In 1934, confronted with rising pro-communist sentiments in his country, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s Nationalist Party, launched the neotraditionalist New Life Movement (新生活运动) as part of a comprehensive anti-communist program that sought to use traditional values as a counterweight against Bolshevik-inspired revolutionist ideas. Fast forward to today’s China and the head of China’s Communist Party is actively promoting a wave of neotraditionalism. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the need to “advance and enrich outstanding traditional Chinese culture (中华优秀传统文化)” (CCP News, July 22, 2015). Why is Xi following this strategy and what are his end goals? In addition to immediate political aims, Xi’s neotraditionalist policy is part of a long-term vision to remake Chinese culture and society by weaving together selected traditional values with contemporary national consciousness.
Xi Jinping’s Neotraditionalism
In politics neotraditionalism means “the deliberate revival and revamping of old cultures, practices, and institutions for use in new political contexts and strategies” (Encyclopedia Britannica). After assuming the presidency, Xi has repeatedly touted traditional Chinese culture to the public. Xi’s emphasis on culture mirrors the strategy of his fallen rival Bo Xilai, whose signature campaign as the party secretary of Chongqing was the neo-Maoist “Sing Red and Strike Black (唱红打黑),” a revival of Mao-era culture and the suppression of criminality. While comparable to Bo on the “strike black” front, Xi’s cultural policy is less about “singing red,” yet it appeals to a much broader base of Chinese conservatives rather than just the extreme Left.
While Xi has emulated Mao’s statecraft in many ways, his neotraditionalism deviates from the Maoist path (China Brief, March 6, 2015). In sharp contrast to the iconoclastic Mao, who viewed the “old society (旧社会)” with contempt, Xi declared traditional thought and culture the “soul (灵魂)” of the nation (Xinhua, August 8, 2016). “Outstanding traditional culture is a country and nation’s basis for continuation and development. Losing it is the same as severing a country and nation’s lifeline” (Phoenix News, September 5, 2016). Thus, “A country and nation’s power and prosperity must always be supported by a flourishing culture. The prosperous development of Chinese culture is the prerequisite to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (Phoenix News, September 5, 2016).
Xi goes much further than his predecessor Hu Jintao, who also used Confucian rhetoric. Xi believes outstanding traditional culture is the “foundation” of the Party’s culture and “vital wellspring” of the Party’s set of socialist core values (社会主义核心价值观)—an astonishing statement that positioned traditional culture as the basis of the official code of behavior that governs all party members (Guangming Online, June 21; Qiushi, September 13, 2016). In a November 2016 speech to the country’s writers and artists, Xi urged them to “devote major efforts in propagating traditional culture…. Extract essence and draw energy from the treasure vault of Chinese culture…. [And] not to blaspheme ancestors” (Xinhua, November 30, 2016).
Xi’s analog to the “little red book,” titled Classical Aphorisms by Xi Jinping (习近平用典) was published in 2015. The preface, “Draw Power from Chinese Culture” trumpets Xi as a role model in learning and applying traditional ethics, and calls on the nation to build the present and future with those values in mind. Unusually for a book dedicated to speeches and writings of the Communist Party’s general secretary, the volume contains zero quotes from Marx and Mao. Instead, reading like an emperor’s handbook, it is divided into chapters on various aspects of governance filled with Xi’s favorite classical maxims.
The Traditionalist Restoration
Following this spirit, the Party Central Committee and the State Council released an outline of China’s cultural revival project in January 2017 titled “Opinions on the Implementation of the Development of Outstanding Traditional Chinese Culture” (Xinhua, January 25). Interestingly, Xinhua’s English-language service only published a brief synopsis of this document, perhaps to minimize international attention (Xinhua, January 26).
This is the first time the central leadership became directly involved in traditional culture-related work (Xinhua, February 6). The Party will lead the project with the whole society in participation. Cultural revival will be selective depending on the Party’s vision and will affect all spheres of life including education, arts, architecture, holidays, historic preservation, and even urban planning. Besides counterbalancing perceived cultural xenophilia, the project’s goals include assuring the continuation of traditional culture, raising the public’s cultural awareness, safeguarding cultural security, strengthening China’s soft power, and the modernization of national governance (Xinhua, January 25).
A publicity campaign has also been in place to mobilize public opinion. On February 7, 2017, the People’s Daily published an editorial titled “Salute our Cultural Traditions” where it argues a rising China needs self-confidence predicated upon traditional culture (People’s Daily, February 7). Two weeks later, another article suggests assigning greater value to “traditional culture education” (People’s Daily, February 23). A March 2017 article calls for greater traditional education among the Chinese youth, characterizing it as a “soul-casting project (铸魂工程)” (People’s Daily, March 23).
In June, Shandong Province became the first in China to institute outstanding traditional Chinese culture classes for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum will be based on the Four Books and Five Classics (四书五经) that constitute the core of Confucian learning (China News Online, June 26). Chinese teachers can now get a certificate in traditional culture education. The training program includes ancient philosophy, basic classical Chinese, traditional arts, pedagogical methods, and high-level special subject studies (Sina News, June 13).
Outside of the schoolyard, new television shows are experimenting with ways to popularize traditional culture (China Economic Net, April 12). Symposiums are being held across the nation to discuss local modes of cultural revival (China Finance Online, April 19). People’s Liberation Army servicemen were told to seek courage and devotion from traditional culture and lion-hearted heroes of ancient China (PLA Daily, February 9). Besides business calculations, entrepreneurs are considering methods to promote universal Chinese values via the “One Belt One Road” initiative (Mingcheng News Online, April 16). In distant corners like Xinjiang’s Hutubi County and Wusu City, sworn Marxist cadres have now become eager pupils of Confucian and Legalist treatises (Sina News, May 16; Sina News, May 19). Even prisons are organizing traditional art performances and Confucianism lessons to “awaken” the good conscience of inmates (Red Net, May 19; Xinhua, May 8, 2016). A nationwide revival of traditional values is taking shape.
Why is Xi Fixated on Neotraditionalism?
Xi’s neotraditionalism is not a newly minted part of his public persona. Xi’s habit of using classical allegories and adages in public communication can be traced back to his early years as a county administrator.  While his personal interest in traditional China might have to do with family upbringing—his father Xi Zhongxun was from the conservative northwest—the employment of neotraditionalism in politics benefits Xi and the Party both immediately and in the long run.
Marxism and its various incarnations has lost all appeal with ordinary Chinese. The arcane language and concepts of Marxism were never popular with the public to begin with. Even during the heydays of socialism from 1949 to 1978, people were encouraged to read Mao’s vernacular essays rather than Marx or Lenin’s works. The Chinese additions to Marxism—Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents, and the Scientific Development Concept—although still serving as guiding ideologies to the Party, spark minimal interest with the common people.
The Party’s deep-seated fear of color revolutions (颜色革命) means it needs a robust set of conservative cultural values to offset the attraction of westernization and liberalization (Huffington Post, August 27, 2016). Moreover, according to veteran China watcher Willy Lam, one item among Xi’s unpublicized agenda is to turn the Chinese Communist Party into a “perennial ruling party” (YouTube, July 16, 2015). In order for this to happen, a perennial ideology is a requirement. Since adopting liberalism is not an option, the only recourse is returning to the well-trodden path of traditional China, where emperors and mandarins ruled for centuries based on classical philosophy.
The breakdown of morality (道德) is an issue concerning many Chinese. According to a survey conducted by China Youth Daily, 89.3 percent of respondents believe there is “cultural deficiency” in present-day Chinese society, among which 45.7 percent think the “deficiency” is “very serious” (Guangming Online, March 7). A majority of Chinese feels that there is no moral constrain on the behavior of anyone. Even soft-spoken ex-Premier Wen Jiabao remarked: “the downward spiral of morality has reached a very serious point” (Sina News, April 18, 2011). While this “spiritual vacuum” has multiple origins, the yearning for restoration of traditional virtues is common. Research shows cultural conservatism (文化保守主义) is making a comeback. In response to the question “How would you evaluate the role of traditional Chinese culture in contemporary everyday life,” 28.9 percent of 2,976 survey participants chose “very important,” 47.4 percent “important,” and only 3.5 percent chose “unimportant.”  In an era of materialism and greed, many are searching for spiritual fulfillment (PRI, May 5).
As a conservative and an outspoken critic of decadence, Xi has a personal interest in curing China’s social ills by bringing back time-tested values (Xinhua, January 16, 2014).  Politically, however, Xi’s investment in the “spiritual market” repositioned himself as the defender of traditional China in a kulturkampf against corrosive social vices and foreign cultures—which almost one-in-three (28.9 percent) Chinese believe have “adversely affected traditional Chinese culture” (Guangming Online, March 7). Aligning himself as defender of traditional values fortifies his personality cult with more substance and appeal. This is a calculated move on part of Xi, as it enhances his popularity as a crusader for conservative aspirations, and diverts criticisms against the Party’s disastrous cultural policies in the past that are largely responsible for today’s spiritual crisis.
Xi Jinping’s China is witnessing the unfolding of a cultural revival campaign. Although state-driven cultural revival is a win with the mostly conservative Chinese, the Party-state’s leading position in the campaign means it has all the power to determine what is an “outstanding (优秀)” element of traditional culture. It is therefore very unlikely that China can truly achieve a cultural renaissance based on the principle of “let a hundred schools of thought contend (百家争鸣)”. Yet perhaps this campaign can open up forums for debate about culture in contemporary China—then the possibility is endless. In the coming months, expect more on the cultural front from China’s highest-ranking neotraditionalist.
Zi Yang is a researcher and consultant on China affairs. He covers Chinese politics, security, and emerging markets. Zi holds an M.A. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @MrZiYang.
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