Ideology in Xi’s China: The role of nationalism
Two events were decisive in shaping this direction. The first was the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. The second was Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, which signalled an end to internal jostling over the direction of economic policy
Through the decades of reform and opening up, the impulse of nationalism dominated popular ideological discourse in China. Nationalism and economic performance, then, served as key pillars in shoring up the Party’s legitimacy.
Two events were decisive in shaping this direction. The first was the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989, which threatened the Party’s ruling legitimacy. The second was Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, which signalled an end to internal jostling over the direction of economic policy. Growth at any cost would now become the primary policy driver for the Party. The subsequent patriotic education campaign, of course, had a key role to play in this process too, along with key domestic and international developments.
The unipolar moment and the rise of the new Left
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Party leadership anxiously watched the tumbling of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe and, of course, the Soviet Union itself. The end of the Cold War left the already faint embers of revolution gasping for air. At the same time, the emergence of a unipolar world order with the United States (US) as the sole superpower underscored the need to rebalance foreign policy and the importance of cultivating national power.
At one level, revolutionary ideologues worried about the threat that the US posed to China’s socialist system. These individuals together comprised what came to be described as the New Left. As Joseph Fewsmith explained in a paper written before the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the New Left had “emerged in a very specific moment in history, shortly after the Tiananmen crackdown, when liberal discourse was truncated, when the West and Western values were routinely described as ‘hostile forces.’”
At the heart of the New Left’s critique was the nature of the evolution of China’s economic system and the erosion of socialist values. For these individuals, corruption, inequality and a dilution of the leadership and cadres’ dedication towards revolutionary ideals reflected a deeper malaise within the Party. It is interesting to note that much of the critique of the New Left during the early years of the reform and opening up period also adopted the language of nationalism. They saw policies that promoted privatisation, greater marketisation and diminished the Party’s control over the economy as outcomes of power being usurped by vested interest groups comprising the “foreign comprador class”.
This critique only grew sharper in the first decade of the 2000s. This was particularly the case after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Party’s formal co-option of private entrepreneurs in 2002, and the subsequent push to pass the Property Law of China, which eventually was cleared in 2007.
The rising domestic discontent
What added further fuel to the fire was that the breakneck drive for development, which China’s political economy incentivised, was leading to tremendous negative externalities. China was indeed growing richer, but social and environmental costs of its developmental path were beginning to add up.
For instance, a Pew Survey ahead of the 18th Party Congress found that while 92% of Chinese citizens polled recognised that their standard of living was better than their parents’ at a similar age, and nearly three-in-four backed the free market economy system, there was growing consternation with regard to the distribution of economic gains. The survey found that around 81% of Chinese respondents agreed with the statement that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”. China’s Gini Coefficient had continued to worsen from 2004 onward to hit a peak of 0.491 in 2008. The numbers were worse if one looked at the data for domains like household income and asset ownership of households, signifying deepening inequality.
Another key concern for the people was corruption. Roughly half of the respondents in the Pew Survey found official corruption to be a very big problem, up 11 percentage points from 2008. A 2014 study by Bruce Dicksonlater reported that younger recruits to the Party, while highlighting their motivation to serve the public, were increasingly being driven by career goals and self-interest when compared to older cadres. As Jude Blanchette and Evan Medeiros explain in a recent paper, during Hu Jintao’s reign, “basic responsibilities, such as remitting Party membership dues, attending activities and meetings at one’s local Party organization, and remaining current on the latest ideological developments, began to fade into the background for an increasingly modernized, globalized, and economically self-interested membership.”
These factors fuelled a simmering disquiet — the consequences of which were self-evident. As a 2012 study funded by the European Union noted, so-called “mass incidents” involving public protests across China had ballooned from 8,700 in 1993 to around 180,000 to 230,000 by 2010. A large number of these incidents were related to issues such as land and labour disputes, environmental degradation and livelihood issues, as individuals struggle to keep pace with the excessive financial burden that the modern economy places on them.
As challenges in these domains deepened, not only did these issues acquire greater political salience but so did the critics of the Party’s political direction and economic policies. In addition, the language of discourse around these issues also increasingly began to shift. Bo Xilai’s popularity as he courted neo-Maoists, particularly through the “red culture campaign,” during his tenure as Chongqing Party Secretary was a case in point. In doing so, Bo was not only presenting an alternate economic model but also embracing the legacy of the Party’s revolutionary history, which had been the subject of much criticism since the Dengist reforms began.
Was the US a threat or an opportunity?
On the other hand, for China’s realists, the end of the Cold War led to much debate about potentially greater hostility from the US. The strategic raison-d’etre of the Cold War that had led to the thaw between the two sides from the 1970s had withered away. Tensions with the US were, thus, a given.
For some, particularly after the 1991 Gulf War, the threat from the US was a matter of alarm. For others, American unipolarity was a momentary phenomenon. Instead, the collapse of the Soviet Union had sown the seeds of multipolarity. What was uncertain was whether this multipolarity would lead to friction or cooperation. Amid this, there was also another strand of thought — the kind that saw engagement with the US from an opportunities prism.
These differing viewpoints were reflected in policy discourse and outcomes in the 1990s and subsequently. Yet increasingly, as Yi Xiaoxiong argued in a 1994 paper, the gravity of the China-US relationship was shifting from security to economics. This, however, did not imply that there weren’t grave concerns regarding the challenges that American power posed.
The 1991 Gulf War, the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis and the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade only deepened the sense of urgency when it came to cultivating national power. In addition, the spread of colour revolutions in post-Communist states in Eastern Europe at the turn of the millennium along with what appeared to be Washington’s increasing willingness to back the global spread of liberal democracy with military force under the rubric of the War on Terrorism added to anxieties in Beijing.
A sense of triumph, a sense of siege
Over time, as China’s economic growth picked up pace, the nationalistic impulse was also evident in discourse around China’s rise. In fact, towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, particularly after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, there was greater discourse about a China model. This was accompanied by calls from scholars and policymakers for a more proactive foreign policy that resonated with China’s increasing economic and political clout.
At the same time, at home, as Beijing prepared for the Olympics in 2008, in March that year, violent protests broke out in Tibet. Over the days and weeks that followed, Tibetan communities in other parts of the country and across the world rallied against the Party. The intensity of the movement led the New York Times to characterise it as “the most serious and prolonged demonstrations in Tibet since the late 1980s”. A year later, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The frontiers of the People’s Republic of China were increasingly looking vulnerable.
Within this backdrop came the 2010 Arab Spring, with the potential for ideas about liberty and authoritarianism stoking unrest within China. The Arab Spring, coupled with the tense dynamic in key ethnic minority border regions, engendered a sense of siege. There were, of course, a multitude of factors that led to the series of protests against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. But viewed from the corridors of power in Zhongnanhai, there were three key factors that had ultimately led to these movements:
- a decaying and unresponsive political system that was failing to address people’s concerns;
- the ideological appeal and narrative power of the discourse around Westernised universal values, and
- the potential for new communication and networking technologies to undermine state power.
From the Party’s perspective, responding to challenges in each of these domains was critical to not only nip problems in the bud but also accomplish key developmental goals and expand its legitimacy. Doing so, however, would require a comprehensive approach and reforms that would impinge upon key power bases.
The internal debates
One final point in this regard that is important to note is that throughout the decades of reform and opening, the ideological churn within China was not simply a top-down or Party-engineered phenomenon and neither was it uniform.
The publications of books such as China Can Say No: Political and Emotional Choices in the Post–Cold War Era (1996), Unhappy China: The Great Time, The Grand Vision and Our Challenges (2009), Confident China: Great Thinking on the National Rejuvenation (2015), and The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2015) are few examples of how intellectuals of different stripes drew from the two impulses of nationalism and revolution in their desire to shape policy outcomes. One must also add to this, the vibrancy of discourse among Chinese academics and scholars and on China’s rapidly developing social media and think tank ecosystem, which ranged from the liberal Unirule Institute of Economics, nationalists to leftist platforms like The East is Red, Utopia, and Mao Flag.
Throughout this period, the Party’s key challenge in this regard had been to maintain its hegemony over the direction and intensity of such discourse, its consequent expression and its policy impact. Doing so was seen as fundamental to maintain the Party’s rule and legitimacy and drive policies towards expansion of national power. The Party’s response entailed the deployment of a number of different approaches, ranging from coercion and suppression to co-option.
The crackdown on Left online platforms and intellectuals, along with developing greater sophistication in censorship, are examples of coercion. Hu Jintao’s propagation of the concept of harmonious socialist society, the Three Self-Confidences — ie, confidence in the socialist path, socialist theories — along with his emphasis on core socialist values underscore the co-option approach.
However, elite friction, the desire to sustain high rates of growth, and the penetration of the internet and development of communication technologies resulted in the relative weakening of the Party centre, rendering the maintenance of this hegemony a particularly tricky affair.
Manoj Kewalramani is the chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution, and author of Smokeless Wars: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance
This is the second of a four-part series on China’s past and present; the first two parts are focused on history while the third and fourth will deal with Xi Jinping’s doctrine and its policy implications
The views expressed are personal