Ideological forces and divisions growing across China

Taisu Zhang writes: From the early 1980s to the 2000s, democracy, the rule of law, and free market reform were the political lingua franca not merely of most Chinese intellectuals, but also of most business leaders, and even some officials, who paid at least regular lip service — and probably more than that — to these aspirational ideals. During this period, Chinese elites appeared to share the consensus that China should, in a word, Westernize. To a large extent, both the New Left and neo-Confucianism were intellectual backlashes against this consensus, driven partly by perceived incompatibilities between Western thought and Chinese socioeconomic and political realities; partly by frustration at (perceived) Western hostility and ideological discrimination towards China; and partly by the nationalist urges that came naturally with economic takeoff.

More recently, these movements have shown signs of convergence. Neo-Confucianism appears to be latching on to New Leftism, and not without reciprocity from the leftist camp. Several prominent scholars, particularly Sun Yat-sen University’s Gan Yang, now self-identify as both leftist and Confucian. The linchpin of that joint-identity is the strong nationalism shared by both ideological camps, which allows these scholars to argue that resources from “traditional culture” should play a prominent role in the crusade against Western liberalism — if not as a necessary component of national identity, then at least as an ideological alternative to Western intellectual hegemony.

Recent statistical studies suggest that these trends go well beyond the sheltered confines of China’s top universities and halls of power. An oft-quoted 2015 paper by Harvard and MIT researchers, for example, found that Chinese Internet users have largely coalesced around two poles: a “Leftist-Confucian” pole that advocates an expansive socialist state, limited civil rights, aggressive foreign policy, and some rehabilitation of traditional culture; and a “Western liberal” — or “rightist,” if one prefers that term — pole that supports free market principles, constitutional democracy, civil rights, international cooperation, and some hostility towards traditional culture. The high levels of homogeneity within these camps suggest, moreover, that ideological awareness and commitment is already quite deep, and deepening, across the board.

Liberal-leftist conflicts now seem to color and shape the online population’s consumption of almost any popular news item, ranging from major geopolitical issues–such as China’s newly assertive foreign policy in the South China Sea — to minor public scandals, such as a recent administrative conflict at Sun Yat-sen University, in which a junior faculty member accused Gan Yang of blocking his promotion path, and physically assaulted him.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for why these nationalist movements gained force. Some might argue that they simply took advantage of China’s growing social and economic problems over the past decade, in particular skyrocketing inequality. A more sympathetic take might be that they actually offer potential solutions to some of these problems – by promoting, for example, a group-oriented social morality that helps alleviate the urban economy’s apparent lack of social trust. Others might argue that they represent the kind of intellectual self-reflection and anxiety that comes naturally after societies reach a basic level of economic prosperity, and are therefore a kind of middle income nationalism.

Whatever its causes, the current ideological landscape likely has serious consequences for Chinese policymaking: ideological resurgence dramatically alters the social and political landscape in which the party-state operates. The sources of legitimacy are very different in a pragmatically materialist society than in an ideologically charged and polarized one. Whereas robust economic growth was the key to popular support in the former, it is probably insufficient, and perhaps not even necessary, in the latter. At the moment, it’s profoundly uncertain which side — liberals, leftists, or cultural conservatives — will eventually gain the upper hand in these ideological wars. If one side does emerge on top, the government may find itself forced, or at least strongly incentivized, to seek sociopolitical legitimacy via redistributionist policies, civil rights reform, or perhaps a full-scale swing towards some reconstructed notion of traditional cultural values. This could be either a curse or a blessing: it might force the party-state into uncomfortable ideological positions, but it could also provide alternative sources of social support in times of economic or geopolitical turmoil. [Continue reading…]

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