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Xi Jinping’s Greatest Challenge

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China Power

Xi Jinping’s Greatest Challenge

It’s not anti-corruption or the economy, but a deeper contradiction.

Xi Jinping’s Greatest Challenge
Credit: Xi Jinping image via Kaliva / Shutterstock

During my recent trip abroad, several specialists and scholars who follow my blog held a small-scale seminar with the theme: “What Is President Xi’s Greatest Challenge?”

As expected, some scholars pointed to anti-corruption, which also serves as the theme in most of my articles, as the greatest challenge. Some scholars think the anti-corruption drive is mostly spent, that it will be difficult to continue due to many obstacles. But more scholars pointed to another challenge: the potential failure of China’s economic transition and an inability to transform China’s companies and industrial innovation.

Both of these problems are indeed huge challenges and closely related to living conditions for Chinese. We’ve seen strong words and deeds aimed at fighting corruption, but so far it hasn’t been matched by changes to the system itself. Meanwhile, as for economic transition, especially the industrial innovation appealed for by government, how can this dream become reality without a system that supports these goals?

But in my opinion, these still aren’t the greatest challenges facing Xi. We should define his “greatest challenge” as having a “butterfly effect”: Once this challenge is solved, the other problems will be as well – and as long as it remains, so will the other problems. So what is this great challenge?

Looking at Xi’s speeches at important meetings and occasions since the 18th National Party Congress, it’s easy to see his emphasis on three things: following a socialist road with Chinese characteristics; inheriting and developing Chinese culture and Confucian tradition; and implementing the 12 core socialist value. Since 1949, Xi is the only state leader who has ever emphasized the seemingly separate issues of system, culture, and values in his speech. The problem lies exactly here. Whether we’re looking at the practices of countries around the world or the current theories in both the East and the West, these three aspects cannot be lumped together – in fact, they’re often thought of as opposites.

Let’s talk about the system first. In the eyes of observers in the West, the socialist road is a disaster, proven by the fall of the Soviet Union and the current difficulties in North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. So many Western scholars are not able to explain or even understand how China made enormous economic achievements during its 30-year “reform and opening up” period using socialism with Chinese characteristics. At a time when quite a few scholars have started to rethink Western democracy and even some Western leaders seem less confident, China, a rare major country with “socialist characteristics,” is calling for “confidence in its system.”

Next, culture. Over the past 100 years, the Chinese nation has experienced twists and turns accompanied with disappointment and failure as it pursued freedom, democracy, equality, and prosperity. China began with an irresistible admiration for tools when confronted with the ships and guns of Western invaders, then moved to continuous experiments in political reform. Finally, with the May Fourth period, the Chinese people realized this wouldn’t do, and began to reflect on their own culture. More and more scholars began to join the movement to “remake our culture.” Of course, at that time they meant this positively. But throughout world history, has any culture ever been “remade” – except for those cultures destroyed by colonization?

During the Cultural Revolution, China’s traditional culture endured the most devastating blow. For instance, the Confucian school of thought was toppled and traditional culture was pretty much destroyed. In the period since reform and opening, of China’s leaders, it’s former President Hu Jintao whose actions come closest to the Confucian school by being gentle and cultivated, and focusing on “self-cultivation, family harmony, and country management.” Yet it’s Xi, who always quotes lines of Han Feizi from the Legalist school, who has paid a visit to Qufu, Confucius’ hometown, and called on people to learn from the traditional Confucian school and carry forward Chinese culture.

Consider also that the Marxist-Leninist system itself is a kind of “culture,” which knocks down or even destroys local culture wherever it spreads. When Marxism-Leninism ruled in the USSR and Eastern Europe, Eastern Orthodox tradition was languishing. After so many years of socialism, it’s hard to find the historical traditions and cultural inheritance of today’s North Korea and Cuba. But leaders in Xi’s administration hope that the socialist system with Chinese characteristics can move forward together with Chinese traditional culture and the Confucian school…

If that’s not surprising enough, here’s something more shocking: the 12 “core socialist values” are widely accepted in almost all countries across the globe: prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendship.

Without doubt, all existing Western theories–and China’s inherited Marxist-Leninist theory–believe firmly that a socialist system with Chinese characteristics and the values of “freedom, democracy, and rule of law” are contradictory, and that thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture cannot produce “freedom, civility, and harmony.” Is this a “Cold War mentality,” determinism, or simply ethnocentrism? Sadly, historical facts support this kind of “bias.”

Although the 12 core socialist values are widely accepted around the world, yet the sequence and implied meaning of the words reveal Xi’s ambitious “roadmap.” All Xi’s goals–from the political system to traditional culture–are contained in these 12 words. What’s more, contrary to Western nations emphasizing individuals, China’s list focuses on the state, then society, and the individual comes last.

Western countries always started their pursuit of modern civilization from a focus on the individual rather than the collective–you fight to get your personal freedom, then the country gets its freedom. But throughout China’s several thousand years of civilization, especially in modern times when the country was crushed by other powers, political figures generally led people to think like this: if our country isn’t free, how can an individual be free? How can you talk about freedom and equality when the country is desperately lacking in materials and often being bullied?

The 12 core socialist values put forward in the 18th Party Congress outlined a roadmap which leaders think is in accordance with China’s national condition. Tellingly, the first objective for China–the first “value”–is prosperity. A prosperous China can seek for a democratic path governed by law based on her own characteristics, and meanwhile embrace justice, equality, and harmony. In a country and society like that, there will be no reason for Chinese not to be “patriotic, dedicated, honest, and friendly.” Can this path to prosperity first, democracy second–different from the Western path that places individual rights before the collective–be accepted by the majority of Chinese in the current age of globalization and the internet? Can we be confident that people will be confident about this path?

If following “socialism with Chinese characteristics” corresponds to “confidence in the system,” then the revitalization of Chinese culture and Confucianism is equivalent to the “cultural confidence” and “theoretical confidence” put forward by the authorities. And the “12 core socialist values” may be regarded “confidence in China’s path.”

These three types of “confidences” seemed confusing to my Western audience. After hearing my explanation they seemed to understand–but as they understood, their faces looked like they had seen dinosaurs in the 21st century. In their view, there’s no country or person on earth who could merge these three things together; it’s an impossible task.

Actually this is also confusing to Chinese. The highest authorities have put these three pieces–the system, culture, and values–together into one document, giving the three equal significance. This is unprecedented, and has caused some turmoil in educational circles, on the internet, and among ordinary Chinese people. Some Confucian scholars think it’s a golden age for Confucius, and are accordingly preparing to save the nation. And some ultra-leftists feel joyous and inspired about the chance to go back to the old path or even reverse course. Liberals have responded in a relatively cool way. When they see the “12 core socialist values” posted in public, their first response is confusion mixed with fear. They don’t want to, don’t dare to, and are unable to believe that these words have been appropriated by the authorities.

There’s no clear way to reconcile the combination of socialism with Chinese characteristics, traditional culture and Confucianism, and the 12 core socialist values. If you muddle them all together, taking only what you want from each, how can you give China confidence in its system, its culture, and its path?

This isn’t only Xi’s greatest challenge – it’s a problem the must be faced by the Chinese people as well.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.