A Nation’s Common Denominator
No. 4 2015 October/December
Alexander V. Lomanov

Doctor of History
Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences,
Moscow, Russia
Deputy Director for Scientific Work


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Chinese Values to Challenge Western Ones

China’s growing resolve annoys the West, but today’s global leaders remain quite skeptical about the chances of an alternative “Chinese world order.” Creating a different world order requires a different set of political values. If one assumes that China has neither the ideology nor values other countries may find attractive enough, it is easy to surmise that the chances of China’s international agenda look slim.

However, Beijing has learned the lessons of the Western “soft power” concept. Shortly after Xi Jinping’s rise to power, the goal of systematizing and promoting Chinese values took center stage in the official ideology.


Chinese pundits maintain their country’s economic and international political rise is proceeding amid the dominating Western discourse, which heavily relies on liberalism. China refuses to recognize that discourse system as universal and has no intention to follow or safeguard it. President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Wang Weiguang is certain that all concepts of values are historical and concrete. No value under the sun is constant and abstract. The ideas of freedom, democracy, human rights and justice have specific social and political content and their change depends on specific economic and social conditions.

Wang says the West is trying to sell its own values as “universal ones.” Claiming that its interpretation of freedom, democracy and human rights is global, the West advances it in every corner of the world. It masterminds “color revolutions.” It stops at nothing seeking to undermine and topple political regimes in other countries. Wang, an authority in China’s expert community, believes that hostile forces inside and outside of China employ the “universal values rhetoric” to defame the Communist Party, the “Chinese brand of socialism,” and the dominant ideology. The same forces are determined to use Western values and outlooks to change China and turn it “into a colony of some industrialized countries again.” The latter remark refers to the Western pressure exerted on China in the middle of the 19th century after its defeats in the “opium wars.”

Memories of the imperialist powers’ colonial policies are intertwined with the postulate of confrontation between the two systems. Editor-in-chief of Hongqi Wengao magazine (“Red Flag Manuscript”), Zhang Xili, believes that ideological struggle with the declining Western hegemony will intensify. In his opinion, China and the West are likely to plunge into rivalry for control of discourse in the world.

“The tree may prefer calm, but the wind is endless,” says Zhang Xili, pointing out that after the end of the Cold War the U.S.-led Western world turned its weapons against socialist China. With reliance on military strength and “soft power” the West put up an “ideological smoke screen.” It laid a “discourse trap,” pushing ahead with its own values. It urges China to abandon its own path, system and ideology. “One can expect that while socialism in China attains more victories and bolsters international influence, the Western hegemonic forces will not quit the commanding positions. The rivalry of socialism and capitalism has not disappeared. On the contrary, it is becoming ever more acute,” said Zhang.

Widely known is Document 9, which the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China issued in April 2013. This paper was not meant for open publication; however, leaks to Hong Kong media made its highlights known to the general public. Document 9 is a digest of the ideological issues the Chinese authorities regard as most sensitive ones.

The document identifies seven risks emerging from Western ideology that require China’s primary attention. The first risk comes from the “promotion of Western constitutional democracy,” including the separation of three powers, a multiparty system, general elections, independent judiciary, and a nationalized army (in China, “the party commands the gun”). These ideas negate the current leadership and the government system of socialism “with Chinese characteristics.” The second risk comes from the “propaganda of universal values.” Their advocates claim that Western freedom, democracy and human rights are universal and eternal. They distort the Chinese interpretation of such values and rock the “ideological and theoretical basis of the Communist Party rule.” The third risk stems from the promotion of civil society and claims that human rights are paramount and that the state has no right to interfere in public affairs.

“The promotion of neoliberalism” is interpreted in the document as an intention to “change China’s basic economic system” towards total marketization and complete privatization by advocating the “market omnipotence theory,” rejecting the government’s macroeconomic control policy, and arguing that state-owned enterprises are inefficient “national monopolies.” “The promotion of the Western idea of journalism by espousing “freedom of information” and defining mass media as “society’s public instrument” and the “Fourth Estate” challenges “China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.” “The promotion of historical nihilism” is aimed at distorting the history of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China. The advocates of this viewpoint see revolution only as destruction. They argue that the road to socialism leads in the “wrong direction.” They go from denying the historical role of the Communist Party of China to denying the “legitimacy of its long-term rule.”

Doubts about the policy of reform and openness constitute another problem. It is claimed that reforms “have gone too far” and China has “deviated from its Socialist orientation.” Some claim the reforms have brought about “capitalist socialism” or “new bureaucratic capitalism” (in the second half of the 1940s the Communist Party of China was struggling for power by slamming the Kuomintang’s “bureaucratic capitalism”). Although this language criticizes China’s development from the standpoint of left-wing ideology, it also mentions the use of Western criteria for assessing the interconnection between the political and economic reforms, which leads to complete negation of the course of reform and socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, economic liberalism, the lifting of control from mass media, critical re-consideration of the history of the party and the state, doubts about the leadership’s commitment to the ideals of socialism – all these ideas are very alarming for the Chinese authorities. The situation is reminiscent of the Soviet-era social and political discussions in the second half of the 1980s. Wishing to avoid the plight of the USSR, the Chinese leadership has restricted the spread of “Western values.”

Their list appeared six months after Xi came to power. Most of the aforesaid views have been present in China’s intellectual space since the 1990s, and each of them was a target for criticism in the past. Quite new is the attempt to make a comprehensive assessment of what has been happening in China’s ideological and theoretical domain in terms of political stability in the country.


The possibility of a conflict between proactive ideological campaigns and the policy of openness was confirmed at the beginning of 2015. On January 29, the Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Education Minister Yuan Guiren as saying: “Strengthen management of the use of original Western teaching materials. By no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.”

China’s Internet audience exploded. Influential bloggers warned that a ban on Western manuals and books would harm the quality of education. Some even caustically called for protecting from “Western values” the children of China’s elite who are studying abroad. The West responded to Yuan’s statement by claiming it was a sign of China’s going back to intellectual self-isolation.

On February 2, 2015 the newspaper Zhongguo Jiaoyu Bao (“China Education Daily”) interpreted Yuan’s call somewhat differently: “Firmly restrict the penetration of teaching materials propagating erroneous Western views into our universities.” So, restrictions were proposed not on all Western teaching materials, but only on those with “erroneous views.”

There have been no attempts to restrict the sale or use of Western manuals or teaching aids after Yuan’s statement. However, in the middle of March many of Chinese higher education institutions received special letters requiring the teachers to promptly fill in questionnaires and specify what foreign textbooks they were using, what place these textbooks occupied in the curriculum, what was their origin, and who had authorized their use.

Getting such permissions had been easy and teachers widely used the freedom to select Western books they liked either in the language of the original, or in translation. Over the past decade, China’s Education Ministry strongly demanded expanding bilingual education with reliance on advanced foreign books. Under the slogans of “internationalization” and “connectivity with the outside world” the flagships of China’s school of higher learning created lecture courses on the basis of Western materials (according to 2007 statistics, Tsinghua University had about 500 such courses and Beijing University, 30). Foreign books on economics, sociology, management theory, political science, psychology, and mass media are used most often.

Inside China, calls for restrictions on the teaching of “Western political values” are explained by their mismatch with the Chinese realities and the risk that they may provoke social unrest. Deputy director of the State Cultural Security and Ideology Building Research Center, Zhu Jidong, explained that “Western values” do not incorporate the “correct knowledge of Western social sciences.” He referred specifically to such “erroneous” ideological trends and values as constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neo-liberalism, and historical nihilism.

The authorities are determined to limit the scale of “Westernization” of higher education so that the students do not consider the Western model as the only possible way for the country to develop. A commentator said quite frankly: “Chinese universities will resolutely prevent the emergence of a second or third university of Hong Kong. China will strongly resist attempts to turn it into the former USSR.” The initiative to step up ideological work at higher education institutions was put forth in 2014 amid student protests in Hong Kong. Their possible spread is seen as a major threat to the country’s stability that may lead to its collapse similar to the Soviet one.

Quite noteworthy is an open letter to philosophy and social sciences teachers, entitled “Teacher, Don’t Talk About China This Way!” and published in the November issue of Liaoning Ribao (the paper of the Communist Party’s committee in northeastern Liaoning Province). The paper launched an Internet poll in order to find out “what China should look like in the classroom.” It collected more than three hundred accounts of “how teachers scold China and praise Western countries.” More than 80 percent of the polled students said they had met professors who were “fond of grumbling,” and who painted the Chinese state only in dark colors, particularly in such fields as law, management, and economics.

To get a better idea of the problem, Liaoning Ribao’s journalists went to hear lectures in two dozen higher education establishments in five different cities and arrived at the conclusion that the teachers lacked convictions. Some instruct students in ideological and theoretical subjects in a “frivolous manner,” unveil Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ “private secrets,” liken Mao Zedong to ancient emperors, ignore the Communist Party’s newest theories, and equate concrete practical problems to theoretical errors. Secondly, they lack political confidence. Some demonstrate sentiments typical of “people who were educated abroad:” they profess the Western principle of “separation of three branches of government;” believe that China should follow the Western path; openly criticize the Central Committee’s policies; and exaggerate the problems of corruption, and social equality and justice issues. Thirdly, they are unable to control their emotions. Some teachers complain about their personal problems; take pride in their reluctance to join the Communist Party; use doubtful information borrowed from the Internet in their lectures; scare students with the “evil of society;” and advise them to take care of themselves. Journalists said it was all wrong; instead students should be shown a “clear way,” “an integral model” and a “bright future of China.”

The Chinese leadership is worried about the negative influence such attitudes among teachers and professors may have on young people. At a conference that reviewed the implementation of the joint document the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council issued in October 2014 under the title “Opinions Regarding Further Strengthening and Advancement of Ideological Work in Higher Education Institutions in the New Situation,” Minister Yuan Guiren prohibited university teachers from criticizing the Communist Party, discrediting socialism, and sharing personal complaints and grievances with students.

The authorities have undertaken to “teach the teachers.” The demand for qualified teachers holding doctoral degrees from leading universities remains high. But the obsession with telling the students that everything is fine abroad but all is bad in China may become a major hindrance to career growth.


China names not only the values that are unacceptable to it, but also those it regards as fundamental. Efforts to construe one’s own discourse are proceeding on a wide scale, and the ideological dilemma “capitalism or socialism” is considered in the context of the old-time dispute about the correlation between Chinese and Western cultures.

Wu Xueqin of the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the Anhui Province says that with the power of weapons and money the West has created an “irrational political, economic and cultural world order.” The Western discourse of “freedom and democracy” dominates the world and tends to subjugate non-Western civilizations. However, non-critical perception of this system inevitably lends the language of science in the recipient culture a “Westernized, shallow, abstract and erratic image.”

Modernization and development requirements are not the sufficient reason for accepting Western values. There has to be an alternative discourse system to prove the legitimacy of Chinese socialist values. It is also necessary to invalidate the interpretation of traditional Chinese values as a source of economic backwardness and authoritarianism.

Professor Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore believes that Western thinkers for a long time searched for confirmation of “Oriental despotism.” The West developed and polished its interpretation of “Asian values” as a synonym of backwardness. One can point to such examples of these concepts as Karl Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production,” Max Weber’s comparison of religious beliefs, and Karl Wittfogel’s “irrigation society.” The first positive interpretation of “Asiatic values” appeared in the 1980s in the wake of economic successes achieved by Japan and the “four little dragons” (Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore). After the financial crisis of 1998, which exposed the weaknesses of the “Asian miracle,” the discussion of “Asiatic values” died down. The second financial crisis of 2008 rekindled interest in this topic, with the “Chinese model” taking center stage.

Professor Zheng believes that if China’s rise brings about the revival of “Asiatic values,” the West will launch a punitive crusade against Beijing. “Since it is China that has become a battlefield in disputes, the other Asian countries do not yet realize that this concerns them too. But with China’s rise and the expansion of its geopolitical influence this discussion will spread to other Asian societies as well,” he said.

The quest for “Chinese values” began in the 1990s, when the Chinese intellectual community attempted to restore guoxue, or national learning, as a traditional system of knowledge that had existed before Western sciences were borrowed. In China’s main Communist Party newspaper, Renmin Ribao, Professor Chen Lai, Dean of the Academy of Chinese Learning at Tsinghua University, identified four main distinctions between Chinese and Western values: in China, responsibility comes before freedom, duty comes before rights, the collective is above the individual, and harmony is above conflict. In contrast, Western culture is conflict-seeking, egocentric and determined to conquer and subjugate others. “This explains why in the Western history religious wars were very brutal, while in China there were no such religious wars at all. There were two big world wars in the 20th century, but their cultural source was not in the East,” the professor said

The official list of “core socialist values” was for the first time presented in the Central Committee’s report to the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. The set of twelve values consists of three groups: 1) the values of the state – prosperity, democracy, civility, and harmony; 2) the values of society – freedom, equality, justice, and the rule of law; and 3) the values of the individual – patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendship.

Although this list contains no ideologically tinged slogans, it has a hierarchy of values that is very unusual to Western culture. It is built upside down – from the state to society and further on to the individual. At the top is a wealthy and strong state, not the freedom of the individual. To many, the presence of freedom, democracy, and rule of law in this list is a manifestation of eclecticism. But Chinese commentaries say that this interpretation of freedom and democracy conforms with Marxism and the Chinese tradition, rather than with their abstract understanding by Western ideologists.

The twelve values were mentioned in Hu Jintao’s report and entered everyday use just before the party’s new leadership took office. After Xi rose to power the chief theme in official propaganda from November 2012 to the spring of 2014 was what the new leader described as the “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The “core values” were elevated rapidly after the 13th session of the CPC Politburo’s collective learning in February 2014. Xi then said that the “values” should be promoted using the best traditions of Chinese culture. He also identified the values of traditional culture that must be further developed in the modern conditions: “profess humaneness and kindness;” “take a considerate attitude to the people as the basis;” “maintain trust;” “respect justice;” “elevate harmony;” and “seek Great Unity.” This is an easily recognizable list of moral and social values of early Confucianism. It incorporates the idea of “the people as the basis,” which became the ancient Chinese prototype of democracy, and also the utopian ideal of a society of “Great Unity” (datong) when “the Celestial Empire belongs to all.”

Xi is consistent in putting the “core values” in the Chinese traditional framework. At a meeting with teachers and students at Beijing University on May 4, 2014 he declared: “The core values are a virtue. There is the virtue of a single person and there is the grand virtue; in other words, the virtue of the state and the virtue of society. No state can prosper without a virtue and no individual can establish himself without it.” Xi referred to the “core values” as the “best common denominator of the Chinese nation.” He warned that without them the nation and the state would lose firm ground and would be unable to move forward.

The clue to understanding Chinese values as a virtue should be looked for not in the works by Marx or Lenin, but in the writings of ancient philosophers. Xi’s predecessors eagerly used some ideas of Confucianism for instructing the people. Jiang Zemin pressed for “improving civic morality.” Hu Jintao talked about building a “harmonious society” and raising people’s awareness of what is “honorable” and what is “disgraceful.” But Xi was the first Chinese Communist Party leader to declare the need for employing Confucianism as a public governance tool. One of the reasons for this was that attempts to use the Western public administration concept had bumped into the impossibility of transplanting social management practices based on civil society to China.

At the 18th session of the CPC Politburo’s collective learning on October 13, 2014, Xi stated: “In order to run today’s China, we should not only grasp history and traditional culture, but also actively collect the discoveries and wisdom of state governance in ancient times.” He named ten ideas of public administration that he thought were relevant for today’s China: “The people are the root of statehood;” “government is to earn popular support;” “rituals and laws merge for the purpose of governance;” “virtue is primary and punishment is secondary;” “in running the nation nothing is more important than getting popular support;” “governing the state implies governing officials above all;” “government through virtue;” the powers that be must “straighten out and correct themselves;” “while staying calm beware danger;” and “effect reform and change.” In Chinese culture such commandments were addressed not to the subjects, but to the rulers, who were obliged to take care of the people, display high moral values and keep the bureaucratic machinery under control.

Xi explained: “For addressing Chinese issues the suitable ways and means can be looked for only inside China. The millennia-old Chinese nation has embarked on the path of civilizational development that is different from those of other countries and nations. It is not accidental that we opened up the way to socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is determined by the historical legacy and cultural tradition of our country.” He postulated that foreign achievements should be studied, but “political concepts” and “models” of other states must not to be copied.


What makes Xi’s ideological project new is the idea of protection from the penetration of “Western values,” something all of his predecessors worked for with varying degrees of intensity, has been coupled with efforts to create a system of “Chinese values.”

Above all, the authorities want to make the Chinese people certain they have their own values, which are in no way inferior to the Western ones. The Western discourse system, if used indiscriminately in relation to Chinese realities, produces a distorted perception of oneself and unduly low self-esteem. The recognition of “Chinese values” as the cause of the “seclusiveness” and “backwardness” of “Oriental despotism” erodes the foundations of the system from within. As the policy of “increasing confidence in one’s own way, theory and system” gains momentum, the room for “Western values” will be shrinking.

In order to steer clear of the discourse trap set by the West, China should be evaluated by Chinese criteria. With the passage of time this may help the country gain a firmer foothold on the international stage, when strong economic growth will allow China to present to the world community the indigenous “Chinese values:” peace-loving, striving for harmony, and the Confucian-inspired ability to place “duty and justice” above “usefulness and benefit.”

China is creating its own discourse, once again demonstrating its remarkable ability to assimilate foreign experience. The “American dream” promises each individual equal chances of success. Now there is the “Chinese dream” of a strong and rich state, prospering and happy people. The West keeps talking about the superiority of its values. If this is a mandatory attribute of international influence, China will be advancing its own “core values.” But this will not lure China into the Western discourse trap, because in shaping its own “dream” and its own set of values it does not replicate foreign samples. Turning to traditions allows China to fill the borrowed forms with its own content.

Western politicians feel disappointed, because China’s current policy makes their expectations of Western-style political liberalization in the wake of economic growth ever more illusory. With reliance on the “core values” and national cultural resources China lays claim to having a say in world affairs on equitable terms with the West. Foreign analysts regret China is getting ever more nationalist and authoritarian. However, Beijing can clearly see that the propaganda of American exclusiveness by no means upsets the U.S. drive for global dominance, but on the contrary boosts it. This may tempt China to use a similar tactic.

In August 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama told The Economist that in dealing with China one has to be firm, because it will keep moving forward as long as it encounters no resistance. “They’re not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions. And so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient,” he said.

The Chinese make no secret of their annoyance with the United States’ attempts to dictate an “abstract” understanding of freedom and democracy to other countries. But that does not mean that China is unable to launch a wide campaign to promote its own “abstractions” both inside the country and far beyond its boundaries. China doubts the current international norms are reasonable not because it is not “sentimental” enough, but because it played no part in setting those norms and because they ignore its own interests. In ancient times, the Chinese political tradition had developed a distinction between the rigid, formalized “rule by law” and “rule by virtue” based on high morality of the ruler. Introduction of these ideas to everyday political use opens up opportunities for criticizing the Western legal system for the lack of “virtue,” the absence of which makes full-fledged leadership impossible.

Can Xi be called a Confucian? His trip to Confucius’ hometown of Qufu in November 2013 and his statement at the international conference timed for the 2565th anniversary of Confucius’ birth in September 2014 give enough reason to think that the Chinese leader would not object to such an assessment. In his speeches he makes more references to works by Confucius, such as Discussions/Conversations, or the Analects (Lunyu) and the Book of Rites (Liji), as well as to sayings by philosophers Mencius and Xunzi than to other traditional sources. Xi’s campaign for modesty and thriftiness is an attempt to bolster the Communist Party’s moral credibility and reaffirm in line with the Confucian teaching that it is the people, and not the bureaucracy that constitutes the basis of governance.

An expert on China’s modern history, Jonathan Fenby, believes, though, that “President Xi belongs to the other philosophical stream, of legalism, dating back to the First Emperor 2,200 years ago. This puts its faith in top-down autocratic rule, with the law frightening citizens into obedience.” To support his argument, Fenby recalls the arrests of dissidents and the wide-ranging campaign against corruption.

“Re-Sinification” of the Chinese discourse makes it ever more difficult for foreign observers to understand. Ancient thoughts and terms that are widely used in Chinese political documents and statements often admit of no ambiguous translation into European languages. Each of them needs explanation. One phrase by Xi Jinping may require a commentary about two paragraphs long. Descriptions of Chinese problems available to foreign audience lack complex cultural and historical nuances, and this explains why they often lead to far-fetched constructs devoid of genuine Chinese content.

At first sight, overloaded with ancient quotes and quasi-classical formulas the Chinese discourse has no chance to gain world influence, because its categories are unclear and alien to representatives of other cultures. At the same time, ancient formulas are less vulnerable to Western criticism. The arguments against “Communist totalitarianism” were polished to perfection and learned by heart during the Cold War years. But how can one go about the business of having an argument in a situation where the two systems speak fundamentally different languages?

For instance, in October 2013 Xi proclaimed a policy of “kinship,” “sincerity,” “benefaction” and “inclusiveness” in relations with neighbors. Western political scientists often criticize Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, but once the meaning of words is unclear, it is very hard to assess how China’s actions conform to its proclaimed policy. The four hieroglyphs that describe China’s policies in neighboring territories bear a rich meaning, and their interpretation is inseparably linked with the ancient Chinese legacy. Chinese ethics have always emphasized the importance of reciprocity in relations with neighbors, including manifestation of loyalty in exchange for favors. Those neighbors who tend to abandon the ethic of mutual commitments and turn to the United States in the hope to force China into concessions look like worthless folk having no morals, and not as Confucian “right and noble gentlemen.” And no reference to formal rules of international law will ever be able to overpower this tradition-based attitude of China.

That China may come up with a viable alternative system of values is not taken too seriously by the West. Russia should look at this problem soberly and impartially. Objectively China has become the world’s second economy, and it is determined to ensure that its own values gain proportionate influence, projected first and foremost on China’s periphery.

At a working meeting on diplomacy with the neighboring countries in October 2013, Xi called for “stepping up efforts to promote and explain the idea of combining the Chinese dream with the people’s hopes for a better life in all neighboring countries and with good prospects of the region’s development, in order to ensure that the understanding of common destiny takes root in the adjacent countries.” The implementation of the Silk Road Economic Belt project will create extra prerequisites for expanding China’s nonmaterial influence in the Eurasian space.

One can expect the ascent of “Chinese values” to ferment discussions on Russia’s own development guidelines. The supporters of the “European choice” will most likely criticize the “Chinese values,” while their opponents will be exploring the Chinese discourse for encouraging parallels with “Russian ideas” of patriotism, collectivism, statism, and civilizational self-sufficiency. It is highly desirable that such debates begin only after the Chinese experience has been studied and understood adequately and impartially.