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China’s New Cultural Revolution

The 6th plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee (CC) of the Chine Communist Party (CCP) (Beijing, October 15-17) revealed its cultural development guidelines for the next 10 years, that is, through 2020.  This was not a surprise.  The politburo of the party, the highest political body, had already declared on September 25 that the document will be promulgated at the plenum.

The issue of “socialist spiritual culture” or “socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” is not a sudden decision.  Chinese culture developing as a “soft power” instrument has been discussed for the last few years.  One decision was to set up Confucius institutes abroad to teach Chinese language and with that some aspects of Chinese culture.  The US has the largest concentration of Confucius institutes because American culture has made serious inroads in the country and the US is targeted as the main challenge to China.

The plenum document read out by Party General Secretary Hu Juntao, who is also the President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), described culture as the backbone of “social stability and economic development”, which would also boost the construction of “socialist core value system” and develop the country’s soft power.

The issue of culture has historically found a place of pride in Chinese statecraft though, more often than not, it has been desecrated by politicians down the ages.  Confucius laid down virtue and ethics as platform for the ruler down to officials.  He advocated the state to be run as a family where the patriarch ran the family with equality for all, and he was responsible for devising rules and regulations.  But the last word was his.

After coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist led party by Mao Zedong tried to sinicize Marxism, moved away from the Soviet model and attempted create its own.  But Confucius and Mao were two different personalities.  One was a sage advocating peace, stability and tranquillity.  Mao became a revolutionary dictator and an iconoclast.  Mao was not a student of Confucius.  He saw Confucianism as feudal pernicious influence, and condemned him and his philosophy.  Mao’s ideal was Emperor Qin Shi Wang Di, who buried intellectuals alive as he felt threatened by them.  He followed a similar line from 1957 onwards.

Mao Zedong used culture as the spearhead of his devastating Great People’s Cultural Revolution (GPCR-1966 to 1976) which set the country back by decades.  Culture was at the heart of this anarchic political government.  But it was not Chinese culture it was Mao’s formulation of ultra-leftist culture that was alien to any civilized culture.  It was not the soft power that the present Chinese leadership is trying to promote.

Expert comment in the various Chinese official and party controlled media and theoretical journals tries to give an insight into what the new cultural rejuvenation aims at.  But things are not that clear.  One banner headline in this propaganda or explanation of plenum document is that out of the four ancient cultures only the Chinese culture is alive.  The other three have dissipated, and that this was one of the virtues and powers of Chinese culture.

The plenum document did not specifically define targets and areas.  But what it disclosed, when read with developments in the country and in the international arena, are  the severe challenges facing party and the country. Internally influenced with international developments, and foreign ideology (mode of life/culture/politics) seeping into the country, the official news agency Xinhua (Oct. 22) observed “modern Chinese are under the pervasive influence of western culture”. To build the nation, it urged building a sense of national identity and confidence in the nation’s culture.

This is one of the many comments on the plenum’s document that reflects a nervous unease among the leadership.  There is an urge to create an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism, but there is also an apprehension that ultra-nationalism can be a double edged sword which can also turn against  the party and the government if  promises are not delivered.

Even the Chinese official political/ideological and propaganda departments have contradicting views in interpreting the plenum document.  The Liaowang Weekly (October 24), an organ of the party wrote “the Chinese Communist Party, if it wants to govern and govern well for a long time to come and lead the Chinese nation in realizing the great rejuvenation, it must highlight its own cultural ideology, hold high its own cultural banner, establish its own cultural image and then effectively assume historical responsibility to promote cultural prosperity in the country”.

This is a strong warning to the top leaders that if they do not control and use culture to create a political road map strong enough to curb the western influence, the party will collapse.    Very interestingly, a comment on the plenum in the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, alleged that the ‘core’ of the party was not strong enough.  What they demand is that no room be given to the liberals and pro-democratic elements in the party and the country, and even any articulation on politics and ideology must be in line with that of the party centre.  Even more, dissident voices and opinions even in the very upper echelon of the party must not be allowed, and ‘control’ must be the key word.

On the other  hand, the Xinhua comment “not all things associated with feudal times should be abandoned.  Chinese must first build their cultural tend historical identity before they can make themselves more respected  in the world and united in case of a crisis”. Peng Lin, a history professor at Tsinhua University observed that the Chinese civilization had endured for thousands of years largely thanks to the moral system established by ancient Chinese sages that regulated how people behaved and interacted with others.

These two views are not individual voices of the authors but that of factions at the top rung of the leadership who differ on the path that the party and the country should adopt under the challenging circumstances.  Premier Wen Jiabao pushed the line that without political reform economic development would stagnate and even roll back.  His views were initially censored by the official Chinese media, but gradually they gained space suggesting there were a growing number of people in the Central Committee and the politburo who saw sense in his views.  But political reform is still in the minority because the Chinese traditionally are nervous about any major change.  But these two views are clearly emerging to contest.

The party perceives rising internal challenges to its hold over the country.  In a one-party dictatorial system there is no room for voting out one political party and bring in another.  The entire party is one in the view that if the CCP collapses there will be chaos, and the country will disintegrate.

This may not be completely untrue, because there is no system to step in.  The minority regions  like Tibet and Xinjiang are getting increasingly restive.   It is the party which is holding these two regions by force.  In a chaotic situation, Taiwan will be the first to declare independence.

It may not also be correct to say that the dissidents want a multi-party government.  The Chinese leaders mistakenly think that disaffection with the party means a demand for such a system.  The demand is for a Confucius system but more developed “scientifically” as the party says where the government is clean, transparent and allow the subjects to air their views and grievances.  A multiparty system is still alien to the Chinese people.  As one of the leaders of the 1911 democratic revolution, Lao Tse, said after a tour of the west, that the western system is very nice but imposing that on China will be like wearing a beautiful mink coat in summer.

The  talk of making Chinese films, writing Chinese books, or producing Chinese performing and creative works to counter western cultural products is futile.  As some Chinese experts have recently said art and culture can grow only with the freedom of mind which the party is not willing to allow.  The free western thought in the cultural and political fields will continue to invade China.

Internally, however, the challenge to the party and the government is serious.  While   the  leadership  is  trying  to  curtail  corruption  and  periodically senior officials are convicted and jailed, the roots of corruption is in the party and the government.  There is a chain of nexus between party cadres, government, banks and private sector which exploit the people especially in grabbing land forcefully.  Ugly incidents have taken place.  The economy is not as radiant as it looks from statistical figures.  Smaller private enterprises are beginning to collapse as the Wenzhou experience shows, and this is spreading.  With the global economic downturn, exports have fallen through the last three quarters.  The Chinese economy is basically an export based economy with foreign investments.  As labour wages rise in China, foreign manufacturing companies are beginning to move to lower labour wage countries like Vietnam and Cambodia.  But the most important challenge is from the growing number of Chinese people, both young and old, who see the party as succubus demon breathing down fire.

The Jasmine Revolution or Arab spring overturning dictatorial regimes in Africa have rattled the party.  Efforts were made to block such news from coming in, but the world wide web has a way to go through barriers.  Equally alarming for the party is criticism on the micro-blog for supporting dictators.  One cartoon depicted a dying Gaddafi asking to be treated in Beijing’s 301 hospital, a facility reserved for top Chinese leaders.  Well known Chinese experts who had earlier blindly parroted and supported China’s territorial claims have raised questions on the validity Beijing’s claims of the South China Sea and its islands.  They have also been critical of China’s unmitigated support to North Korea’s military provocation of South Korea and Japan.

Although not mentioned in the plenum document, there are indications that the internet and the official media as well as the fringe press will be constricted severely.  How for the authorities will succeed in the face of nearly two hundred thousand protest demonstrations a year some of which were not peaceful, and the determination of the internet warriors, is yet to be seen.  But the party is sitting on a growing volcano unless it can modernize itself in line with global trends.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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