Ideological Crackdown Reaches the Strongholds of Reform

The Xi Jinping leadership has started an ideological movement among party members and citizens that is geared toward promoting hard-line socialist values and absolute obedience to Beijing’s edicts. While the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Rectification Campaign, announced earlier this year, was focused mainly on nurturing clean governance and moral standards, the ideological exercise is dedicated to, in the words of General Secretary and President Xi, “consolidating and boosting mainstream public opinion, propagating the leitmotifs [of socialism with Chinese characteristics] and spreading positive energy” (Xinhua, August 20; CCTV, August 20). The authorities have not indicated for how long this crusade will last. However, cadres in charge of ideology and propaganda have made unusually austere statements about ways to foster socialist and Marxist orthodoxy. Censors are pulling out all the stops to ensure that “bourgeois-liberal” values will be banished from the media, particularly the Internet and microblog networks. Moreover, it is likely that the resuscitation of quasi-Maoist norms could blunt the edge of economic reform, which will be the centerpiece of an upcoming Central Committee plenum.  

Xi’s conservative—and at times crypto-Maoist—views were splashed throughout his keynote address to a nationwide conference on ideology and propaganda held on August 19. While every major CCP leader has urged his comrades to conform to socialist ideals, the putative “core” of the Fifth-Generation leadership came close to revising a seminal concept of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open-door policy: that “economic construction is the core task of the party.” Upon coming to power at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee in late 1978, Deng announced that the CCP’s priority had shifted from ideological and political struggles to building up the economy. In his talk, Xi appeared to give equal billing to economic pursuits on the one hand and upholding the politically correct “ideology and thinking” (yishixingtai) on the other. “The core task of the party is economic construction,” Xi said. “Work related to ideology and thinking is the party’s extremely important preoccupation” (People’s Daily, August 20; China News Service, August 20).

Xi went on to espouse a quintessentially Maoist stance, equating dangxing (“the nature and characteristics of the party”) with renminxing (“the nature and characteristics of people”). “Dangxing and renminxing have always been uniform and united,” he said in the August speech. “We must uphold the correct political direction, stand firm on [proper] political views, and resolutely make propaganda for the party’s theories, lines, objectives and policies,” Xi added. “We must resolutely remain in the highest degree of unison with the central authorities [zhongyang] and resolutely uphold the central authorities’s authority.” The equation of dangxing and renminxing—the theory that party members and citizens can or should not have ideas and aspirations different from those of the party—was first celebrated by Mao Zedong. In his famous “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art” in 1942, Mao asked not only artists and writers but ordinary party members to “cleave tightly to the stand of the Party, the Party spirit and the Party’s policy.” The Great Helmsman indicated that “there is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” and that writers and intellectuals must serve “the whole proletarian revolutionary cause” and function as “cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine” (Xinhua, June 24, 2004; People’s Daily, May 10, 2002).

While there has been no significant political reform in China since 1989, the Jiang and Hu leaderships were willing to discuss the issue and carried out a series of experiments with local elections, which Jiang raised from the village to township level, and Hu expanded to include pilot programs in which township party secretaries were elected by residents. Hu also pushed “intra-party democracy,” which permitted Party members to choose between multiple candidates for some, but not all, seats in the National People’s Congress. These experiments have not been significant enough to change the overall political climate or power structure, but their end suggests that reform is farther off than ever.

Xi’s apparent return to Maoist-style dogma has been affirmed by a number of party mouthpieces. “Dangxing is the [result of the] refinement, sublimation and synthesis of human nature,” said an article carried by the Study Times, a mouthpiece of the Central Party School. For Beijing-based liberal scholar Mou Chuanheng, however, Xi was using high-sounding and politically correct language to circumvent tough questions of political reform, which have been mothballed for more than 20 years. “Xi Jinping is using the construction of dangxing to side-step the construction of constitutional governance,” Mou wrote. “He has also advocated rectifying the party’s style to substitute changes of institutions” (Study Times, August 20; Open Magazine [Hong Kong], September 1). Alfred Wu, a Chinese politics specialist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, noted that Xi had embraced Maoist ideals and put political reform on indefinite hold. “Xi might want to appeal to hard-line elements in the party so as to firm up his own power base,” he said (Author’s interview with Dr. Wu, September 15).

Theoretical issues aside, what are the practical implications of Xi’s apparent attempt to turn back the clock? While the president’s Rectification Campaign has been interpreted as a call for loyalty to cadres with “revolutionary bloodline,” the ideological exercise serves a similar purpose of rallying support around the central authorities—and in particular, around Xi himself (See “Rectification Campaign to Boost Cadres with “‘Red DNA’,” China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 14). Not long after Xi’s August 19 speech, Beijing party secretary Guo Jinlong published an article in the party’s theoretical journal Seeking Truth entitled “Ensure that the central authorities’s political orders are smoothly enforced; Our political beliefs must remain unchanged under any circumstances.” Jin called on his colleagues in the Beijing municipality to “always maintain a high degree of unison in terms of ideas and action with the party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary.” “We must self-consciously protect the authority of the central authorities,” he added (Xinhua, September 2; Seeking Truth, September 1).

Following a long-standing CCP ritual called biaotai—the airing of views by mid- to senior-ranked cadres in order to demonstrate their fealty to the top leadership—the heads of the propaganda departments of the country’s 31 administrative districts have come out with statements endorsing President’s Xi’s strictures. Many of these declarations, however, amounted to a no-holds-barred exaltation of Xi’s putative wisdom and foresight. Head of the Tibet Autonomous Region Propaganda Department Dong Yunhu eulogized Xi for having “scientifically summed up” the party’s experience in ideological and propaganda work. President Xi had “enriched and developed Marxist theories on ideology as well as the party’s theories on ideology and thinking work,” Deng said. The propaganda boss of Hainan Province, Xu Jun, went further. Xu proclaimed that Xi had in his August speech “awakened and enlightened the deaf, and succeeded in profoundly illuminating the people” (China Daily, September 6; Xinhua, September 3).  

While Xi’s ability to elicit fairly obsequious protestations of praise from regional officials has testified to his increasingly solid hold on power, ramping up ultra-conservative norms could deal a blow to economic reform, which is the theme of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee slated for early November. In his biaotai speech, the head of the Propaganda Department of the Guangdong provincial committee, Tuo Zhen, repeated Xi’s call on cadres in the media and related units to “foster and crystallize a social consensus [geared toward] demonstrating a bright future” for the province and the country. Tuo’s reputation as a conservative censor was burnished by his decision to kill an early 2013 cover story in the liberal paper Southern Weekend titled “Constitutional governance is key to the China Dream” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 4; South China Morning Post, January 4). Yet intellectuals in Guangdong and Beijing were taken aback when Tuo asserted that “Guangdong is a double pacesetter: for reform and the open-door policy and for [political] struggles in the area of ideology and thinking” (Nanfang Daily, September 4, China News Service, September 3). This ran counter to the commonly held belief that, particularly given its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangdong should serve as a window for the whole of China onto new ideas and outside-the-box thinking. It is significant that the propaganda chief of Hainan—which was one of five special economic zones created by Deng in the early 1980s—also ruled out the island’s function as a place where heterogeneous ways of thinking will at least be tolerated. “Hainan is a special economic zone but not a ‘special cultural zone,’” Xu noted in his biaotai speech (China National Radio, September 6; People’s Daily, September 4).

Tuo Zhen’s views in particular have elicited vigorous criticism from the nation’s liberal intellectuals. Gao Yu, a respected, Beijing-based political commentator, has slammed Tuo for “trying to bring back Cultural Revolution-vintage political struggles.” “Tuo and the Guangdong Propaganda Department have trampled upon the relatively liberal media in the province,” Gao indicated. “We are witnessing the rehabilitation of Mao-style ideology and thoughts” (VOA Chinese Service, September 4). The surprisingly conservative views of officials in Guangdong and Hainan—which used to be known as experimental zones for both economic and political reforms—may have severely dented these two provinces’ reformist credentials in the eyes of foreign investors.

Equally significant is the fact that the free flow of information—deemed a prerequisite for the success of a market-style economy—has deteriorated as cadres in charge of ideology and propaganda respond to Xi’s call to reinstate the proverbial “one-voice chamber.” For instance, central and local-level propaganda departments have promulgated new regulations to counter so-called “rumor-mongering” on the Internet. A ruling by judicial authorities in early September said that micro-bloggers and other Internet users could be charged with defamation and other crimes if their postings of “rumors” and other forms of illegal information were visited by 5,000 Netizens or reposted more than 500 times. Several prominent online personalities and bloggers, including Chinese-American venture capitalist Charles Xue, were subjected to criminal investigations for allegedly putting rumors and politically incorrect materials on the internet (Ming Pao, September 16; Reuters, September 9)  

There is also evidence that the authorities are locking up private businessmen for supporting “bourgeois-liberal” values such as universal norms and human rights, which run counter to President Xi’s socialist beliefs. A case in point is billionaire real-estate and IT businessman Wang Gongqian, who was detained by police earlier this month for allegedly “organizing a mob to disturb public order.” The real reason behind Wang’s problem with the authorities, however, could be that he is a keen supporter of civil-society and human rights activists, such as the well-known legal scholar Xu Zhiyong. Wang and others put up a loud protest after Xi was incarcerated earlier this year. Wang has also been using Internet signature campaigns to press the CCP leadership to pick up the threads of political liberalization (South China Morning Post, September 14; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], September 14). President Xi and his colleagues, however, are very nervous about private businessmen becoming involved in activities that can be construed as politically destabilizing. Several entrepreneurs were behind the large-scale anti-nuclear demonstration held last July by more than 1,000 residents of the Guangdong city of Jiangmen. Guangdong authorities were forced to at least temporarily shelve the plan to build a nuclear power plant in the outskirts of the city (Guancha.cn [Beijing] July 22; China Times [Taipei], July 13).

As former premier Wen Jiabao reiterated, “economic reform can only go so far without commensurate political reform.” “We cannot have thorough-going economic reform without achievements in political reform,” Wen said in his last international press conference at the National People’s Congress last year (China News Service, March 14, 2012; Ifeng.com [Beijing], March 14, 2012). Like most conservative leaders of the CCP, Xi apparently believes that his administration can push forward substantial economic reform while at the same time exacerbating the party’s heavy-handed control on ideology, culture and the media. While Xi seems convinced that that his resuscitation of quasi-Maoist norms might also serve the additional purpose of consolidating his own personal authority, the return of orthodoxy of a bygone era could cast a deep shadow over whatever new ideas Beijing might have for rendering China’s economy more market-oriented.