In the post-Mao era the Communist Party and the Chinese people made a tacit agreement: the Party abandoned its failed Soviet-style centralized economic planning, promoting market-based policies that improved people’s living standards, and in exchange the citizens would not question the Party’s leadership.
It was a mutually beneficial pact. The ‘masses’, exhausted by decades of ‘permanent revolution’ under Mao, wanted to improve their lives, far away from political discussions and ideology. The Party, for its part, knew that the Communist planned economy, class struggle and dictatorship of the proletariat had failed.
Analysts have noted that Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism ushered in an era of deideologization. As Guo Sujian explained, “ordinary people are encouraged to consume, to become rich, and to go in for business opportunities” (Guo 2000, p. 33).
The Party leadership in theory never abandoned the principles of Communism, arguing that China’s reforms were an adaptation of Communist tenets to Chinese circumstances and historical realities, and that the Party first had to achieve the “primary stage of socialism” before it could move on to the following phases of development.
Nevertheless, market reforms undermined the official ideology and threatened the popular base of party legitimacy. In the era of reform, the Communist Party struggled with maintaining ideological control over a society in which the freedom to choose one’s career, to make money and to consume, marginalized the appeal of Communist doctrines.
The reform era was also a period of relative freedom of expression. People could talk both in private and in the emerging sphere of social media about various topics and political issues, as long as they did not directly crossed the red line set by the CCP (Guo 2000, p. 33).
Despite the upheavals of the late 1980s which led to the Tiananmen movement, support for the regime seems to have remained high throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Fear of repression was certainly a factor in the preservation of the Communist state. However, surveys suggest that many Chinese citizens valued the stability and economic development that the Party managed to provide. They were willing to accept a non-political life in exchange for material benefits. Communist Party propaganda indeed never fails to point out that the country has experienced an unprecedented degree of economic growth.
In 1999, political scientist Tang Wenfang conducted a survey of residents in Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenyang, Wuhan, and Xian. Asked whether the CCP- led political system should be changed, 44% of respondents answered ‘no’ and 31% said that they “did not care so long as their lives could be improved” (Wright 2010, pp. 13-14). This seems to be a fairly accurate description of the political attitude of a majority of Chinese.
Most Chinese seem to value social stability and economic prosperity over freedom of speech and the right to elect their government. According to a 1995 survey, over 90% of respondents from Beijing said that they preferred a “stable and orderly society to a freer society that could be prone to disruption.” Other studies suggest that the public in China doesn’t view democracy as a priority because it could lead to chaos. People care about economic growth, while few emphasize the need for fast-paced democratization (ibid., p. 16).
There are also people who are still attached to “socialist values”, especially poor individuals who might be at the losing end of economic reform. A 2004 survey by Han Chunping and Martin King Whyte found that “very large majorities … would like the government to take measures to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality.” Tang Wenfang’s 1999 survey showed that “the lower social classes were more anti- Western than others and still adhered to revolutionary ideologies”, i.e. Marxism-Leninism and Maoism (ibid., p. 17).
But while the majority of the Chinese wanted to stay away from politics, the leaders of the Communist Party were concerned with the issue of political legitimacy and very much tried to adapt Communist ideals as much as possible to fit the new realities. The CCP still claims to possess the absolute truth, so that the Party alone has the right to govern and set the goals for the entire society. The CCP never rejected its totalitarian heritage (Guo 2000, p, 34).
Deng Xiaoping’s successors struggled to restore the CCP’s ideological credibility. They used elements of Communism, nationalism and of traditional Chinese culture to consolidate the Party’s leadership role. As long as there were no rebellions, the CCP didn’t seem eager to return to the era of mass political indoctrination. Some Chinese politicians, such as former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, even seem to have promoted a more ‘liberal‘ form of government.
China’s leadership became a ‘Red Dynasty’ which governed China on the basis of a mandate that resembled the ‘heavenly mandate’ of imperial dynasties. As scholar Hsieh Pao-chao explained, the ‘heavenly mandate’ is nothing but “the mystical term for the passive acceptance of the reigning government by the people” (Hsieh 1925, p. 7).
According to ancient Chinese political doctrines, the emperor had to care for the people and make sure that the economic structure of the state functioned properly. There was no active political participation by the people, whose only way of showing dissatisfaction was to rebel if the ruler was derelict in his duties. The signs of a well-governed state were “lack of complaints, general economic sufficiency, ready and unconditional obedience to laws, and willingness of the able and the wise to serve the state.” The people were supposed to show a passive, tacit consent to authority as long as the economic situation did not deteriorate and social stability was preserved (ibid., p.6).
But things have changed since Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Xi is not like his predecessors. It is not enough for him if the people live without government interference as long as they don’t question the legitimacy of the CCP . Xi wants to revive ideology, instill it in the minds of the nearly 90 million members of the Communist Party, and then in the minds of the whole population.
A recent piece published on Chinese state media shows how Xi Jinping is trying to promote neo-Maoist indoctrination as a means to solve the CCP’s ideological vacuum.
The article, written by Xin Ming, researcher at the ‘CCP Centre for the Study of the Theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ (中央党校中国特色社会主义理论体系研究中心), opposes the recent trend of ‘avoiding to talk about politics‘ in favour of focusing on economic development.
Xin Ming argues that “talking about politics is one of the most essential characteristics of the Communist Party of China.” The author criticizes the fact that “some comrades think that talking about politics is too abstract, while grasping economics is real. This is wrong in theory and harmful in practice.”
He acknowledges that the “core of our Party’s policy is economic development,” a principle that appears to be unquestionable in post-Deng China. However, he adds that this doesn’t mean that “politics should be subordinate to economics.”
While admitting that China has seen “the emergence of outstanding contradictions and problems such as income disparity, corruption among a small number of Party members and officials, serious environmental issues etc.,” Xin writes that these problems are the result of Party members and officials not paying enough attention to politics or giving up talking about politics altogether.
According to the author, the general political direction “is the most important thing in defining what a political party and a country believe in, what they are searching for, what they advocate, what banner they hold and what road they follow, where they come from and where they are going.”
The Communist Party as a political organization would “lose its soul” if it threw away politics. Political debates are “a prominent characteristic and advantage” of Marxism. The article acknowledges that in the “new era” one cannot “overemphasize politics,” yet on the other hand one cannot “abandon politics,” which is a fundamental component of the “Party’s soul.”
The author claims that the policies of the CCP are based on the Party’s “observation of popular sentiment” and reflect “the will of the people”, as opposed to what he calls Western “plutocracy”, “oligarchy” and the “politics of the political caste.”
But in an interesting logical twist, the author demands complete loyalty and obedience to the CCP leadership. He writes:
We need the whole Party and the sentiment of the people in the whole country to move towards the same goal, [we need the people] to be of one mind, to discard the old and create the new, to overcome difficulties together. Therefore every Party unit, every Party member and government official must preserve unanimity of thought, policy and action with comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party central committee. No matter in which area you work, what your position is, to which department or unit you belong, everyone has to obey the unified leadership of the Party central committee, follow its example and ensure that all comply to its instructions.
Soon after he took over the leadership of the country, Xi Jinping showed to the world that the days of political liberalization in China were over. But it is hard to say to what extent the Communist government will continue to curtail freedom of expression and try to indoctrinate the people with a rigid, top-to-bottom ideology.
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