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Unlike any other Chinese leader since the beginning of the reform era, Xi Jinping has worked on crafting a unified national ideology with the aim to strengthen the ties between China’s citizens and the Communist Party of China (CCP). The Xi leadership tries to rally support around the “China Dream,” the vision of China as a global player, and it promotes the “China Path” as an alternative to market economies and liberal democracies.

Although partially successful, the propaganda offensive has so far not yielded the desired result: a broad-based societal consensus on China’s future course. A new publication by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) shows widely differing views within Chinese society on China’s developmental model and the country’s global role.

For their report, “Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s future,” Kristin Shi-KupferMareike OhlbergSimon Lang and Bertram Lang analyzed debates in Chinese social media and conducted a survey among predominantly urban Chinese netizens. The researchers examined debates on topics ranging from the South China Sea to the role of the state in the economy and the influence of “Western” ideas in China’s education system.

Even though party-state propaganda played a dominant role in these debates, the authors were able to identify competing ideological currents, some of which differ from the official ideology. Even pro-Western, economically liberal arguments were voiced despite China’s increasing censorship and repression of dissent.

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Ideological currents compete in social media

“Even in an environment of strict censorship, Chinese social media debates display a high degree of pluralism,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society. “This shows that the CCP’s ideological push has left many Chinese in the educated urban middle class unconvinced.”

The top-down approach to forge a unifying ideology is undermined by a fragmented public opinion in popular online chat groups such as Weibo or Tianya Net. Patriotism may be a uniting theme in these forums, but China’s netizens are deeply divided over the foundations of an ideology of national strength. While some would like to root China in historic traditions and values, others promote technological advancement as the only path to global competitiveness.

Views of the “West” are equally ambivalent. On economic policy issues, debate participants who express nostalgia for the perceived social equality of the Mao era compete with proponents of a Western-style free market economy. Both approaches are in conflict with China’s current state capitalist model.

Nationalism is not identical with anti-Western sentiment

China’s widespread nationalism is not identical with the anti-Western sentiment the CCP attempts to stir. In the survey that accompanies the study, 62 per cent of respondents were in favor of a stronger global role for China. At the same time, the overwhelming majority had a favorable view of Europe (92 per cent) and of the United States (78 per cent). 75 per cent supported the “spread of Western values.” This is especially remarkable as the term “Western values” implies constitutionalism and a free press even in the official CCP definition. 1,550 internet users participated in the survey in the summer of 2016.

A similar survey would no longer be possible in the wake of this year’s political tightening. At the same time, the space for open online debates has also shrunk since new rules, which went into effect this October, make initiators of private chat groups liable for the content.

“The Chinese government increasingly views pluralistic debates as a threat,” says Shi-Kupfer. “We have to expect that stricter censorship and ideological control will continue beyond the 19th Party Congress.”

Source: MERICS Paper on China No. 5: Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang, Bertram Lang, October 2017.

Click here, to download the study as a PDF.

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