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The Party Goes Retro for National Day

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This year’s National Day celebrations in Beijing have been tepid at best. Perhaps the Party is holding back a bit before blowing it out next year for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Mao updated his profile pic as he does at this time every year and the new painting seems to be an upgrade after Mao spent the past twelve months looking like he sat for his portrait after getting the world’s worst spray tan. He’ll have plenty of company hanging out in Tiananmen Square, however. Last year, over 700 million people traveled around the country during a special eight-day Golden Week. Even reverting to the seven-day norm, this year promises to break records. Beijing’s most famous sites routinely lurch under the weight of Golden Week tourists pouring into the city. Each year at this time it seems like Beijing goes to Thailand while the rest of China comes to Beijing.

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While this year is an off-year for major celebrations, the Party – including the Rejuvenator-in-Chief – has been busy going retro. Now, I’m a big fan of retro. Tiki drinks. Shag carpets. The music of Led Zeppelin. But the Party’s version of back to the future has left many folks in Beijing scratching their heads as State media rolls out a collection of golden oldies including “Bourgeois Liberalization” and “Self-Reliance.” Just like the recent bizarre fetish of American television producers to replace “let’s come up with new and interesting ideas” with “Hey, Magnum PI was a big hit in 1981. Let’s do that again,” the Party risks getting stuck in the past.

Just before China went on holiday for Golden Week, the Party dropped a circular which, according to the Global Times, “sets a bottom line for Party members’ political disciplinary actions, but also imposes stricter requirements on their online behavior. Those who support the position of bourgeois liberalization and oppose the Party’s decisions on reforms and opening-up through online platforms will be expelled from the Party.”

Opposition to Bourgeois Liberalization – the creeping threat of peaceful evolution toward a Capitalist society – was a hot topic back in the 1980s, back when Magnum still had a mustache, and was a frequent target for the ire of Deng Xiaoping and hardliners in the Party. In an address given in 1989 entitled, appropriately enough, “We must adhere to Socialism and prevent peaceful evolution toward capitalism,” Deng warned:

As you know, two of our General Secretaries fell because of their failure to deal with the problem of bourgeois liberalization. If China allowed bourgeois liberalization, there would inevitably be turmoil. We would accomplish nothing, and our principles, policies, line and three-stage development strategy would all be doomed to failure. Therefore, we must take resolute measures to stop any unrest. Whenever there is unrest in the future, we must stop it, so as to maintain stability.

The idea of China magically morphing into an open and democratic society has long been a “China Fantasy,” to borrow the title of an excellent – and prescient – book by James Mann published over a decade ago. But just because this scenario is more fantasy than reality doesn’t mean the Party is willing to take chances. Recent campaigns targeting historical nihilism, the existence of universal values, and stricter controls at schools and universities are all part of a well-established effort to protect the Party’s monopoly on ideology.

Writing over 20 years ago, the late political scientist Richard Baum nailed the current climate of China in his 1996 article “China after Deng: 10 Scenarios in Search of Reality.” In the article, Baum is dismissive of the prospects for peaceful evolution and predicted the split between technocrats interested in promoting economic development and social stability (what he called Neo-Authoritarians) and China’s Neo-Conservatives:

Leninist princelings and bureaucrat-capitalists who jettison the rhetoric of class struggle and the “four cardinal principles,” reverse the process of economic and fiscal decentralization, and bolster their legitimacy by appealing to patriotic sentiments, Confucian virtues and widespread popular fear of social chaos and discord.

Sound familiar? Baum saw the rise of this group as one of the most likely scenarios for China in the post-Deng era, with a caveat:

Neo-conservatives are generally against chaos, uncontrolled rural emigration, and the inherent “noisiness” of free institutions, markets and minds. But what are they for, apart from Motherland, discipline and the oligarchic concentration of economic and political power?

Attempts to revive other hits from the past include “Self-Reliance” and the ghost of Lei Feng with Xi Jinping last month encouraging people to “to become ‘screws that never rust.” This year, there was also a half-hearted attempt to revive Marx in service of State propaganda and most recently an attempt to turn Xi Jinping thought into China’s next favorite game show.

It’s the kind of television programming which almost makes reviving Roseanne seem like a wise business decision.

Perhaps the real danger will come when today’s youth raised on a pablum of microwave Marxism and Patriotic education start believing the message in fun and unpredictable ways. Last month, student organizers began forming groups to discuss the inequalities inherent in Chinese society from a Marxist perspective. Uniting ideology and action, the students then started mobilizing to help impoverished families and to support workers’ attempts to form unions figuring this was what Xi Jinping would want them to do.

Whoops.

The Party may be all about going retro with anti-Bourgeois Liberalization warnings and recapturing the spirit of Lei Feng, but actual Marxism or Socialism… not so fast young comrades, not so fast.

Previously from this column:

What Donald Trump Could Learn About Staff Loyalty from the Ming Dynasty

The National Fetish

Why are international travelers turning away from China?

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.

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