Sunday, March 06, 2016

A revival of competing beliefs has polarized Chinese society

[the full article requires free registration]

"Chinese society is apparently rediscovering, or at least re-prioritizing, its moral and ideological cravings. Over the past several years, ideological forces and divisions have moved back to the center of Chinese political and social life, and ideological tensions among Chinese elite are now arguably higher than at any point since the immediate aftermath of the 1989 protests. The image of a “post-ideological” China has become increasingly outdated.

In China today, the signs of an ideological revival are everywhere. Most visibly, a number of icons, long thought dead, have made prominent and in some cases highly successful resurrections in national political rhetoric.

 In fact, one could just as plausibly argue that the party has played a reactive role, rather than a proactive one: its ideological campaigns to revive figures such as Mao and Confucius reflect intellectual and cultural currents that have rapidly gained force among highly educated Chinese over the past five to seven years. 

The two most significant Chinese intellectual developments since the late 1990s are probably the rise of a powerful “New Left” and the reemergence of a disorganized but increasingly influential neo-Confucian movement. The New Left combines nationalist sentiments — as a January 2010 editorial in the Global Times declared, “we do not want to become a Western intellectual colony” — and widespread dissatisfaction with economic inequality into a potent call for a “reconstruction of socialism,” one that would both reinstate many of the planned economy policies of the 1980s, and further strengthen ideological control over the Internet and media.

Neo-Confucian figures, on the other hand, generally support both the revival of Confucian ethics such as filial piety and the reinstatement of certain traditional political institutions, particularly the civil service examinations.

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.

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...

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. 

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