China’s Communist Party has unveiled a new definition of a model citizen – a person no longer ideologically beholden to domestic forefathers such as Mao Zedong or the sway of foreign influence, but possessed instead of a steadfast allegiance to national self-confidence, traditional virtue and, above all, President Xi Jinping.
The guide to the moral construction of citizens, whose standards are likely to be most keenly felt in schools already delivering ideological instruction, bears the hallmarks of a Chinese doctrine document, permeated with modern buzzwords and abstractions, as it seeks to define “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
But its publication Sunday, on the eve of a plenary session by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, sends an unmistakable message to its citizens and the world as the country’s leadership grapples with a slowing economy, fractious international relations and unrest in Hong Kong: Beijing has no plans to loosen its grip on the public and private life of its people, and has grown more overt in its rejection of Western models.
“Xi Jinping’s new era requires that its citizens have a moral quality in line with the development of broader society,” said Shen Dingli, a Fudan University professor who is one of China’s top scholars in international relations. “In this new era, the Chinese government sets a higher moral standard for its citizens.”
Chinese citizens, according to the Outline for the Implementation of the Moral Construction of Citizens in the New Era, are expected to be civil, courteous, generous and honest, protect the environment, practise “civilized dining” and follow after Lei Feng, a long-ago Communist Party hero with a questionable official backstory who has been held up as an exemplar of selfless volunteerism. In parts, it offers a simplified version of modern expectations, calling for people to sort their garbage, lower their carbon footprint, do business with integrity and, while travelling, act civilized and self-confident, since “the moral image of citizens is related to the national image.”
Elsewhere, it reads like a religious document, with references to “faith” and “belief” in a Communist Party-led system that has, under Mr. Xi, sought to diminish the role of traditional religions, particularly Islam and Christianity.
“The Communist Party uses ‘faith’ to refer to party doctrine, and as a prerequisite for national rejuvenation,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based business and human-rights strategy adviser at Amnesty International. “This may help explain why the Communist Party under Xi Jinping sees independent religious practice as a competitive ideological challenge to its authority that it must either eliminate or fully control.”
It is an expression of confidence, complete with a reference to a “Person of the New Era,” which “seems to be a throw back to something akin to the Soviet New Man concept, in which the authorities felt confident in creating a new form of humanity, rather than merely guiding morality amidst market excesses,” Mr. Nee wrote on Twitter.
Gone, however, is much of the bedrock of modern Chinese thought, with references to past leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and their theories all stripped away, replaced by Xi and the elements of his thought, along with the “fine traditions of China.”
The new code eliminates, too, deference to the outside world. A previous version published in 2001 recommended taking “lessons from the successful moral construction experiences and the achievements of advanced civilizations of all countries around the world.”
Such openness is absent in the new version, which describes a need to “continuously purify the social and cultural environment” and pledges especially serious treatment for “people who worship foreign things and harm the dignity of the country.”
The document “sends signals as to what Beijing views as politically acceptable models and sources of values for China,” said Carl Minzner, a leading China scholar who is a professor of law at New York-based Fordham Law School.
While China tolerated and even promoted outside ideas during its decades of opening up and reform, that period is drawing to a close, Prof. Minzner said.
The stipulations in the new code are “totally consistent with Beijing’s pivot toward nativism and political tightening over the past decade – a pivot which has steadily engulfed one field of human endeavour after another – law, media, culture and higher education,” he said. “All of this raises deep questions of exactly how much further such trends might run. And that could have serious implications for a range of academic, economic and person-to-person ties binding China with the rest of the world.”
The new code is likely to leave its most sizable imprint on schools, where ideological education and a skepticism of external ideas have already grown more important in recent years.
It is “part of a very much larger political trend that is tied to the China Dream, a resurgent nation that can be free of Western influence,” said Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based researcher who studies Chinese schools.
“This is also very much connected to what is happening in Hong Kong. They see too much Western free thought in Hong Kong schools as the root cause, and so correct political indoctrination is becoming the top education priority.”
While the code emphasizes the need for “fair justice” and morally guided public policy, it also calls for a “civic moral construction” effort across all instruments of government, and calls for severe consequences for those who fail to meet the new standard. It says: “Establish a regular mechanism to punish immoral behaviour and form a social atmosphere that nurtures justice, dispels evil, punishes bad and promotes good.“
“China is regressing,” Mr. Jiang said. “And it is all happening very fast.”
But, Prof. Shen at Fudan University said, China remains far from closing itself off, and the world’s second-largest economy now has the self-assurance of a country with something to offer the rest of the world.
“China is always willing and open to learn new things from the outside world,” he said. “It’s just that, at the current stage, the government has placed greater emphasis on our own national confidence, because we have a lot of merits, too. And as China learns from other countries, there is also enough for the world to learn from China.”
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