Ideology Matters: Parsing Recent Changes in China’s Intellectual Landscape

Rogier Creemers is the author of this weekend’s guest commentary. Dr. Creemers is a Rubicon Scholar at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, an Associate at the China Centre of Oxford University and the editor the indispensable China Copyright and Media blog.

In recent weeks, the ideological drumbeat has been growing ever louder across China. After the crackdown on social media that started in 2013, late 2014 saw the targeting of the academy. It started in November, with an open letter in Liaoning Daily, which accused academics of portraying China in overly disparaging terms. Professors, it was argued, did not pay sufficient respect to China’s history, to the specificity of its political system and to the Party. In December, Xi Jinping gave a speech at a conference on Party building in higher education, in which he called on universities to keep a tighter grip on ideological rectitude. Reports emerged of a secret missive, nicknamed Document No. 30, which demanded the eradication of Western ideas from campuses. Then, in one week, the Party Centre released three documents outlining a comprehensive restructuring of China’s intellectual institutions. A first imposed new demands on ideological research and teaching in higher education, a second outlined plans to develop political think tanks, while a third – another Xi speech – stressed the importance of dialectical materialism as a methodology for addressing political questions.

One way of looking at this latest campaign is by framing it in the broader ideological rectification and discipline campaign that Xi Jinping has deployed since his accession in November 2012. When he took over as General Secretary, Xi Jinping found a Party and a state in chaos: corruption had become endemic, and the Party organization was still reeling from the Bo Xilai fallout. Social media and the Internet had severely challenged the Party’s ability to manage information. Observers both inside and outside China denounced Hu Jintao’s tenure as a “lost decade”, and that democratization and openness had become an inevitable necessity for China’s further development.

Rather than catering to these demands, however, Xi has methodically neutralized opposition across the political spectrum. When liberal reformers called for “constitutional governance” (xianzheng) at the end or 2012, the leadership countered with Document No. 9, another secret circular that identified seven crucial ideological dangers, including the promotion of Western constitutionalism, universal values, civil society, neoliberal economics, freedom of the press, historical nihilism and challenging Socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Internet and the academy were singled out as the two main venues where these ideological risks materialized.

The Internet was targeted first. In the second half of 2013, a protracted crackdown took down the online celebrities and opinion leaders that had become known as Big Vs. New regulations imposed jail sentences on the publication of harmful information, if it were retweeted more than 500 times. This vastly reduced the attraction of public communication forums such as Weibo, and hastened an exodus towards more private applications, most notably WeChat. The Internet governing order was consolidated in 2014 with the establishment of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and the expansion of the Cyberspace Administration of China. Public WeChat accounts were put under stricter controls, real-name registration systems began to be more aggressively implemented across various areas, and online video and literature came under closer scrutiny. Concerns about foreign infiltration through computer software and hardware are currently being addressed through import substitution measures and security reviews.

Tackling the academy was thus the next logical step. According to the January Central Committee Document, universities are to put a higher priority on teaching (research is only mentioned insofar it concerns Marxist and Socialist theory), strengthen a common ideological basis and enhance Party leadership in higher education. Political theory courses and textbooks are to be centralized, and new evaluation and performance management systems introduced, in order to standardize the curriculum. Teaching staff will be required to participate in regular ideology training and study sessions, and to spend time engaging in “social practice” outside campuses. In the weeks since this document was published, the heads of all elite education institutions have published pledges of allegiance in various Party media.

There are quite a few reasons why the academy is targeted. First, it has internationalized more than any other professional group in China. Many well-regarded Chinese professors have either been educated abroad, or have spent considerable time outside China as visiting researchers. This considerable time spent living in a different political environment has provided them with a more nuanced understanding of social and political organization in other countries than can be gained in short trips. Second, they have considerable input into policymaking processes. China’s technocratic governance mode has often valued expert input more than public participation. This, therefore, provides academics with avenues to transform imported ideas into reality. Third, “patriotic worrying” is a part of Chinese intellectual tradition, which compels academics to relentlessly search out flaws in the China of the present in order to perfect the China of the future. Fourth, as educators, they are crucial in shaping the worldview of a new generation. However, the current generation of millennials (balinghou and jiulinghou) is already seen as rebellious and hedonistic, and it seems the leadership has decided that they’d better not be further confused. Remember: political protests in China over the last century, from May Fourth to Tiananmen, have tended to originate from universities. [Editors note: Pang Xianzhi, the former Director of the CPC Central Committee Party Literature Research Center, recently said this explicitly in 关于意识形态问题的一些看法, an essay that was republished on People’s Daily Online. Pang wrote “历史经验证明,出事往往从高校而起.” ]

Previous administrations had tended to accommodate and tolerate intellectual gadflies. Perhaps they preferred critical voices inside the tent; perhaps it was recognized that open debate (albeit in closed circles) would enable the emergence of new ideas and suggestions for policy reform. Certainly, foreign academics attending Chinese conferences are often surprised by the vigour and the robustness of the debate. That debate has now been strictly circumscribed. Xi’s rhetorical push of the Chinese Dream, and his call for more self-confidence about China’s unique path, buttressed by “the theory and the system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics” have been oriented at making clear once and for all that the core elements of the Western liberal democratic order are utterly unsuited to the Chinese context, and that no illusions to the contrary should be harboured. Instead, Xi proposes a nativist-exceptionalist approach, which focuses on – a politically correct version of – Chinese history and politics.

In short, this ideological push is primarily aimed at curtailing the independence and autonomy of Chinese academy, imposing ideology, and refocusing the task of universities toward teaching, rather than research. The latter task, as the second Central Committee document seems to suggest, will be shifted towards a batch of to-be-established think tanks. Specifically, this plan for their development seeks to enhance think tanks’ role in enhancing the Party’s governing capacity at home, and its soft power abroad. In particular, Party schools, scientific academies such as the Chinese Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Social Science and administrative academies are tasked with developing institutes providing policy recommendations and consultancy, to be operational by 2020.

In an interesting manner, this move not only reduces the importance of the higher education sector, it can also be interpreted as a move to centralize decision-making powers. Hitherto, the specialist knowledge needed to make policy decisions was mostly found within ministries. This gave them considerable power vis-à-vis the central leadership, as well as ample opportunities for obfuscation, to deflect demands from higher up and shirk responsibility. The successive new leading groups and commissions created in the wake of the 3rd Plenum took a considerable chunk of policy responsibilities away from the state bureaucracy, but therefore require comprehensive knowledge and information input. Furthermore, research by bodies whose primary allegiance is not their supervisory ministry can function as an additional layer of internal oversight and accountability, as these think tanks will be evaluated on the basis of the utility of their reports to the central leadership and their staff organizations, rather than individual departments.

Why, then, does Xi Jinping stress the importance of dialectical materialism? Does he actually believe in Marxist theory? Roderick MacFarquhar, the doyen of Chinese political scholarship, suggests Xi is mostly interested in Leninism: the organization of centralized power. Certainly, the way in which Xi has reorganized the central Party organization and seems to understand the importance of information in bureaucratic processes suggests he is a shrewd political operator. From that angle, invoking dialectical materialism allows Xi to do two things. First, it is a direct reference to the intellectual lineage of the Party. Dialectical materialism and its associated doctrine of contradictions were key elements of Mao Zedong Thought, and their revival demonstrates a further turn away from foreign models and approaches. Second, it allows Xi Jinping to hold out a carrot to researchers and policy wonks. Simply put, the message is that if they want to get the ear of the central leadership, analysts should frame their message in a particular manner, limiting the ways in which questions can be framed, which methods can be used in addressing them, and which kind of recommendations can be made. In particular, it stresses that research should focus on material issues, not on philosophical or ideological debates.

The renewed emphasis on Party theory can also be seen against a broader background of relegitimizing CCP rule. Earlier in this space, Tim Heath argued that a move away from revolutionary politics led the Party to seek legitimacy through the claim that it alone possesses the intellectual method that can ensure good governance and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. It must therefore continually demonstrate its ability to define a discourse of proprietary terms, concepts and methods, as much as its capability to develop and implement sound policies. In many cases, this discourse is hollow, vapid or fails to stand up to rigorous evaluation – yet another reason to ensure that academics are muzzled.

What are the implications of these initiatives on Chinese governance, and how should outside observers respond? Certainly, Xi Jinping is playing for high stakes, and there is an army of critics who suggest we are witnessing the last throes of a waning regime. In his relentless pursuit of discipline, austerity and rectitude inside and outside of the Party, Xi has made life rather more difficult for a considerable number of people, and it is not impossible a day of reckoning might come sooner or later. Such events, if they were to happen, could well be catastrophic. The Party is so enmeshed in all aspects of social, economic and political life in China that it is nearly impossible to conceive of the country without it. In any case, it is difficult for any political system to keep up with the levels of stress we are seeing in China for a prolonged period of time. Sooner or later, Xi will need to preside over a return to some sort of normalcy.

Inevitable democratization has essentially been the mainstream scenario in Western China-watching circles since the Eighties. La Chine sera démocratique ou elle ne sera pas. But what if this is wrong? What if Xi succeeds creating a model of non-democratic statecraft that is able to generate political stability, administrative efficiency and material well-being. To many, this is unimaginable. Yet prudence dictates that we imagine it. A political crisis in China would reverberate around the world because of its magnitude. But a successful China might, in the end, provide a more profound challenge to the outside world. At least, China watchers should attempt to take Xi’s ideological claims seriously, rather than dismiss them as mere political rhetoric. They may be around longer than many China watchers might hope or think.


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