Unraveling China’s Campaign Against Western Values

A recent flurry of translations at Fei Chang Dao tracks the development of China’s current campaign against “Western values” in education, from accusations last summer of infiltration at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, through its spread to universities in the fall, to the controversy over statements by education minister Yuan Guiren in January. Following the attack on his own institution, CASS dean and Party secretary Wang Weiguang summed up the underlying fear in the Party journal Seeking Truth. From Fei Chang Dao:

Certain countries in the West advertise their own values as “universal values,” and claim that their interpretations of freedom, , and human rights are the standard by which all others must be measured. They spare no expense when it comes to hawking their goods and peddling their wares to every corner of the planet, and stir up “color revolutions” both before and behind the curtain. Their goal is to infiltrate, break down, and overthrow other regimes. At home and abroad certain enemy forces make use of the term “universal values” to smear the Chinese Communist Party, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and China’s mainstream ideology. They scheme to use Western value systems to change China, with the goal of letting Chinese people renounce the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics, and allow China to once again become a colony of some developed capitalist country. [Source]

Criticism of minister Yuan’s calls for ideological control in university teaching has crystalized around three questions posed by Shen Kui, former vice dean of Peking University Law School: how to distinguish Western from Chinese values and attacks on the Party from legitimate criticism, and what legal and constitutional basis exists for the measures Yuan proposed. In a blog post at Caijing, later deleted, property mogul Ren Zhiqiang echoed the first of these, adding: “If our own value systems are superior to Western value systems, if China wishes to see the world accept China’s value system, then why can’t the two value systems be allowed to openly compete on the same platform? Why is it necessary to fear Western value systems?” The three questions also formed the apparent basis of a freedom of information application to the Ministry of Education by nine lawyers, reiterating the suggestion that Yuan’s proposals were unconstitutional.

In response, search engines blocked terms related to Shen’s inquiry, while a pair of commentaries on the Communist Youth League’s website accused him of “harboring evil intentions.” Editorials in the People’s Daily, Guangming Daily, and the China Education Daily, and on Xinhua’s website, propounded some of Yuan’s key points:

  • Do not restrict what can be researched, but impose discipline on what is said in classrooms.
  • Increase control over [university] radio, television, billboards, the Internet, public lectures, research seminars, lectures, forums, and the activities of organizations.
  • Establish systems so that every meeting and event gets reported.
  • Under no circumstances provide any room for the dissemination of any erroneous Western viewpoints or inappropriate speech that is anti-Marxist or anti-socialist. [Source]

A propaganda directive subsequently published by CDT ordered media to amplify the voices of Yuan and his defender, CASS scholar Zhu Jidong, and stifle those of their critics. At the Communist Youth League and , blogger Wang Dehua issued retorts to the nine lawyers and to Ren Zhiqiang, asking “if you are not doing anything illegal, then why are you afraid of the gun and the knife?”

Another Communist Youth League commentary highlighted alleged ideological “orientation problems” at web portal NetEase, which had hosted online lessons from foreign : “Its like some kind zombie virus you see in American movies, its not enough that they themselves are infected, they must bite everyone they see, with the end goal being to plunge China into chaos. […] Under no circumstances allow some bizarre genetic mutation whereby we become transformed into zombies spreading the virus of Western value systems.”

This week, the Associated Press’s Christopher Bodeen reported analysts’ views on the campaign against Western values, highlighting a recent declaration in the state-run Global Times that “no matter how beautiful they appear on the surface, they are in fact a ticket to hell, and can only bring disaster to the Chinese nation.”

Such pronouncements are clearly being dictated from the highest party echelons, said Li Datong, a political commentator who has been removed from a senior editing job for broaching sensitive subjects.

“These people talking so harshly now were only recently espousing greater openness, not less. Clearly things have changed,” Li said.

[…] Observers see the more combative language as an outgrowth of Xi’s calls for stronger party control and a more vigorous role for China on the world stage.

“I do think this is very much an initiative that approved, if not started,” said Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

[…] Tsang said that approach underscores Xi’s confidence in the political model he’s adopted, but also betrays his nervousness about the party’s ability to retain power. The Hong Kong protests were especially nerve-rattling because they showed the influence of Western thinking over public attitudes in the former British colony, which enjoys its own legal system and other freedoms.

“Hence the current warning against ,” Tsang said. [Source]

The anxiety appears closely linked to Party officials’ dread of echoing the collapse of the Soviet Union, which The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer describes as one of two great historical traumas—along with China’s own Cultural Revolution—shaping Xi Jinping’s presidency.

In this and in the growing ideological controls on sectors ranging from the news media to the military, Xi is resisting forces that he thinks brought the Soviet regime to its knees. Paradoxically, though, he also has seen the dangers of international isolation and an inward focus, factors that helped weaken Mao’s China and the Soviet Union. That paradox, between “reform and opening” on the one hand and excluding Western values on the other, has created an unresolved tension in his presidency.

Cheng Enfu, the director of the Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, predicted that the president’s efforts to combat this “infiltration” of Western values could become as intense as his anti-corruption campaign.

[…] The problem, Harvard’s MacFarquhar says, is that Xi has no coherent or convincing new ideology to offer.

“He has got no positive weapon against the Western infiltration of ideas, so he has to be negative about it,” he said. “It’s a tremendous contradiction he faces, to keep Western ideas out while building a creative, technological and developed society.” [Source]

Xi has tried to fill the gap with appeals to Mao’s lingering authority and, incongruously, to that of classical Chinese philosophers such as Confucius. At Caixin, Nailene Chou Wiest wrote last week that Western values are a contentious subject in this arena, too:

Some “Red Confucians” envision the dawn of a new era, repeating the momentous act of the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who decreed the state ideology, shaping political and social institutions for the following two millennia. […]

But Confucian intellectuals outside the mainland look at the state patronage askance. Yu Yinshi, professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Princeton, calls it a “kiss of death” because co-opted intellectuals will lose their independence and censor themselves to please their patrons. He contends that in Chinese history, Confucians touched by politics became either the persecutor or the persecuted. In the same vein, Li Minghui, a professor of moral philosophy from Taiwan, scorns the flaky quasi-religious, hierarchical Confucian utopia proposed by “self-styled” Red Confucians. He argues that a free democratic political institution is the best way to ensure the flourishing of Confucian values in culture, ethics and philosophy.

The mainland team fights back, asserting that Confucianism is not just a philosophy of personal cultivation but a holistic vision on political and social realms. The emphasis on statecraft and on the tradition of Confucius as an institutional reformer is all the more necessary in the new millennia for a rising China. They accuse intellectuals outside the mainland of unfairly picking out the “outlier” among their ranks for ridicule. Worse, overseas Confucians seek to legitimize Confucianism in Western terms by finding common elements in European philosophy to aid their cheerleading for liberal democracy. The mission for mainland intellectuals is to break free from the Western discourse and establish their own paradigm of inquiry as part of China’s war on Western values. [Source]

As for the recipients of the contested teaching, some students have suggested that a narrowing of approved studies might drive them to study abroad or online. At Foreign Policy, Liang Pan writes that the campaign could derail efforts to attract and retain educated youth:

This new round of ideological tightening has generated a chilling effect. Professors, especially those in the fields of humanities and the social sciences, feel the ice under their feet becoming dangerously thin — maybe impossibly so. “Every aspect of (China’s) laws, be it the concept or the institution, are converging with the West,” said , a law professor at Peking University, in an Jan. 30 interview with German outlet Deutsche Welle. “If Western values are banned from China’s legal education, we’ll have no idea how to teach our classes.” On Weibo, China’s huge Twitter-like microblogging platform, Professor He further pointed out the hypocrisy of the new mandate. “Top [Western] universities are crowded with high-ranking party leaders’ children. To protect the leaders’ children from Western values,” He wrote, “shouldn’t the require them to only go to socialist countries, such as North Korea, for study abroad?”

[…] Outflow of talent is a problem for China — and the party knows it. A June 2013 article in party mouthpiece People’s Daily concluded that China had the “world’s worst brain drain.” […] Chinese education experts have long blamed a lack of academic freedom at Chinese universities, among other factors, for driving Chinese students and their parents to look overseas for alternatives. […] [Source]

Of the 3.05 million Chinese who have studied abroad since the late 1970s, Liang adds, only around half have gone back. 1.44 million is still a large number, however: as Yuan Guiren himself previously argued, the return of so many students thoroughly steeped in Western values might be expected to have caused turmoil, if Western values did indeed pose a serious threat.

Existential menace or not, they have become a vogueish scapegoat. South China Morning Post’s Chris Luo reports that Western ideology was blamed for corruption in the military this week:

“In the face of the tide of market economy and Western ideology’s delusions, some of our military officials have failed to stand the test,” said Peng, a civilian military cadre of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who holds the rank equivalent to major general.

“[These influences] distorted their concept of moral evaluation and value orientation,” wrote Peng, a former official at the Academy of Military Sciences and now a deputy secretary-general of China National Security Forum.

The errant officials “turned their power into means for personal gains, resulting in the commercialisation and privatisation of power, and become the erosion of [Chinese] military”, he wrote. [Source]

Foreign Policy’s Alexa Olesen pointed to a yet more colorful illustration of “how fashionable it’s become in China to invoke ‘The West’ as an all-purpose bogeyman”:

When China’s second-richest man , a real estate mogul worth $29.4 billion, sat down with state media for an Oprah-style interview this week, he was clearly in crisis-management mode. A little over a week earlier, his son, Wang Sicong, had sparked a scandal by telling reporters at a Valentine’s Day charity event in Beijing that what he looked for in potential dates was a “big rack.” Though Sicong insisted he was joking, state media was not amused and the official Xinhua News Agency published an editorial on Feb. 15 comparing him to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose lecherous antics have been well documented. Hong Kong-based English-language South China Morning Post called it “Buxomgate.”

But the real scandal, at least according to the elder Wang, is Western influence. On Feb. 24, the elder Wang told state-run China Central Television that while his son was smart, he had left China to study abroad in elementary school, making his thinking very “Western.” Sicong is “very independent,” the billionaire said, and added that his son says whatever comes into his mind. “Though he’s been back three years, that’s still a short time. It may take five or eight years of being back for him to really become Chinese.” The younger Wang, who has a degree in philosophy from University College London, did not respond to a request for comment from Foreign Policy sent via the social network Weibo. [Source]

China’s state media regulator recently stepped in to prevent Wang Sicong’s further corruption by a Tang Dynasty historical drama.

While CASS’s Cheng Enfu predicted that the campaign could rival Xi’s corruption crackdown in intensity, The Economist suggested last week that it could fizzle in fairly short order:

Unlike Mr Xi’s campaign against corruption, which has been pursued with far greater vigour over a longer period than any other like it in the post-Mao era, the crackdown on campuses may not prove long-lived. Some Chinese academics, though mindful that several scholars have lost their jobs in the past two years because of their liberal views, privately scoff at the ritual repetition of vague slogans that has so far marked the current campaign. Some online commentators have openly criticised it. Ren Zhiqiang, a property developer, wrote to his millions of microblog followers: “Why is it necessary to fear Western values?” He noted that Marx himself was a Westerner.

The education minister and the party leaders of Peking and Tsinghua universities are not known as hardliners. Mr Yuan has spoken positively in the past about Western-style teaching methods which promote critical ways of thinking. One academic at Peking University says “everyone knows” that the three men do not believe their own words about the dangers of Western influences. Few expect the crackdown to affect teaching in such areas as science and medicine which do not touch on politically sensitive issues, even though they rely on Western textbooks. [Source]