China's New Moral Education Campaign


A visitor to Beijing over the last few weeks will have had trouble avoiding the latest swathe of slogans pasted everywhere from public notice boards to roadside billboards. Flashing among the usual advertisements are brash neon-lit signs extolling socialist values.

There is nothing new about such campaigns. Among all the changes in China, the constant presence of slogans has been reassuringly stable. In the mid-1990s, when I was living in Inner Mongolia, even the most remote grassland areas were full of phrases extolling “love of the motherland” (a slogan linked to a patriotic education movement at the time) and even more direct exhortations to “raise the quality of the population” (tigao renkou zheliang). In the era of Hu Jintao, from 2002 on, it soon became impossible to wander far without coming across some formulation working in Hu’s trademarks of “scientific development” (kexue fazhan) and “harmonious society” (hexie shehui).

The latter was a particularly rich one for ironists. I once saw two brawny men having an all-out fist fight under a huge sign at Beijing’s airport demanding that Chinese people bring about the harmonious society. Chinese society in the Hu era had many facets, but harmony was not the most obvious of them.

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In the China of Xi Jinping, the most striking aspect of the slogan campaign is its emphasis on moral education. The so-called socialist values are broad enough to encompass nearly any virtue. The values listed in that category include equality, justice, industriousness, professionalism, and harmony. This heady mix is bereft of any explanatory framework.

But the emphasis on these values comes as China is in the midst of a major clean-up of the party through the anti-corruption struggle, and as Beijing moves toward something akin to Chinese-style austerity politics. Falling growth means an end of the excesses of the Hu and Wen golden years. Slowing economic growth means that the Party is now concentrating on a different kind of capital – moral capital rather than economic wealth.

This has posed a number of tricky challenges. The Party itself is almost like a morally autonomous zone. It regulates itself, judges itself, and asserts values which derive from within itself, with no appeal to a transcendent spiritual world outside of its domain. Atheistic to its core, it cannot avail itself of the sort of ethical foundations that political parties in other systems do, where churches and religions look after people’s spiritual needs. Unlike many other political entities, the Party has to have answers to essential moral questions such as what is regarded as a good action and what the rewards and punishments are for good and bad deeds.

There are complex reasons why the Party needs to now concentrate on moral capital formation. Social fragmentation and inequality within China is one issue. Rising contention in society and battles between different groups — socially, ethnically, and regionally — is another. Money and wealth figure as part of the problem here, not part of the solution. The current campaign thus makes profound political and social sense. Promoting moral education – both in schools and in a public campaign – aims to develop social capital and make society more self-regulating and stable.

The only problem is that the Party itself has no ready foundation to appeal to for this moral campaign and is both unlikely and unwilling to cede this space to anyone else.

In recent years, there have been moves to appeal to one relatively non-contentious source of moral validation that is outside the Party, but which the Party can lay claim to. This is broadly described as “traditional Chinese culture.” Appeals to traditional culture started under Hu and are now being developed by Xi and his chief ideologue Liu Yunshan. Under the Party’s definition, traditional Chinese cultures essentially boils down to a heterodox menu of ideas taken from classical Chinese philosophy, and in particular from the work of Confucius. A respect for stability, order, and hierarchy expressed through the ancient sages’ work fits the ruling Party’s current agenda well, as do the reassuring ideas such works convey of a China of great antiquity and cultural stability and continuity.

However, there’s one glaring problem with the appeals to China’s classical roots in the current moral education campaign. The Party, for its first three decades in power, set itself precisely against the sort of philosophy and ethics presented by Confucius. In the Cultural Revolution, in the early 1970s, there was even a campaign specifically aimed at Confucius and his influence. Does the current volte-face indicate a capitulation on the part of the Party – a repudiation of the things it once believed in? Or does it show what a supremely pragmatic and flexible entity it is, able to adapt and adopt as it sees fit to ideas it once regarded as anathema?

At the moment, it is hard to be sure precisely which description is the most realistic one. The only thing that an observer can safely say is that the Propaganda Departments locally and nationally in China are expending huge efforts on campaigns involving moral capital formation. Whether these reach deep into their core target – the hearts and minds of the Chinese people – is another matter. But it is interesting that the Party knows it has to do this and is expending so much effort and time on trying to succeed.

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