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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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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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