart from its traditional Confucian roots. The rise of socialist China was on the horizon.

Individuals used political power to create wealth for the state, which meant that any independent entrepreneurs who had existed in the past were now eliminated. In the new environment, the state regulated the culture.

Crane referred to a “politically authorized high culture,” spelling out the differences between socialist and Confucian culture. In fact, until the 1970s, many individuals felt as though they were “just bolt[s] in the powerful machine of socialist China.”

A lack of cultural diversity and a dwindling of Western and feudal culture led to a recombination of culture, wealth, and politics. Today, the three have broken apart. In the 1980s, the state let go of the economy and in a move considered to be a “deal with the globalization devil,” allowed foreign capitalist behavior to enter the country. This resulted in annual growth rates of a much as 10 percent.

The state was losing its ability to articulate a high cultural form. “China is more now than it could have been then,” Crane said, referring to his initial visit to the country.

The cultural changes in China over the last twenty years are unprecedented. “There are more ways you can be Chinese now,” he said.To give an example of this turbulent cultural transformation, Crane recounted an episode of his time as a professor in China in 1988.

When he expected his students to read Marx, Crane was asked whether it was not possible to read “something more progressive like. . . Milton Freedman.”

With such a widespread cultural diversity, people learned how to create different cultural forms and make them their own.

Now, for example, there is Chinese hip hop. This is why Crane believes that there is “a return to a universal China.”

Today, there is much less cultural control on the state’s part and much wider possibilities for expressing one’s own Chinese culture.

While Crane did caution that limits still exist, there is also an unparalleled openness of culture. But, it is still early to think of the possibility of a Chinese Democratic Party.

This return of universalism in China created a new awareness of freedom because one political party can no longer control the culture. Culture itself is defining new freedoms.

The Internet is the classic example, because the state has attempted to impose certain regulations with little success. Yet, there are still paradoxes. For example, web pages that display politically challenging lyrics can be accessed freely, while the state has censored others simply for their democratic content.

During the question-and-answer session following the talk, Crane was asked how the development was viewed outside of China.

Crane said that one indication of the radical transformation the country has gone through in the last two decades is the fact that a vast number of Chinese students have returned to China in recent years.

In response to whether there is any fear in China of it becoming too liberal, Crane replied that such conservative reactions have gotten less and less effective with time.

“Nobody is saying, ‘Hey, let’s close the economy!’ Politically, this kind of conservative backlash has muffled down,” he said.