Monday, August 11, 2014

Democracy and Freedom among the "Core Values of Socialism"

During my time in China I have already witnessed a number of political campaigns come and go without leaving much trace. Once you can read Chinese it is hard not to notice the big red banners at overpasses and intersections, displaying the latest government slogans above a mass of people going about their business in complete indifference.

Common catchphrases from the last few years have included the "harmonious society", "scientific development", and last year's "Chinese Dream" trumpeted by Xi Jinping's new administration. The latest campaign to be unleashed on the masses is the "socialist core values" campaign. There are twelve socialist core values, now being trumpeted from the usual red banners in cities all over China. They are(in this order):

富强 Prosperity and Strength
民主 Democracy
文明 Civility
和谐 Harmony
自由 Freedom
平等 Equality
公正 Justice
法治 Rule of Law
爱国 Patriotism
敬业 Dedication
诚信 Honesty
友善 Friendship

Westerners unfamiliar with Chinese political discourse will probably be surprised by "freedom" and especially "democracy" being included in the list. This is actually not that strange. The Chinese government has always attempted to appropriate the term "democracy" (民主 or "the people's rule" in Chinese) for itself, claiming that China already has some unique Chinese version of democracy, or that the Party is striving to establish a more democratic system.

This goes right back to the talk of "democratic reforms" after the CCP took power in 1949. The famous (and catchy) propaganda song from the fifties, "没有共产党就没有新中”(without the Communist Party there will be no new China) , concludes its list of the Party's achievements with the line "他实行了民主好处多” (it has implemented democracy, bringing many benefits).

The inclusion of the term "Freedom" might be more surprising, but the truth is that such vague and abstract terms can be interpreted any way you like. Perhaps they mean freedom from the domination of foreign powers, one of the Party's main claims to legitimacy? And let's not forget the term "socialism" (社会主义) itself. By now it has been reduced to an empty shell, a completely meaningless abstraction onto which the government can graft any trite obviousness it likes (friendship, dedication and civility are core values of socialism?).

I would say that the only one of these "core values of socialism" which has definitely and unquestionably been spread as a result of the Chinese government's policies would be patriotism, usually meaning ignorant nationalism. I guess a good claim could also be made that their policies have increased China's prosperity and strength. But when it comes to "equality", "justice" and the "rule of law", it is no news that modern China could only do with more of those. Then again, it would be nice to think that this new campaign signals a real commitment to a better rule of law, more equality, more justice, and perhaps even more democracy. But I'm certainly not holding my breath.