Xi Jinping's Dreaming of a Red Christmas

Western holidays are extremely popular in China. That's a problem for the Communist Party.

Santa vs. Mao

Photograper: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

At Northwest University in Xi’an, China, they’re having themselves a red Christmas. According to the Beijing News, somebody has strung a banner on campus that reads: “Be good sons and daughters of your country, stand against Western holidays.” And on Christmas Eve the university required all students to watch “Confucius-themed” documentaries, with teachers guarding the doors and punishing “anyone trying to leave the room.”

Welcome to a new type of merry-making in China, where a Western holiday -- even one drained of religious content, as it has been for most Chinese -- can no longer be viewed simply as an opportunity to have a good time, but rather must be evaluated as one more parry in a “global competition of culture” that China’s Communist Party badly wants to win. The war has been ongoing (with China on the losing end) for decades. But it’s been renewed in recent years by China’s top leaders, who believe that China’s global cultural standing doesn’t match its economic and (increasingly) military standing.

In 2012, for example, then President Hu Jintao, writing for a top Communist Party journal noted: “The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.” And in October, at a much-commented upon seminar on art and culture presided over by Xi Jinping, China’s leader encouraged China’s artists to make “more excellent works that disseminate the value views of present-day China.” They’ve certainly been trying. According to one estimate, China now spends as much as $12.5 billion annually to promote its culture outside of China via educational institutions, English television programming, and other initiatives. Within China, the effort is likely more expensive, driven by state-owned television networks, publishing houses, and even government-paid commentators on social media sites.

The problem for China’s culturally-minded leadership and like-minded Party members, is that -- in China, at least -- Western culture remains extremely popular. Hollywood movies regularly top China’s box office and Christmas has become one of China’s most popular holidays. According to a long-time friend in China’s hotel industry, Christmas Eve has been “the single biggest-grossing night for Shanghai’s food and beverage industry over the last decade.” It’s not hard to believe: on Christmas Eve in the Shanghai neighborhood I called home for nine years, restaurants and bars were overrun by young revelers who knew nothing of the religious content of the festival, but were merely were looking for a good reason to party. So why not party with Santa Claus?

No Chinese holiday -- not the New Year, the Mooncake Festival, or any other traditional occasion -- draws the same enthusiasm or crowds. And this year, it’s much the same. Throughout Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day, “Santa Claus” was the top trending topic on the popular twitter-like Sina Weibo service. Young, wired Chinese who openly oppose Christmas -- such as the college students in Hunan Province who held an anti-Christmas pageant on Wednesday -- remain at the fringes.

Needless to say, forcing university students to watch documentaries about Confucius won’t inspire a more vigorous embrace of China’s traditional festivals, such as Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s not entirely clear that the Communist Party would want that result, anyway. But powerful elements of the Communist Party have a clear idea of what they do want -- less Western Culture -- and there are cadres around China who are willing to take up the fight. Insofar as Christmas and Christianity are viewed as powerful projections of Western culture (and they are), they’ll be targets, and not just of parades. For example, in Wenzhou, a southern Chinese town sometimes known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its many churches and as many as 1 million Christians, the local government this week banned Christmas celebrations in all kindergartens and grade schools. This follows on a campaign earlier this year during which crosses were pulled down from the city’s many churches and -- in several notable cases --Jinpin churches themselves were demolished (for being in violation of building codes).

For now, at least, the crackdown in Wenzhou and the Confucius-themed screening in Xi’an are relatively isolated cases. How far those campaigns might go is still uncertain. In fact, even as Xi and those he inspire push back against the West, a city in Western China is building a massive SantaPark amusement park modeled on “the official home of Santa Claus in Lapland.” Xi, for one, probably can’t object, either: in 2010 he had his picture taken with Santa Claus at the Finnish SantaPark during an official visit.

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