After much expectation from Chinese observers, the sixth plenum of the 19th Party Congress was held in Beijing in the second week of November. During the plenum, the CPC adopted the resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the main achievements and historical experience of the Party in the past century. One of the most important changes in the resolution is that it elevates the importance of Chinese culture and values.
The resolution goes beyond the conventional rhetoric of “socialism with Chinese characteristics like the adoption and practice of Marxism in China” and places Chinese culture at the forefront and center of Chinese socialism. It praises Chinese culture as a significant advantage of Chinese nationality and calls for its continuation and development. The resolution further states that Xi Jinping’s Thinking of Chinese-Style Socialism for a New Era combines traditional Chinese cultures with Marxist principles. Thus, Xi Jinping’s thought “embodies the best of Chinese culture and ethics in our time and represents a new step forward in the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context”.
Combining traditional Chinese culture with Marxism is nothing new in China. As early as 1988, Wang Huning argued that social “software” such as values, feelings, psychology, and attitudes can shape political fate as much as “material” factors such as institutions, systems, power, and norms. . Wang concluded that political cultures based on Western liberal ideals and Marxist doctrines have failed to take root in China. Thus, he proposes to build a lasting Chinese political culture by mixing traditional Chinese culture and modern minds. In 2011, the debate over neo-Confucianism resulted in the rise and fall of a statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square. Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese political scientist residing in Singapore, has become extremely popular in China by describing the current Chinese political system as neo-Confucianism. The concept of “harmonious society”, Hu Jintao’s flagship political heritage, also derives from various Confucian concepts.
The additional emphasis on Chinese culture in the resolution serves two purposes: to solve the challenge of China’s governance and to resist Western values.
One challenge that the CCP has faced continuously since 1978 is how to move from a revolutionary party to a ruling party. The main objective of the CCP as a revolutionary party was to mobilize the mass population and destroy the old system. However, the CCP leaders soon realized that the revolutionary spirit could not provide incentives for economic growth and accomplish the task of building a socialist society. As the ruling party, the role of the CCP is not to break the existing political and social order but to improve it. Therefore, the party is in a continuous quest to improve its governance capacity. The Third Plenum of the 19th Party Congress in 2019 adopted a resolution on modernizing the governance system and improving governance capacity, which elevated this transition to the rank of the CPC’s most vital goals.
However, the CCP realizes that it cannot learn much from classical Communist doctrines. Karl Marx painted a rosy picture of a communist world and called on the proletariat to break its chains and topple oppressive capitalist society. Vladimir Lenin provided a roadmap for this communist world: a descending, hierarchical and centralized political party of the proletariat should lead the revolution and seize political power. However, neither of these ideas provides a complete guideline on how to govern a state after the revolution. The Soviet Union was not a success, and the CCP did indeed carefully study its collapse. So, it makes sense for the CCP to investigate China’s own history and study the wisdom of the Chinese imperial governance system, which has lasted for over 2,000 years.
The traditional Chinese political system emphasizes a strong state approach to providing social goods and meeting the needs of the people. It can serve as a basis for meeting the challenge of governance in China. By placing Chinese culture at the center of Chinese socialism, the CCP attempts to combine socialist principles with the traditional Chinese political system to synthesize a new basis of political stability and effective governance.
The CCP also wants to use traditional Chinese moral values to combat the spread of liberalism and individualism, which are labeled as corrupt Western ideologies. The CCP views individualism as a danger to society. Wang Huning, now the ideological czar of the CCP, pointed out the danger of individualism as a force dividing and eroding American society in his first book “America against America”. In the book, Wang detailed homelessness, drug issues, and racial conflict. Thus, he concluded that the United States was in great difficulty because of the social divides between whites and minorities, rich and poor, and equality and privilege. He attributed these problems to liberalism and individualism, which commodify all things in society. As a result, Wang concluded that “commodification in many ways corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.”
In addition, the CCP views Western liberalism as a source of political instability. The party saw the spread of Western liberalism as one of the root causes of the student protest movement of 1989. It also saw the spread of liberalism around the world as the reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the color revolutions. that followed and the Arab Spring. Watching these events unfold and the disappearance of authoritarian regimes around the world with fearful eyes, the CCP believes that the United States is using liberalism as an ideological weapon to wreak havoc and overthrow other regimes. China, the CCP concludes, is the next target. Thus, the infiltration of liberalism in China is seen as a secret American operation aimed at promoting “peaceful development” and overthrowing the socialist regime.
Faced with the danger of these Western ideas, the CCP wants to use traditional Chinese culture as a shield to prevent the intrusion of liberalism and individualism. Appealing to traditional conservative values has been a common practice to combat the influence of Western ideas around the world. In Russia, Putin defends traditional Russian Orthodox values, such as opposing homosexuality and supporting the traditional family structure. By presenting himself as the defender of traditional Russian values, Putin rejects Western liberalism as “degradation and primitivism” which leads to “a moral crisis in the West”. Iran’s supreme ruler also uses traditional Islamic culture to combat Western ideas, which are seen as a source of social corruption that endangers the Islamic revolution.
Confucianism strictly regulates relations between the state and individuals and between individuals themselves through the Three Fundamental Links between ruler and subject, parent and offspring, and husband and wife. The three fundamental links underline the importance of maintaining the social hierarchy and the protection of an authoritarian regime. Confucianism also established model behaviors through the five constant virtues: benevolence (ren ), justice (Yes ), property (I am ), wisdom (zhi 智), and reliability (xin ). Thus, Confucianism sets limits for individual behavior; all individuals are expected to fulfill their role in society. People who fail to meet these social obligations are labeled as outliers and under enormous social pressure. The pressure to integrate creates a strong collectivist value, which can constitute a natural barrier to individualism.
However, the emphasis on traditional Chinese culture will exacerbate the fundamental problem of the Chinese political system. Joseph Fewsmith identifies a main challenge for the Chinese government: the tension between the unitary political leadership of the CCP and the increasingly diverse society in China. Economic development causes the rise of different interests in different social groups, which leads to a pluralized society. However, traditional Chinese culture does not address this problem. Rather than adapting to diversity, it reinforces a unitary system of moral values and forces everyone to conform to it. Thus, it reduces political inclusiveness and decreases the government’s ability to respond to growing popular demands. Promoting and even forcing a single moral belief will inevitably alienate a significant part of society.
Moreover, the rise of individualism and liberalism is a natural result of economic growth. Growing socio-economic development, including higher incomes, more education, urbanization, and a transition to white-collar jobs, has led to a global increase in individualism since 1960. Blame only Western infiltration ignores this global trend. Individualism and liberalism can also be important sources of creative destruction, leading to intensive growth. Removing and stigmatizing them could stifle innovation and economic development.