Culture as Symbolic Resources for Rebuilding the Party’s Legitimacy

The moral anxiety of the Chinese people has further generated a crisis of political authority, where governmental power is limited by the suspicion that it lacks a proper moral basis, and hence lacks legitimacy (Pye 1968: 9). As a result, China urgently needs to remake its ideology in response to the perceived challenges to the CCP’s rule in China (Holbig 2009: 35). In other words, traditional Chinese culture serves as a means for the Party to draw upon its symbolic resources in order to shore up its legitimacy.

The “Mandate of Heaven” to Rule

The first traditional Confucian political theory, the mandate of heaven (tianming), has been adopted to construct the Party’s legitimacy in contemporary China. The discourse of the mandate of heaven has been articulated as a sermon of victors. That is, “a ruler’s mandate of heaven, which differs from gaining legitimacy through democratic election in the context of contemporary Western societies. In contrast, the ‘mandate of heaven’ was acquired in the evolution of history from a competition among many social forces after the fall of a previous regime. The winner became the one selected by ‘history’ to hold power.” That is, the winner became “a receiver of the ‘mandate of heaven’” (Cong 2013: 914). The mandate of heaven does not depend on certain values or ideologies to establish legitimacy and to counter the alleged lack of values in China. Rather it is based on “the ancient Chinese law that regards Chinese history as ‘the cycle between the order and disorder in a society’ and ‘the recurrence of the rise and fall of the dynasties’” (915).

Thus, the Party views the issue of legitimacy from a historical rather than an ideological perspective, and intends to prove the necessity of the CCP’s leadership in achieving the goal of remaking China as a world power (920). The Party as a consequence is presented as a synthesizing force, which has been divinely selected by historical evolution in the competition for final victory and power (916). In turn, the China Dream is also expected to be fulfilled by the “universal truth of Marxism with the concrete practice in China” (Jian and Kunming 2014: 27). In other words, historical and cultural assertions were used to support the Party’s claim to the “right to rule,” whereby the lines between secular and spiritual power became increasingly blurred (Perry 2013: 2), in a process of deconstructing the master narratives of tradition in order to reinterpret a series of empirical issues in the contemporary period (Li 2010b: 340). Thus, similar to the discourse of historical materialism that recognizes the internal tensions or contradictions of each stage and eventually leads to its replacement by the next stage, the Confucian concept of the “mandate of heaven” is “(re)interpreted” as being associated with the evolutionary stages where an utopian, stateless, classless society free from oppression and scarcity is the final phase (Hoffman 2013: 61).

Thus, this aspect of the Chinese tradition has been repurposed, reconceptualized and reinvested with new meanings to construct a reimagined tradition that is compatible with Marxism (Holbig 2009: 52). In this sense, the re-emergence of Confucianism in China was not subversive to the Party’s interest because it drew intellectuals inward and away from the West. Also, it was in line with the Party’s appeal to a nationalist spirit, cultural pride and self-reliance. In short, the reinterpretation of Confucianism fits into the regime’s effort to reassert facets of the traditional culture that reinforce and maintain the Party’s authoritarian rule (Goldman 1970: 280).

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