I’ve been struggling to make sense of what I see as the central contradiction of the ‘Xi’s Era’ – his focus, if not obsession, with ideology and ideological discipline. Let me start with a concrete example: Hong Kong’s recent New Territories East by-election. The Communist Party works through the United Front here, with the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress (DAB) being their largest political outfit. The DAB ran Holden Chow as their candidate and lost. Chow faced two main rivals: Alvin Yeung of the Civic Party and Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous.
Chow is a lawyer who represented One World, one of the largest property developers and luxury retail chains in Hong Kong. On his website and in an interview with the New York Times, he lambasts the ‘idealism’ of pan-Democrats. Chow critiques ‘Western’ democratic models for China as unfeasible, in short, because Chinese people are too stupid. What is he offering voters? Patriotism, a “love of Hong Kong,” and perhaps more importantly – the ‘trust’ of Beijing.
In contrast, the Civic Party’s Yeung – also a lawyer – represented many Umbrella Movement protesters in court. The Civic Party presents itself as the ‘rule of law’ Party, fighting government legal and spending excesses. They fight ‘white elephant’ construction projects with massive budget overruns that have no widespread popularity in Hong Kong. They were recently instrumental in stopping the ‘Internet Article 23.’ Yeung was studying in Beijing during the outbreak of SARS and learned the importance of government transparency. He doesn’t fit cleanly into the left/right polarities of Western politics, instead fighting for something more straightforward: ‘good governance’ in the sense most Western readers would understand it.
The breakout star of the election was Edward Leung, of Hong Kong Indigenous, garnered 15% of the vote. Localism in Hong Kong is a multi-faceted thing that also doesn’t fit cleanly into the left/right spectrum. A friend who has studied it since its inception worries that it has a fascist core. I would break their ideology down more simply as resistance to oppression and a focus on livelihood issues. Lueng was arrested for participating in the Fishball Riot, a brawl that began when HKI offered to escort hawkers back the streets after FEHD chased them away.
Localism is ‘rightist’ in the sense that they’re essentially nativist. They’re as hostile to immigration as Donald Trump. The difference, they would argue, is that the power dichotomy is indeed flipped in Hong Kong against ‘local’ Hong Kongers with a favoritism shown towards a hegemonic outsider: mainland Chinese. There are some merits to this argument. While racism was clearly on display during the anti-parallel trading protests, the fight was about the ways in which the mainland Chinese market has transformed malls and entire neighborhoods into jewelry and milk-powder wholesaling.
Both Yueng and Leung are ‘leftists’ in the sense that they (a) they fight against the plutocrats that run Hong Kong’s economy, (b) they often fight for social justice issues, and (c) they fight against the near permanent austerity of the SAR government. The Civic Party, for instance, has fought for a universal pension. Their opposition to the ‘white elephant’ projects is based both on the rent-seeking nature of the work, but also because the money could be better spent on social programs in Hong Kong. They’re also both ‘leftists’ in the environmental stances, particularly with reclamation issues. I’m pretty confident that you would find both fighting against increasing elitism in Hong Kong education.
And the DAB? They’ve fought against a universal pension, they oppose free kindergarten, support heavy-handed tactics against hawkers, and have almost no concern for environmental issues. They fret over falling property prices and luxury retail sales; the Heritage Foundation finds their tax regime and ‘business-friendly environment’ a marvel of the modern world. As a key player in the SAR regime, they *are* the plutocrats when they’re not representing them like Holden Chow.
The DAB is ostensibly representing the ideology of Xi Jinping. In this sense, it is profoundly ironic or a stark contradiction that United Front groups in Hong are consistently outflanked *on the left* in the only places that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces competitive elections. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would seem more ‘left-wing’ than Xi and his increasingly small circle in Zhongnanhai.
For the outsiders, including those of us on the periphery in Hong Kong, we are flummoxed by Xi’s increasingly loud demands that ideology be brought to the forefront. What does ideological purity mean to a ‘communist’ party that allies itself with the .01%? Few know what to make of it as we see the resurrection of Maoist language and tactics.
The conventional wisdom in ‘China-hand’ circles is that the CCP is ideologically bankrupt and that calls for ideological purity mean never straying from the CCP’s talking points. Above all, it means never criticizing the Party. At most, the ideology is just an authoritarian nationalism. For the most part, I would put myself in this camp.
This, however, seems too easy. I’ve spent the past week doing a ‘deep dive’ into CCP ideology and have come up with a slightly different interpretation. I wanted a model where the terms, phrases, and strange noises that so often come out the ‘Relevant Organs’ had some internal consistency.
The first step in getting there is to don culturally relativistic goggles. What I mean by this is that it is easy to make the creative leap in assuming that the propagandists know that they’re constructing self-serving propaganda, and would therefore be as cynical as those of us who see through the propaganda. A different position would be that the people creating these narratives believe them.
With these goggles strapped on, let us move to the first point: positivism. It borrows from this Marxisms worst feature. In social sciences, ‘positivism’ is usually associated with quantitative research methods. Dig a little deeper, though, and one sees the ‘dialectic materialism’ of Marx, Skinner’s behaviorism, or the earliest variants of structural-functionalism. The social world is viewed mechanically, with people and society conforming to ‘laws’ the same way planets follow the laws of gravity.
They believe that the future is not only predictable but that it can be planned. Marx’s ‘dialectal materialism’, itself a perversion of Hegel, is alive and well in Zhongnanhai. This positivism is the onus of so much of the strange nomenclature of the CCP. Hu’s theory ‘scientific development’, for instance, should be taken at face value: a belief not only that social and economic development *can* be centrally planned, but that there is a single correct path to China’s development that can be surmised through ‘scientific’ principals.
A ‘harmonious society’ wasn’t just a goal, but a value sitting on one side of an equation. It further manifests itself numerically: the ‘Four Nevers’, ‘Two Irrefutable’, ‘Four Comprehensives’, or more famously the ‘Three Represents.’ Mao, we are told, was only 30% wrong. The CCP exerts its claims in the South China Sea with a ‘Nine-Dashed Line.’
The second point to consider is the role of what have called ‘monism.’ Broadly speaking, monism is the opposite of a pluralistic worldview. It posits that there are only one correct set of values and that these values are universal. A caveat is that the CCPs positivism opens a space for relativistic interpretations of China. This is to say that Mao appropriated Marxist-Leninism for the ‘realities’ of China and that each successive leader has further refined Marxist-Leninism to adjust to the ‘ground realities’ of China. Thus, “… with Chinese characteristics” only implies that the formulas need occasional adjustment, not that the principles or values are culturally relative.
The current iteration of Chinese monism is a blend of this localized Marxist-Leninism (with historical dialectics and positivism being a central feature) and the ‘Confucian-Legalist synthesis.’ The Confucian-Legalist synthesis is a complex beast, but might be summarized as (1) strict adherence to hierarchy, (2) belief that virtue and power are inexorably linked, and (3) belief that the natural order of things is for there to be but “one sun in the sky.”
The second is the most interesting. Confucious believed that a virtuous ruler would naturally, almost magnetically, attract the loyalty and devotion within ever growing concentric circles in proportion to the virtue of the leader himself. The CCP has reordered this -and so much else – teleologically. Because the CCP holds power, it is necessarily virtuous. The more power the CCP welds, the more virtuous it is proven.
This becomes exceptionally problematic because it transforms bullying into virtuosity. The CCP expanding its power into the South China Sea is proof of rising virtuosity. Turning the domestic press, already on a tight leash, into an ‘appendage of the Party’, is even further proof. That Mao has so many profound failures, yet held died with almost universal loyalty, is evidence of how magnanimous and virtuous he was.
Together, this would show a CCP convinced of its virtuosity and ‘correctness’ in all of its policies. It alone wields the power of foresight that dialectal materialism offers as one of the few surviving, and only thriving, Marxist-Leninist state. Its self-referencing monism is less an ideology than an entire paradigm that is fundamentally antagonistic to ‘Western’ ideas like citizenship, ‘rights’, constitutionalism, civil society, or pluralistic and competitive democratic politics.
It’s not that China ‘isn’t ready’ for such ideas – it is that these concepts are incompatible paradigms. When and if they are used (as ‘democracy’ is), they are flipped on their head with the ‘Chinese characteristics’ suffix that makes them meaningless in their original form. A “people’s democratic dictatorship” isn’t a contradiction, it’s a window into an entire monist paradigm.
One of my wife’s most memorable moments teaching English in China, she once looked for an example of ‘controversy’ and reached for a locally relevant example she could find, offered Chinese-Taiwan relations as an example. A student corrected her, “there is no controversy. Taiwan is a part of China.” This is monism at work – a denial of pluralism, a denial that different points of view (values) have any merit. It is universal, as the student saw fit to ‘correct’ a Filipinas wrong belief on an issue.
Where does the Maoist revival fit with this? We shouldn’t expect a reversal of Reform and Opening – indeed, Xi is now reaching for the Reagan/Thatcher playbook for ‘supply-side’ economic policy. I would argue that it’s something more nefarious – Mao’s appropriation of Confucian ‘rectification of names,’ which comes in the form of self-criticism sessions, televised confessions, and the like. Looking more like a scene from A Clockwork Orange, it is a demand to keep looking until ‘the truth’ is finally seen.
Bringing it back to the Hong Kong context, I see nothing but continued unrest in the future. Hong Kong’s failure to ‘decolonize’, from this lens, was the cities collective inability to accept these paradigms. While many Hong Kongers might see the CCP as ‘successful’ on some fronts, like economic growth, there is virtually no sense that the leadership in Beijing is moral, benign, or virtuous.
Our inability to ‘decolonize’ can be measured by the extent that we still stack the dead bodies of Tiananmen against claims of moral supremacy. Our willingness to be shocked at abducting Hong Kong citizens is further evidence of our blindness to their virtuous rule. Our collective political and moral failure, as Holden Chow has said, is that we have lost Beijing’s trust.
It is telling that Chan Wing-kee explained the rise of Localism in Hong Kong as a “misunderstanding.” The misunderstanding was not that Localist and the CCP share more common ground on issues than Localists realize. The ‘misunderstanding’ was in the Localists inability to grasp Beijing’s paradigms of positivism and monism. As my wife’s student would say, “there is no controversy.”
To recognize the existence of a legitimate controversy is to be wrong, as it would imply the existence of different values and perspectives. Perhaps this is where Xi is so panicked: Western values aren’t ‘corrosive’; they represent a mutually exclusive paradigm. Hong Kong was ceded to the British when the knives came out almost two centuries ago over a similar clash of paradigms (the refusal of the Qing Dynasty to accept the Westphalian paradigm of ‘equal states.’)
I have watched with some bemusement as the United Front tries to ‘rectify’ Hong Kong education through a renewed focus on Confucianism, or pushing a ‘correct’ reading of the Basic Law. They seem to genuinely believe that if only Hong Kongers knew more about modern China, they would see the errors of their ways.
In truth, it’s the other way around: the more they see and learn, the more disgusted they are with the crackdowns, the starvation of tens of millions, the cults of personality, the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the endemic inequality. Spending a week or two in China will not create the paradigm shift towards monism they seek.
Without this paradigm shift, Xi’s ideology only looks like materialist clientelism. The self-referencing monism runs so deep that even a ‘communist’ party doesn’t register on a typical left/right political spectrum. The ‘four comprehensives’ and ‘core socialist values’ might as well be a moon language.
My fear is that this positivist/monist paradigm is more blinding than empowering. Whatever headway Xi has made by making the CCP look virtuous through his corruption crackdown is mitigated by the cynical belief that it more likely a purge of political rivals. It also leaves the CCP not only tone-deaf but unable to engage in substantive dialogue and negotiation. Rather than engaging in ideological persuasion, they demand loyalty and absolute fidelity to the monist ‘script.’
Much like the calcified Qing Dynasty, they obsess over formality, deference, and tone more than substance. What seems lost on Beijing is that, with Hong Kong, they already have a modern-day vassal state. As much as they believe their positivism helps them see ‘the truth,’ they threaten to invade Taiwan of ‘names’ are correctly ‘rectified’ – that it is, in fact, an independent polity.
This is a dangerous situation, as the only path forward Beijing presents as to talk to them like the nuclear-armed schizophrenic that their ‘ideology’ demands. We must comfort them that we, too, see their hallucinations. At issue, though, is that most of us are losing patience. How many more people will get hurt as a hostage-taker demands that his hostages – and the audience – continue telling him how benevolent, righteous, and smart he really is?