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A bursting property bubble, soaring inflation, growing social unrest and boisterous online media that highlight these problems every day should have given China’s Communist party leaders more than enough to worry about when they convened for their annual policy conclave this month.

The meeting of the party’s central committee was all the more important because it was expected to prepare and set the agenda for the big one, a year from now, when members have to decide on the next generation of leadership.

Instead, of all things, they chose to talk about culture. In no fewer than 17,368 characters, the resolution passed by the committee states truisms such as “Culture is the lifeblood of a nation and the spiritual home of the people”.

But what seems like an esoteric outpouring is in fact an ideological summary of the party’s most important policy goal: keeping itself in control.

After 33 years of economic reforms the country has changed beyond recognition from a poverty-stricken, inward-looking, mostly rural society wrecked by decades of murderous political campaigns to a fast-growing, globalised, rapidly urbanising society hungry for more. Despite this radical transformation from a communist to a seemingly ultra-capitalist system, the party keeps calling it socialism, and for one reason: its monopoly on power must not be challenged.

For most of the past three decades, that was not much of a problem. The party’s main recipe was to ensure a sufficient majority of social groups were either experiencing an improvement of their economic situation or hopeful that such an improvement was imminent. Although the number and frequency of protests has long been on the rise, a large majority of the population has held the pragmatic view that, overall, the Communist party is doing a pretty good job and the country is on the right track.

That is changing. Especially in China’s largest cities, the mood has deteriorated rapidly during the past year as soaring real estate prices give many urbanites the feeling that they are losing out on their rightful place in the middle class and many young graduates struggle to make ends meet with starting salaries little higher than those of migrant workers.

Dissatisfaction has expressed itself in bursts of frustrated rants on China’s booming social media which allow the individual more freedom of speech than seen before. A high-speed rail crash that killed 40 people in July inspired internet users to ask whether China should really be racing that fast, and where it is headed. Many took the disaster as a symbol to warn that their society had lost its way.

This lack of confidence and firm beliefs, and citizens’ willingness to speak out about their confusion, is what worries the party. “In some areas there is moral decay and a lack of trust, some citizens’ outlook on life and values are distorted, there is a more urgent need to lead society’s thinking with the core socialist value system,” the central committee said in the resolution it published last week. “[We must] raise our public opinion guidance skills and urgently need to strengthen and improve our . . . controls of the internet.”

The committee realises that only media and culture businesses that appeal to the public’s tastes and are commercially driven – rather than Maoist propaganda machines – can be convincing and credible.

During the past decade, Hu Jintao, president and party chief, has been restructuring state- and party-owned media groups. In many cases, editorial operations were separated from commercial ones. Some groups, such as Hunan TV, the most commercially successful provincial broadcaster, were allowed to take their commercial arm public.

But the party’s worries about losing control over the media have been holding up these reforms. Judging from the latest resolution, that is unlikely to change. The party says commercially driven and vibrant culture businesses will be built, but at the same time insists that they must always follow the “correct” path, determined by the party.

That clearly cannot work. It an impossible task, like the broader one faced by the party: transforming China into an affluent, pluralistic, modern country but preserving a communist dictatorship for ever.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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