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Why China’s Youth Find Western Culture Attractive

February 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping travels to the United States this week -- a trip designed in part to head off mounting tensions between the two countries -- GlobalPost correspondent Kathleen McLaughlin reports from Beijing on the growing influence of Western culture on Chinese youth.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight, the debate in China over the growing influence of Western culture. It comes as China’s vice president kicks off a trip to the United States this week, one designed in part to head off mounting tensions between the two countries.

Kathleen McLaughlin is a Beijing correspondent for our partner GlobalPost. She has this report.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN, GlobalPost: From clothes to coffee, to food and movies, Western culture is big and getting bigger in China. KFC is the country’s most popular restaurant chain. A Buick is the top-selling car.

At a public square in Beijing, 35-year-old Hou Xiazhou and friends show off moves they learned from watching their American idols on the Internet.

HOU XIAZHOU, skateboarder (through translator): The West influences us a great deal. For example, those of us who skateboard now are all learning from the West, from America. We watch how their professional skateboarders practice, and imitate their methods. The way they dress influences how we dress. We imitate how they skateboard. Watching them inspires us to think about how skateboarding should be.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: Western culture swept into China when the country opened to foreign trade 30 years ago. Western brands and ideas have exploded in the past decade, as economic boom expanded the country’s middle class.

Now the government is pushing back. President Hu Jintao says China’s culture is being infiltrated by hostile Western forces. And the government has set new limits on Chinese mass media. First, they issued edicts that killed some racy and wildly popular TV shows and pushed others out of prime time.

Xu Fan is a professor at the Communications University of China, the country’s top training ground for budding TV journalists and hosts.

XU FAN, professor, Communications University of China: The rules are meant to restrict two types of programs. The first is crime programs that show audiences how crimes are committed, how to steal and rob, criminal techniques and scenes of the crime. This is what ordinary people like to watch. But these types of programs are against law and order.

Second are dramas with contents of immortality, moral and ethical betrayals.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: What’s allowed and what is not is murky. Take “China’s Got Talent.” In one episode, a poor man who sells duck necks for a living dresses up like a suicidal pig to try to earn money for a karaoke parlor for his wife.

In the end, the man’s wife comes on stage to for the judges and wins both their tears and approval. Regulators deem this show has a social value. But they threatened to cancel China’s hugely popular version of “The Bachelor,” “If You Are the One.”

In one famous episode, the bachelor asks one of the female contestants to ride on his bicycle. She replied, “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW.” To stay on the air, producers eradicated content with a negative social impact, brought on older contestants, and added a professor from a Communist Party school as the third host.

Xu Fan says producers are finding it difficult to figure out what might offend regulators.

XU FAN (through translator): There are good intentions behind the regulations. But then the rules become very complicated. And people down the line still have to carry them out.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: But many of China’s culture consumers disagree with the government’s very premise.

Wang Tingting, who works for an insurance company in Beijing, is certain that Western culture isn’t taking over China.

WANG TINGTING, office worker (through translator): I feel both cultures are very good. They should be mutually beneficial, and not replacing each other.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: Chinese culture often takes Western influences and makes them its own. Walk into KFC, for example, you will find an egg tart, rice porridge, and a menu almost unrecognizable to someone in the States.

That fusion has happened on the Internet, too, which, with more than 500 million users, is even more popular than television. Kaiser Kuo is an American who has lived in Beijing for 16 years. He’s a spokesman for Baidu, China’s top Internet site, and a well-known local rock musician.

KAISER KUO, Baidu: A lot of the memes that have become popular in China are kind of indecipherable to Western audiences. And, of course, that’s because they’re sort of irreducibly Chinese. So I think the idea that Chinese culture is in some way becoming Westernized is a little misguided. I think that these are — there isn’t a strict, you know, sort of dichotomy between Western and Chinese culture.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: The government, however, has also begun Internet crackdowns in the name of fighting off Western culture. They started by forcing people who use Chinese versions of Twitter to register under their own names. But these restrictions could stifle the very creativity the country needs to develop.

KAISER KUO: In recent years, we’ve seen the Internet really blossom into — well, it’s fully — it’s the crucible contemporary culture in China.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: That contemporary culture may be precisely what the government is worried about. Over the next two years, China will change power at the very top and get a new president. The last thing it wants during this rare and secretive transition is the kind of freewheeling discussion that’s now happening online with its Internet users.

While many topics like China’s power transition are being banned on social media, posts about pollution, corruption and government negligence spread like wildfire. Last summer, many Weibo users criticized the government after a notorious high-speed train crash that killed nearly 50 people.

Before censors deleted it, one offending post read — quote — “China, please slow down your breakneck pace. Wait for your people. Wait for your soul. Wait for your morals. Wait for your conscience.”

Recently, China’s netizens attacked Beijing’s government for withholding the truth about air pollution. They reposted and discussed at length the U.S. Embassy’s independent air data. In the end, Beijing’s government caved and started publishing more pollution stats on its own website.

Jeremy Goldkorn, longtime China media watcher and founder of the online magazine “Danwei,” says the government clampdown likely has more to do with posts like that than with Western culture itself.

JEREMY GOLDKORN, “Danwei”: I think the real concern is a loss of control. And presenting this as a pushback against Western culture is a way of talking about control that doesn’t have to use those words.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: The government may find it hard to take back control.

Doudou Song works for a Japanese car company. Her favorite TV programs, the social issues talk show “Day Day Up” and “Happy Camp,” a variety show, were removed from prime time. She now mostly watches TV clips online instead.

DOUDOU SONG, office worker (through translator): Every day, especially now that I’m working, when I drag my tired body and mind home, I really want to have a moment of relaxation. I want to laugh out loud. But I can’t be as easily satisfied as before, so I feel a bit disappointed.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: She misses her shows. Doudou was even more offended by how the rules were rolled out, with no public input.

DOUDOU SONG (through translator): I feel perhaps they have good intentions, but their methods are very undemocratic. They’re too forceful. It feels like a monopoly.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: This generation of Chinese wants a voice.

Freedom is what Hou, the skater, talks about when asked what he likes about Western culture.

HOU XIAZHOU (through translator): It attracts and interests me a great deal. I think it’s very free. And that really attracts me. Their thoughts are very open-minded and positive.

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: The government may find it very difficult to change his mind.