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Forbidden Thoughts

Seven ideas you can’t hold in today’s China.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By LESLIE LENKOWSKY
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In late April, a 70-year-old Chinese journalist, Gao Yu, was taken into custody, one of several human rights activists rounded up to keep them from observing the 25th anniversary of the massacre of student protesters by government troops in Tiananmen Square. Shortly afterwards, Gao appeared on television, confessing to a specific offense: leaking what the Chinese news agency Xinhua described as a “highly confidential document” to a foreign website.

No. 9

Newscom

“I admit that what I have done touched on legal issues and threatened national interests,” she said, according to the BBC. “My actions were very wrong.”

What had she revealed? Not the plans for a new Chinese warplane or cyberattack. Not even details about the real health of China’s economy or major industries. Rather, as her lawyer has all but acknowledged, the secret paper Gao made public was “Document Number 9,” issued a year earlier by the main administrative office of China’s Communist party. Entitled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” it demonstrates what the leadership of China regards as truly threatening: not the West’s economic or military might but its political and philosophical ideas.

Pronouncements such as this—the ninth issued in 2013—aim to instruct the party faithful throughout China on official doctrine as promulgated by the Central Committee and, importantly at that time, newly chosen President Xi Jinping. Like the others, Document Number 9 was meant to be discussed at local party meetings and inform party-run publications and websites, but was not for public consumption. It opens a window into what China’s normally secretive government officials are thinking, or at least want loyalists to think, which, thanks to the unfortunate Gao Yu, everyone can now know.

The communiqué focuses on seven “false ideological trends, positions, and activities” that the party leadership believes are spreading in the country and endangering “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Foremost among them is “Western Constitutional democracy,” the idea that good governance requires a separation of powers, general elections, a multiparty system, an independent judiciary, and other features. According to Document Number 9, China’s system of government should reflect “Chinese characteristics.” It should place “the Party’s leadership” and “the People’s Democracy” ahead of the political and legal processes championed by the West.

Likewise, in the eyes of China’s leaders, advocating for “universal values” amounts to claiming “that the West’s value system defies time and space, transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity.” Such arguments are “confusing and deceptive,” they contend, because China—and “Socialism”—should subscribe to fundamentally different values.

These include rejecting individual and economic freedom. Document Number 9 dismisses “promoting civil society” as based on the idea that “in the social sphere, individual rights are paramount and ought to be immune to obstruction by the state”; it pits “the Party against the masses.” Nor does “neoliberalism,” defined as relying on private property and markets to shape economic activity, fare any better. The “catastrophic consequences” that have occurred in “Latin America, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe” show its flaws, the authors write, and underscore the dangers of efforts “to weaken the government’s control of the national economy.”

Also disparaged is freedom of the press. It is an idea, says Document Number 9, which challenges “China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.” Those who embrace it “gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology.”

Writing about the past is suspect as well. “Historical nihilism,” which Document Number 9 defines as the repudiation of the “historical purpose” of the Chinese revolution, such as by rejecting “the scientific and guiding value of Mao Zedong thought,” is not only mistaken, but also “tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance.”

Finally, the communiqué makes clear that questioning public policies, even in the name of “reform” or of “opening,” is impermissible. Raising doubts about the direction or pace of the government’s current course will “disturb people’s existing consensus on important issues like which flag to raise, which road to take, which goals to pursue, etc.,” ultimately retarding China’s “stable progress.” Not least of all, Document Number 9 warns that this could encourage “Tibetan self-immolation,” “terrorist attacks in Xinjiang,” and the breakup of China along ethnic and religious lines, among other dire consequences.

To prevent those, the party leadership called on its followers to work harder in the “ideological sphere.” They should do more to “distinguish between true and false theories” and be steadfast in their efforts to control the media. “We must reinforce our management of all types and levels of propaganda on the cultural front, perfect and carry out related administrative systems, and allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread,” Document Number 9 concludes.

In a country as vast as China, this would be no small feat, even for the Great Helmsman himself (and he certainly tried). Indeed, the government’s extensive efforts to block Internet access to websites it deems offensive are more annoying than effective, as both Chinese citizens and foreign visitors have learned ways to bypass them. Notwithstanding the party leadership’s attitude toward civil society, China’s nonprofit sector has been expanding, with the greatest growth coming among grassroots groups that choose not to register under the country’s onerous laws (which are slowly being eased). Despite official distaste for Western values, record numbers of Chinese students are studying in the United States, where they learn not just science and engineering, but also what life in a free society is like. On Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, a survey by Foreign Policy in April showed far more chatter about Christianity, Jesus, and God than about the Communist party, Xi Jinping, and Mao Zedong.

In the “ideological sphere,” seemingly, the party still has a great deal of work ahead of it. And how committed it is to doing this work is not clear. According to China watchers, Document Number 9 is unpopular among the party’s rank-and-file. A communiqué issued last November to mark the end of the Third Plenary Session of the party’s Central Committee laid out an extensive program of economic reforms, including more effective use of “market systems,” but devoted little attention to ideological matters.

Still, journalists remain wary of writing about sensitive topics; social scientists fret about how the government might use their research; visiting professors need to be alert lest their presentations are altered to avoid material the government regards as troublesome.

For all its prosperity and international importance, China remains a deeply insecure nation. Document Number 9 (and subsequent speeches by party officials supporting it) suggests that China’s leaders still see themselves as guardians of political and philosophical beliefs that their citizens are rapidly abandoning.

Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor at Indiana University. The Document Number 9 translation is by China File, a publication of the Asia Society.

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