Provincial “Ideological Liberation” Campaign Calls for “Unswerving Alignment” with Xi Jinping

A provincial campaign to jumpstart cadres out of timidity and “formalism” raised hackles online for framing “ideological liberation” as adherence to Xi Jinping Thought. A notice published to a website run by Hunan’s Provincial Party Committee called for “the commencement of province-wide discussions on ideological liberation.” The lofty language is a call back to two pivotal earlier rounds of “ideological liberation”: the first in 1978, at the beginning of Reform and Opening two years after Mao’s death, and the second in 1992, after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. But liberation is not quite what it might seem. The Hunan notice set forth six “unswerving alignments” that will underpin the campaign—the first of which is absolute fealty to Xi Jinping’s guidance in the name of unity of thought

All discussions pertaining to ideological liberation must be undertaken in unswerving alignment with the guidance set forth by Party Central and General Secretary Xi Jinping. We must further align ideology and action with the policies issued by Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core and to further unify the implementation of the proper direction with the guidance for Hunan set forth by Party Central and General Secretary Xi Jinping. [Chinese]

The five other “unswerving alignments” are likewise major Party priorities (sometimes packaged as “Xiconomics” by Chinese state media), belying a genuine commitment to freedom of thought: high-level development, people-centered development, comprehensive national security, whole-process people’s democracy, and exemplary cadre work habits. 

The notice went viral on Weibo. Ironically, media outlets that shared Hunan’s call for discussions of liberation censored their own comment sections. Global Times and—both nationalist websites, the former Party-run and the latter nominally independent—activated “curated comments” on their posts sharing the news—a relatively subtle way to screen dissenting views. Weibo user @西峯 (@Xīfēng) posed a number of pertinent questions about the campaign: “How are we to realize ideological liberation while maintaining unity of thought?” “How are we to raise the birth rate while housing prices and daily essentials remain costly?” “How are we to improve entrepreneur’s confidence while policies are in flux?” “How are grassroots cadres to remain positive even as state employees take pay cuts?” 

On Wechat, many independent writers had their essays on the subject deleted. One such censored essay, written by the blogger Feng Hongping and posted to the WeChat account @风慢慢 (@Fēngmànmàn), ruminated on the “cheapening” of the term “ideological liberation,” arguing that it reduces “liberation” to the abandonment of one’s own beliefs in favor of submission to the Party line: 

The past two rounds of ideological liberation both occurred under similar conditions and against similar backgrounds: the thinking, system, and leadership of the past was impeding forward progress, tamping down the energies of change. “Ideological liberation,” then, meant reforming the system, changing policies, and bringing in new leadership. As Xiaoping said, “reform or resign.” This cracked the actual taboos around ideological liberation. 

At the grassroots level, [ideological liberation] meant freedom, tolerance, diversity, and the breaking open of forbidden zones—new subjects were up for discussion, new authorities were open for questioning, new essays could be published. 

But now? In some respects the current moment has certain similarities to the past two eras—the three share similar feelings of unease, anxiety, and anticipation so that anyone who hears “ideological liberation,” will put down their spade and raise their head to see what the hullabaloo is about. 

[…] Liberation and Unity. One is liberation. The other is repression. One is the sharpest of swords. The other the toughest of shields. What sort of genius is able to reconcile the two?

The follow-up to that line used to be: We must resolutely persist in collectively liberating ideology and seeking truth from facts—thereby ideological liberation is an expression of unity of thought. 

What perfect logic!

No wonder people always lecture me: Your essays always get censored because your thinking is too conservative. Liberate your thinking—align it with the powers that be—and you’ll be alright. [Chinese]

Hunan’s provincial campaign mirrors national trends. The October 2023 unveiling of Xi Jinping Thought on Culture marked a new Party push to control cultural expression. Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine, told The Atlantic that China’s leaders “want to have a very powerful, socialist, ideological framework that can congeal the population, and this is of course under the party’s control and guidance [….] What’s a more powerful way to centralize power than to control people’s thought?” 

How well the push is working remains unclear. One of the Party’s major cultural endeavors has been reforms to rural marriage practices aimed at bringing down high “bride prices,” payments made by grooms to their wives’ families, and reining in extravagant banquets. The Party has begun hosting “civilized” mass marriage ceremonies replete with pledges of respect for Xi Jinping. A closer look at the mass ceremonies taken by The Economist’s Chaguan columnist found a potemkin show consisting of long-married couples participating in a conscious effort to maintain a facade of propaganda:

Clearly, the party is serious about its mission to be felt and seen in every home. Yet return to the ground in Ningdu and the picture becomes blurrier. For one thing, that mass wedding looks very different in close-up. A clue came when a young child ran to a supposedly newlywed couple. “Mama,” he laughed, and hid under her robes. When asked, other couples admitted to being married for years. A red-robed groom said that he married a decade ago and was taking part “to help the propaganda department”.

Another bridegroom turned out to be newly married, at least. Then he confessed to having hosted a wedding banquet for “200 or 300 people”, undermining the day’s emphasis on frugality. High bride prices “really are bad”, the young man continued, especially if a bride’s parents keep the money and do not pass it to the new couple. But he ascribed China’s falling marriage rates to larger problems. Men who move to cities encounter “fierce competition” and unaffordable housing. But if they stay in rural areas, “there are basically no girls of marriageable age”. He endorsed the civilisation campaign, though he suspects that changing deep-rooted customs may take a generation. “Since I am a party member, I must take part in this kind of activity,” he revealed, unbidden. [Source]


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