15 April 2015

Pan, Xu and the perpendicular politics of China

A highly-important study was recently released earlier this week by SSRN, by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing of Harvard University and MIT, respectively. This study is the first attempt to gauge the ideological spectrum of Chinese society, and the results are… interesting, to say the least. They shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, to people who have been studying Chinese society carefully since the mid-1990’s. The study is based on the zuobiao.me survey, a Political Compass-style quiz based on the Chinese context. Of course, there are some massive and, as the authors of the study freely admit probably insurmountable, external-validity problems when relying on a self-reporting survey; random sampling is all but impossible in a Chinese political context. But the data themselves are still immensely valuable. The key finding that Pan and Xu have identified is that the Chinese political spectrum is largely one-dimensional – but in a way which runs exactly perpendicular to the political spectrum in the Anglo-American West.

As Pan and Xu put it:
Individuals who are politically conservative, who emphasize the supremacy of the state and nationalism, are also likely to be economically conservative, supporting a return to socialism and state-control of the economy, and culturally conservative, supporting traditional, Confucian values. In contrast, political liberals, supportive of constitutional democracy and individual liberty, are also likely to be economic liberals who support market-oriented reform and social liberals who support modern science and values such as sexual freedom.
Western politics is no stranger to the idea of the sexually-libertine, secularist free-market libertarian, so the Chinese ‘right’ is not something which will take many in the West by surprise. But the idea of a socialism which is also socially-conservative (in spite of the efforts of yours truly), might still take a number of Anglophone readers by surprise.

Part of the reason China is so fascinating to me is precisely because it is in such a good position to examine, explore and critique the antinomies of Western political thought. Ideology is something foreign to Chinese society generally, but as the society has already developed several antinomies and pathologies distinctive to itself, ideology has begun to emerge on a completely different set of assumptions than it has in the West.

It has developed in accordance with a ‘depoliticised politics’ of the sort critiqued by Wang Hui in The End of the Revolution, and the current ideological debates can be thought of as two differing reactions against the state-driven authoritarian pragmatism of current official circles. (What so many outside observers still get so wrong about the Chinese government is that they call it fascist, communist, or state-capitalist when in fact the reality is much more banal. The Maoists are gone. The Chinese government consists of the technocratic, antidemocratic disciples of Dewey and James.) Ideology in such a context derives its force from the way in which a people who have long been disconnected from their own public sphere need to negotiate this depersonalised and depoliticised state, and in which they need to legitimate, compare and contrast their own experiences to those they find on the outside.

The two political ‘sides’ run perpendicular to Western politics. Whereas Western politics are divided between a liberal left and a conservative right, Chinese politics are divided between a liberal right and a conservative left. In America we are broadly used to seeing leftists as urban, upper middle-class, college-educated coastal cosmopolitans, and rightists as rural, working-class, relatively uneducated, agricultural interior parochialists. The exact inverse holds true in China. Leftists in China tend to be rural, working-class, agricultural and from the interior. The coastal cosmopolitans, on the other hand, hold views similar to American libertarians.

Choropleth map of China’s provinces from Pan and Xu’s paper

On one level, this should not be surprising. Western politics taken as a whole, is the norm which the Chinese ‘right’ by and large embraces, and against which the Chinese ‘left’ militates. It is only natural and understandable that the Chinese ‘left’, with its critique of the modern West and its scepticism about the applicability of Western political categories to a Chinese context, should draw upon traditional resources, shore up traditional structures of authority, uphold the nation-state as a bulwark against unwanted foreign influences and hold culturally-conservative positions. But on the other hand, it is possible – and indeed necessary! – to analyse this entire construction with a critical eye, as Wang Hui does. Adopting nationalism as a medicine against liberalism is, as the Chinese say, to tear down one wall to build up another (拆東墻補西墻). The modern Chinese nation-state is unfortunately always already the instrument of a secular understanding of social anthropology and all the political realities associated with it.

I don’t say this unsympathetically. I’ve taken the zuobiao.me test before, and came off as an ‘authoritarian conservative welfarist’: (-0.4, -0.8, -1.0). I’m rather an oddball in the West with my blend of economically-leftist, culturally-conservative politics. But, given my Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan fandom and appreciation for political Confucians like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, I fairly solidly identify with the culturally-traditionalist Chinese Left, although my localist, religious qualms about concentrated state power render me a rather mild authoritarian by Chinese standards. But at some level, it’s precisely these localist and religious qualms that I feel the Chinese Left and the political Confucians will have to adopt as they run up against the hard limits of their nation-state.

Still, the question of Chinese politics is an immensely interesting one. There’s now a site to watch – Chublic Opinion – which will be exploring some of the implications of the raw dataset from zuobiao.me, as well as analysing the paper by Pan and Xu later this week. It’s run by someone who appears to be my political opposite, but I do highly encourage my gentle readers to give it a look! It’s sure to be very interesting. Also, I imagine the Sinica Podcast will be running a discussion on this topic soon, so stay tuned for that as well!


  1. If the results say "libertarian conservative welfarist," does that mean one is a Sun Yat-sen partisan?

  2. There are worse things to be, Idrian! :D Great to hear from you again.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I never thought you'll still remember me