The Sixth Plenum and the Rise of Traditional Chinese Culture in Socialist Ideology – The Diplomat

After much anticipation from Chinese observers, the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress was held in Beijing during the second week of November. During the plenum, the CPC adopted the Resolution of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on the Party’s Major Achievements and Historical Experience in the Past Century. One of the resolution’s most significant changes is that it elevates the importance of Chinese culture and values.

The resolution goes beyond the conventional rhetoric of “socialism with Chinese characteristics as the adoption and practice of Marxism in China” and places Chinese culture at the forefront and center of Chinese socialism. It praises Chinese culture as a significant advantage of Chinese nationality and calls for its continuation and development. The resolution further states that Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era combines traditional Chinese cultures with Marxist principles. Thus, Xi Jinping’s thought “embodies the best of Chinese culture and ethos of our time and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context”.

Combining traditional Chinese culture with Marxism is not new in China. As early as 1988, Wang Huning argued that social “software,” such as values, feelings, psychology, and attitudes, can shape political fate as much as “material” factors like institutions, systems, power, and norms. . Wang concluded that political cultures based on Western liberal ideals and Marxist doctrines had failed to take root in China. Thus, he proposed to build a lasting Chinese political culture by combining traditional Chinese culture and modern minds. In 2011, the debate over neo-Confucianism led to the rise and fall of a statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square. Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese political scientist residing in Singapore, has become extremely popular in China by describing the current Chinese political system as neo-Confucianism. The concept of “harmonious society”, Hu Jintao’s key political legacy, also derives from various Confucian concepts.

The focus on Chinese culture in the resolution serves two purposes: solving China’s governance problem and resisting Western values.

A challenge the CCP has continually faced since 1978 is how to transition from a revolutionary party to a ruling party. The CCP’s main goal as a revolutionary party was to mobilize the mass population and destroy the old system. However, the CCP leaders soon realized that the revolutionary spirit could not provide incentives for economic growth and fulfill the task of building a socialist society. As the ruling party, the role of the CCP is not to break the existing political and social order but to improve it. Consequently, the party is in constant search of improving its capacity for governance. The third plenum of the 19th Party Congress in 2019 adopted a resolution on modernizing the governance system and improving governance capacity, which made this transition one of the CPC’s most vital goals.

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However, the CCP realizes that it cannot learn much from classical communist doctrines. Karl Marx painted a rosy picture of a communist world and called on the proletariat to break its chains and overthrow oppressive capitalist society. Vladimir Lenin provided a road map for this communist world: a top-down, hierarchical and centralized political party of the proletariat should lead the revolution and seize political power. However, none of these ideas provide a complete guideline on how to govern a state after revolution. The Soviet Union was not a success, and the CCP indeed studied its collapse carefully. So, it makes sense for the CCP to investigate China’s own history and study the wisdom of China’s imperial system of governance, which lasted for more than 2,000 years.

The traditional Chinese political system emphasizes a strong state approach in providing social goods and meeting popular needs. It can serve as a basis for meeting the challenge of Chinese governance. By placing Chinese culture at the center of Chinese socialism, the CCP attempts to combine socialist principles with the traditional Chinese political system to synthesize a new basis of political stability and effective governance.

The CCP also wants to use traditional Chinese moral values ​​to fight the spread of liberalism and individualism, which are labeled as corrupt Western ideologies. The CCP views individualism as a danger to society. Wang Huning, now the CCP’s ideological czar, pointed out the danger of individualism as a dividing and eroding force in American society in his first book, “America Against America.” In the book, Wang detailed homelessness, drug issues, and racial conflict. Thus, he concluded that the United States was in deep trouble because of social divides between whites and minorities, rich and poor, and equality and privilege. He attributed these problems to liberalism and individualism, which commodify everything in society. Accordingly, Wang concluded that “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems”.

Moreover, the CCP views Western liberalism as a source of political instability. The party saw the spread of Western liberalism as one of the root causes of the student protest movement of 1989. It also saw the spread of liberalism around the world as the reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union, color revolutions that followed and of the Arab Spring. Watching these events unfold and the demise of authoritarian regimes around the world with fearful eyes, the CCP believes that the United States is using liberalism as an ideological weapon to sow chaos and bring down other regimes. China, the CCP concludes, is the next target. Thus, the infiltration of liberalism in China is seen as an American covert operation to promote “peaceful evolution” and bring down the socialist regime.

Faced with the danger of these Western ideas, the CCP wants to use traditional Chinese culture as a shield to prevent the intrusion of liberalism and individualism. Appealing to traditional conservative values ​​is a common practice to combat the influence of Western ideas in the world. In Russia, Putin champions traditional Russian Orthodox values, such as opposition to homosexuality and support for the traditional family structure. Presenting himself as the defender of traditional Russian values, Putin rejects Western liberalism as “degradation and primitivism” which leads to “a moral crisis in the West”. Iran’s supreme ruler also appeals to traditional Islamic culture to combat Western ideas, seen as a source of social corruption that endangers the Islamic revolution.

Confucianism strictly regulates the relationship between the state and individuals and between individuals themselves through the three basic bonds of ruler and subject, parent and offspring, and husband and wife. The three core obligations emphasize the importance of maintaining social hierarchy and protecting authoritarian rule. Confucianism also established model behaviors through the Five Constant Virtues: benevolence (ren 仁), righteousness (you 义), property (li 礼), wisdom (zhi 智), and reliability (xin 信). Thus, Confucianism establishes boundaries for individual behavior; all individuals are expected to fulfill their role in society. People who do not respect these social duties are called aberrant and subject to enormous social pressure. The pressure to fit in creates a strong collectivist value, which can serve as a natural barrier to individualism.

However, the emphasis on traditional Chinese culture will exacerbate the fundamental problem of the Chinese political system. Joseph Fewsmith identifies a major challenge for the Chinese government: the tension between the CCP’s unified political leadership and the increasingly diverse society in China. Economic development causes the rise of different interests in different social groups, which leads to a pluralized society. However, traditional Chinese culture does not solve this problem. Rather than accommodating diversity, it reinforces a unitary system of moral values ​​and compels everyone to conform to them. Thus, it reduces political inclusiveness and diminishes the government’s ability to respond to growing popular demands. Promoting and even imposing a single moral belief will inevitably alienate a significant portion of society.

Moreover, the rise of individualism and liberalism is a natural result of economic growth. Increasing socio-economic development, including higher incomes, more education, urbanization, and a shift toward white-collar jobs, has led to a global increase in individualism since 1960. Blame Solely the Western infiltration ignores this global trend. Individualism and liberalism can also serve as important sources of creative destruction, leading to intensive growth. Removing them and stigmatizing them could stifle innovation and economic development.

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