A morals campaign in China

Wary of creeping individualism, Beijing cracks down on discos, the Internet, and hair dye.

As China rapidly gains a greater share of the world's attention and wealth, its leaders have begun a quiet campaign that blends traditional Chinese and patriotic communist messages to ensure the country doesn't lose its soul.

Described as an "ideological morals" campaign, and given strong backing by President Hu Jintao, the deeply conservative initiative counters TV violence, unpatriotic school texts, the "corroding influence" of the Internet, and public figures that don't dress or dye their hair properly. It even advocates a renewed learning of revolutionary communist songs.

More than a decade ago China unleashed a spirit of commercialism with the motto "to get rich is good." Now experts say the Communist Party is seeking to curb the excesses of a newly individualistic mercantile spirit - including greed and corruption - by appealing to shared values of patriotism, and clean, healthy living.

"The traditional communist ideology is being weakened by globalized values and economy, and the Chinese government is taking a leading role in trying to revive the Chinese nation," says Li Xiguang, journalism professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "Hu Jintao and a set of intellectuals are taking the lead in this."

Every week seems to bring a new phase: Some 80 million Chinese Internet users this week were urged to report suspicious or unusual cyberspace activity to authorities. Chinese "netizens" can now help blacklist websites with content including religious cult activity, violence, porn, or politically sensitive subjects - by informing through a special website. Informers will have their safety and privacy ensured, according to the People's Daily.

Last week brought a ban on new Internet cafes. An age requirement of 18 was imposed on visitors to currently open cafes, which are often portrayed as dens of iniquity by state media.Dance clubs located near schools are being targeted for closing. Authorities are pressuring shops that allow photocopies of "rebellious" or "incorrect" materials. Censors are replacing evening TV programming that contains violence - including many Western programs - with Chinese family dramas. Cartoons must be family oriented.

Even rumors in late May about a visit by pop star Britney Spears became an opportunity for sending a message: If she comes to China, any revealing outfits used on stage would need official approval. No bare midriffs.

Patriotic moral campaigns have a long history in China, and some experts feel that the current one won't succeed. The early 1980s, for example, brought an initiative against "spiritual pollution" - designed to combat foreign influences and keep the body politic pure and stable, they say. But it was swept aside by China's accession to world markets, and today it is largely forgotten.

Yet unlike previous heroic patriotic campaigns that overloaded even China's ample propaganda machinery, current purification efforts seem more discreet. Party cadres and intellectuals around Mr. Hu are overseeing a series of small but numerous programs aimed broadly at the public, but especially at youth. The cause: high-level concerns over the social effect of avaricious commercialism, and new trends showing greater violence and lack of discipline among youth under 20.

In random interviews on the street, few Chinese knew ofthe morals campaign. "Most kids today know more about pop stars than about Chinese history," says one couple, new parents who work in an office complex. "We agree that Internet cafes are bad, but we think the Internet itself is a good technology."

The current late spring moral offensive in China seems to have reached a peak moment during a Hu speech to the central government on May 10 in Beijing, sources say. Hu's subject was "strengthening youth morals." The speech was partly reproduced in an education ministry memo released June 1 by the state council and circulated to all public school principals with the title "Suggestions."

Among the memo's suggestions were the reintroduction of practices in China that date to 1949. They included the idea that all students participate in daily flag raisings, and that they spend 20 days a year visiting military bases, factories, and villages. Large meetings to discuss Hu's talk were encouraged, as were student efforts to organize oral history meetings with the aging revolutionaries of the 1940s and 50s.

Hu urged state and party members at the May 10 meeting to study "how to continue using Marxism as a compass," and how to show youth to do the same. "Hu Jintao and Chinese leaders have not given up on the socialist ideal of 'the new man' entirely," says a Western scholar in Beijing. "They don't want to concede that China, or the party, has completely left socialism."

Yet the pace of change in China makes the task a daunting one.

The Chinese have pursued the "get rich" goal hammer and tongs, if not hammer and sickle. Last year the country recorded the sale of 2.4 million autos. This week at a much-talked about luxury auto show in Beijing, James Wang, a 27-year old sporting-goods supplier purchased a $900,000 stretch limo.

"The message that sends out is that you are only someone if you have money and power," one long time Beijing resident argues.

Concern over a "money at any cost" mentality has surfaced in a spate of public health stories here about food and milk supplemented with cheap additives in order to make an extra profit.

Some critics say that in some modern states the moral regulation Chinese leaders wish to reinforce often emerges from the society itself. Yet in China there has rarely been independent mediating structures between the people and the state, the kind of diverse voluntary organizations that make up civil society. A new mercantile class in China may be rising. But the cohort is small.For the time being, the party itself mandates the "ideological morals" needed, to use the phrase given by Premier Wen Jiabao this spring.

Other mandates this spring: Colleges are requiring students to sign oaths stating they won't cheat. Provincial party leaders must identify "model" behavior - the best athletes, students, workers, colleagues, and so on.

TV hosts in China in April were told they could no longer dye their hair any color but black. Public figures have been urged to cease using verbal expressions popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including words like "OK" or "bye bye" - that are also in widespread use on the mainland.

In Shanghai, six local news bureaus were shut and several journalists dismissed in an effort to avoid what one editor described as "too many sensitive stories." In Beijing in May, some 4,000 journalists from Xinhua and journalism students from local colleges were required to attend a meeting announced the same day. The message as told by one attendee: "We were reminded that no matter whom we worked for, we were still Chinese, that we owed our jobs to the nation."

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