There are few in the West who can claim to really know China, a sprawling, compulsively mysterious — and increasingly powerful — nation that at times appears confused about its own preferred future and how to get there.
Last week, however, Westerners gained a new and revealing insight into the thinking of the leadership of China’s all-powerful Communist Party when it was disclosed that all party members have been instructed to assiduously avoid seven “Western values” that the party deems a threat to its survival.
According to The New York Times, these dangerous values were identified in a memo “that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader.”
The Times report notes that the memo, referred to by the party as Document No. 9, cautions its members to avoid being drawn to such values as “Western constitutional democracy” and the promotion of human rights.
To Americans, these two values are virtually taken for granted, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone denying their importance in a civilized nation.
The document criticized “Western-inspired notions of media independence and civil society” as well as “ardently pro-market neo-liberalism” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s often murky past. These are scary notions to those who grasp the value of a free press and open political dialogue.
Xi, while hoping to introduce reforms that would boost China’s economy, appears to be simultaneously striving to exercise his authority in a manner that exceeds the party’s previous demands for discipline. The warnings, the Times report suggests, show that the Chinese leader’s very public show of confidence has its hidden side, particularly a fear that his ruling party might find itself confronted by an economic slowdown that could trigger unwelcome responses from ordinary citizens and party critics.
In fact, the document seems to concede that China’s leadership is having to cope with escalating public anger over multiple reports of widespread corruption and with challenges from those who don’t buy the party line and favor political change.
“Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,” the document, issued in April but not yet openly published, declares. (A version was shown to The New York Times and verified by sources close to senior officials, including an editor of a party newspaper.)
Opponents of one-party rule, the document continues, “have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government.”
Notice the document does not appear to deny that the offending behavior might indeed be based on facts. Also, it betrays the truism that one-party rule almost inevitably leads to major abuses of privilege.
The bottom line: The Western nations have every reason to be wary of China’s ambitions, economically and otherwise. But the leadership in Beijing also has its hands full keeping a restless population pacified. And it’s been busy coping with exactly that challenge.
“Since the circular was issued, party-run publications and websites have vehemently denounced constitutionalism and civil society, notions that were not considered off limits in recent years,” the Times reported. “Officials have intensified efforts to block access to critical views on the Internet.”
In time, that population may very well view Document No. 9 as the Communist Party’s unwitting concession that it has far more to worry about than foreign policy and economic challenges. The document also reveals a frightened regime mired in the repressive polices and attitudes of the Mao era.