Blog

A space for thoughts, ideas, questions, and hopefully the occasional answer.

What are we talking about when we talk about ideology in China?

Stein Ringen, author of the forthcoming book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, published a recent op-ed in the South China Morning Post arguing that Xi Jinping is "reverting to ideology." He writes:

Ideology is a dangerous force. Political leaders make their own ideologies, but then, when they take hold, become the prisoners of their own creation. Ideologies become belief systems and make people, both leaders and the led, believers. The destructive force of ideology has been seen in Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism. When powerful leaders turn to ideology, there is always danger and others must pay attention.

Xi's emphasis on national greatness and Chinese tradition and history is, according to Ringen, "the stuff of ideology."

I've seen similar arguments, and I've found them all a bit confusing for the following reason: ideology isn't just something nationalists or authoritarians or socialists do. Liberalism is ideology. So too is pacifism. If you've read your Ayn Rand, you know that capitalism is also an ideology. 

Frankly, I think the good old dictionary definition helps clear up a lot of this confusion:

i·de·ol·o·gy ˌīdēˈäləjē,ˌidēˈäləjē/ noun noun: ideology; plural noun: ideologies  

1.  a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

But for a moment let's pretend that "ideology" only means the bad stuff -- fear of outside ideas, belief that the best power is centralized power, etc. Even if we take this as our operating definition, I still think it's hard to argue that Xi is doing something totally unknown in the post-Mao era. Put another way, if you think that Deng Xiaoping didn't believe in "ideology," then I think you're drastically misreading China's recent past. Although Deng told the CCP and China's intellectuals to stop all this talk is "isms", what he really meant was "stop all of this talk of other 'isms' that aren't the new official ideology: developmentalism (发展主义). The program of "reform and opening" was not some ideologically-neutral cookbook from which Deng plucked a pragmatically-chosen recipe for wealth accumulation. Rather, it was a highly ideological program that attempted graft economic reforms onto a highly centralized political system. It was also ruthless towards alternative ideological narratives that stood in its way.

Read through the speeches of Deng during the 1980s and early 90s (his Collected Works stop at 1992) and you see a leader incredibly concerned with ideology and ideological deviation. This was not only a concern with what he called "Left mistakes" but also ideological confusion coming from the Right as well. Consider a speech Deng gave in 1983 where he said that "workers fighting on the ideological front should serve as 'engineers of the soul'" and that while most of these workers are toeing the line, others are promoting "mental pollution" which is "the spread of the corrupt and decadent ideas of the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes and the spread of distrust of socialism, communism and leadership by the Communist Party." 

In 1987, Deng warned that "Certain individuals [on the Right], pretending to support the reform and the open policy, call for wholesale Westernization of China in an attempt to lead the country towards capitalism. These people don’t really support our policies; they are only trying vainly to change the nature of our society. If China were totally Westernized and went capitalist, it would be absolutely impossible for us to modernize."

Sound familiar? If you're still not convinced, Google "Campaign to Eliminate Spiritual Pollution."

But returning to my original point, ideology is not just for the bad guys. Heck, I have an ideology. I bet you do too. The question is which ideology and at what intensity. While the post-Mao era certainly saw a de-amplification of official ideology, it's not as if it disappeared. Can we really say that Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" was not ideological? This would be news to neo-Maoist organizations such as Utopia, many of whom were founded in and around 2003 after they felt that the CCP had lurched too far in the neo-liberal direction. After seeing a massive SOE restructuring beginning in the late 1990s, entrance into the WTO in 2001, and then opening of the CCP to capitalists in 2003, many of them said enough is enough.

So I think it's incorrect to say that Xi Jinping has suddenly "reverted" to ideology as if the past three decades in China have been devoid of it. Ideology was always there, just as it's there in just about every other country.  The real issue is, as I mentioned above, the intensity, which is clearly increasing in its importance to political and economic decision making. Perhaps we can say that if it was turned up to 6 or 7 during the Hu-Wen era, it's now up to 11. I think that we stopped noticing certain types of ideology as we became preoccupied with the country's economic rise and its integration into the global trading system. When someone starts agreeing with you, you stop calling them ideological and start calling them pragmatic.