China in Focus #20: A Chinese Communist Christmas

December 18, 2017 | 4:05 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager


There is no war on Christmas here. The word—all nine letters of it—is everywhere. Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping may be reprising classic communist iconography in bookshops and on the telly, but in the shopping malls, where an awful lot of Chinese people seem to spend an awful lot of their time, the signs of the season are everywhere.

It is hard to be afraid of a country and a culture that has so wholeheartedly embraced one of my favorite holidays. Its religious roots are probably a mystery to most. Nothing is harder to explain to Chinese family and friends than Christianity, especially after I tell them I was raised a Catholic, which is considered an entirely different religion here. Nevertheless, the general sense that Christmas is a celebration of unity, peace, family, friends and charity seems well understood. “It’s like Chinese New Year for Westerners.” Amen comrade.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first came to China in 1984 the toughest emotional moment of entire experience was making the mistake of trying to sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to the foreign student assembly. We did our best to make a day of it, but there was not a Christmas creature stirring anywhere outside our dorm. Decades of anti-Western Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda had wiped almost every vestige of the holy day from “mainland” China’s collective memory.

It is interesting how quickly Christmas came back and how pervasive it has become. US China pundit Bill Bishop recently published a cynical missive championing the proposition that Americans should finally surrender the “fantasy” that China could ever become “more like us.” I read it while listening to Nat King Cole’s rendition of “O Holy Night” playing in a Shanghai Starbucks. After all the time I’ve spent here I’ve come to wonder whether Chinese and Americans were ever really all that different to begin with. Cultural differences are very real, but so are the universal human values – like love and family – that cultures embody. Christmas, if left undisturbed by political authority, seems to appeal to everyone.

To be sure, the mass marketing of global corporations plays a major role, larger than that of any organized church (Sorry @Pontifex). But that does not make the phenomenon any less real. Commerce has always been the carrier of culture. Governments can respond to global commercial and cultural trends in a variety of ways. Given Chairman Xi’s exceptional attempt to micromanage the evolution of modern Chinese culture, especially his unrelenting efforts to mediate its contact with the outside world, the ubiquity of Christmas in Xi’s China is a welcome sign.

It doesn’t prove anything, of course. But it does suggest that left to our own devices us ordinary people, enjoying the same coffee, cakes and carols this holiday season, whether we’re in, or from, Baltimore or Beijing, may not be as different as our pundits and politicians tell us we are.

Defending what we imagine to be “our” cultures from the supposed predations of “other” cultures seems to be a hallmark of what might be called post-globalization politics. The late US political theorist Samuel Huntington described it as a “clash of civilizations.” The idea that the United States is losing a global battle for cultural supremacy seems to be what animates political figures like Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, President Trump and many of the voters who’ve rallied to their warnings about the rise of China and the decline of Western civilization.

The Chinese communist embrace of Christmas is an interesting refutation of Huntington’s “us” or “them” depiction of how culture operates in the interconnected world wrought by global commerce and its technologies. Christmas is no longer “ours.” It’s “theirs” too. Perhaps that’s because the essential cultural content is universal.

I had a related experience with Mozart in Vienna this summer. My wife, who is Chinese, was chatting with a hawker selling tickets to a concert in the Musikverein, or the 金色大厅, as the Chinese call it. The young man, a violinist, made his pitch in respectable Chinese. He also noted that Chinese attendance at performances of western classical music was underwriting the lives of a lot of young musicians in the city. Sure enough, the 金色大厅was chock full of Chinese tourists, whose enthusiasm for the music lifted the spirits of everyone else in the room, performers included. Is Mozart a product of “Western” culture that needs to be protected from a rising China? Or has a rising China’s embrace given new life to old art that belongs to us all?

Globalization has its problems. Rising economic inequality is the most pressing. Our political leaders should focus on that, rather than fretting about the future of human culture, which, if Christmas in communist China is any indication, we can sort out better by ourselves.