Anik Joshi: How “exporting culture” could help China

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 - 12:24pm

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The NBA’s recent dispute about Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet made the headlines as an example of a Western company bending the knee to China’s Communist Party, but it was less the exception than the rule. A number of Western companies have made alterations to appease the Chinese: Paramount removed the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket in the “Top Gun sequel” and Disney scrubbed the heritage of a Tibetan monk from “Dr. Strange.” 

Clearly, when Bill Clinton said in 1994 that continuing to grant China the most-favored nation status in trade was “the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human rights,” he was wrong. China has not made progress in the areas of freedom of speech or human rights and today, in addition to the unacceptable militarism in Hong Kong and toward Taiwan, China is running concentration camps holding upwards of a million people in Xinjiang — which is also the location of some NBA training camps. 

The expectation was that as American culture was shared worldwide, things like respect for democratic principles and support for liberty would be exported along with it. Just like Levi’s Jeans became commonplace, eventually, tolerance and respect for democratic institutions and principles would as well. However, this hasn’t happened. In an ironic twist, American companies getting involved in China have not made China and the Chinese people more free but have instead made America and Americans seem less free. 

What to do about this? There are two options: continue to do nothing until we get to the point where Stephen Curry and LeBron James are playing exhibition matches in concentration camps after delivering sermons about the importance of cultural tolerance, or show other countries why they should value liberal democracy and lead by example. The first option has the bonus of demonstrating how your cultural betters tend to be hypocrites chasing the almighty dollar, while the second would be better off for American power in the long run. 

America didn’t win the Cold War with military might and President Reagan’s lasers alone — though those were both big parts of it. A big part of it was another Ronald one who showed that while eternal vigilance was once the price for freedom, it was now 3.75 rubles and came with a side of fries. Does this mean that the USSR fell because of McDonald’s? No — but it did fall because of what McDonald’s represented: a uniquely American strand of culture. McDonald’s (and other American cultural vanguards) were important because they were exporting the best of America rather than importing the worst of the authoritarian world. This cultural subversion helped us win hearts and minds. 

Another organization with a much less welcoming mascot also did a lot to export American culture and try and turn the hearts of citizens of authoritarian countries. During the Cold War, the CIA exported American cultural icons and Western art abroad to fight communism. The CIA was instrumental in launching the Congress for Cultural Freedom, one of the most influential advocacy groups supporting the West during the Cold War. They supported a number of artists, writers and more abroad until finally dissolving in 1979 (the CIA’s relationship ended with them in 1966). However, this was not the only time Western intelligence fought cultural wars — artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong went abroad on goodwill tours to help the CIA. The tours were successful, and this type of cultural influence should get a second look from policymakers today because it helped both America and the countries targeted by the visits. Those on the policy’s receiving end got to see the value of pluralistic democracy and the beautiful cultural content it created, and America benefitted and gave itself a better name. We projected ourselves as a beacon of hope and liberty, leading us to believe we had a duty of higher causes.

The CIA’s propaganda efforts wound down after the fall of the USSR perhaps because capitalism itself was meant to fill in for cultural export efforts. However, this fill in has not occurred. Capitalism has done much to raise the global standard of living and deserves more than two cheers, but every economic system has its limits. At a certain point, there has to be external pressure on countries to address human rights issues — and while it would be nice if it came from a united front of Western companies and governments standing up for basic decency (and clearly saying that concentration camps are bad), it clearly will not. 

The CIA should step up to the plate once again. Though it has had failures like any other intelligence agency, its value-based efforts in the past did a lot of good and are needed again in today’s world. Finally, it is worth thinking about how amazing the stories that will come out via the Freedom of Information Act process in 30 years will be if the CIA restarts the process. The last time the FOIA process happened, it was found that the CIA funded activist Gloria Steinem. This entire enterprise can be easily justified by the laughs we’ll have when it comes out that CIA Director Gina Haspel chose to fund Lena Dunham because the latter’s writing is more painful than waterboarding. 

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.