In an impressive 2011 study of psychological and moral change in China over the last six decades, Arthur Kleinman from Harvard University and a group of colleagues looked at one of the most fascinating, but illusive issues – how have the Chinese people changed over the period of dramatic transformation from Mao’s era into the “reform and opening up” period. After all, few countries can have been through such epic disruption. A person in their late 50s or early 60s (the age of most of the Chinese political elite) would have been a teenager during the collectivization mania and red guard chaos of the Cultural Revolution. They would have seen fervent, unquestioning worship of Mao; then they would have seen all this debunked, and unthinkable things like foreign capital, markets, and private enterprise rise to dominance. In their lives, the change has been 180 degrees.
No wonder the people interviewed in Kleinman’s Deep China sound disorientated. As the book makes clear, while change was dramatic in the outer world, this was accompanied by perhaps an even more remarkable transformation within Chinese people. After suppression of the individual self and its associated desires, aspirations, and wants in Mao’s time, from Deng’s era onwards individualism and the growth and dominance of small networks around specific individuals has dominated — bringing the death of the idea of some grand, collective vision for society.
Chinese people, not just the landscape and the material world they inhabit, are fundamentally different now because of this. They speak a different language, act in different ways, and view the world differently than the generations that preceded them. They may physically inhabit the same country, but spiritually and mentally they live in another realm. Kleinman and his authors call this “the emergence of a new and original Chinese bourgeois culture that centers itself on the outer and inner furnishings of a new Chinese self.” It is, they conclude, “one of the great historical pivots in Chinese society.”
Acknowledging this means that all the statements about Xi Jinping being a new Mao are senseless. Inwardly and outwardly, the role of politics in Chinese people’s lives is fundamentally different now from how things were in Mao’s era. Imprecations for self sacrifice and abnegation of the personal for the collective don’t have traction in Chinese society any more. In some ways, there is no such thing as Chinese society en masse; instead there are myriads of Chinese societies, with the political class simply stuck with the challenge of coming up with some kind of common language to talk to all of these people.
This helps in trying to make sense of the choice of political tactics under Xi. He cannot be an autocrat in the style of the Chairman. But there are some useful methods he can take from the Mao period, including manipulating ill-informed nostalgia by some about that time in China in order to find a common political language. Nationalism is one area of commonality. This has the added attraction that Xi and those around him sincerely believe in the notion of a Great, Unified, Strong China, which they can use to ratchet up nationalism and unify the public. The only real Maoist characteristics Xi and company have is that fact — they are conviction politicians. Their nationalism is not assumed; they themselves believe in it and share it with the public, and that gives them a kind of authenticity with Chinese characteristics.
The other feature of the Xi style of politics that we have witnessed in the last year or so, as it relates to Deep China, is the way in which it displays a move to limit the zone of politics rather than expand it. For the vast majority of Chinese people, the corruption struggle, the clampdown on NGOs, and the pushback against media might almost be happening on another planet. While the outside world rightly recoils from this intensification of state activism, inside China it impacts on too few to really matter. It is symptomatic of the way that politics is viewed as something that involves a small circle of people, an activity that was long since discredited and banished from daily lives. That at least is the dominant mode of public imagination. Chinese people are refugees from politics, not devotes or fans of it. Who wouldn’t adopt this posture when looking at the lamentable role that political struggle has played in the People’s Republic and its predecessors in the last century?
Of course, the idea that a huge society might simply shove politics to the margins and get on with its business apolitically is a gargantuan myth. Politics are everywhere in China, percolating down to the most minute level, just like everywhere else. But the difference is that overt public engagement with political activity is, of course, restricted either to being a Party member and simply operating within the rubric that supplies, with no hope or chance of much innovation or creativity, or opting to go for something new, and taking the high risk of being labeled a dissident, with all the unwelcome attention that can gain for you.
There is a great paradox here. In order to bring about changes that will create a more bourgeois, service sector-orientated, sophisticated economy in China, one guided by individual choices and energy, the Party and government will need people to involve themselves in politics more, to move out of their discrete, self-protecting networks and start to work for a larger social vision. But that also carries the risk of politicizing a whole section of the community whose disinterest in politics serves the Party just now absolutely fine.
Xi’s style of leadership is symptomatic of the politics of spectacle — remote and dramatic, but barely touching the vast, inner lives of the Chinese people. For sure, today he rules supreme over surface China. Deep China, however, is, as yet, unconquered territory for him and his colleagues. This is unlikely to change.