Daniel W. Drezner

The political economy of Document Number Nine

The political economy of Document Number Nine

Back in June the Economist blogged about the Chinese Communist Party’s new ideological document and what it means for China’s future:

Over the past couple of months, officials around the country have been summoned to briefings about a Communist Party circular known as “Document Number Nine”.  Its full contents have not been made public, but by all accounts it paints a grim picture of what the party sees as the threat posed by liberal ways of thinking. The message conveyed at these meetings has been a chilling one: stick to the party line and denounce any dissent.

The strident tone of this document, which is also called “A briefing on the current situation in the ideological realm”, has caused anxiety among liberal intellectuals, and confusion about the agenda of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. On the economic front, signs remain strong that he wants to speed up the pace of reform.Caixin, a Beijing-based news portal, said on June 24th that a blueprint for this was “finally taking shape” and hinted that it would be unveiled at a meeting of the Party’s central committee in the autumn. It said history would “remember well those who lead China forward on its path to reform”. On the political front, however, the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

Buried a bit further down in the post, however, there was this: 

The message of Document Number Nine can be divined from official accounts of the secret briefings given to officials. Many of these use similar language, which it is safe to assume reflects the wording of the circular. In Yueyang city in the central province of Hunan, for example, officials at such a meeting reached a consensus that because the situation at home and abroad was “complicated and changeable”, struggles in the ideological realm had therefore become “complicated, fierce and acute” (see here, in Chinese). The officials identified several threats, including calls for “Western constitutional democracy” and universal values (as Analects reported here); promotion of “civil society”; support for “neo-liberalism” (an attempt, the officials said, to change China’s “basic economic system”); and endorsement of “Western news values” (an attempt, they said, to loosen the party’s control over the news media and publishing). Such calls, the officials agreed, were “extremely malicious”.

It’s the "neoliberalism" attack that intrigues me – because it kinda cuts against the rhetoric/actions that China’s new leadership has been talking/taking for most of 2013. 

Today the New York Times’ Chris Buckley follows up on Document Number Nine… and the report contains similar paradoxes:

Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.

These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change….

[L]eftists, feeling emboldened, could create trouble for Mr. Xi’s government, some analysts said. Mr. Xi has indicated that he wants a party meeting in the fall to endorse policies that would give market competition and private businesses a bigger role in the economy — and Marxist stalwarts in the party are deeply wary of such proposals. 

Here’s the thing — it seems that China has hit the limits of its current growth model, and therefore needs to pursue reforms in order to boost long-term growth, which would help sustain the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.  As that last paragraph suggests, however, an attack on neoliberalism makes it kinda harder to do that.  So a short-term effort to boost ideological consistency and legitimacy would seem to be coming at the expense of longer-term strategies to sustain political legitimacy. 

So after reading Buckley’s story, I wondered on Twitter how Xi was going to reconcile a critique of neoliberalism while pushing… er…. neoliberal-friendly reforms onto China’s economy.  Buckley was kind enough to respond:

I’d really like China-watchers to weigh in here, because I don’t like knowing the answer.