How China and Xi Jinping have turned to the outside world
How China and Xi Jinping have turned to the outside world

How China and Xi Jinping have turned to the outside world

The miracle of modern China was built on global connections, a belief that sending young people, businesses, and future leaders to absorb the outside world was the path from impoverishment to power. Now, encouraged by its transformation, the country shuns the influences and ideas that nurtured its emergence.

The country’s most dominant leader for decades, Xi Jinpingseems intent on redefining China’s relationship with the world, reshaping the encounter between minds and cultures as a zero-sum collision.

Education officials impose restrictions on English teaching and require scholars to ask permission to attend even virtual international conferences. Regulators have punished Chinese companies for raising money abroad. Mr. Xi has urged artists to embrace “cultural self-confidence” by promoting traditional Chinese literature and art, and has warned against imitating Hollywood.

And the government, citing the coronavirus pandemic, no longer freely issues most passports, the physical symbol of an interconnected world. The borders are almost completely closed.

“There is no longer integration and exchange between different cultures,” said Zhang Jincan, owner of the Dusk Dawn Club, a live music venue in Beijing.

Before the pandemic, the club was an integral part of the city’s curious, connected music scene. Locals crammed in to hear visits Polish jazz quintets or Argentine percussionists. Foreigners could discover upcoming Chinese punk bands. Performances were often arranged with foreign cultural organizations.

Now Mr Zhang is worried that the very essence of his club is disappearing. “You get a kind of aesthetic fatigue,” he said.

There is little chance of returning to the isolationism of the Mao era, when the nation was cut off from the world economically as well as culturally. The pandemic has made clear how much the global economy is dependent on China and how much China has benefited. Sir. Xi says he has no intention of decoupling himself from other economies.

“Countries around the world should uphold genuine multilateralism,” he said told World Economic Forum last month. “We should remove barriers, not build walls.”

But if the government appreciates the economic benefits of globalization, the same does not seem to be the case for the less tangible: artistic, intellectual, interpersonal. These ties – which made China not just an integral part of the world economy but a member of the global community – are being scrutinized, restricted or rejected.

Everything that is seen as – or increasingly tarred as – foreign, is vulnerable to attacks by cruel online nationalists. Celebrities promoting vegetarianism have been accused to deal with Western lifestyle.

Even this month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, by definition one of the most globally set events in the world, were held on China’s terms: without foreign spectators and despite diplomatic boycotts from countries including the United States.

It was a sport that once paved the way for diplomatic prayers.

After the Communists took power in 1949, the first Americans to officially enter China, decades later, were nine table tennis players. The countries’ teams met in 1971 at the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, and the Chinese government invited the Americans to a week-long visit, where they toured the Great Wall, saw a dance troupe and played matches. A year after “Ping-pong diplomacy“President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to Chinathe opening salvo for the two countries to re-establish diplomatic ties.

In the following decades, China’s deepening global relations signaled its expanding ambitions.

More than 6.5 million Chinese studied abroad between 1978 and 2019, and the number is increasing every year. Chinese technology companies listed on Wall Street, their innovations copied by Silicon Valley. Schoolteachers used songs by Western boybands to teach English, seen as essential to financial possibilities.

The outside world was also hungry to know more about China. Between 2002 and in 2018, the number of international students in China grew almost sixfold. The 2008 Beijing Olympics helped the country establish itself as a global tourist destination.

Caution continued. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who spearheaded the economic opening, warned memorably that an open window brings both fresh air and flies. But in these intoxicatingly early days, many believed that China was irrevocably heading for openness.

Mr. Xi proved them wrong. Since taking over in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party has restricted foreign countries non-governmental organizations, and accuses some of conspiring against the country. It has banned abroad textbooks, emphasizing that only it can guide China to greatness. The growing hostility from the United States also led Chinese leaders to a more defensive stance.

The coronavirus crystallized these tendencies. Bent on eradicate infections, China canceled virtually all international flights. State media fixed on the West’s death toll.

To limit imported cases, officials said they would not issue or renew passports, except in emergencies, work or study abroad. The number of passports issued in the first half of 2021 was 2 percent of the same period in 2019.

Sarah Duan, 16, applied for a passport in December, after being admitted to a private high school in Seattle. Immigration officials at her home in Shanxi province told her minors were not allowed to leave the country, she said.

Ms. Duan called the National Immigration Administration, which said no such policy existed.

Still, local officials rejected her, arguing that the pandemic abroad was too dangerous, or pointing to China’s full relations with the United States.

“I would like to say, what do tensions between the United States and China have to do with me?” said Mrs. Duan, who finally secured a passport last month. Shanxi immigration officials did not return a faxed request for comment.

Despite his rhetorical commitments, Mr Xi narrows the scope of financial commitment and calls for reduced dependence on exports and keep Chinese businesses closer to home. After Didi Chuxing was publicly announced in New York last year without the blessing of regulators, the Chinese government announced a study of the company that greeted the tour. Within months, Didi delisted.

And even though China wants foreign money, it drives away the people who come with it. The number of foreigners living in Beijing and Shanghai has fallen by almost a third in the last decade, according to European business groups.

Even after China opens its borders, some fear that the deteriorating climate will prevent foreigners from entering.

Before the pandemic, Sarah Keenlyside, who has lived in Beijing for 16 years, organized tours for Western leaders on business visits. Beginners sometimes came nervous with concerns and misunderstandings about government surveillance. But they went impressed by the high-speed trains and safe cities. Some returned for family vacations.

“It’s a kind of vicious circle,” said Ms. Keenlyside. “If people do not come, then they can not see it for themselves.”

The stereotypes are likely to harden in the other direction as China imposes new restrictions on outside influences.

Last summer, education officials excluded online education companies from employment of teachers abroad, cut off a popular source of English language teaching and cultural exchange. In December regulators ordered TV credits to specify whether any actors or crew had foreign citizenship.

These decisions were taken as part of broader initiatives ease the workload of studentsor tame China unruly celebrity culture. But officials have at times been more explicit about the insidious effects of foreign ideas. Mr. Xi har condemned blind worship of Western cultural products, and demanded confidence in traditional culture, which he calls a “major issue related to the rise and fall of national wealth.”

The art world has raced to comply with them in ways that worry Jiang Bing, a curator of contemporary art.

Ms. Jiang co-organized this year’s Chengdu Biennale, featuring hundreds of works from China and abroad. She said many artists still want to engage with their international counterparts. But she had looked second row for obvious symbols of Chinese heritage, such as Ming Dynasty clothesrather than searching for more nuanced or new ways of expressing cultural pride.

“If there is no similar process of thinking, questioning and criticizing, it can not be true cultural self-confidence,” she said.

Some say the emphasis on homemade is a natural result of China’s rising status. While American films once often sat on top of the Chinese box office, domestic ones now dominate. Local fashion designers, long rejected as second-rate, command higher prices.

Sun Lei, 24, moved to the UK last autumn to get a master’s degree, after long wanting to study and work abroad. But the country’s sluggish virus handling gave him a deeper appreciation of China the ability to implement policies without the friction seen in Western democracies.

“The reality is that China’s development and the whole economic situation are on the rise,” he said. Sun, who intends to return home after graduation. “It’s beneficial to my personal development.”

Still, he plans to use a virtual private network to access blocked overseas sites after moving back. China’s growing middle class, increasingly traveled and fluent in global pop culture, is unlikely to accept a wholesale retreat from the outside world.

Even some unexpected voices have defended cultural engagement.

“Technology has guaranteed that cultural distance is impossible,” said Wang Xiaodong, a self-described nationalist blogger with more than 6 million followers on social media. Mr. Wang eagerly follows American television shows, including Game of Thrones and Westworld.

But it’s the government tight control over VPNs. Those who criticize China’s rising island communities are often censored or drowned out by nationalist voices. Wang himself has been attacked online for saying China needs global engagement.

The virtual vitriol has consequences in the real world. Last fall, officials in the northeastern city of Dalian closed a Japan-themed shopping complex within two weeks of opening, after online commentators condemned it as a form of cultural invasion.

In the long run, hostility may jeopardize the very rise that nationalists are eager to promote.

As the pandemic forced academic exchanges to move online, Chinese universities ordered academics attending virtual conferences hosted abroad to submit the agendas for prior approval. The State-run Chinese Academy of Sciences demands foreign researchers holding online guest lectures to share their passport information.

Last year a government adviser formally warned China’s lawmakers say the restrictions could hurt foreign policy. “Excessive management will affect the experts’ analysis of international issues and the quality of their advice,” wrote the advisor, Jia Qingguo, who is also a professor at Peking University.

Reached via email, Professor Jia agreed to an interview. But he said the rules required university approval first, which never came.

Joy Dong contributed research

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