The era of consumerism: crisis in the boom
—— an interview with the reporter Ruifeng from “Cultural Industry”
“Cultural Industry”: China is now talking about its “cultural renaissance”, and we can’t but think of the European Renaissance, which promoted humanism and personal liberation. Is this Chinese “cultural renaissance” basically about re-examining the Chinese cultural tradition or, like the European Renaissance was “a complete break with the stormy Middle Ages”, a substantive criticism of the current culture?
Fu Guoyong: I think that today’s China is far from a cultural renaissance. What we’re seeing is not a revival of traditional Chinese culture, and even less what the Renaissance was for Europe, a liberation of the people and an ideological emancipation. At least it’s not what’s happening at this moment. That is because all cultural creativity has one fundamental premise: freedom. In this era where free spaces are so lacking, we can’t really talk about cultural creativity, let alone a cultural renaissance. So this talk about culture is empty, and fake. We don’t have culture today, all we have is materialism, the singing path of consumerism and materialism; all we have is the sound of bulldozers, building high-rises on every piece of land in China. And so it seems a bit extravagant to talk about culture in China. On the one hand, it seems that there has never been an era more prosperous than ours; on the other hand, spiritually, we’re still in the middle of a desert. There is colour evrywhere, and spring dances, but these cannot conceal the anxiety and poverty within our very bones. Can we say that what we see are signs of cultural revival? In accordance with the universals of human culture, including the standards and measures of ancient Chinese culture, all we have today is just a form of consumption, a form of distraction, something purely material.
“Cultural Industry”: China is opening Confucius Institutes overseas, is that culture?
Fu Guoyong: Of course, this can be interpreted as a form of culture, Confucius is a cultural symbol. But in a more fundamental sense, this is more like political public relations or diplomatic strategy, using Confucius as a shell for some necessary cultural adornment. Precisely speaking, it’s using the dead Confucius as an adornment for a living power, at best. Apart from their role in making Chinese language more popular, I don’t know that Confucius Institutes have much cultural content.
“Cultural Industry”: From the perspective of a historian of the Republic, how do you assess the contemporary media? Will there be contemporary characters in the style of Zhang Jiluan and a new “Da kong Bao”?
Fu Guoyong: strictly speaking, contemporary China does not yet have relatively independent private media, and so the media ecology is completely different from what it was under the Republic. At that time, there was a large number of private newspapers and private publications. In that period, the private media were the main channel, and government media were just a secondary channel. Today, the party media are the main channel, and although a certain number of newspaper are largely commercial, the party is still backing them- that is, is their funding source – and they serve as propaganda agencies under the control and leadership of the party. The role of the media as a mouthpiece far exceeds their role as overseer in today’s China. And so, today, the only tradition alive is that of the “Xinhua daily”, which is also the tradition of a party newspaper; there is no tradition like that of the “Da Gong Bao” or “Declaration”. Although the Republic also had its problems, the reporters or editors of that time had to deal with the plights of thier time, and there was an ongoing conflict between them and their period.
Today, many people in the media have different opinions; many media people have embraced the ideals of journalism, and are doing things very well, but in our period, there’s no way that they will become a Zhang Jiluan, and they haven’t become one. Under the current conditions, in the current environment, it is no longer possible to produce a “Da Gong Bao”, and it is no longer possible to produce a journalist like Zhang Jiluan, because the historical circumstances are different. And even a talented person, full of ideas, would be surrounded on all sides by an impregnable wall, with no ways of getting over it. This is the plight of our time, that in a media market at the height of prosperity, what we actually see is unparalleled desolation, with nothing to be heard, no independent voice, no authentic voice, as so many voices have been filtered out. You could say that we have good people in the media, but we have few good media sources. Even if there are several media sources which are relatively accepted and even loved by the public, they actually survive in the cracks. In today’s media environment, the best media are walking on a tightrope, toeing a very fine line. For instance, the Southern Daily News, and they’re having it hard. But their survival has formed a special environment and a special history. There are also others with a special background, like “yellow words in Spring and Autumn 炎黄春秋“, which originated with the older generation of party cadres: they have a greater latitude than other media, and can speak some truth. In the era of Zhang Jiluan, there wasn’t so much to worry about, he could say what he wanted freely, he could entirely rely on his indepedent thinking to judge world affairs, and was therefore able to write texts that really cut through the period, that were real witnesses to the period. Today, the best you can do is write 60% truth, and I often say: “In China, when you write, if you reach 60%, you’re as high as you’re gonna get!”
“Cultural Industry”: Many industrialists were mentioned in “Great Business People 大商人“, and all had in common to be “patriotic”. But then we’ve seen incidents such as the melamine case, buildings collapsing in Shanghai, train accidents, etc, all this sort of sensational news. Considering today’s business groups, is there anyone we could call a “great business person”?
Fu Guoyong: I don’t like to use the expression “patriotic”. Saying that “the industry serves the country” is more appropriate. What any character will produce is closely related to the time that they live in. Everyone is a product of their time and a product of the system. If no space is available for it, even though you’re filled with patriotic ambition, you cannot display an inch of it. Maybe today, the conditions to produce such an awe-inspiring, independent business person are not yet available, but our time can produce a lot of big bosses and wealthy figures. Among this social class, we can’t say that there is no patriotic feeling, but space is lacking, and so they cannot achieve heroic successes. Today is an era of materialism, allowing the endless pursuit of the material, but n the other hand, offering only narrow spiritual space. If someone chooses idealism, they’re likely to run into walls at every corner. In such a period, entrepreneurs who wish to produce something beyond materialism do not have the prerequisite language and rhetorics, just one-word sentences, the space hfor that as disappeared. I’m not saying that people now are not more intelligence or wiser than people were then, but that there is no space today for them to become the kind of person you’re talking about. No matter how much money you have, no matter how many heads of cattle you have, no matter if you can build skyscrapers or buy airplanes, if you want to do something good, there is no way to get there, or the way is very very narrow. Everyone knows that in China, there is a monopoly on public service and charity. Even if a few entrepreneurs want to do something for public service, the roads they take lead to a dead end. It’s clear if you look at the turns and twists of Li Lianjie’s foundation. To be honest, we’re facing a time where you can’t do a good thing even if you want to.
“Cultural Industry”: Chen Guangcheng in a recently published video speaks of “accumulated donations exceeding 1,5 billion yuan”. How to consider such a thing?
Fu Guoyong: I don’t know what the purpose of such high-profile contributions is. It’s not clear to me where the donated money ends up, I can’t shed light on a broken language. On the surface, of course, donating is better than not donating. But only when we have more accurate and reliable information can we produce an objective evaluation.
“Cultural Industry”: Has our period not produced business people like the ones who appeared in the times of the Chinese Republic?
Fu Guoyong: It hasn’t, the present moment does not allow for it. I’ve always thought that the cause for this is not the individual lives, because individual lives and this period are closely bundled together, and the period determines the people it produces. But we’re living in an age of great transformation, and with the passage of time, if our system becomes more robust, it’s very possible that we will produce a generation of entrepreneurs whom our hearts will respect.
“Cultural Industry”: In the end, is it the period which forms characters, or characters who form the period?
Fu Guoyong: The relationship goes both ways. Today, we are creating a new era, but this creation isn’t finished yet, and we may even be on the eve of an era, in the middle of a painful period of self transformation. In a period such as this, we have not yet produced great figures. Maybe these great figures exist already, but they need time to build a great period, we can’t see them yet, and this will be assessed by people a hundred years from now. Today, many people may ask: the Chinese Republic period, which produced these figures you’re talking about, that was a period of unrest, of chaos, with foreign invasions and a civil war; don’t you think that period was not as good as today? But to assess a historical period, there are many possible criteria, and the key is to determine what criteria we should base our evaluation on. In the end, I think there’s only one standard for evaluating a historical period, and that standard is about people’s rights, freedom and dignity. This is a timeless standard, and if you use this standard to judge if a period is good or bad, you will see that the Republic had many shortcomings, but in the end is still a period worth looking back to.
“Cultural Industry”: According to this standard, there were many great figures under the Republic. Mei Yiqi once said: “So called academic bodies, they’re not what they pretend if they just have buildings, but if they have Masters, they are”, as Liang Qichao wrote in “Sayings of Young China”. How do you see the dialectical relationship between the Master and the young?
Fu Guoyong: Today, we just have buildings, we don’t have Masters. Universities today are administrative bodies, they’re places for vocational training – we even speak of it as “career and development” -but today, there are no real universities. A university is a place to nurture a generation of young people, and give them the ability to think independently as well as professional competence.Proper universities teach professional competence, Humanities, and much beyond. But today’s universities don’t provide this kind of education, today’s universities are only technical and utilitarian. To use the words they said in those years, you don’t go to university just to seek food, but also to find a path; universities don’t just provide skills, they also trace a path. In today’s university system, it’s very hard to cultivate the kind of youth that Liang Qichao talks about, responsible young people who arecommitted to the future. When we say that this period is degenerate, and that universities in particular are degenerate, we’re not just saying that Chinese universities are failing at nurturing masters, but that they’re even failing at nurturing common citizens.
“Cultural Industry”: Where exactly is the problem?
Fu Guoyong: The root of the problem is to be found at the institutional level. This system is built around the special interests of a few interest groups. The system hopes that everyone will become stupid, while the interest of the few is to preserve the status quo for thousands of years, children and grand-children, generation after generation. If you become very smart and you can think for yourself, you’ll be able to understand everything; how can they preserve their interest then? So they hope that the whole Chinese education system, particularly China’s universities, can become a brainwash place: these ideal students who succeed across the board, these ideal entrance exam champions, these ideal students who get best results at university, of course that’s the only way for them. The fundamental reason for the organisation of this institutional system are in the dark psychology of certain special interest groups; all the policies revolve around a few people’s set of special interests, and the whole country’s institutional system is shifting in that direction more and more.
“Cultural Industry”: You mentioned indepedence and freedom. In you book1949: private records of Chinese intellectuals, you also mentioned these intellectuals’ independent personality , like Yinke’s “independent spirit and freedom of thought”… How do you see the impact of today’s education system, especially the higher education system, on national spiritual values? Will it affect the progress of the Chinese nation?
Fu Guoyong: It’s already had an impact, the progress of the Chinese nation has already gone backwards more than a hundred years, and it’s continuing to have an impact. I also don’t know how much China will have to pay to get out of this predicament in the future. China has two big problems: one is the damage to the environment, a predatory exploitation of the environment, whic has naturally led to a massive destruction of the environment. The other one is moral and ethhical, a destruction at the human level, and this destruction has been particularly serious over the last two decades. After these two great destructions, even if China had a smooth transition and a healthier institutional environment, in order to restore mountains and rivers to their normal state, and in order to restore the hearts of people to their normal state, I’m afraid that two or three generations may not be enough. I’m wondering if we will eventually recover, and worry that we may never recover.
“Cultural Industry”: Today, we see everyone called “Master”, everyone wants to be a “celebrity”, for instance the Southwest Associated University has nurtured many important figures in China’s recent history, like Yang Chenning, Li Zhengdao, etc. Is this a form of anxiety? Or a form of entertainment?
Fu Guoyong: Simply put, this is an era of consumerism. And Masters are also a kind of product to be consumed, offered for cultural consumption. The messier an era becomes, the more people will want to call themselves Master, and in such times, talking about culture is asking too much. How can there be a Master in our age? If there is to be one, it will have to be nurtured by the Nation. The people who receive the highest national science and technology awards, if they did not complete a university education during the era of the Republic, they at least received secondary education in that period, the majority of these people where nurtured during that period, but there’s no one in our period that would be able to talk about culture. This is a distorted and depraved period, a period with minimum line, and if there is no minimum line anymore, how could we have a Master? The Master actually needs to base him or herself on culture, the Master is a person with an idealistic ethos, the kind of person that Yinke talks about, who has a “free spirit and independent thinking”: can someone with no such characteristics ever become a master? Whether in the arts, in literature, or in the academic field, someone with no freedom and independence claiming to be a Master, who will believe them?
“Cultural Industry”: So when will a Master appear? Or will none appear?
Fu Guoyong: I think our system will change, and we should wait untill we have more free spaces, untill we can breathe more freely, we can think more freely, we can do research more freely, we can create more freely, untill the creativity of our own inner lives can be freely displayed. When everyone can walk like a proper person on this land, then a Master can be born, The Master needs the support of a proudly independent personality, so that he can stand up and face the sky, and look at the stars constantly, while moral laws are engraved in his heart.
“Cultural Industry”: “Character of the times”: we’ve just seen the Taiwan presidential election live on the internet, and the internet allowed people at grassroots level to directly express their mind and point out problems. In recent years, in the Deng Yujao case, in the Shi Shou case, in the “my father is Li Gang” case and others, the internet has become a kind of bulletin news, and there has been no shortage of opinion leaders at the grassroots level. So what do you think of China’ democratization process?
Fu Guoyong: China’s democratization process is now in a slow phase. We can’t say that it’s stopped entirely, at least at the level of civil society: there are a lot of developments and voices, despite the mainy filters and opacities, there is some progress. But compared with the eighties, we are now in a slower phase. China may finally find its own pathway to democratization, but today, we’re live under a very powerful and rigid system, which is opposed to democracy, and with this powerful level of control, the voice of democracy is clearly vulnerable. So this process will be very difficult, there will be many points of obstruction and confusion, and we may have to pay a high price. The Chinese nationa has been pursuing democracy for a hundred years, our democratization process has a hundred years of history, but we still can’t see any big improvement today, we’re still in the middle of a dark tunnel, and the true voices can only come out through the cracks, but we can’t yet see a ray of hope.
“Cultural Industry”: If you had the opportunity to live in a more democratic country, is that something you would like?
Fu Guoyong: I will not leave. I’ve often seriously said that my life is tied to this piece of land: no matter how many people go, among the last people that remain, you will see me. Because I have this sense of unbreakable connection to this land, my life and this land are linked, the blood that flows n my body is the blood of a Chinese man, and I will never make plans to leave.
Even if I had an opportunity to migrate to a democratic country, I have no intention of doing it. This might have to do with the fact that I don’t speak a foreign language, but I prefer to live in this country. Although I often find myself in a very difficult situation in this country, I am willing to live and die with her, live and dies with this land. No matter how hard the future I’m facing, I want my pursuits and struggles to be in this land. And I intend to work with those committed to staying in this land, and join our future efforts.
“Cultural Industry”: Can we define you as patriotic?
Fu Guoyong: I think we shouldn’t use this word to describe a person whith an independent personality. The word “patriotic” is too big, too empty. This feeling of unshakeable connection with this land, the word “patriotic” cannot sum it up. I am this and this is me, China is me and I am China, this piece of land is mine, my ancestors and my ancestors’ ancestors were born here, and died here, and are resting here, my ashes will also be buried in this land, so my feelings for this land cannot be summarised by floating the word “patriotic” over them. I’ve never liked these words, “patriotic”, “patriotism”, these words are words from the Stalin era: I just hear patriotic, and my head gets bigger. I am this land, so what do you say I love? This land belongs to me, and I belong to this land, we’ve got an interdependent relationship. I think that this land does not belong to the small corrupted part of China, these people who sneakily run abroad after taking all the money, but that it belongs to the very ordinary among us, Chinese people with no special rights or influence, common Chinese people who are willing to live and die with this land.