“Signs of an ideological revival are everywhere”

A long piece discusses the ideological wars in China between Confucius and Mao, “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 The image of a “post-ideological” China has become increasingly outdated”.

Interestingly the piece contends “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 favour of the kind of flexible pragmatism that the former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin regularly advocated”.

The writer posits that the other expectation is that Chinese growth led to a sense of vulnerability as opposed to the Western democracies, he adds, “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”.

In addition the author notes the rise in Confucius in China, “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”.

He argues that a new left has emerged alongside a 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”.

Crucially he writes that “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”.

He makes the point that these movements have begun to converge with nationalism being central, “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”.

The piece ends “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”.

He concludes “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 behaviour 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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