Post-Mao era: resurgence of anti-Westernism and resistance to democratic transition

Mao died in 1976, which brought the disastrous Cultural Revolution that he launched in 1966 to an end. The immediate political goals of the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, in the 1980s were to restore the people’s trust in the CCP and consolidate his own power base within the party, both crucial to implementing his overall strategy of economic reform and his open-door policy. But he soon met challenges from both Chinese society and within the party itself. From late 1978, a Democracy Wall campaign emerged in Beijing, which, starting with sharing experiences of suffering during the Cultural Revolution, soon escalated into bold demands for democracy and political freedom. Deng initially tolerated the Democracy Wall, but when the campaign began to question the legitimacy of the reformers like Deng himself, he ordered a crackdown. This, however, did not mollify public resentment about many socioeconomic problems that had cropped up since the reform, including inflation, official corruption, increasing crime, and industrial pollution. The dismal situation was captured in the remarks of CCP Secretary General Hu Yaobang, who admitted that the party confronted a threefold crisis of faith, belief, and trust in its relations with the Chinese people.39 Meanwhile, the intraparty split deepened between reformists like Deng and conservatives, who opposed market reform and the open door permitting the infiltration of dangerous, Western liberal ideas.

With the inexorable decline of communism, the government once again resorted to nationalism to enhance internal consolidation and shore up the regime’s legitimacy. From the mid-1980s, Beijing began to foster a mixture of what Michel Oksenberg calls “confident nationalism” and “assertive nationalism.”40 It was moderate in the economic sphere, acknowledging the importance of Western technology and investment, but rigid and muscular in the ideological and cultural spheres, often using the othering of the Western out-group to glorify the Chinese in-group. The latter became crystalized in several ideological campaigns sanctioned by Deng against liberal-minded intellectuals, including the 1981-1982 attacks on “bourgeois liberalization,” the 1983-1984 campaign against capitalist “spiritual pollution,” and the 1986—1987 renewed campaign against “bourgeois liberalization.”41 The dual nature of official nationalism aimed at raising the national spirit while retaining the economic benefits of the reform and open-door policy. But it also had consequential implications for China’s political path because, by defaming pro-Western Chinese political dissidents, the government effectively dampened societal aspirations for liberalization and democratic changes.

The CCP’s prestige further tumbled in the aftermath of its violent suppression of the Tiananmen democratic movement in 1989. This legitimacy crisis was sharpened by the political turmoil in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that eventually toppled their Communist governments. Furthermore, post-Tianan-men Western sanctions accentuated a siege mentality for the party-state. The CCP conservative faction was particularly alarmed by so-called “peaceful evolution,” through which “reactionary forces at home and abroad” were plotting an active conspiracy to subvert Communist rule in China. The leftist ideologues pushed for a hostile posture against the West, fiercely attacked Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open-door policy, and cried for the strengthening of socialism. Deng eventually prevailed in this debate about China’s national identity with the argument that “peaceful evolution” was not an imminent threat as long as most Chinese people gained material benefits from economic reform.42 Regardless, in exchange for the leftists’ support for his economic programs, Deng continued to keep a lid on political reform. In his famous “southern tour” to revitalize economic reform, Deng stressed anew the necessity to exercise the Democratic

Dictatorship of the People during economic development to defend the socialist system.43

After the Tiananmen crisis passed, and especially following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, its anti-Western rhetoric receded for some time. Through most of the 2000s Beijing was credited for carrying out a “Charm Offensive” to engage international institutions and cultivate foreign friendships. Particularly US-China relations, in Lampton’s words in early 2009, “are more fundamentally sound than they have ever been before.”44 But starting from the end of the decade, China’s attitude toward the West took a significant turn for the worse. This change needs to be, again, understood in the context of China’s national identity politics in response to domestic challenges to the regime.

Although boasting a rapid rise in national power, Chinese society under Hu Jintao (in power during 2003-2012) was fraught with disorder and unrest. Generally speaking, there are three categories of internal threats to the partystate. The first category was widespread public resentment about various social problems from environmental degradation to land and labor disputes and the ever-worsening income disparity. The situation was compounded by natural disasters and adverse global economic impact, both at their worst in 2008—2009. As a result, social stability deteriorated dramatically in the 2000s, as borne out in an upsurge of “mass incidents” of social unrest. Accompanying growing social turmoil was the weiquan [rights defense] movement that first started in 2003. Because of its potential to escalate into nationwide political campaigns, weiquan falls into the second category of threats, namely, political resistance. Initially focused on protecting the economic and social rights of individual citizens through litigation, weiquan evolved into a broad citizens’ movement to promote social liberty and rule of law. In 2008, this new wave of social activism converged with liberal intellectuals’ push for political democratization, as signified by the publication of the Charter 08, drafted by China’s most prominent political dissident Liu Xiaobo and other like-minded people demanding political reform in the fashion of Western democracy. The last category of threats is ethnic conflicts on the “volatile periphery” from Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, to, more broadly defined, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where people increasingly contested the Chinese identity imposed by Beijing. Ethnic unrest, not uncommon in PRC history, now turned particularly frequent and violent, including, most notably, the riots in Tibet 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009.

Of the three sources of threats, the second and third were more dangerous from Beijing’s perspective: isolated cases of social protest were more or less manageable, but cross-regional, organized political movements must be checked at all cost. The lethal blow to authoritarian regimes by pro-democracy movements, often mixing religious and ethnic appeals, was evident in the color revolutions and Arab Spring. The party-state was extremely nervous about the demonstrative and contagious effect of these international events on a discontented Chinese population.45

Facing aggravating political and ethnic tensions, the Hu Jintao government put great emphasis on an elaborate weiwen [stability maintenance] structure. First built in the 1990s but expanded and strengthened under Hu, this system included prominent party central institutions and drew their personnel mainly from the security and propaganda apparatus. JVeiu/en practices relied heavily on coercive measures. Coercion alone, however, cannot establish a legitimate order, which has to win the “consent of the governed.”46 Especially if the targets are adversaries of the Party, rather than the nation, repression has weak public appeal. A campaign to uproot these adversaries is more effective if it unites intimidation with persuasion. Indeed, China’s second approach to stem anti-government trend is to dissuade the citizens from emulating democratic movements in other countries.47 The official media negatively framed the West so as to blame domestic instability on foreign connivance and to discredit domestic dissidents said to be blindly worshipping Western values and conspiring with foreigners to hurt China. It thus deliberately entangled national othering of both external and domestic enemies.

In general, Hu-era national identity discourse embodied two ethnocentric themes regarding the West. The first is the China model rhetoric, through which the government sought to propagate a distinctive economic and political model that is not only separate from but also antithetical to that of the West. The core of the China model was its socialist political system premised on Marxism and the CCP’s leadership, while Western style of democracy was treated as either a sham or a mismatch for China. Enemies in this ideological struggle were not just “anti-China forces” from without but also those Chinese from within who desired to replace the China model with Western democracy. The second ethnocentric theme in official discourse condemned “foreign hostile forces” for aiding and abetting subversion in order to “Westernize and divide up” the country. If the first theme implied the menace of domestic others, meaning those Chinese inclined to Westernization, the second theme scapegoated both domestic enemies and their foreign supporters for China’s internal problems.

One direct target of internal othering is those engaged in ethnic resistance against the Han-dominated state. Although officially the PRC upholds the concept of Zhonghua minzu that includes all ethnic groups living in China, the Han majority dominates the definition of Chinese national identity.48 Since the reform years, this Han-centered assimilationist policy, similar to that of the Republican period, has continued, but state discourse gradually abandoned the others image of ethnic minorities for the sake of ethnic harmony and, more importantly, for securing the periphery. The Hu regime particularly promoted a “unified, multiethnic Chinese historiography” emphasizing the minorities’ common roots with Han and contribution to the Chinese civilization.49 This official stance precluded straightforward maligning of the entire minority group, who were legally Chinese citizens. The state had to single out ethnic activists for harsh punishment and terrify the rest of the group. To make such “selective blaming” sound more credible, the state tried to prove that those who revolted, not like ordinary minority people, harbored vicious intentions to split up the country, and their actions were backed by foreigners who loathed a strong China. So ethnic conflict was typically attributed to Western instigation and patronization, as evident in media slander on “separatist ringleaders” like Dalai Lama and activist organizations like the World Uyghur Congress.

Another group deemed to be domestic others includes liberal intellectuals and weiquan activists. They could not easily be branded as national enemies, either. The government itself used the phrase “contradictions among the people” to describe rights disputes, not “contradictions between enemies and the people,” political language inherited from the Mao era to differentiate non-principal and principal adversaries. To criminalize those who vowed to protect the weak and deprived would run counter to Hu’s own salute to “people-centered” governance. If neither the state nor the public could be faulted for the agonizing social problems, the “backstage manipulator” had to be found from the outside. So, in the same way that ethnic activists were maligned, those who advocated human rights and democratic changes, such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, were denounced as saboteurs on behalf of Westerners.

Overall, in today’s China, a regime-toppling color revolution engineered by the West was an overstated threat. What the party-state feared more was not “subversive activities” of Westerners, but the spread of Western values through numerous channels such as the thriving external commercial ties, massive outflow of Chinese students and tourists, and foreign cultural products flooding the country. Unless China reverses its open-door policy and exits the globalization tide, it cannot completely shut out Western influences. The government was, therefore, compelled to rely on a combination of repression and nationalist propaganda to quell domestic resistance and stifle demands for Western-style political changes.


As Breuilly says, “Nationalism is a parasitic movement and ideology, shaped by what it opposes.”50 Those being opposed may include both foreign and domestic others who are dissatisfied with the hegemonic definition of the national self. That is why, contrary to the conventional wisdom that nation-building makes all nationals cohere, at times, it “seem(s) to divide the nation on class or party lines.”51 If such internal exclusion encounters no profound objection from the existing social order and power structure, recourse to ethnocentrism is unnecessary. Otherwise, elites will likely mobilize an ideological crusade against foreigners in order to maintain control and crush internal opposition.

Under the current Xi Jinping administration, domestic disunity has only become worse, due to an economic slowdown unprecedented in a quarter century; centrifugal tendencies in frontier regions; and exacerbation of popular discontent with social injustice. In response, even more heavy-handed tveiwen measures are being practiced than before, and official propaganda bashing the West has carried on. In the so-called No. 9 Document, internally circulated in

2013, Western democracy and civic values top the Seven Dangers outside the “mainstream ideology” that must be eradicated.52 In 2016, a Swedish human rights activist and his Chinese co-workers were forced to confess on Chinese TV that “Western anti-China forces” used them to attain the goals of “fanning antigovernment and anti-Party sentiment, and deceiving people to disrupt state and social order, thus, changing the social system of China.”5’ Furthermore, to quell ethnic separatism, the party-state has in recent years, in the name of an ambitious counter-terror campaign, departed from the “selective blaming” approach by expanding the scope of attack to a bigger part of the minority population. Statistics show that as high as 21% of China’s total arrests for criminal charges in 2017 were made in Xinjiang.’4 Additionally, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs are believed to have been put in so-called “reeducation camps” against their will to undergo “thought transformation” and “career training.” Confronted with intense Western criticism of its violation of human rights in Xinjiang, China’s state media retort that the Westerners are being “arrogant and peremptory,” harbor “malicious intent” toward China, and purposely want China to fail.55

Hence, by encouraging nationalistic sentiment against foreign countries and the Western democratic values that they stand for, Beijing is trying to mask serious domestic socioeconomic problems and deflect public resentment about its own policy failures. The point is not only to malign democracy-promoting foreign media and NGOs, but also to justify political persecution of China’s liberal and ethnic activists who dared to resist the illiberal state. Consequently, instead of offering the world a better model of democracy than that in the West as Xi has promised, pushed by a crescendo of egocentric national identity, China is sliding deeper and deeper into what David Shambaugh calls “hard authoritarianism.”56

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