Like no other Chinese leader since the reform era, Xi Jinping has worked on forging a uniquely Chinese national narrative. The search for a unifying ideology, long submerged by materialism and individualism, has taken center stage under his rule. Xi’s concepts such as the “China Dream” and the “China Path” will feature prominently at this month’s 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi´s thoughts and ideas will be enshrined in the CCP statute – as building blocks for an alternative model of governance to market-led capitalism and liberal democracy.
The Xi administration can build on a tradition of national pride and on a nascent Chinese exceptionalism. This summer, the box office success of the patriotic action movie Wolf Warrior II, whose hero is a “Rambo”-like Chinese soldier stationed in Africa, became a symbol of China’s growing national confidence and global reach in the Xi era.
CCP propaganda strategists have also seized the opportunity to question the stability of the United States and European countries in the wake of a populist politics and terrorist threats. They present China as a safe and stable alternative, and as capable of providing global leadership, for example by connecting Asia and Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative.
This vision is communicated through modern formats such as videos or cartoons, with the aim to appeal to audiences beyond party members, especially to the younger generation. The CCP’s ideology intrudes into increasingly more areas of people’s lives: education, online streaming, and private chat groups. Beijing has enlisted the support of domestic multipliers in Chinese social media, and is even exporting its ideological content abroad, including via Western platforms or institutions.
Yet all these efforts so far have not produced the envisioned result: a broad societal consensus on China’s future path. At least this is true for the country’s urban netizens. Their online commentaries reveal a plurality of opinions that is remarkable for a country with China’s level of censorship and repression of dissent.
A MERICS analysis of debates on prominent Chinese online bulletin boards such as Weibo, Tianya or Tiexue Net revealed a number of distinct ideological clusters, loose groupings of netizens who share views on China’s future course. There is a strong camp that either represents or voluntarily defends the official narrative, but others diverge from the party line to varying degrees and depending on the issue. For instance, these groups greatly disagree on the role of the market in China’s economy, the role of Western textbooks and theories in national education or the degree of freedom of the press. Even liberal voices openly critical of the CCP still manage to break through the Great Firewall.
Overall, nationalistic voices dominate many debates on Chinese social media platforms, feeding into the CCP’s narrative of a strong China. But there are widely differing views on how to express one’s patriotic fervor. When aggressive nationalists took to online forums to call for boycotts of the U.S. fast food chain KFC after an international tribunal’s ruling had undermined Chinese claims of sovereignty in the South China, fellow netizens criticized this form of protest as too extreme. Similar debates occurred more recently after South Korea’s decision to deploy the missile defense system THAAD with the United States had spurred anti-Korean protests in China.
China’s patriotic netizens also have divergent views on the preferred origins of their country’s national strength. One group wants to root China in its ancient paternalistic traditions to secure stability and moral leadership, while another longs for the perceived social justice of the Mao era. A third group cares less about morality and justice and instead views technological advance as the only way to secure future national strength. Many of these ideals are in line with Xi’s “China Path.” But that does not mean that their proponents trust the CCP to uphold these ideals.
Nationalism is also not equivalent to the anti-Western sentiment the CCP has tried to generate. In a survey MERICS conducted among netizens last year, 62 percent expressed support for a more assertive global role for China. Yet this did not seem to warrant the conclusion that they saw the need to defend against “Western villains,” as the hero of Wolf Warrior has to do. Respondents held predominantly positive views of Europe (92 percent) and the United States (78 percent). Seventy-five percent even stated they were in favor of the “spread of Western values.” This is remarkable as even in Beijing’s official definition, the term “Western values” includes concepts like constitutionalism or a free press.
The failure of official efforts to discredit Western models among the Chinese public is particularly visible in debates about education. A number of attempts by Chinese authorities over the past two years to ban or limit Western curricula in Chinese schools and universities have generated a significant online backlash from across the ideological spectrum. Many in the Chinese middle class share the ambition to send their children to Western elite education institutions – regardless of the CCP’s calls for ideological orthodoxy at home.
The Chinese government clearly feels threatened by these debates, and it has lately further tightened the space for online discussions, for example by holding owners of private chat groups responsible for “illegal content.” But China’s netizens’ desire to voice their opinions will be hard to silence, especially when the party-state attempts to interfere in their individual lifestyle choices such as education, entertainment or consumer preferences.
The online debates clearly show that the party-state has not been able to unite its population behind a coherent ideology and to create a “Chinese” alternative to “Western” values and models of governance. And despite all of the obvious problems in Western societies, “Western” education and lifestyles represent the blueprint for a better life for a majority of urban Chinese – at least for now.
Kristin Shi-Kupfer is the Director of Politics, Society and Media Research Area at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
She is the co-author of the upcoming study on “Ideas and ideologies competing for China`s political future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy.”