The Benefit of Traditions

A fascinating workshop on “The Chinese Communist Party and the Politicization of Traditions” took place at the University of Zurich, 6–8 June 2013. It facilitated exchange between political scientists, East Asian studies specialists and China observers to reach a fuller understanding on what, why, and how traditions are communicated and politicized today by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley

The organizers, Simona Grano, Philipp Hetmanczyk and Ralph Weber, identified a relatively unknown area of the CCP, which deserves more scholarly attention, namely the CCP’s internal decision-making process and the formation/transformation of its ideological positioning. A more rounded insight into the CCP’s mechanism of power and the discourses it chooses will provide the basis for a better and more effective engagement with China’s central political force.

Will Confucius inherit the ideological role of Mao Zedong in the future? © Stephan Liechti

The doctrine of the ‘Harmonious Society,’ championed by President Hu Jintao in 2006, exemplified how the CCP reconstructed Party ideology by amalgamating socialist and Confucian terminology in its official rhetoric. Hence the workshop was designed to investigate how philosophical and religious terminologies and practices may have been (re)interpreted and (re)invented as traditions by the CCP, and to determine which historical narratives have been adopted to strengthen the Party’s ideological standing. As Mark Leonard has discovered, intellectual discussions in China often become “part of the political process, and are used to put ideas in play and expand the options available to Chinese decision-makers.” [1]

The analysis of the way the CCP manages traditional and historical resources helps demonstrate the dynamics between different political factions in China. The organizers of the workshop therefore identified another set of research questions: who are the actors within the Party who decide or oppose the politicization of traditions, and how will this process further shed light upon the interplay between different stake-holders within the CCP?

The invited presentations can be largely divided into two categories: political analysis and the discussion of cultural, philosophical and religious traditions. Representing the former approach, Natalia Lisenkova (University of Zurich) situated the theme within a broader context. She argued that it is increasingly difficult to separate international and domestic perspectives on China. For example, Chinese nationalism as a tradition is no longer merely a domestic national security issue, but also has a significant impact on Chinese foreign policy and especially on the international community’s perception of China’s behavior. Lisenkova unpacked how different political concepts (such as nationalism, globalization and regionalization) were shaped by China’s leaders as well as how Chinese foreign policy has evolved under the weight of the domestic political environment.

China’s soft power strategies

Gary Rawnsley (Aberystwyth University from September 2013) also discussed the workshop’s theme from an international perspective. He analyzed China’s approach to soft power and focused specifically on the way narratives of culture, tradition and history are used in soft power strategies. His talk highlighted the problems of projecting such themes, especially in terms of their contrast with a favored narrative of modernization. Moreover, his discussion identified the weaknesses of the cultural approach to soft power and how these weaknesses may be understood. He pointed out that changing the global conversation about China, even though the principal motivation of China’s strategy, is not easy given audience perceptions of political reality.

Nele Noesselt (German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg) looked at the domestic dimension and urged us to examine the continuity of the Chinese regimes. She noted that while Chinese culture and tradition have provided Chinese leaders with sources of legitimacy, President Xi Jinping is now advocating the ‘Chinese Dream’ as his contribution to Chinese socialist thought, i.e. a trope not anchored in tradition. This ‘dream’ may reveal the strategic direction of the new leadership.

Marxism, Socialism and Communism

Benjamin Lim, senior China correspondent for Reuters, summarized the domestic and international challenges that China faces. These include the internationalization of the Renminbi, the impact of 550 million Internet users in China, and the country’s rapid urbanization, all of which pose new problems for the CCP’s power at a time when the Party tries to maintain economic growth and social stability. Moreover, Lim stated how observers of Chinese politics believe that Presidents Jiang and Hu were transitional, but that they speculate Xi Jinping may be a leader who can consolidate power and define a new era. Since the CCP will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, it will be interesting to explore how Xi will lay the foundations for his legacy.

In the field of philosophical and religious tradition, Giorgio Strafella (University of Nottingham and University of St. Gallen) explained how Marxism in CCP discourses became an invented tradition. Employing textual analysis he showed how Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought became “irreversibly correct.” Hence the CCP used ‘humanism’ terminologies to save Marxism from the remnants of the Cultural Revolution and to continue the relationship between Marxism and reforms in the 1980s. After Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in the early 1990s, Party discourses emphasized the fact that Deng constantly discussed and studied Marxism, which elevated Marxism from thought to a Party tradition, and most recently President Xi Jinping asked the Chinese population to have faith in Marxism, Socialism and Communism. In this way, Strafella revealed how Marxism has been transformed by the CCP from dialectic thought to a guiding ideology, from a continuing tradition to a faith.

Julie Remoiville (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris) presented her research on Daoist temples in Hangzhou. Based on her observations acquired through anthropological participation, she illustrated how religious traditions can be easily politicized by local authorities through arbitrary interpretation of regulations to allow (or forbid) a variety of practices. However the most serious challenges for local Daoist temples and priests are not necessarily politics, but financial hardship and the difficulty of finding willing successors to carry on local religious traditions.

André Laliberté (University of Ottawa) outlined the management and administration structures of religious affairs in China. He explained how the Chinese state responds to religious pluralism to promote a self-image of tolerance on the one hand and sets boundaries for acceptable religious practice on the other. His work on Buddhist charities in Taiwan and China has led him to explore the ways in which philanthropic associations contribute to the disciplining of the labor force by supporting an ethos that emphasizes compassion and selflessness.

While Ai Jiawen (University of Melbourne) highlighted the tension between conservative Marxists and neo-traditionalists by studying why the statue of Confucius disappeared from Tiananmen Square in 2011, Philipp Hetmancyzk (University of Zurich) analysed the transformation of the CCP’s ideology by examining how the role of religion changed from being labelled “feudal superstition” during the Cultural Revolution to being seen as part of an “intangible cultural heritage” in Party rhetoric today. Ralph Weber then offered a philosophical framework to conceptualize this empirical observation and provided theoretical analysis of cultural traditions. According to Weber, the lower the textual evidence, the more interpretative effort is required by political actors, which may then lead to the higher degree of politicization of traditions. He used the CCP’s (re)interpretations of Confucian texts to illuminate the Confucianization of the PRC where filial piety becomes law. This also helps explain the political implications of the Confucian notion of self-cultivation, upon which the state claims a harmonious society can be built.

Unlocking secrets of the CCP

The workshop was a valuable gathering of scholars and experts from different fields with similar research interests. It offered a rare opportunity for trans-disciplinary dialogue and the cross fertilization of ideas. By its close, the participants had discovered more similarities than differences in their understanding of China and the CCP, but found that the different approaches open a new layer of discussion on the politicization of traditions, which led to a more nuanced perception of the CCP’s political decisions and ideological (re)positioning. The workshop in Zurich helped unlock some of the intriguing secrets of the CCP’s mechanism of power and its internal decision-making process and did so by approaching the subject from an understanding that culture and tradition continue to play a big role in Chinese politics.

[1] Mark Leonard, What does China think?, London: Fourth Estate, 2008, p. 17.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 3/2014, pp. 15–16)