Old Wine in an Ancient Bottle: Changes in Chinese State Ideology

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 6

Only a year since assuming the top Party post in November 2012, Xi Jinping has emerged as the strongest Chinese leader in decades. His sweeping anti-corruption and mass line campaigns have shaken the bureaucracy, consolidated his power, and removed the supporters of former security tsar Zhou Yongkang. And at the Third Plenum in the fall of 2013, Xi asserted direct control over the economic reform and domestic security portfolios with the announcement of two new national committees that he himself will chair (Xinhua, January 24; “Xi’s Power Grab Towers Over Market Reforms,” China Brief, November 22, 2013).

Xi is also moving to leave his stamp on state propaganda and ideology, borrowing language and themes used by his predecessors and accelerating a trend toward replacing socialist doctrine with nationalist rhetoric that reconciles Mao with Deng Xiaoping, Chiang Kai-shek and Confucius. In content, he has sought to neuter the struggles between left and right by declaring that the pre-reform historical legacy of Mao Zedong and the post-reform one of Deng Xiaoping are of equal weight (Straits Times, November 9). In style, he has appropriated Mao’s populist touch (see “Xi Invokes Mao’s Image to Boost his Own Authority,” China Brief, January 10). Recent weeks have seen heavy state media coverage of Xi—and not other top Party leaders—eating steamed buns with ordinary citizens, delivering New Year’s greetings to the nation and extending his wishes to students and recent graduates, all to an enthusiastic citizen response.

Xi’s efforts in the ideological sphere go deeper still. He is appropriating the mantle of Chinese traditional culture to fashion a new image for one-Party rule, and sanitizing official representations of socialism to correspond with the economic realities and nationalist enthusiasms of recent years. Naturally, this is a continuation of efforts dating back to the late 20th century. Since Deng, central authorities have regularly struggled to reinterpret the Party’s socialist legacy to correspond with the market-based reforms that have dramatically changed China’s economy and society. And since the early 2000s, traditional Chinese culture has been a key tool in Beijing’s attempt to project soft power on the international stage (see “Confucius Institutes and the Question of China’s Soft Power Diplomacy,” China Brief, July 7, 2010).

But Xi’s moves are also part of a new, concerted play to rework the doctrinal foundations of Party legitimacy, one that is directly tied to the 2011 Party plenum communiqué on culture. And they are steadily altering official depictions of Chinese history in museums, textbooks and state media.

Socialism continues to be toned down . . .

Xi set the new ideological tone early on. After the 2012 leadership transition, his first official act was to take the Politburo standing committee members on a collective tour of the newly reopened national history museum. The focus of their visit was the Road to Revival exhibit, which redefines the Party’s legacy over the past 150 years.

This new historical narrative more clearly situates the Communist Party in a broad story of nationalist revival, rather than one of socialist revolution. 1949 is no longer as critical a date. Instead, the Party is part of a panoply of reformers stretching back to the late 19th century, all with a shared goal—reviving the Chinese nation. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists are depicted more as misguided comrades-in-arms, rather than tyrannical oppressors. Such an approach also has obvious utility as mainland leaders continue to woo the Ma administration in Taiwan, recently holding the first face-to-face meetings between government officials in charge of cross-straits relations (CCTV, February 18). Similarly, the imperial reformers of the late Qing are portrayed as sympathetic top-down technocrats attempting to industrialize China, rather than remnants of a feudal regime holding back the tide of modernization.

Consistent with this narrative, the public depiction of the Party’s history is being scrubbed of much of its socialist roots. The concept of class struggle is almost completely gone; 1930s-era Party efforts at organizing peasant revolution, significantly downplayed. Of course, this makes sense. Peasant rebellion and worker activism are now precisely the things most feared by the fusion of political power and economic wealth that has emerged as China’s governing elite in recent decades.

Other museums, such as that of the First Conference of the Communist Party in Shanghai, have been harmonized with similar photos and historical periodization. New propaganda materials with identical themes have begun to crop up throughout the state apparatus. One example is the work “500 Years of Socialism,” which central propaganda and organization bureau officials are currently circulating for lower-level cadres to study in conjunction with the Third Plenum communiqué and Xi’s recent speeches (Xinhua, February 10). This book, also being adapted as a textbook for political education classes in universities, is an updated version of “400 Years of Socialism,” initially issued in the early 1980s. The author of both is Yu Youjun, former Shanxi governor and erstwhile rising star in the Chinese bureaucracy. Demoted and subjected to two years Party probation in the wake of the 2007 Shanxi “brick kiln” slave labor scandal, he spent his time revising his earlier work. The new version appears to mark a political re-emergence for Yu. Published in 2011, it was made into a 50-part documentary first aired on state television in 2013, and currently being rebroadcast at regular intervals.

As with the museum exhibits, the video documentary continues the process of rewriting the history of the Party’s origins. In this telling, 1949 was not primarily a socialist revolution, nor was Mao a socialist leader. Rather, both the revolution and the early 1950s are held up as successful examples of Mao’s New Democracy. Lenin and the New Economic Policy receive similar treatment. Capitalists were not the target of the revolution, according to this narrative. Indeed, the signature Party reforms of the 1950s aimed at protecting national industry and commerce, such as insisting on protecting the nationally-renowned Quanjude restaurant in the face of the owner’s efforts to close it.

In contrast, the documentary broadly portrays socialism as part of a utopian search for a better world, rather than as a practical political philosophy. It strongly links 20th century socialism to a specific failed set of economic policies pursued by the Soviet Union and incorrectly implemented in China from the late 1950s to 1970s (but only briefly discussed). The 1980s version of Yu’s work had merely criticized the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry and agricultural collectivization. The 21st century version goes further, condemning core socialist concepts such as class struggle, egalitarianism, and non-market incentives (Southern Weekend, July 1, 2011). The video documentary fuses this criticism with an attack on Soviet-era reforms to one-Party rule, ranging from Khrushchev’s “secret speech” on Stalin to Gorbachev’s efforts at pursuing political, instead of economic, reform.

The new state propaganda line consequently comes close to divorcing China from any of the actual remaining philosophical content of Marxist socialism (as opposed to Leninist or Maoist one-Party rule). This raises the question of exactly what the Party seeks to point to as its ideological source of legitimacy.

. . . and “traditional Chinese culture” brought in

Xi has clearly pointed to an answer. In November 2013, he made a carefully-planned visit to Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, where he inspected the Confucius Research Institute, extolled the classics and the influence of Confucian thought on the Sinicization of Marxism, and proclaimed: “From the day it was founded, the Chinese Communist Party has been a loyal standard-bearer and proponent of the excellent elements of traditional Chinese culture . . .” (Ta Kung Pao, February 12).

Of course, this is not true. From its birth in the wake of the May 4th movement—a reaction against traditional culture—to Cultural Revolution-era efforts to obliterate China’s past, the Communist Party has always had a deeply conflicted relationship with history. For decades, it has sought to ground its legitimacy in modernization—whether Marxist socialism or economic reform—not tradition.

But this is the new Party orthodoxy. Xi’s statement above is directly lifted from the 2011 Party plenum communiqué on culture. The 2011 communiqué not only asserts that the Party itself is rooted in tradition, it also sets out sweeping instructions to expand the promotion of traditional Chinese culture across the board—in the media and Internet, within educational curricula and in cultural exchanges with Hong Kong and Taiwan. The content of the 2011 communiqué is being explicitly incorporated into central instructions to provincial officials on improving governance (Xinhua, February 17). It has been made a key component of the new “core values” (hexin jiazhiguan) campaign that Party authorities announced on December 23 (Xinhua, December 23). And it has been made the focus of recent Politburo collective study sessions (CCTV, February 25). Naturally, this new direction also builds on the popular resurgence of interest in traditional culture among many citizens, amid the sense that Chinese society has lost its moorings in the midst of rapid economic and social change.

State media content has already begun to shift in accordance with the propaganda line launched in 2011. In 2010, televised dating programs such as If You Are The One (Fei Chang Wu Rao) made a huge splash in popular media, prompting concerns that they were contributing to a decline in moral values. These have since been toned down. New television programs emphasizing traditional culture have been added, such as the Chinese Character Dictation Competition. Introduced in 2013, it requires contestants to reproduce characters using pen and paper after hearing them spoken, and has been credited with sparking a renewed interest in writing among a younger generation raised on software for inputting characters into electronic devices. And since the beginning of 2014, the CCTV evening news has significantly expanded the invocation of, and reporting on, traditional moral values in their nightly broadcasts, with new slogans such as “only with good family customs can one be a good citizen” (you hao jiafeng cai you hao gongmin).

Education is another example. In the fall of the 2013, Beijing authorities announced that the importance of English on the college entrance exam would be reduced, and that of Chinese increased (New York Times, October 22). Other provincial authorities are following suit, suggesting that high school students may be pushed to reduce their efforts to study English.


China’s pivot to its own past raises a host of questions. Some are practical. Many institutions founded during the late-20th century reform period stressed learning from abroad. How will these fare under the new policy line?

Shifts in state ideology may offer new space for Chinese reformers. Those who draw on Confucian and Buddhist traditions may find themselves with new room to address pressing social problems. Even the new Party line on socialism opens up some new rhetorical possibilities at the margins. For example, denunciations of late 19th-century European social democratic reformers have disappeared in favor of a much more neutral analysis, creating the possibility that these could be marshaled as examples of successful gradual reform in the future.

Despite this, it is very clear that current Chinese authorities intend to use their ideological shifts to buttress the existing one-Party political system. In his visit to Qufu, Xi rejected the concept of universal human rights, asserting that the distinction between good and bad were fundamentally rooted in the “traditional culture” of different countries. He repeated a comment he made to the Greek prime minister, “Your ‘democracy’ is the democracy of ancient Greece and Rome—that’s your tradition. We have our own.” (Ta Kung Pao, February 12).

This ideological line could also undermine efforts to promote modernization efforts such as legal reform. Consistent with late 20th-century state interests in consulting foreign models, a generation of academics and NGOs promoted governance reform in China by arranging study tours and helping establish discussions between foreign judges and officials and their Chinese counterparts.  But if local Party leaders take Xi’s instructions to draw ideological guidance from China’s own history and traditions at face value—as commentaries in ideological sources have urged—will the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Ford Foundation increasingly need to think about consulting specialists in Tang dynasty governance practices before proposing administrative law reforms for China today (Central Party School website, December 25, 2013; People’s Daily¸ February 20)?

As Party authorities continue to shift back to the past, to culture and to nationalism as a more explicit basis for their rule, the risk exists that these could fuel growing ethnic tensions within China. Concepts invoked by Xi in Qufu, such as that of “offspring of the Yellow Emperor” (yanhuang zisun) have a contested history within China. Nor is it clear what the implications of the new policy line will be for religious sects that do not fall easily within the definition of “traditional Chinese culture.”

In China, history is not dead. It is not even past. Rather, it is returning.