The Contest for China's Soul

Will ambition or authoritarianism rule the day in modern China? 

Within the U.S. foreign-policy community, the debate concerning China’s trajectory can be lively and enlightening. But as with any policy issue, the debate can grow stale as a result of too much or too little information or a dearth of interesting new analysis. Luckily the field is diffuse and open to anyone with new and interesting ideas. And a fresh pair of eyes can help enrich the discussion about where China is headed.

With his new book, The Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos, a New Yorker writer, has jumped in with aplomb. The author spent eight years reporting from China, and has put his keen insight and intrepid research skills to use in his exploration of the internal intellectual and spiritual infrastructure of China’s rise. He has provided a set of answers to a crucial question: how have various subcultures in China responded to the country’s explosion in wealth, power and prestige?

His thesis is simple and profound: China is a very ambitious country that has unleashed the individual ambitions of its enterprising people. But the country’s ambitions are undermined by the country’s authoritarian politics. The big question Osnos poses is whether ambition or authoritarianism will win in China.

In searching for his answer, Osnos wades into some of the most important ongoing China debates in the analytical and policy-making communities. Here are a few:

Leadership Succession, Xi Jinping and Chinese Reform

According to Osnos, the idea that the Chinese Communist Party leadership is an efficient meritocracy is fantasy. Seasoned Chinese-leadership watchers were able to predict the new leadership lineup by watching backroom deals among Party elders, powerful factions, and important families—the so-called “red aristocracy.” Those who came out on top did not do so based on merit. Nepotism, corruption and horse-trading, not leadership skills, played decisive roles in deciding who would rule China.

The new leaders are not the reformers some in the West imagine either. For example, top Communist Party official and president of the Central Party School, Liu Yunshan is a “seasoned propagandist” and Zhang Dejiang, the third-highest-ranking official of the Standing Committee of the Politburo “received his economics training in North Korea.” Indeed, so entrenched is the red aristocracy that President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan instructed his colleagues to read The Old Regime and the French Revolution, which soon became a bestseller in China. It struck a resonant chord among Chinese, with its tale of “a frustrated merchant class” and a middle class whom the regime thought it could always count on—until they helped behead the king. Wang sees parallels he is trying to head off through his anticorruption drive.

While the anticorruption drive may be about restoring the CCP’s prestige, however, it is also about Xi neutralizing political opponents and centralizing his power. The campaign does not seem to target political or economic reform as its endgame. To the contrary, Osnos notes that in an important speech to Party members, Xi castigates the fallen Soviets for not being “man enough” to stand up for the Soviet Communist Party’s ideals. Xi does not intend to make that mistake. At the same time he roots out corruption, he is pushing back hard against “ideological threats” to the party. A leaked directive, Document No. 9, called for stamping out such things as Western constitutional democracy, and the notion of “universal values”, such as human rights. Xi, Osnos concludes, is shoring up the status quo, even if that means destroying part of the party in order to save it.

Nationalism, Religion and the Great Void of China

The conventional wisdom about China goes something like this: The CCP cut a grand bargain with the Chinese people after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is something of a “money for freedom” program: the people could get rich if they did not ask for basic freedoms (speech, voting, association). And if making money became more difficult, China would fall back on stoking the flames of an aggrieved nationalism. The CCP argued that it would right historical wrongs inflicted upon the nation by outsiders. The implication behind this thinking is that Chinese citizens could be sated with either guns or butter. But something else happened along the way—neither money, nor nationalism is satisfying the Chinese urge for the good life.

Osnos quotes Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author, on nationalism being akin to “cheap liquor…It get’s you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical….but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.” There is a spiritual and moral void in China. People do not trust the institutions around them: the Party is corrupt and hypocritical, business is corrupt and political patronage is rampant, and the media is censored or bought off.

Meanwhile, religion is booming. Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religions are making a comeback in the poorest and most rural parts of China; Christianity is roaring along everywhere. Osnos estimates that there are as many as 60-80 million Christians, rivaling Party membership. That statistic must be terrifying to a regime that views the organizing power of Amway with suspicion.

Osnos makes his point about the frenetic spiritual searching in China by entertainingly describing the practice of “spiritual hedging.” Chinese people may go to the Lama Temple to pray for good grades for the kids, then visit the Confucian temple midday, and end the day at the Catholic Church, just in case.

The less the Party touches religion or ideology, the more popular the Party is. People are tiring of the force-fed Confucianism, which smacks of a state religion used to justify state power. Chinese intellectuals have led an attack on the CCP’s Confucius, pointing out that the real one was able to criticize power. Osnos observes the sometimes not-so-subtle ways in which the Party responds to such criticism. A Confucius statue was erected and then removed from a sensitive area near Tiananmen Square. The Central Propaganda department banned any mention of it thereafter, leaving people to joke that he did not possess the right hukou permit for Beijing.

But if the god of the state is failing, the Chinese people encountered by Osnos are still on a quest for moral truths. Harvey Mansfield, the Harvard scholar, makes a cameo appearance in the book. After lecturing on Leo Strauss in China, Mansfield notes that while he encountered much pride about the resurgence of China, there was also a feeling that there is no “principle” to guide China’s rise. Thus, the turn to Strauss and natural-rights conservatism. Westerners of a more (American) liberal bent should rest assured that straussianism is not replacing communism as a guiding Chinese principle. The political philosopher Michael Sandel has rockstar status in China, packing auditoriums for his lectures on justice. The Chinese are clearly searching for meaning in their lives wherever they may find it.

That is not to say that nationalism plays no part in filling the spiritual vacuum. Osnos befriends the maker of a highly nationalist online video. The film reminds Chinese viewers of Mao’s warning that imperialism “will never stop trying to destroy us“ and asserting that China will have to “foot the bill for America’s financial woes.” The movie also captures Tibetan rioters looting stores in Lhasa, protesters trying to pull the Olympic torch away from Chinese athletes in Paris, and a picture of Chinese people holding the flag chanting, “we will stand up and hold together always as one family in harmony.” In its first week and a half, the online movie registered over one million hits. It has become a manifesto for the angry youth, or fen qing.

What ties together these anecdotes and insights is the long march for meaning in China. For now various “guiding principles” are in competition: religion, state-worshiping nationalism, justice and liberty. The big question is whether one will win out.

Human Rights and Foreign Policy

Perhaps inadvertently, Osnos demonstrates the connection between human rights and national security. At least the CCP sees one. When dissident intellectual and author of the Charter 08 document, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese propaganda department went into attack overdrive, portraying him as rich, out of touch and working for “Western anti-China forces.” China began to pressure countries not to go to the peace-prize ceremony, casting attendance as “challenging China’s justice system” at the expense of good relations with Beijing.

The CCP’s dealings with the artist Ai WeiWei followed a similar pattern. His captors told him that he had to be arrested for embarrassing the Chinese government, which was against “national interests.” In the CCP’s mind he had become part of the “peaceful evolution” strategy of the West.

The problem with the accusation is that “peaceful evolution” is a long-ago-discarded term. In U.S. policy circles, it was once used to describe the hope that once China became more deeply integrated into the international economic system, it would peacefully evolve into a democracy.

The CCP fought hard against this approach and so far, has won. Today, Washington no longer even pretends that a push for human rights or democracy is part of its policy toward China. But the fact that China still fears that the United States is pushing for the CCP’s demise and that it thinks that certain Chinese dissidents are in cahoots with Washington in this endeavor is revealing.

What explains the continued CCP obsession with the notion that the West, along with Chinese “agents,” is hard at work subverting it? There are several explanations.

First, there is some truth to the idea. If Washington is no longer actively pursuing human rights in China, every American president would prefer that China democratize. Second, authoritarian regimes are, by their nature, paranoid. They are at war against the basic rights of their people. As Osnos demonstrates, in their quest for truth and meaning, the Chinese people are finding more sophisticated and diverse ways of fighting the state. Third, by its nature, the United States is threatening to authoritarian governments, even when it bends over backward to assure that it is not pushing for political change.

The United States is by definition a highly ideological nation—formed on the basis of ideas of liberty—forever pushing new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and perfecting its own freedom at home. In a sense, the American people are on a perpetual quest for meaning , for riches, and for truth. Think for a second how subversive that must feel to the CCP—a party beset by a lack of trust, corruption and a desire to perpetuate its domestic power monopoly. No matter what Washington says or does, it will threaten the CCP.

And yet, precisely because America itself is an ambitious country of highly enterprising people, a smoother path may emerge in Sino-American relations. What if the Chinese people’s ambitious quest for truth and meaning aligns with that of the American people? What if independent religious expression, the search for liberty, and private enterprise dominate the Chinese people’s great awakening? That turn of events may terrify the CCP, but should give the rest of us some hope. By persuasively discarding the implicit idea that the Chinese people simply worship the god of mammon and the god of the state, Osnos has done a singular service.

Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has both served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for over a decade. From 2001 to 2004, he served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the Department of Defense. Additionally, he served as a commissioner on the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission since 2006-2012, and held the position of vice chairman in 2007. He has also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the co-author of "An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century" (AEI Press, November 2012). Follow him on Twitter: @dalexblumenthal.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov​/CC by-sa 3.0