Why the Chinese Dream needs theory.

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Recently, the Office for the Marxist Theory Research and Construction Project, which is subordinate to the Central Propaganda Department, issued a call for proposals, in which it requested a number of specific research institutions to file projects in relation to fifteen broad headings related to the Chinese Dream.

1, The historical origins and contemporary background of the Chinese Dream

2, The opportunities and challenges faced in realizing the Chinese Dream

3, The basic content and main characteristics of the Chinese Dream

4, The Chinese Dream, the Party’s governance concepts and the country’s development objectives

5, The Chinese Dream is a dream that relies on the people and benefits the people

6, Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the necessary path to realize the Chinese Dream

7, The Chinese Dream and carrying forward the Chinese spirit

8, The Chinese Dream and concentrating China’s strengths

9, The Chinese Dream and constructing the Socialist core value system

10, The Chinese Dream and realizing the “Two Centuries” struggle objective

11, The Chinese Dream, national defence and military construction

12, Realizing the Chinese Dream and taking real action to rejuvenate the country

13, The Chinese Communist Party is the leading core for realizing the Chinese Dream

14, Realizing the Chinese Dream benefits the civilizational progress of the world

15, The Chinese Dream and work in all areas.

 According to the notice, proposals needed to be filed before the end of June, with a decision being made early July, and finished “research achievements” to be submitted before the end of August. These will primarily appear in the form of theoretical articles, probably in Qiushi or similar journals; as internal reports or survey reports; in main Central newspapers; or be sent to relevant departments for reference. Funding will provided at the end of the year, on the basis of the quantity and quality of “research achievements”.

 Leaving aside the question of which research achievements are possible within less than three months for conception, research and drafting, this approach comes across at somewhat strange to someone used to Western academic traditions. The research institutions are effectively asked to justify Chinese policy dogma in a manner that is more akin to medieval scholasticism than it is to current concepts of social or political thinking. In other words, the necessity to use science to prove Party dogma bears more than a passing resemblance to the valiant efforts of Thomas Aquinas to seek understanding through faith. Equally, the verdict of Bertrand Russell applies:

There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.

The overlaps between Christianity and Marxist thought have been well-described earlier. What is more interesting at this point is why such special pleading is still necessary in the China of the 21st Century. It is often said that the United States is the first country founded on an idea, but it is clear that the same is true for the Chinese Communist Party. While it has discarded the strongly Socialist jargon of the Maoist era, the CCP continues to legitimate its rule on the basis that it has a scientific recipe to guide China towards modernization. It has been a staple of Chinese politics to venerate successive leaders as great thinkers, who each add their distinctive stamp to the evolution of Chinese political theory. By now, any major policy document will indicate that it is guided by Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Important ‘Three Represents’ Thought (Jiang Zemin) and the Scientific Development View (Hu Jintao). While it does not yet seem the case that case that Xi has carved out a particular ideological niche for himself, he certainly has launched a number of important buzzwords, such as the Eight Rules, the Eight Musts, the Four New Modernizations, the Chinese Dream and the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. While this drive to boast about the genius of political leaders can be understood as a reflection of Party’s scientific claim to truth, the vacuity of many of these official terms leaves the Chinese population as well as foreign observers without much concrete information on policy and intentions.

And nonetheless, I would argue that we perhaps do not pay sufficient attention to ideology when we try and understand what goes on in China. I believe ideology is important for two reasons: first, it identifies political goals and methods; second, it contains philosophical assumptions about social reality and human functioning. In other words, a better understanding of ideology helps us to, on the one hand, understand the future towards which the CCP aims to lead China (the Chinese Dream, national rejuvenation, a wealthy, strong, civilized and democratic modern Socialist China), as well as the methods for this process (the harmonious society, social stability, economic growth). On the other hand, it allows us to identify the premises on which these thoughts are based (a strong conception of rationalism, historical determinacy, voluntarism and the transformative nature of political knowledge). In short, these premises can be summarized as: the future path has been predetermined but is foggy to us, we must use science to clarify the path, and then progress along the path with great vigour and energy, without slackening.

These premises show through clearly in the recently announced “mass line” campaign. This campaign comes in the wake of claims that the Party risks becoming separated from the public. It has become too large, and many of those who joined recently have only done so for material benefit. They do not possess the required spiritual drive and Socialist mentality, and therefore, rectification is necessary. Better knowledge about the deep meaning of the Chinese dream is needed as a benchmark on which to grade the quality of Party members. In turn, these establish their loyalty through the time-honoured tradition of biaotai (expressing an attitude), which means that they repeat the proffered slogans as justification and basis for their actions.

It seems to me that this does not imply that there has to be a profound, true belief in this ideological content. Rather, it comes across as a public declaration of loyalty to the collective by autonomous actors who will then behave strategically in order to derive the outcomes they desire in a way that can be made to look consistent with the official narrative. A little like the Catholic church, perhaps?

In any case, this offers us a glimpse of a particular aspect of Chinese politics that we don’t yet know too much of: the production and circulation of ideas and discourse, and the concomitant reward structures for scholars and researchers. Frank Pieke’s excellent work already went some way in helping us understand the role of personnel and training in the CCP of today, it seems that an accompanying volume on the generation of epistemic content is required.

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