20 May 2013

Ethical Media and Social Reconstruction in China

In December 2004, I found myself in a meeting room at Guangzhou's Guangdong Film Distribution Corp., participating in a discussion about the difference between a 'communist' and a 'party member' with the producer, director, cinematographer, and distributor of the independent documentary Soul of the Nation (Guohun), which tells the stories of China's nationalist and communist revolutionary heroes by touring their tombs and memorials throughout the country. Zhao Jun, the producer, recalled that his elementary school teacher had explained that whereas a communist was a true believer in communist ideals, a party member was somebody who had joined the Communist Party as an organization. Although I was interested in researching independent media production outside the party-state and I have read quite a lot about independent documentaries that exposed the dark sides of the party's history in the Western and Diaspora Chinese media, I did not expect to meet a group who jokingly self-identified themselves as 'Bolsheviks outside the party' in 2004, making and distributing a 'red theme,' independent documentary in Guangzhou, the frontier of China's 'reform and openness' and globalized commercial popular culture.

Furthermore, the four individuals--Zhao Jun, Zhong Luming, Chen Shuisheng and Gao Ning--are neither bitter 'old leftists' nor 'angry youth.' Rather, they are very 'urban middle class'--successful media professionals in their forties and the indisputable winners of the reform era. Zhao is the manager of the Guangdong provincial film distribution bureau. Zhong is a popular DJ at a Guangzhou radio station. Chen is a director of photography at the Zhujiang Film Studio. Gao, the distributor, formerly worked as a reporter for a local party organ. None of them are party members. But they each have a strong sense of idealism, sharing a concern about social injustice and rising inequality, about the lack of democracy in China, and about what they see as the corrosive impact of a hyper-commercialized media culture on popular consciousness. Most importantly, contrary to the neo-liberal marginalizing strategy of portraying anybody who is critical of the reforms as 'wanting to return to the past,' these individuals made it clear that their work was about the future. Precisely for this reason, their targeted audience is the youth. In fact, the impetus for the documentary came from Zhong's experience as a DJ in Guangzhou radio and his realization that his popular culture and celebrity-obsessed youthful audience had little sense of Chinese history - in 1999, when he asked his audience about two important dates in Chinese modern history, they phoned in to say that they were the birth dates of a pair of pop culture stars. His idea for making a documentary about China's nationalist and revolutionary struggles resonated with his friends, and so began the five-year process of making a 'red' educational documentary about nationalism and communism from outside the system. For these individuals, the 'dialectic of the Chinese revolution,' which for Jiwei Ci (1994) has gone from 'utopianism to hedonism,' seems to have reached its opposite: from hedonism to utopianism.

The group raised two million yuan from their own pockets, their circles of friends, and Hong Kong sources and went through all kinds of ordeals and humiliations, including having to stalk a film bureau official from the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) in a washroom, in their efforts to secure a production permit. Without official status, they had to rely on persuasion to secure access to some of the closely guarded memorial sites. Some of their families and colleagues did not understand them. Custodians of revolutionary memorials in affluent areas such as Shanghai and Guangzhou reminded them even the Communist Party itself has turned away from such a subject. The crew's Guangdong origin was also frequently the source of suspicion as they traveled the country in search of China's revolutionary and heroic souls. 'Aren't you Cantonese interested only in money-making?' they were often asked. But Zhao Jun believed otherwise: 'Communist ideals aren't obsolete as long as there are injustices in society.' They not only reminded people about Guangdong's revolutionary credentials in modern China, but also explained to me that Guangdong's economic development is precisely what has made it possible for them to raise the necessary funds to pursue the project. Responding to my query about the relationship between nationalism and communism and the film's foregrounding of nationalism, Zhao Jun argued that the nationalism they celebrate is anti-imperialist, not chauvinistic. He also insisted that communist ideals have long had a Chinese grounding and are both universal and national.

The crew also found many sources of encouragement and discovered many 'resources of hope,' as Raymond Williams (1989) would say, during the process. One film bureau official, moved by their determination, ended up strategizing with them about how to best approach a higher-level SARFT official. Propaganda officials and custodians of memorials in poor and old revolutionary base areas welcomed them with open arms. In Guangdong's Pearl River delta, Gao Ning recalled with great admiration how the director of a township cultural center, who was also the township's film exhibitor, assumed the duty of looking after the bicycles of the film's student viewers, saying that, as a party member, the least he could do was to ensure that the student viewer's bikes were not stolen while they were watching the film.

When I met Gao Ning in Guangzhou, she was busy promoting the film through Guangzhou's school system. However, she realized that the most relevant audience would be party officials, and a perfect window of opportunity had opened up for her to reach them. Although they had started the project in 1999, by the time it was completed in 2004, the Hu Jintao leadership had launched the ideological education campaign to 'preserve the advanced nature of communist party members.' Consequently, this group of independent cultural producers and 'autonomous communists' were hoping to use the documentary to reeducate party members about communist ideals. As Gao explained, this was a formidable task because it meant obtaining the approval of the party's propaganda department and organizational department. She said that somebody had even given her a multimillion-yuan quote about the 'cost' (i.e. the bribery needed to grease the wheels of the party machine) of getting the documentary listed as the party's recommended study material. Of course, this was antithetical to the very ideals of the film, and Gao was not optimistic about the chances of success on that day in December.

Yet shortly after I left China in January 2005, I read a news story on the internet reporting that the film had indeed become a designated study piece for the party's education campaign, and Zhang Dejiang, the Guangdong provincial party secretary, widely condemned for his media censorship acts in China's liberal media circles, had specifically instructed provincial party leaders to watch it (Nanfang Daily, 2005). Thus, a genuinely independent cultural production ended up feeding into the party's ideological education campaign. The communist commitment of a group of urban media professionals outside the party reportedly moved more than a thousand party members in party-state organs to tears in a collective viewing of the documentary on 6 February 2005 (Nanfang Net, 2005). Although this particular dynamic of intersection between agency and structure, official and 'unofficial,' as well as the past, present and future, is perhaps not 'representative' of 'what truly happens' in China, it is hard to ignore how this story underscores the ironic twists and turns of the developmental logic of media and communication in contemporary China.

[This essay was extracted from a longer piece by Yuezhi Zhao entitled 'Rethinking Chinese Media Studies: History, Political Economy and Culture,' which was published as Chapter 11 in the book Internationalizing Media Studies edited by Daya Kishan Thussu (Routledge, 2009).]

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