Author: Yingjie Guo, University of Sydney
The Chinese Communist Party’s recent return to Chinese roots has brought about a new synthesis between political and cultural nationalism. China’s one-party state has not only moved away from its usual revolutionary style but it is also promoting Sino-centrism with uncharacteristic gusto. This shift has notable ramifications for China both domestically and internationally.
For a long time, Chinese nationalism was not a homogeneous ideological movement but one split into cultural and political strands, which were at loggerheads for nearly a century. Chinese cultural nationalism aimed to maintain cultural autonomy, unity and identity by defending ‘a distinctive and historically-rooted way of life’. Under cultural nationalism, ethnic values, myths and memories become the basis of the national community.
Chinese political nationalism, on the other hand, sought to reconstruct the political authority of the state and replace China’s cultural heritage with a new culture congenial to the state. It also served the purpose of nation building, state building or modernisation depending on the prevailing contemporary political ideology. Political nationalism dominated its much weaker opponent from the early 20th century to the late 1980s thanks to the popular belief that Chinese cultural traditions were responsible for the country’s backwardness and humiliation at the hands of Western powers.
But now, under President Xi Jinping, Chinese cultural nationalism has gained new prominence. In November 2013, he visited Qufu — the birthplace of Confucius — and the following year attended an official commemoration of the sage’s birthday. During the same period, the Ministry of Education released a set of guidelines on teaching traditional Chinese culture in educational institutions. Party officials are now required to attend ‘study sessions’ at Party Schools and State Administration Colleges. More recently, Xi has added ‘cultural confidence’ to the ‘three confidences’ that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wishes to boost, which include ‘ideological confidence’, ‘confidence in the [socialist] road’, and ‘confidence in the [socialist] system’.
This development is one manifestation of the party-state’s current movement away from Marxism and its long tradition of political nationalism. Since the reform era, the historical mission of the CCP has shifted from one of class struggle and continuous revolution to a focus on economic development, harmonious society and the ‘China dream’.
The CCP is no longer a ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ based on the alliance of the industrial proletariat and peasantry, as it is defined in the country’s constitution. Nor is it simply guided by Marxism–Leninism or Mao Zedong thought. In the new milieu, the CCP must be guided by traditional Chinese ideas, beliefs and visions. And, rather than relying on the economic performance of 1949–2013, the CCP’s legitimacy must now be derived from its conformity to traditional notions of good governance.
CCP leaders are now not only justifying China’s political system, political values and development model on the basis of ‘national conditions’ but are also doing so with reference to age-old Chinese traditions. That is, national conditions are being extended to include historical heritage. Consequently, China is becoming more inward-looking and less politically liberal than at any other time in the post-Mao era.
This cultural turn of politics under President Xi Jinping also impacts China’s foreign relations, particularly those with the United States. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom about the impact of nationalism on international relations, Sino–US relations improved dramatically when the CCP upheld political nationalism and largely rejected China’s socialist identity. The United States, and the West as a whole, caught the Chinese imagination and were regarded as models for emulation. The former welcomed and supported China’s reform and opening-up not least because China was beginning to embrace capitalism and identify with American values.
But under President Xi Jinping, Sino–US relations have been strained due to a variety of factors. One of these is no doubt China’s rapidly growing economic and military power. But no less important is the CCP’s renunciation of iconoclastic political nationalism and endorsement of cultural nationalism, which has led to a comprehensive re-evaluation of political ideologies, development models and cultural values.
As the CCP returns to cultural roots and is promoting Chinese identity, US-centric ideologies, values and models of development have lost legitimacy in the official discourse. Instead, the CCP is increasingly differentiating China from the United States — especially in political and cultural terms — so that its grip on power will not be jeopardised, and China’s autonomy, unity and identity is maintained.
This is not to suggest that the CCP’s return to cultural roots will lead to a clash of civilisations. Nor does it mean that the CCP, let alone the Chinese populace, rejects all American values. Rather, the Party is steering clear of American ideas of democracy, human rights and the free-market economy that jeopardise its own grip on power. Differences over such ideas, together with economic, political and military rivalry, will continue to hamper Sino–US relations in the foreseeable future.
Yingjie Guo is a Professor in Chinese Studies at The University of Sydney.