Xiao Gongqin

Professor, Shanghai Normal University

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Xiao Gongqin is Professor at the Department of History, School of Humanities, Shanghai Normal University, and Professor of politics with Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Oct 17, 2011

Neoconservatism: Will It Be a Third Option After Leftism and Rightism?

After more than 30 years of reform and opening-up, China has come to the deep end of social transition. How it will overcome this predicament has become an issue arousing attention and concern.

One notable fact proving the intensification of contradictions and predicaments during this period of transition is the polarization of social identity in China. A typical case is the recent claim at http://www.wyzxsx.com/, a website run by so-called New Leftists, that New Leftists in 22 provinces across the country will jointly lodge a lawsuit against Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling. Ninety-five percent of the netizens that viewed the petition of appeal expressed their support. A few netizens even pasted the petition at other websites. However, to their surprise 95 percent of netizens viewing the repost strongly criticized and denounced the so-called petition. Not only did these two groups of netizens dispute each other in concept, they also were extremely emotional in expression. This case demonstrates the eye-catching split of social identity in China today.

Between the late 1990s and the early 2000sthere was a comparatively high degree of social identity in China. In those days, the Liberals had not become desperate. It is true that the New Leftists already grew into a force at that time. They never puffed up, however, as they now do at the website. They now have encouragement. They tell themselves, that China has returned to the Marxist road of their understanding. This can be proved by a declaration at their website: If 2009 was the period of strategic defense for us New Leftists, and 2010 was our period of strategic stalemate, 2011 would be our day for strategic counteroffensive.

How should we look at the New Leftist trend of thinking in present-day Chinese society? Some people have divided the Leftists into New Leftists and Mao-styled Leftists. What’s the difference between them? New Leftism is in essence a kind of critical thinking that has emerged during the in-depth development of modernization in present-day China. To put it in common terms, it criticizes China’s reality as being capitalist. New Leftists can be divided into doves and hawks. The former are academic, and criticize capitalism with the theory of Frankfurt and Postmodernist theories. The latter, meanwhile, are populism-motivated. As for the Mao-styled Leftists, they are even more radical. They idolize Mao Zedong as imaged during the Cultural Revolution, and hail him as a symbol of their romantic prop against capitalism, both meant as an expression of their contention for justice and equality.
There is one simple way to tell a dovish New Leftist from a hawkish one. Those that use a language hard to understand are doves, while those that use a language easy to understand are radical Mao-styled Leftists. The former indulge themselves in the Utopia hailed in Postmodernist theories without taking any notice of the cognition of other people, while the latter advocate populist revolutionary mobilization against capitalism. Although the New Leftists appear extremely aggressive in the Internet world, they actually account for less than one per cent of Chinese netizens. 

Standing against the New Leftists are the Westernized Liberals who believe in the achievement of an ideal democratic society through importation of the political pluralism that has proved effective in Western countries. There are also a handful of radicals that long for the outbreak of ‘a jasmine revolution.’ Small in number, however, these people constitute no source of concern for the Chinese government. In fact, most intellectuals cherishing liberalist values agree with the ideas of democracy, law, human rights, and freedom. Taken as a whole, these people line up on the dovish side and advocate advancement of democracy and law under the current system.

In recent years, however, most of these doves have come to feel disappointed and alienated from the current system. They have also become less identified with the government. Once a system is denied of heartfelt support from the moderates, national cohesion will be jeopardized.

Given the continuous split of social identity, the Neo-conservatism first proposed in the 1990s may be taken as the third option beyond Leftism and Rightism for developing a new type of social identity. 

The New Authoritarianism advocated in the intellectual circle in the late 1980s may be seen as the predecessor of Neo-conservatism. It is in essence an expression of opposition to radical reformists. When it was first proposed 20 years ago, Neo-conservatism was mainly meant to confront liberal radicalism cherished by Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s. In the eye of Neoconservatives, the 1989 incident was a tragic conflict between the romantic radicalism advocated by intellectuals and a government buried in daily routines. Neoconservatives aim their criticism at three targets: Westernized liberals, Mao-styled Leftists, and ultranationalists. They are all radicals, although of different feather and following different directions.

What do Neoconservatives set their sight on, then? First of all, they look for gradual achievement of democracy based on a civil society while maintaining the traditional social order installed by the Communist Party of China. In the eye of Neoconservatives, the Chinese ruling party can play a vital role in at lease two fields at the time of transition toward modernization. First of all, it can bring together different social elements, and secondly, its authority can serve as an effective lever indispensable for such transition and development because it is impossible to carry forward modernization without a lever and because China has neither any well-developed middle-class forces nor any well-established civil society establishments or any other forces, 

What should be specially pointed out here is that both the orthodox fundamentalists and Neoconservatives respect the governing authority of the ruling party. What is the difference between them, then? From the viewpoint of political philosophy, the orthodox fundamentalists defend conventional systems because they believe these systems fall into line with the ultimate truth of faith, while Neoconservatives stand for existing institutions because these institutions are useful. As US scholar Peter Burger once put it: the respect agglomerated for the institutions established over a long period of time will empower it to meet the new targets of a society.

In fact, the famous saying by Yan Fu, the first Neoconservative in modern Chinese history, that a society never moves forward without innovation, and becomes rootless without preserving its tradition and conventions, is actually a Neoconservative manifesto in contemporary Chinese history. Here Yan used the word ‘preserve’ in its truest meaning. With this word, he was actually referring to the functional role of traditions and conventions in the maintenance of order. Obviously, Yan Fu was not acknowledging the significance of traditions and conventions from the angle of beliefs. He was a Neoconservative not an orthodox fundamentalist.

Another key branding of Neo-conservatism is its advocacy for enlightenment and progress. It is a kind of open conservatism that calls for China’s development into a newer and more civilized society instead of a return to the past.

The development logic of Neo-conservatism may be roughly generalized into the following: 1. Achievement of political stability through an enlightened and patriarchal authoritarian regime; 2. Promotion of development of a market economy by way of maintaining political stability; 3. Achievement of corresponding social diversification by way of promotion of economic development; 4. Development of a civil society through social diversification and differentiation of interests; 5. Promotion of intercourses between different civil associations and interest groups and encouragement of concession, consultation and exchange of interests among them. Neoconservatives count the spirit of contract, the spirit of compromise, the spirit of law and the spirit of rationality as elements of a civil culture. Instead of falling from the sky, these elements are cultivated among civil bodies through self-education. In other words, a civil society is a community university teaching civil culture. 

After completion of the five logical phases described above, China will gradually grow, through economic development, into a country with a fairly mature civil society and a fairly well-developed civil culture. This achieved, installation of an integrated democratic system in China will become a natural and easy job. If the above course is not followed, and attempts are made to develop democracy prematurely, however, China will surely fall into the trap of populism and get caught in a hideous catastrophe. All these are the basic standpoints of Neo-conservatism. It should be specially pointed out here that since China has long operated under a totalitarian regime, the civil society and civil culture developed in its history have been totally eliminated in revolutions. As such, it will be even more difficult and take an even longer time to restore a civil society and a civil culture in China than in many other countries such as Spain, Portugal and South Korea that used to operate under a totalitarian regime. In this sense, the ideological assertions of Neo-conservatism calls for even greater attention in China.

Neoconservatives believe that democracy should be nurtured and boosted in China step by step. It will not do to administer a shock therapy based on the current system. Neither will it do to simply import some Western systems as Russia did in its ‘500-day Program.’ As believed by Neoconservatives, the development line consisting of political stability, economic development, social diversification, and creation of a civil society and a civil culture under an enlightened patriarch is a sequential alignment. Just as Mr. Li Zehou once pointed out: China’s modernization should go through four phases in succession: economic development, civil liberty, social justice, and political democracy. Obviously, many far-sighted personages have long come to realize that democracy can never be achieved at one go or in one day.  

Populism: China’s biggest danger in the future

Populism is what Neoconservatives should keep in closest watch. Populism means mass mobilization, or political option based on the tastes of the general public. New Leftists advocate mass mobilization, while Liberals stand for one-man-one-vote direct election. Both are nothing, however, but a varietal expression of populism. It can be said that both New Leftists and Liberals opt for populist democracy. If we skip the stage of development of a civil society and a civil culture, and introduce so-called democratic election through ideological enlightenment and system importation, those who take control of the constituency will command the will of the general public and subsequently decide the destiny of the nation. This result will always be very dangerous because it is not based on a civil culture or submitted to the deterrence of multiple forces.

Suppose China introduces the practice of presidential elections. Someone may come forward and say that he is bound to liberate Taiwan if elected, or take back Mongolia, or recover the land seized by Russia. Or someone may vow to ask Japan for all the reparations of World War II. There may also be someone that may promise to tax the rich heavily till they come near bankruptcy so as to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. A politician who fires up the sentiment of the broad masses with these promises will surely win much more votes than a statesman who is cool-headed, pragmatic and rational.

A politician that comes to power by resorting to such populist tricks will either plunge the nation into the dangerous abyss of war, or sink the country deep into debts through equalization of material benefits. When Argentinian president Peron raised the wages of the country’s labour force by 40 per cent within a short span of time, for instance, both foreign capital and foreign investment pulled out of the country, and a large number of people became jobless. Since it had no way to scale down the level of material benefits, the Argentinian government had to print bank notes in large quantity and borrow heavily from other countries. The result is the country’s sharp fall in the world ranking of living standards – from the 6th place before World War II to far below the 70th today. Up till today, Latin America as a whole is still suffering from the disastrous results of populism. The Latin American Disease as has come to be known today is actually a populist disease.

Apart from the populist ruler we have discussed above, there may also be another type of ruler that may come into power by resorting to other populist tricks: a phrasemonger that is incompetent of action but good at turning parliaments into political chatting rooms. Without any ability to solve the contradiction between economic transition and polarization between the rich and the poor or to exercise effective control of an overall situation, these people are mere skeletons. Examples in this regard include the weak governments growing out of populist politics in Thailand and some other South Asian countries. It is justified to conclude that no president that comes into power through populist mobilization will do his or her job well. Such a president will either be a ruler on the weak side, or a dangerous politician kidnapping his or her country.  

Some people may say that it is total nonsense to talk about populism in China right now because, they argue, that the extent of political participation is extremely small due to the strict restriction of the authoritarian political regime and that general election of the president is totally impossible in China. There have been frequent cases in history, however, when things develop in the opposite direction after reaching the extreme. Once the Chinese society runs out of control, it is highly likely that populism will become the only option favoured by its entire people and it will be too late for us to do anything about it. In other words, it is easier for populism to develop in a country with a centralized system. In a country with a centralized system, the ruler and the bureaucrats ride at the top and the atomized individuals lie at the bottom, with no social organizations or strata nestling at the middle. When a revolution breaks out, this dumbbell-shaped society will either become a revolutionary society where the whole people will come to follow the flagman they look up to, such as Mao Zedong in contemporary Chinese history, or be turned into a democratic populist society.

Populism will be the greatest danger for China in the future. To avoid this great disaster, it is necessary for China to keep to one principle, namely, orderly development of a civil society and a civil political culture under the current system. In one sense, an authoritarian government declining to develop a civil society will just be a hotbed nursing the growth of populism.

Shielding against populist traps through development of a civil society

One important reason why populism has kept gaining force since the 20th century is the popularization of the idea of human rights. This is a good deed in itself. During the drive for democracy, however, it is those who are good at agitating people by demagogy that will gain control of the general public and seize state power. The famous populist saying in Latin America that ‘give me a balcony and I will become the president’ best signifies such a situation.

When Britain first began to promote democracy, populism did not debut there. It classified its citizens into voters and non-voters according to their property rights. Within this boundary, the game rules of democracy were always held in esteem and never exposed to any challenge from populism. The rules of democracy were disseminated step by step, and the democratic cultural rules and climate already in place were used to civilize, bind and reorganize newcomers. Since the newcomers made up just a minority in the camp, they would try to learn the game rules of democracy, bind themselves by the norms of democracy and game rules, and become the ‘insiders’ in the end. Going round and round, this came to be the course of socialization of democracy. During this process, the democratic culture maintained its capacity to integrate and domesticate newcomers. Populism, however, has taken the other way around. Populism usually develops in societies long submitted to autocracy. Once the autocracy collapses, each and every of the citizens would come to bathe in democracy out of a sudden and become voters. Since none of them have ever received any training in democracy, the one-man-one-vote system would look extremely sacred and cater totally to public will. Those who got the majority votes would then gain the say over the future and destiny of the country. Newcomers would flood into the democratic circle, and become the easy targets of demagogic politicians. People would get totally lost, and the whole nation would move to the brink of extreme danger.

Taiwan has also been exposed to the populist trap due to its hasty democratization. Chen Shui-bian, for instance, exploited extreme means to provoke strong response from the mainland and add to the woes of local Taiwanese. He then took advantage of the sentiment of these Taiwanese to canvass votes, without regard of the danger of plunging them into war. He benefited a lot in the end. Presumably, Chen Shui-bian followed such a course to win election: provocation against the mainland – strong reaction from the mainland – fanning up of sentiment among local Taiwanese – emphasis on local identity – winning of a populist majority. When I visited Taiwan, a scholar there told me to advise my friends on the mainland to copy the British model when promoting democracy. Never follow the Taiwan example, he warned.

It is impossible, of course, for China to directly import the British model. The British model was developed step by step under the historical condition of a feudal society of aristocratic status, a condition non-existent in China and most other non-Western countries that have newly risen up. Once the course of democracy gets under way, it would be perfectly justified for the general public to become the masters and any attempt to extend this course within a limited scale will surely be questioned by the public. They would question, for instance: why is it that we are not qualified to enjoy democracy as you do? This would be a most commanding question that can not be shunned by any of us.

Why should China lose no time to develop a civil society once the wave of democracy rises? This is because a civil society is a course for the general public to educate themselves and successfully get rid of their populist values and way of thinking.

Under China’s current authoritarian system, it is natural for some government officials to feel anxious that once government control over the establishment and operation of autonomous mass organizations is lifted, a large number of organizations will mushroom to confront and conflict against the government, thus posing obstacles to political governance.

It should be pointed out that the development of a confrontational civil society in Britain and the United States is just one example throughout the human history of civil society development. Most other countries in the world do not take the same path. Instead, they have opted for corporatism. In other words, corporate bodies representing different interest groups are created by the government to integrate these interest groups through government control and with government support. On the one hand, these corporate bodies are always kept under effective government control, and on the other hand, these state-owned bodies will ultimately develop into social ones as time goes on. They will soft-land into autonomous civil bodies, so to speak. Most countries in the world have followed this path to develop their civil societies.   

If our government officials extend their field of academic vision a little bit and come to know that the British and US models of civil society development are not the only ones in the world, they will not confine their drive along one single path or got unduly nervous about any innovative development. Rather than the formation of a civil society trap, it is the lack of knowledge on the part of some of our government officials that have landed them into an ideological trap. If such a misunderstanding about civil society by some officials is merely personal, it will not matter much. If their misunderstanding comes to leave any imprint at the decision-making level, however, it will matter a lot because China will lose the best opportunity to develop a civil society.

Guard against the comeback of the ultra-Left trend of thought

What worries us is that the ultra-Left trend of thought may take advantage of our political drive to develop a revolutionary culture to gain a legal stage for its public expression of view. Once any major social or economic crisis breaks out in China, the possibility of a political ultra-Left trend will surely gain new momentum. In this sense, it is more likely for China to see the fundamentalist black revolution fanned up by ultra-Leftists than the colour revolution instigated by radical Westernized liberals. In Iran, for instance, it was the fundamentalist anti-reformists that joined the social forces discontented with reforms to kick off a revolution. Since the leaders of this revolution wore black robes, it has come to be known as the black revolution. What China should try to prevent, therefore, is such a black revolution instead of a red revolution. Given the social injustice permeating in China and the growing resent at its social bottom, the probability of an ultra-Leftist black revolution seems to be much bigger than a liberal colour revolution.

When analyzed from the angle of politics, it will be discovered that it is not possible for the colour revolution to break out in all societies. This is because its outbreak is preconditioned by a special social structure. First of all, the country where such a revolution may break out must install the multi-party system and introduce the system of general election. Secondly, this country must be structured on a weak state and a weak society. It must have a structure of double weakness, so to speak. More specifically speaking, it must be the child of disadvantageous democratic politics.

The mechanism for the outbreak of the colour revolution is this: with a weak state system, a democratic government can neither make due achievements to fulfill the will of its citizens, nor be powerful enough to wipe out corruption or overcome social injustice. At the same time, its people do not have the ability to communicate with the powerful state departments over settlement of social contradictions. Such failure in governance will inevitably end in widespread dissatisfaction among the people. Because of this, the opposition party will get the chance to win over a large number of voters through populist mobilization and fanning up of public sentiment. Foreign political forces will also add fuel to the fire for their own ends. This way, the opposition party may easily come into power. Coming to power through populist means, these new politicians will not be able to run a an advantageous government and will find no way to solve long-lasting problems, Their citizens will feel dissatisfied and this cycle will go around and around, with one opposition party coming into power through populist means after another.

Obviously, a colour revolution will break out only under the condition of a weak democratic system. The system currently in work in China is just the reverse. It features an extremely strong state and an awfully weak society. It does not allow general election at all, and the destiny of the government is not subject to the number of votes. The system fit for a colour revolution does not exist in China at all. When some people worry about the outbreak of the colour revolution in China, they are simply trusting in their skin-deep analogical thinking. As a matter of fact, China has taken a path totally different from that of some former communist countries. China, for instance, operates under an extremely powerful authoritarian system, while Ukraine and Kazakhstan run under a weak democratic system. The two differ widely from each other in terms of structure. State control over the society has been constantly strengthened in China for fear of the outbreak of the colour revolution, resulting in the vicious cycle of the state growing constantly more powerful while the society under its control continuously losing its independence. This is a situation somewhat similar to yangkang, a disease in Chinese medicine, in which what is already hyperactive should never be constantly nourished.

Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China’s reform and opening-up policy, had actually been a constant opponent against taking up class struggle. He was clear-headed, and knew the harms of Leftist ideology. Once the Pandora’s Box of class struggle was opened, it could never be sealed up again, and the black revolution would come ever closer to China.
According to the authoritarianism advocated by Deng Xiaoping, public participation in politics should be kept at the minimum. According to Deng, the broad masses of people should be led from the square to the market, and integrated into the logic of political apathy advocated by the authoritarian government. When a state has not developed sufficiently to satisfy all the demands of its people, political indifference helps minimize public participation in politics and contributes to political stability, thus giving the government enough time and space to regulate the national economy with ease. This is also the logic derived from the experience of most authoritarian states in successfully moving into modernization.


Xiao Gongqin is Professor with the Department of History, School of Humanities, Shanghai Normal University,
and Professor of politics with Shanghai Jiaotong University.