The Battlefield of Ideology

JOYCELYN SU evaluates the Chinese Communist Party’s recent efforts to strengthen nationalism.

This summer, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress passed the sweeping National Security Law. The scope of the new legislation is broad, addressing not only traditional security concerns but also including threats to “cultural security.” According to the new law, the country must defend against malignant culture by “deepening the education of socialist ideology and increasing propaganda efforts.” Passage of the new national security law contributes to a broader ideological campaign President Xi Jinping launched upon taking office in 2012 and also raises questions among American government officials, business leaders, and China scholars about rising anti-Western sentiments in China.

Xi Jinping’s concern with the nation’s ideological climate first attracted Western media’s attention when an internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document, commonly known as Document 9, was leaked to the public in April 2013. In it, the Party identifies seven problematic ideological trends and activities that warrant greater attention, including advocating for Western democracy, rule of law, civil society, and freedom of press. The document urged Party members to be vigilant in identifying these threats and to maintain full control over the direction of China’s ideological development.

While control of ideology is not necessarily new to the Chinese public, warnings against Western values have certainly surged under Xi Jinping. At an education conference in March 2011 before Xi took power, Education Minister Yuan Guiren dismissed any concerns with importing Western education materials. He argued that since Chinese abroad are not influenced in capitalist countries, they therefore would be influenced by Western ideals in their homeland. Shortly after his statement, however, the Party and the State Council issued a joint document urging universities to strengthen propaganda thought work. Minister Yuan shifted his attitude in response to the new document and warned against allowing education materials that propagate Western ideology into Chinese classrooms.

In this past year alone, Chinese civil society, identified in Document 9 as a problematic ideological trend, has endured harsh crackdowns. The detainment of five women’s rights activists in March, the interrogation of dozens of human rights lawyers this summer, and the arrests of Chinese Christians who refused to take down church crosses have all drawn condemnation from international watchdogs. The 2015 Human Rights Watch report on China noted the ideological campaign, stating that the authorities have cracked down on civil society “with a ferocity unseen in recent years.” Tim Cheek, a historian on Chinese intellectual life, in an interview with The Guardian, noted that in Chinese academia, liberal scholars are “going into campaign mode, which is to keep your head down, keep out of the way, don’t let stuff get into writing.”

These concerning developments contrast starkly with the government’s official rhetoric. Two weeks prior to the passage of the new national security law, at this year’s annual China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange in Washington, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong encouraged more American students to study abroad in China. Chinese state media lauded cultural ties that bind the United States and China and hoped “the tree of people-to-people exchanges between our two countries will grow bigger and bear even larger fruits.” People-to-people exchanges certainly serve as a more effective instrument to influence ideology than education materials. Beijing’s continued call for greater people-to-people exchange at a time of tightening ideological control mirrors its inconsistent attitude toward American and a greater Western influence.

The ideological campaign, however, is not aimed to be an anti-Western effort but a defensive measure to help the Party maintain political stability. Buttressed by its promise of economic welfare, the CCP is increasingly at risk for losing its legitimacy as China’s economy undergoes tumultuous times. The influence of foreign ideas—or any idea that seeks to change the society’s status quo—is a potent political threat at a time when the population is restless and discontent. Thus, controlling the direction of Chinese ideological development helps the Party identify early signs of cracks in the system. In a speech that Xi Jinping gave on his trip to the southern China in 2013, he asked, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken.” Given this understanding of the Soviet dissolution, Xi has made great efforts in correcting the nation’s ideological climate to avoid becoming China’s Gorbachev.

On the offensive front in the battle of ideology, Xi Jinping engenders nationalism and cultural identity among the people as a mechanism to garner greater political support. Instead of simply aligning Chinese ideology with Marxist-Leninist thought, Xi uses national pride as a counterforce strategy to counter the influence of foreign ideology. It is evident in Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the idea of the “Chinese Dream” since he rose to power in 2012, a term that has spread like wildfire over Party documents. It refers to prosperity and improvement in people’s livelihood but places greater emphasis on national rejuvenation. This rhetoric has both been successful in contributing to the rising nationalist sentiments within China and helping Xi gain popularity among the Chinese people. A 2014 Harvard polling report reflects the effectiveness of this strategy: Chinese respondents rated Xi Jinping a nine out of ten on his performance, more favorable than the rating other domestic constituents gave their heads of states.

By elucidating what needs to be protected, the National Security Law is yet another step to define state sovereignty and strengthen nationalism at home. It is not surprising, then, to find Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream, “realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” embedded in the first clause as one of the many goals of the new legislation.

Joycelyn Su is the Deputy Director of Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at su.joycelyn@gmail.com.

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