China’s new ‘quality’ reading program is about furthering the political aims of the Party–state, writes Yi Zheng
In an official document entitled Reading Nationwide: a Program for the Thirteenth ‘Five-Year Plan, released on 27 December 2016, the Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) outlined its blueprint for building a new society of book readers.
In a follow-up interview, the agency’s managing director, Huiling Zhou, proudly declares that the program is the first state-sponsored reading scheme and an essential part of the government’s new five-year plan. Making China a reading nation is the Party–state’s long-term goal, Zhou explains, as it underwrites the project to transform post-reform China into an all-inclusive relatively affluent society and realise its dream of national rejuvenation.
In the parlance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the 13th Five-Year Plan is pivotal to achieving its first Centenary Goal—to comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society by 2020. And this historic ‘Chinese dream’ depends in part on the elevation of the ‘spiritual and cultural qualities’ of all Chinese citizens, as ‘Chinese economic development has entered a new phase of relying on quality and innovation.’
Reading as an activity that is extensive and inclusive—its potential to become a habitual practice by all—is key to the process of improving the moral and spiritual quality of citizens as well as satisfying their aspiration for cultural and scientific knowledge.
As a policy document, the reading program resonates with the Party–state’s renewed political will to lead in all facets of Chinese culture and life. What it outlines is a state-sponsored and institutionalised campaign, but one nonetheless that emphasises the participation of citizen–readers and the publishing industry.
The program indeed testifies to conjoined interests of the state and China’s post-socialist publishing industry. The document’s publication in the ‘Pleasure reading’ section of the official Xinhua News Network, for example, is co-signed by all leading Chinese publishing conglomerates.
Quality—the key word in the program, as it has been in the political and public cultural discourses of the last decade— is also a key word of contemporary Chinese print media. The production of quality books and quality readers for the cultivation of a post-socialist aspiration that helps manage China’s economic and social disparity in its march to a relatively affluent society has been print media’s manifest raison d’être vis-à-vis the new media and the state’s normative cultural policies.
Quality defined in moral, aesthetic–cultural terms and sanctioned by traditions from the national to the revolutionary and cosmopolitan is what distinguishes and at the same time elevates. It offers a cultivation that is potentially achievable by all. No longer a sole player in the mass media market, Chinese print media has refocused itself into a medium of culture with relative permanence and distinction. It aims at carefully defined target audiences, located mainly at the middle and up-worldly mobile stratum of post-reform Chinese society, while relying on continuing a millennia-old linguistic literacy and a venerable heritage of book production and book reading.
The new blueprint for building a society of book readers is in line with the CCP’s current political vision that realigns its long-term vision of a xiaokang society with what it calls a people-centred developmentalism.
Since its 18th Congress, the CCP has redefined its goal according to Secretary Xi’s ‘logic by people’s needs’, declaring ‘people’s aspiration for a better life is our mission’. The new slogan—‘the development of a major nation should be led by advanced ideas; a comprehensive moderately prosperous society should centre on people’s life and needs’—highlights that the affective wellbeing of the populace is the concern and prerogative of the Party–state.
While the CCP’s much-noted anticorruption campaign aims to placate growing popular discontent over increasing social and economic disparity by assuring ordinary Chinese that the Party–state is determined to and can fix the economic and political system within, the use of state-controlled mass media and organised cultural activities to promote a ‘Red tradition’ that retells and reaffirms China’s revolutionary and socialist heritage works on people’s allegiance to the nation and the CCP.
The program for a society of book readers, however, lays out a more complicated vision. It is set out as another of the state-sponsored mass campaigns, and in this sense is not different from traditional CCP thought and cultural work. But as part of the new five-year plan that is to continue the economic development for a relatively prosperous society, and as an activity that not only works but also depends on the participants’ leisure, pleasure and aspiration for quality life, including personal economic prosperity, it is pegged to the status quo—a post-reform affluence that presupposes disparity and encourages economic and social competition and differentiation.
Most importantly, the program has to rely on the post-reform print media’s targeted leisure reading market, which is established on the reform-generated affluence and its aspiration, with schooled literacy as its currency.
Indeed the whole package deal of the Party–state’s new blueprint for a society of book readers capitalises on the transformed Chinese print media’s targeted and differentiated market, with the shared assumption that a relatively affluent social middle and its aspirants are their stakeholders.
The mainstay of what appears to count as quality books is still what the print media describes and markets as middle-brow leisure readers: popular philosophy, self-help guides, lifestyle and travel books, popular biography and fiction
The new campaign’s objective is to extend the blueprint to the whole nation. Quality reading is promoted in this round, as it has been by the reforming of the print media, not only as a means to acquire cultural, hence economic, capital for a politically harmonious, knowledge-based society that is prosperous, but also to redeem youth as well as adults from the low and undifferentiated quality of other media, such as the internet, by attracting them with quality books and thereby making them quality readers.
However, though the program elaborates that these qualities are a continuation of the political social qualities that the regime deems ideal for its citizens, they are formulated to carry out the Party–state’s political will. The quality books that are promoted are no different from what appear on the bestselling list of the current book market. SAPPRFT’s recommended reading list for the whole nation is similar to Amazon China’s top-selling list.
Xi’s books may look prominent on airport bookshop selves and a new history of the Anti-Japanese War with new heroes may be promoted by the State Administration for Press. But follow-up campaigns of the nationwide reading program, news reports of national book fairs, bestseller lists on the websites of major publishing house and ‘reading’ sections of key internet sites suggest the mainstay of what appears to count as quality books is still what the print media describes and markets as middle-brow leisure readers—popular philosophy, self-help guides, lifestyle and travel books, popular biography and fiction.
It will not be far amiss to conclude that, while this largely aspirational literature seems to pander to a sense of sanctified wellbeing against personal and collective disaffection, it is hard to predict how the aroma of books produced by the market and which cultivates social distinction and presupposes the individual choice will help lay the foundation for an all-inclusive and harmoniously prosperous Chinese nation.
Chinese titles in a bookshop. Photo: Wikimedia Commons