[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
On May 31, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ran a high-profile op-ed article by the China Social Science Academy’s Research Center on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The article is titled: Uphold “The Three Self-Confidences”; Stick To The Chinese Road. It summons the nation to remain confident of the viability of the Chinese way of development, the correctness of Marxism as the guiding principle of social and ideological establishments, and the advantage of socialist institutions. The article boils down to this point: “Western social theories, be they neoliberalism or democratic socialism, are not suitable for China’s specific national conditions, nor do they cater to the basic interests of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation as a whole; therefore, they aren’t wise guidance for today’s China.”
This typical ideological sermon caught attention on Chinese social media. Liberal media outlets such as Southern Review and Caijing magazine reposted the article through their Weibo accounts with no further remarks. In China’s oft-censored blogosphere, this is a standard yet subtle way to display speechlessness and expose absurdity.
For their part, Chinese netizens didn’t hesitate to challenge the People’s Daily’s preaching. For example, a Weibo user with handle @安立志微博 retorted, “Marxism is actually a social theory that originated from the West. How come only this 150-year old theory fits China’s national conditions, and through the vicissitudes of history no other theory could have been applicable to China?”
This article is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of controversial articles recently appearing in People’s Daily. On May 24, the newspaper published an op-ed piece by Liu Dingxin, a major general of the People’s Liberation Army, titled: “Universal Democracy Doesn’t Exist, Capitalist Democracy Is Hypocrisy.” The article essentially accuses Western democracies of being a cover allowing the privileged few of the capitalist class to protect their own economic interests and rule the downtrodden many. At the same time, the article praises socialist democracy as the real democracy with a broader outreach to the people and a basis in public ownership.
It’s worth noting that these articles, taken alone, were only theoretical debates. They were also op-eds, not editorials, meaning they cannot be strictly taken to represent the attitudes of the editors, although their universal tilt toward China’s conservative left is highly suggestive.
But the People’s Daily’s web portal forayed much further into opinionated content when it launched a personal-attack feature entitled The Immoral and Unethical Americans. According to the editor’s note, the Chinese public’s positive impression of Americans is overblown. The new feature aimed to rectify this, inviting contributors to reveal the “other side” of Americans. The first article was a Chinese customer’s complaint about the rude service rendered by a ticket sales agent at United Airlines. The title of the feature, however, immediately undermined the objectivity of its underlying content, drawing fierce criticism from people in all walks of life in China. Due to public backlash, the website quietly renamed the feature something milder: The Americans That You Don’t Know. Before long, it cut its losses and cancelled the feature outright.
The People’s Daily is no ordinary newspaper. It is held out as a trumpet of the ruling Communist party to transmit orders and synchronize political views. The consecutive release of ideologically charged and aggressive articles is a strong signal that the Party is on the defensive.
Although China has survived the global financial crisis with comparatively few scratches, and its economy is still the envy of many countries, a very limited portion of these economic growth dividends rest in ordinary Chinese people’s hands. In addition to inequality, other social problems such as corruption, food safety crises, environmental pollution, and skyrocketing housing prices have become chronic, threatening to wear the people’s patience out.
Chinese intellectuals ascribe these problems to the stagnancy of Chinese political reforms. The expulsion of leftist Bo Xilai from the Party and the inauguration of the new president Xi Jinping have brought reformists a new sense of hope and urgency. A growing number of public figures and influential intellectuals promote Western constitutionalist and democratic institutions, not as one-size-fits all prescriptions, but at least as valuable reference points. Their voices have reverberated in public discourse and are amassing consensus.
However, China’s current social contract is based on absolute obedience to the CCP leadership. The calls for reforms from the grassroots level assume that law should rule over Party mandates, and stress the benefits of a competitive politics that can spur the Party to be more responsible to its constituencies. In the eyes of the CCP, these “westernized” and “liberal” political thoughts pose potential menace to its monopoly on power. In response, the Party has revved up its propaganda machines, including having the People’s Daily, Red Flag Manuscript Magazine, Party Establishment Magazine,and Guangming Daily churn out numerous op-ed articles in high frequency targeting capitalism, constitutionalism, democracy, and the West in general.
Chinese netizens have reacted with sarcasm and scorn to this latest CCP salvo, viewing it as the bud of a new ideological civil war. After all, three decades ago, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping seemingly put the domestic “ism” disputes to rest with a vivid metaphor: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” With a combination of pragmatism and political nuance, Deng cleaved the capitalism tag away from a market economy and adapted the latter to China, enabling the country’s economic boom to this date.
Now, however, the resurrection of the “ism” battles throws a big question mark on the CCP’s fortitude for serious political reforms to address the country’s structural and institutional problems.
All of this rhetorical thrashing about also hurts China from the outside. In the age of the Internet, the CCP’s domestically-oriented preaching can reach anyone on earth with an Internet connection. Yet many of the words in publications like the People’s Daily are at odds with China’s rising international profile. In China’s bid to be a model developing country and responsible power, the Chinese government’s diplomatic discourse emphasizes the common ground between the CCP political values and the global zeitgeist: in President Hu Jintao’s regime, the effort to establish a “harmonious” Chinese society was extended to the ambition to build a harmonious world; in President Xi Jinping’s regime, the “Chinese Dream” was enlarged to a World Dream. China repeatedly asserts its desire to form a multi-polar and democratic new world order, in which developing and underdeveloped countries can participate in setting the global agenda.
Yet China’s domestic political propaganda unequivocally emphasizes the absoluteness of Communist ideology and the CCP’s leadership, as if China is a singularity among humankind. The inconsistency between rhetoric aimed at domestic and at foreign consumption jeopardizes China’s persuasive power abroad. In fact, given the success of China’s development over the past three decades, the CCP has good reason to reaffirm its legitimacy and ask the West to take fresh note. But to engage in more constructive political conversations at home and abroad, the CCP may have to skim the froth of antique revolutionary rhetoric from its propaganda and embrace greater global awareness.