Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Coming Ideological Wars

In the reform era, economic growth reigned supreme. But now, a revival of competing beliefs has polarized Chinese society.

CHANGCHUN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 25: (CHINA OUT) Students dressed in ancient clothes stand in front of the statue of Confucius (551-479 BC), during a ceremony to worship the Chinese philosopher and educator at the Changchun Confucian Temple on September 25, 2005 in Changchun of Jilin Province, China. Various of ceremonies and celebrations are being held in China to mark the upcoming 2,556th anniversary of Confucius's birthday on September 28. During the day, the "2005 Global Joint Confucius Memorial Ceremony" will be held in different Confucian Temples around China and the world. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
CHANGCHUN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 25: (CHINA OUT) Students dressed in ancient clothes stand in front of the statue of Confucius (551-479 BC), during a ceremony to worship the Chinese philosopher and educator at the Changchun Confucian Temple on September 25, 2005 in Changchun of Jilin Province, China. Various of ceremonies and celebrations are being held in China to mark the upcoming 2,556th anniversary of Confucius's birthday on September 28. During the day, the "2005 Global Joint Confucius Memorial Ceremony" will be held in different Confucian Temples around China and the world. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

For most Chinese, the 1990s were a period of intense material pragmatism. Economic development was the paramount social and political concern, while the various state ideologies that had guided policy during the initial decades of the People’s Republic faded into the background. The severe ideological struggles that had marked the end of both the 1970s and the 1980s had exhausted the population, leaving it more than eager to focus single-mindedly on an unprecedented bevy of economic opportunities.

Now the tide is changing yet again. Chinese society is apparently rediscovering, or at least re-prioritizing, its moral and ideological cravings. Over the past several years, ideological forces and divisions have moved back to the center of Chinese political and social life, and ideological tensions among Chinese elite are now arguably higher than at any point since the immediate aftermath of the 1989 protests. The image of a “post-ideological” China has become increasingly outdated.

Relatively few observers or policymakers, however, seem to entertain the possibility that Chinese elites are ideological creatures, or even that they may be dealing with an ideological population. This is a remarkable sea change with profound implications for policymaking. Just a decade or two ago, many commentators had trouble accepting that Chinese statesmen — or even educated Chinese — were anything but Communist ideologues. In the early 2000s, the notion that Chinese elites no longer believed in Communism was still a novel one that sometimes triggered incredulity and backlash. By contrast, anyone today who insists that Communist ideals still hold sway over Chinese policymaking does so at considerable risk to his or her reputation as a serious China hand.

How did the idea of a post-ideological China arise? The charitable — and possibly correct — interpretation for this change is that it simply reflected a general shift in Chinese social attitudes. Chinese political and social discourse turned away from ideologically charged arguments in favor of the kind of flexible pragmatism that the former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin regularly advocated. There is also a less charitable interpretation: that China’s economic rise, and particularly its sustained growth during the global economic crisis, generated a sense of vulnerability and, consequently, an alarmist mentality among many Western analysts, who rushed to — and continue to believe in — the conclusion that Chinese policymakers were ruthless and efficient utility maximizers preying upon the softer, more idealistic, and democratically constrained developed world.

Whatever the reason, the stereotype of Chinese pragmatism is probably past its expiration date. In China today, the signs of an ideological revival are everywhere. Most visibly, a number of icons, long thought dead, have made prominent and in some cases highly successful resurrections in national political rhetoric. First is long-deceased Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s rehabilitation as arguably the core element of the party’s founding myth and its historical legitimacy. As a number of scholars and commentators have noted, in several recent speeches Chinese President Xi Jinping has enthusiastically embraced Mao not only as the party’s founding father, but also as a symbol of its commitment to nationalism and populism. This marks a significant departure from the subdued and almost reluctant treatment of Mao that Xi’s predecessors, particularly Hu Jintao, seemed to display. Curiously, while Xi’s rhetorical signals drew immediate commentary, their potential policy implications have gone largely unstudied, if not outright dismissed as insignificant.

Mao has not been the only person to receive ideological rehabilitation. Confucius, too, has become an increasingly prominent figure in Chinese political rhetoric. And party leaders have frequently quoted ancient philosophers, including Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Han Fei. Xi himself has repeatedly argued that, “to solve China’s problems … [China needs] to fully make use of the great wisdom accumulated by the Chinese nation over the last 5,000 years.” State support for projects such as the new Confucius Academy in the provincial capital of Guiyang, opened in 2013, lends such rhetoric an element of seriousness that has buoyed neo-Confucian activists. Yet the attempts to breathe new life into ancient Chinese thought has also drawn alarm and disdain in other, more liberal, parts of the Chinese internet, which tend to see Confucian social ethics as backwards and bigoted.

It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to dismiss these initiatives as cynical ideological propaganda by an authoritarian state facing unprecedented socioeconomic and political tension. There is undeniably some truth to this, but it is far too simplistic. In fact, one could just as plausibly argue that the party has played a reactive role, rather than a proactive one: its ideological campaigns to revive figures such as Mao and Confucius reflect intellectual and cultural currents that have rapidly gained force among highly educated Chinese over the past five to seven years. Compared to the depth and momentum of these currents, the party may simply be trying to catch up. Xi himself seemed to admit as much in a famous August 19, 2013 speech, in which he argued that the party was facing a new wave of serious ideological challenges, and needed to issue a more robust response.

The two most significant Chinese intellectual developments since the late 1990s are probably the rise of a powerful “New Left” and the reemergence of a disorganized but increasingly influential neo-Confucian movement. The New Left combines nationalist sentiments — as a January 2010 editorial in the Global Times declared, “we do not want to become a Western intellectual colony” — and widespread dissatisfaction with economic inequality into a potent call for a “reconstruction of socialism,” one that would both reinstate many of the planned economy policies of the 1980s, and further strengthen ideological control over the Internet and media. If one surveyed the current Chinese intellectual world, the most influential figures — and those that enjoy the closest ties to the party leadership — tend to be leftists. This includes the prominent economists Wang Shaoguang and Justin Yifu Lin, the political scientist Cui Zhiyuan, and the philosopher Liu Xiaofeng.

Neo-Confucian figures, on the other hand, generally support both the revival of Confucian ethics such as filial piety and the reinstatement of certain traditional political institutions, particularly the civil service examinations. Although they tend to be less mainstream, the sheer combustibility of the term “Confucianism” in Chinese political and intellectual discourse has nonetheless given them an outsized media presence. Since the late 1990s, calls for a Confucian revival have steadily gained in volume and popularity, evolving from a much-mocked fringe movement to a still-mocked but certainly powerful national trend, particularly at the level of elementary education. For example, Jiang Qing, an early leader of the movement who now runs the well-known Yangming Confucian Academy, has become almost a household name in intellectual circles.

Both developments have their roots in anti-Western nationalism. From the early 1980s to the 2000s, democracy, the rule of law, and free market reform were the political lingua franca not merely of most Chinese intellectuals, but also of most business leaders, and even some officials, who paid at least regular lip service — and probably more than that — to these aspirational ideals. During this period, Chinese elites appeared to share the consensus that China should, in a word, Westernize. To a large extent, both the New Left and neo-Confucianism were intellectual backlashes against this consensus, driven partly by perceived incompatibilities between Western thought and Chinese socioeconomic and political realities; partly by frustration at (perceived) Western hostility and ideological discrimination towards China; and partly by the nationalist urges that came naturally with economic takeoff.

More recently, these movements have shown signs of convergence. Neo-Confucianism appears to be latching on to New Leftism, and not without reciprocity from the leftist camp. Several prominent scholars, particularly Sun Yat-sen University’s Gan Yang, now self-identify as both leftist and Confucian. The linchpin of that joint-identity is the strong nationalism shared by both ideological camps, which allows these scholars to argue that resources from “traditional culture” should play a prominent role in the crusade against Western liberalism — if not as a necessary component of national identity, then at least as an ideological alternative to Western intellectual hegemony.

Recent statistical studies suggest that these trends go well beyond the sheltered confines of China’s top universities and halls of power. An oft-quoted 2015 paper by Harvard and MIT researchers, for example, found that Chinese Internet users have largely coalesced around two poles: a “Leftist-Confucian” pole that advocates an expansive socialist state, limited civil rights, aggressive foreign policy, and some rehabilitation of traditional culture; and a “Western liberal” — or “rightist,” if one prefers that term — pole that supports free market principles, constitutional democracy, civil rights, international cooperation, and some hostility towards traditional culture. The high levels of homogeneity within these camps suggest, moreover, that ideological awareness and commitment is already quite deep, and deepening, across the board.

Liberal-leftist conflicts now seem to color and shape the online population’s consumption of almost any popular news item, ranging from major geopolitical issues–such as China’s newly assertive foreign policy in the South China Sea — to minor public scandals, such as a recent administrative conflict at Sun Yat-sen University, in which a junior faculty member accused Gan Yang of blocking his promotion path, and physically assaulted him.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for why these nationalist movements gained force. Some might argue that they simply took advantage of China’s growing social and economic problems over the past decade, in particular skyrocketing inequality. A more sympathetic take might be that they actually offer potential solutions to some of these problems – by promoting, for example, a group-oriented social morality that helps alleviate the urban economy’s apparent lack of social trust. Others might argue that they represent the kind of intellectual self-reflection and anxiety that comes naturally after societies reach a basic level of economic prosperity, and are therefore a kind of middle income nationalism.

Whatever its causes, the current ideological landscape likely has serious consequences for Chinese policymaking: ideological resurgence dramatically alters the social and political landscape in which the party-state operates. The sources of legitimacy are very different in a pragmatically materialist society than in an ideologically charged and polarized one. Whereas robust economic growth was the key to popular support in the former, it is probably insufficient, and perhaps not even necessary, in the latter. At the moment, it’s profoundly uncertain which side — liberals, leftists, or cultural conservatives — will eventually gain the upper hand in these ideological wars. If one side does emerge on top, the government may find itself forced, or at least strongly incentivized, to seek sociopolitical legitimacy via redistributionist policies, civil rights reform, or perhaps a full-scale swing towards some reconstructed notion of traditional cultural values. This could be either a curse or a blessing: it might force the party-state into uncomfortable ideological positions, but it could also provide alternative sources of social support in times of economic or geopolitical turmoil.

Take, for example, the party’s reaction to the 2014 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, during which a largely student-led movement called for democratic elections and greater political independence from Beijing. Despite some early suggestions that it should be moderately conciliatory towards the protestors for various pragmatic reasons — to minimize financial disruption, loss of international reputation, and damage done to Mainland-Taiwan relations — it soon became clear that the party was far more concerned with the domestic reaction to its Hong Kong strategy than with the international one. That domestic reaction, however, was at times almost militantly nationalist. Fueled by a few incidents of anti-Mainland discrimination by Hong Kong residents, many, perhaps most, educated Mainlanders fervently supported a hardline policy against the protestors. This empowered the party to take a non-conciliatory position. But at the same time, it might also have severely limited the party’s options, pushing it into a harsher stance than some policymakers were comfortable with. Nationalism, like any distinctive political ideology, is a double-edged sword.

Over the short term, and particularly during economic downturns, the party leadership may find it convenient to tap the leftist or neo-Confucian movements for social support — which recent rhetoric suggests the party is attempting to do. But this is not necessarily a comfortable long-term solution. One need only look back at the spectacular rise and fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai to find a major example where the party leadership was profoundly uncomfortable with the ideological zealotry of some self-identified Maoist intellectuals. Leftist ideologies are not always more reliable allies than liberal ones.

In the end, are Chinese policymakers themselves deeply ideological, or at least becoming more so? It’s true that Xi’s recent positions on Mao, Chinese cultural traditions, and the need for a culture change among government employees are broadly consistent with those of a pragmatic autocrat. But they are also broadly consistent with the behavior of a bona fide socialist and cultural conservative pursuing his ideological goals in a measured and cautious fashion. Regardless of what one thinks of the current leadership, with any luck, the Western notion that Chinese politics are simply rooted in pragmatism will soon die out.

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Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor at Yale Law School.

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