16 October 2017

One foot in the big red circle

Yup. I’ve got reservations about that, too.

The Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies recently released a paper which appears to be (and is – though you have to wade into the footnotes to discover it) a continuation of the study by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing on nascent ideological formations in China, which caught my attention a couple of years ago. This study appears to be based on a much more fine-grained (but also more subjectively-based) survey that has a similar qualitative methodology, and which focusses on social media users in particular. It also has a broader and more ambitious set of goals, which I’m still not sure if it succeeds in meeting convincingly. Social media have a tendency to foster and voice opinions which may not resonate broadly off-line. The paper not only seeks to map the online presence of ideological formations, but also attempts to categorise and lay out the ‘party ideology’ of the CCP based on its interactions with all of these online groups in four case studies involving online controversies set off by a media-covered event or story.

The descriptions of eleven distinct online factions or ‘ideological clusters’ are interesting, and in some cases even convincing. They include three factions which fall mostly within the ‘party ideology’ (the Party warriors, the flag wavers and the China advocates), four which partially overlap with the ‘party ideology’ but also include critiques from various sides (the traditionalists, the Mao lovers, the equality advocates and the industrialists), and four which fall almost entirely outside the ‘party ideology’ and define themselves in terms antagonistic to the CCP (the humanists, the US fans, the democratisers and, increasingly, the market lovers). The rather more interesting thing about the paper is that it attempts to articulate the goal of the CCP as articulating a ‘China path’, a cultural and œconomic Sonderweg which runs agonal to the values and norms of the ‘West’, but which otherwise – in the words of the authors – ‘remains eclectic and vague’ in content.

The ‘China model’, in certain ‘eclectic and vague’ forms, is precisely something I’ve come to endorse, by degrees, over a long period of years of living and working there – and that includes the distrust of democracy. I’ve come to sympathise with the folks of Henan and Inner Mongolia – the two provinces in which I spent the longest time and where I developed the closest personal attachments. I understand, and even endorse to a degree, the populist sense of righteous brotherhood and solidarity to which the poor and downtrodden of the mainland Chinese interior are drawn – even if it is clothed in a ‘red’ mythology which tends to betray it.

I have a certain, very strong set of ‘traditionalist’ qualms about the current direction the ‘China model’ leads, though I also tend to hold out a kind of Tolkienian hope for it. I suppose you could say, even though I’m far from a fan of Mao and far from an uncritical supporter of the CCP, that I’ve got one foot firmly in the Big Red Circle the authors of the Mercator Institute paper describe. I’m personally still unsure I’d fit neatly inside of any of these ideological clusters, though if I had to choose one from the descriptions, it would likely be as a ‘China advocate – with profound reservations’.

The Mercator Institute – an affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations – paper unfortunately tips its own hand in the conclusion. The ‘China model’ is not a scholarly interest to be considered objectively as it was for Pan and Xu, but instead a threat to the West to be contained, resisted and neutralised by Western nations ‘revitalis[ing] their political institutions’ and ‘their œconomic and technological capabilities’. The way of the humanists, US fans and democratisers is taken uncritically as superior. It is therefore not an academic exercise but a policy paper written for use by NATO and the OECD as intelligence in geopolitical struggle, seeking to leverage upwardly-mobile upper middle-class intellectuals active on social media as a kind of intellectual fifth column in that struggle. Even as such, it does have elements of valuable analysis that deserve to be considered seriously.

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