China's false debate on values

It may be true that China is heading in a positive and encouraging direction but the the use of the term 'Chinese values' to shut down debate and deflect criticism is absurd.

At the end of last week, China’s Minister of Education Yuan Guiren told a conference on ideological and propaganda work in higher education that it was necessary to “strengthen control over the use of original edition Western materials [i.e. materials not approved and processed by government censorship entities]”.

He continued that 'Western values' will never be allowed in the country’s classrooms and lecture halls and that “any views that attack to defame the leadership of the Party or smear socialism must never be allowed to appear in our universities”.

In China, public commentary condemning or even just disagreeing with Yuan’s speech is not easy to find. 

Modern China may be very different to what it was during Mao Zedong’s time. Far fewer people are now put into jail for dissenting opinions than occurred back then even if there has been an increase in the arrest and imprisonment of those considered ‘unpatriotic’ under current President Xi Jinping. 

But censorship is often self-imposed because it is not a good career move to publicly oppose Chinese Communist Party policy. Getting to the top, not just in politics but in any field, requires CCP approval (via various appointment bodies.) Opinions critical of government policy and statements are still rarely expressed openly.

There are courageous exceptions. One is Professor Shen Kui, an academic in law and former vice dean at the prestigious Peking University Law School. Responding to Minister Yuan’s speech, the professor posed three probing questions. It is a sure thing that Professor Shen will not get a response from the Chinese leadership. But the questions and commentary around them is enough to make some powerful points.

First, the professor asks: how do we distinguish ‘Western values’ so disliked by the leadership from ‘Chinese values’, which the CCP strongly promotes? 

After all, Marxism and Leninism came from the West, “crossing mountains and seas” to get to China. It is a ‘Western’ ideology that gave birth to the CCP. Marxism, a Western construct, is enshrined in China’s Constitution which stipulates that China must uphold ‘communism’, ‘dialectic materialism’, and ‘historical materialism’ -- all concepts from a Western intellectual tradition. 

As the professor concludes as part of his first question to Minister Yuan, "would it be possible for you to clearly delineate the line between ‘Western values’ from ‘Chinese values’?

The second question posed by the professor is this: how do we distinguish between “attacking and slandering the Party’s leadership and blackening socialism” from “reflecting on the bends in the road in the Party’s past and exposing dark facts?” As he continues, no political party would ever declare that it never made errors, and no society, capitalist or socialist, could ever say that there are no skeletons in its closet. Consequently, Professor Shen asked the Minister whether he can clarify the standard for distinguishing between ‘attack’ and ‘reflect’, and between ‘blacken and expose darkness’ when it comes to the CCP’s history.

Third, the professor resorted to China’s Constitution to pose a further inquiry. He asked: "How should the Education Ministry… implement the policy of governing the country according to the Constitution and the Law?" If the Minister has credible answers to the above two questions, then the request of the professor is that the Minister offer them in another speech in good time.

If the Minister cannot answer the above two questions comprehensively, then the professor suggests that the Minister “be cautious in your words and actions, because the Education Ministry relates to ‘the scientific and cultural level of the people of the whole nation’”, according to Article 19 of the Constitution. The Ministry is also responsible for ‘the development of the natural and social sciences’ according to Article 20 and citizens enjoy the ‘freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation, and other cultural pursuits’ according to Article 47.

As the professor concluded, if the Minister has no answer or clarification to ‘what can be done and what can’t be done,’ then the inference is two-fold. Either the Minister is unaware of the role of the Ministry under the country’s own Constitution, or the interpretation of the mentioned Constitutional articles have become so strict and narrow that it will be much too easy a thing for Chinese citizens to violate the Constitution. In such a situation, the Constitutional would presumably be either overly oppressive or else a meaningless document.

Professor Shen will not receive a response from the Minister and I doubt he is expecting one. But the riposte by the professor is raised in this article for a number of reasons.

One is that it is somewhat premature and misleading to offer seemingly nuanced observations that ‘China is very different today than it was in the past’ and that modern China is a hotbed of open debate and discussion. If that is true, then the standard is set very low. Why should Mao’s China provide the baseline standard of progress, and any improvement from that seen as all that Chinese citizens want or the country is capable of?

Besides, it is true that China is far less oppressive than 40 years ago. But openly criticising Party policies and senior CCP officials is still generally off-limits. It is patronising to believe that Chinese citizens do not harbour such critical thoughts behind closed doors despite attempts by the government to censor (or at least monitor) traditional media, education, all published material, public discussion and even the Internet.   

Moreover, the use of the term ‘Chinese values’ -- something some Westerners have comprehensively bought into -- to shut down debate and deflect criticism is absurd and meaningless. In addition to the professor’s point that the CCP borrowed extensively from Western ideological and intellectual concepts for the Party’s foundations to make the point that the notion of ‘Chinese values’ is arbitrarily defined and never permanent, no one Chinese political entity has the capacity or authority to speak for all Chinese peoples.

The majority of people in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are ethnically Chinese. There are significant Chinese populations in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is a far stretch to say that these Chinese all agree on the same political and social values.

Finally, it may be true that China is heading in a positive and encouraging direction. But it still takes personal and professional courage for Chinese citizens -- even individuals whose loyalty to country and Party is unquestioned -- to criticise CCP statements and policies. In this context, China stands in marked contrast to other advanced and developing Asian countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan (which is formally a country but not a state,) India, the Philippines and Indonesia to name six. Others such as Singapore and Malaysia are heading in that direction.

If one wanted conclusive evidence that the ‘Western’ versus ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’ values debate is a false one, this would be it.     

Dr. John Lee is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, and a Director of the Kokoda Foundation defence and security think-tank in Canberra.      

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