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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 14:23 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 14:23 | SYDNEY

China's ideological deficit



25 November 2013 14:12

This is the third part of my interview with Damien Ma and William Adams, co-authors of In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity will Define China's Ascent in the Next Decade.

Part 1 looked at the main theme of their book, scarcity in China, and in part 2 I questioned Ma and Adams on whether China's leaders have the capacity to deal with the huge problems produced by their own success. Below I ask about China's potential ideological deficit.

SR: You argue in the book that, although communism is no longer viable as an official ideology or set of values, China's leaders don't just want to leave the field open for a Western value system to take hold in China. So they're searching for something new, with the latest attempt being Xi Jinping's 'Chinese dream'.

So if China's leaders are so worried about the infiltration of Western values, does that mean that China's official ideology, when it emerges more fully, will be pitched emphatically in opposition to Western values? And do you expect that ideology to claim universal applicability, or will it be seen as exclusively Chinese?

DM: Whatever the new official ideology, it probably won't stand overtly in opposition to Western values a la the Soviet Union. But it will likely be defined as what it is not — that is, not Western — rather than what it is, other than simply being 'Chinese'. Yet how do you boil down the essence of Chinese, besides something that's based largely on ethnic kinship or collective national identity? I don't think anyone really knows, and I'm not sure that China is particularly interested in exporting its ideology or values, if that's what you mean by having universal appeal. 

A contrast with the US might be useful here.

America can claim that it represents the world because it has historically been filled by people from various corners of the earth. (I've always joked that it made perfect sense to have the UN in New York, since at least one representative of the 193 member states likely resides in the city that never sleeps.) And it is a state largely founded not on strong ethnic kinships or class hierarchy but a set of values and ideas that are considered sacrosanct. If you're fully invested in the ideas, values, and institutions that make up the US, then you can be an American. Since anyone from the rest of the world can adopt these ideas and values, then conversely, these things are also compatible with the rest of the world, hence the American self perception of the universalising appeal of its ideas and values. It's almost like open source software; anyone can essentially use it, adapt it to their own needs, as long as they can accept the basic parameters that were baked in. 

The Chinese system, as it stands today, is a lot less compatible in this sense.

Origin matters a great deal in the Chinese worldview and seems to trump a collective set of ideas and values that bind a country like the United States. That is, if you're originally 'Chinese', then you're usually always considered 'Chinese' in their official mindset. This is one reason why there are constant appeals to the Chinese diaspora to return to China to help nation-building. I think there's a sense that Chinese culture and history are so strong and resilient that they inevitably pull all Chinese people together. The emphasis has always been on culture and history rather than a set of institutions and tenets that are collectively adhered to. 

But the point of bringing all this up is that the official, top-down directed ideology in China no longer works well in a diverse and pluralistic Chinese society. If you think of the Chinese government as once the monopolistic supplier of ideas and arbiter of public values, that monopoly has been significantly eroded, with nothing to replace it other than the cacophony of a restless Chinese public, many of whom are searching for values and ideas that can anchor decades of dizzying social changes. In fact, I recently had a very similar conversation in Beijing in which I was even more convinced that this is going to be a central issue for Chinese politics. Many Chinese seem to resent the fact that the 'Chinese Dream' has once again become a more top-down effort rather than a bottom-up one in which each individual can customise it to their own version of what that dream might entail. 

To us, that's essentially the ideological and values scarcity problem in a nutshell. 

WA: I'm not sure what China's national ideology or national identity will be in ten years, but I am very confident that the question will matter more to the average Chinese college student then than it does today.

For most of the years since the beginning of economic reforms in the late 1970s, China's politics were so focused on growing the economy and its people so focused on making money, and so traumatized by the Cultural Revolution, that ideas could basically be ignored. But today, so many middle class Chinese people having already achieved, to a greater or lesser extent, the lifestyle they aspire to — job, home, family, car, education for their children — that big picture questions are becoming more salient. This is especially true for younger Chinese people who came of age in the 1990s or later, and who have no memory of the less prosperous, less stable times that came before.

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