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Expert Voices: Timothy Cheek

China scholar Timothy Cheek talks to CACR about Xi Jinping and ideology in modern China. This interview is edited for clarity and length.

Timothy Cheek is Professor with the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and Department of History, Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research, and Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research (IAR) at the University of British Columbia. He has been a professor at UBC since 2002, teaching in the IAR’s former Asian policy program and now in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs (MPPGA) program. His research, teaching and translating focus on the recent history of China, especially the role of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century and the history of the Chinese Communist Party.

His books include The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives (2021) with Klaus Mühlhahn and Hans J. van de Ven, The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History (2015), Living with Reform: China Since 1989 (2006), Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions (2002) and Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China (1997).


You’ve used a lot of historical lessons and analogies to explain your work on Chinese ideology, so I’m going to start with a historical question. Is Maoism appropriate as an analogy for the Xi Jinping era? A lot of people ascribe Mao’s extraordinary political power to his charismatic ideology, but I would also ascribe it to his instinct for managing the people around him and preventing the emergence of threats to his primacy. How large a role do you think ideology played in keeping Mao in power through a series of crises? Do you think ideology can play a significant role in propping up Xi Jinping today?

Well, that’s a good question, and you identified the two sides. One is ideology, and the other is power politics or skill in leadership, and of course both are important.

Your final question is, does ideology have a role today? My first answer would be, Xi Jinping appears to think so, and that’s what’s important– that he’s acting as if correct thought, correct belief is something that he wants not only because it makes him feel good, but because he thinks that’s the only way to get things done.

Study sessions are about belief and orthodoxy, which means a belief that is identified and promulgated by an authority. You have to show that you’re following it, but it’s backed up with an inquisition. This is not just soft power, it’s hard power, and there are very strong institutional and sometimes violent results. You can get fired or go to jail for thought crimes. As you know, most recently, they’re beginning to attack or to prosecute people for “historical nihilism” and for slandering martyrs and heroes. So, I think ideology was very important for Mao. We cannot understand the Cultural Revolution without addressing what people believed. Ideology is very important for Xi. The issues of belief still matter for China’s leadership today.

You talk about Xi Jinping’s Counter-Reformation, this re-imposition of stronger, more centralized Party-state authority through ideological indoctrination and enforced orthodoxy. You said that this Counter-Reformation probably will not work, “at least not in terms of Mao’s famous Yan’an Rectification goals of moral personal transformation and the pure governance of the mass line.” Are there any indications so far of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of these rectification goals? How do you assess their implementation so far?

Well, I’m not on the ground, but I think that the ideological goals, or the goals of ideological governance, that Xi Jinping has been pursuing, particularly in the last five years, have been successful on the minimal level but not on the maximal level. It’s been more effective negatively than positively. Because of the strong inquisitional enforcement, most notably through the Discipline Inspection Commission, the renewed ideology, the new puritanism, the reimposed demand for loyalty and orthodoxy have scared the living daylights out of the bureaucracy and served the minimal role, which is to curb corruption and keep people from doing what they shouldn’t, what Xi Jinping does not want them to do. It has been less successful in what Xi Jinping would call the zheng nengliang, positive energy. It is less successful in inspiring people to do the creative and wonderful things needed to have the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The problem is that the social, political, and economic conditions that made rectification as a form of ideological governance effective in the 1940s do not pertain today. What are the differences? As scholars such as Frederick Teiwes have noted, the disruption of life in the 1940s with total warfare and people’s lives falling to pieces made them open to a radical, different way of making sense of the world. I tell my students here in Canada that if someone– let’s call them the Blue Meanies– took over Canada and occupied Vancouver and you’ve been chased off to the hills and your parents have been killed and you have no future, you might be open to working with radical Comrade Cheek and his charismatic ideas about how to remake Canada. But if you have a job and life is going on and you can study in a foreign country and you have a new car and own an apartment– sounds like in Shanghai in 2015– maybe it’s not so attractive. Because actually, the requirements of ideological conformity are very strict.

I’m trying to suggest that there’s no surprise and it’s not weird and it’s not purely recidivist Maoism for Xi Jinping and the Party to adopt this ideological form of governance, but it is also unlikely that a population that has had 40 years of reform and opening, particularly an elite middle class and the technical class, that has operated in much more Weberian rational bureaucratic terms, wants to go back to this. They don’t want to go back to basically a political theocracy.

Would you say that ideology today is really no more a motive force than it was between the start of reform and opening and the start of Xi’s tenure? You mentioned that Jiang Zemin had a very bland ideology that had little public impact, and the same with Hu Jintao. You’ve said that in the aggregate Xi Jinping Thought hasn’t succeeded, but has there been any impact at all?

I don’t think that its ability to mobilize creative work among the middle classes and the party elite has been successful, but what I did not talk about was the public. And actually, when you look at the surveys from the Harvard Ash Center and others, despite what you and I might think, a goodly number of the general public in China are apparently perfectly happy with their government. Now, that doesn't mean that they buy the ideology or the particulars that are being promulgated.

To make sense of the power of ideology, I try to make a distinction between “capital-I Ideology” and “small-i ideology.” I’m very much a follower of Clifford Geertz, the cultural anthropologist, who wrote about ideology as a cultural system. It’s very simple: everybody has an ideology, because if you don’t have an ideology, you don’t have any reason to get up in the morning. Ideology is your way of making sense of the world, of making meaning. But the ideology of the editor of the New York Times is not the same as the editor of People’s Daily, and “capital-I Ideology” has an army behind it. I don’t think most people care about Xi’s Four Confidences and the Five Thats and the Six The Others. At most, they feel it’s appropriate for a government to be saying moral things. But everybody has a “small-i” ideology, and part of Xi Jinping’s ideology is both the big I and the small I. The small I is nationalism. And that’s extremely successful. Probably the greatest ideological success of the CCP in the past 20 years has been to identify the nation with the Party and to get most people to believe that even with its faults, there’s no alternative to the Party to take care of China’s national interests.

I wanted to ask you something about that Harvard Ash Center polling, because that’s something that I just see over and over again, and I have an issue with it.

I think it’s worth addressing. My dear old friend, Tony Saich, was part of it, and he holds with it. Now, when you talk to Tony Saich, he’s cautious, he’s very European about it. He doesn’t say that everybody loves the Party, he says that this is their public expression. He says that [the questioners] have phrased the questions in various ways, looking for subtle signs, and it’s not a perfect thing. But what I do know and actually put more credit to than the poll– but it’s anecdotal– is similar signs of respect for the Party. I work mostly with liberal, cosmopolitan scholars and intellectuals in Shanghai and Beijing and some other towns. Particularly for the older scholars, their parents are farmers, and I can’t tell you how many of my older colleagues say, well, my parents, they still, until the day they died in the early 2000s, had posters of Mao back in the home county. And so, I think we’ve got to keep in mind the different audiences when we look at ideological governance. I’m really looking at the political elite and the cultural elite, but that’s not 90% of the people.

All studies are incomplete. What I would love to see or have people point out to me would be studies of the impact and operation of ideological governance at the local level, and particularly among ordinary Chinese. And I’d be open to people finding very contrary findings to the ones I’m suggesting. Maybe they’ll find out that it’s extremely successful and that, you know, it’s like the Virgin Mary, it makes them feel better.

In terms of ideological governance as an analytical way of looking at Party rule, it brings me around to what I’ve been talking about lately, which is the variety of politics in the key of Xi. I’ve said this about Mao. When we looked at all the debates and fights and the Cultural Revolution, it turns out that all these people thought they were Maoists, and they were killing each other. And so, I said there’s a variety of songs you can sing in the key of Mao. What that means is, Westerners see the orthodox language and see people talking the Party talk and wonder if everyone is brainwashed or brow-bashed. People in China today know what they have to say in public, and then we have to interpret and get underneath it. I work on intellectuals, and I’ve shown how they use exegesis, interpretation of policy, to propose a wide range of different policies all in the name of the same orthodoxy. Mao is very clear about what that was in the early 1960s. He called it waving the red flag to oppose the red flag, when someone had a different interpretation of Marxist or Leninist theory than he liked. And so today, no one’s going to criticize the Party, because it’s not expected, not welcomed, and actually personally dangerous. But there agency within that through exegesis, singing a different tune in the key of Xi.

I mentioned in my paper, Xi Jinping’s Counter-Reformation: The Reassertion of Ideological Governance in Historical Perspective, that we can see agency when we look at the details. I think the work of Jeremy Brown is important: he’s looking at is how ordinary people have made use of Party policy to get by. He’s got a new book on Tiananmen that’s really good, and he edited that well-known book Maoism at the Grassroots. Michael Szonyi at Harvard has a book that I think is highly relevant for understanding ideological governance in contemporary China even though its data is all from the Ming dynasty, and the book is called The Art of Being Governed– James C. Scott famously wrote a book on The Art of Not Being Governed and Szonyi is riffing on that– and it’s how Chinese used and some you would even say abused this very strict orthodoxy to get by, to get what they wanted to do some three hundred years ago. And it’s not factions, it’s not corruption, it’s survival. That’s my response to your worry about the Harvard surveys.

Would you say that it is still true, as some have said during the Reform and Opening era, that economic growth and not ideology now constitutes the Party-state’s raison d’etre?

It’s really, really important. I would distinguish between its popular legitimacy and its idea of itself. In terms of popular legitimacy, most people put up with the Party-state because it delivers a moderate amount of social peace and a unique economic environment in which people can get by and hopefully prosper. And, let’s be fair, for all the sins of the Communist Party, they have been in charge when this fabulous improvement in the economy has occurred. Now, is it due to their policy, or were they lucky? It’s like when the economy goes up and down under an American president– did they really change that? But we’ve got to say that life for most Chinese has gotten a lot better in the past 40 years– whether due to China entering the WTO, Jiang Zemin, whatever. But for the Party, I think the real fault of what I call reform Leninism in the years before 2012 is that absent the checks and balances of a liberal political system and democratic elections, an unelected bureaucracy tends to corruption, and that’s where it needs ideology. That’s what Xi Jinping is really about. I don’t think he’s that worried about human rights lawyers and activists. They’re just collateral damage. It’s grotesque, it’s awful, the Party should be criticized for their repression, but I don’t think that’s his primary goal. Because I look back at the Qing emperors, and their primary goal was always to stop their officials putting their hands in the till.

I think when Xi Jinping started looking as powerful as he does, people compared him to the Qing emperors like Qianlong. But I think he’s more like Yongzheng. Yongzheng was before Qianlong, and they didn’t think he was going to be emperor, so nobody bothered to lie to him. And when he became emperor, he knew all the tricks and games and corruption, and he went through it like a hot knife through butter. And so, that’s why I open my article showing how disgusted Xi Jinping feels with his own system.

So, when you ask about economic performance and ideological purity, I think that for the public, it’s performance, but for the Party leadership, it is purity. Because they don’t see any other way to fight the sclerosis.

About that malaise that the Party leadership has sensed, this feeling that there’s been a loss of direction under Reform and Opening and that everything was becoming too corrupt, do you think the ideology that Xi Jinping has emphasized has been effective in tackling corruption? Are study sessions really making officials less corrupt, or is it the investigations of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission and the criminal crackdown on corruption that has been the more effective component of the so-called Counter-Reformation?

You’ve got it. And remember, what was key in the European Counter-Reformation? The Inquisition.

I would reiterate the point that we can distinguish the negative accomplishments and the positive accomplishments. I think the study sessions have been effective in curtailing obvious corruption and providing a language and directions about what cadres should be doing or be seen to be doing. But on the positive side, do they actually believe this? I have my doubts. So, the belief side and the study sessions have power because they are backed up by the Party inquisition.

But if you just had the inquisition without the study sessions, you’d just be Dai Li and the secret police from the Republican period. The strength of rectification from the first has been the combination of faith and fear. It looks so ideal in the texts I mentioned from Yan’an, but all historians have figured out by now that it was backed up by brutal means, not only taking you out and shooting you, but frightening mass criticism. It’s never been pretty, but the strength of the Maoist approach, as Tony Saich and David Apter showed in Mao’s Republic, the book that they did on Yan’an in the 90s, was that if you debase yourself, if you go through the conversion process, rectification offers you a second chance. The older Stalinist method was, if you’re wrong, we shoot you, we move on. Maoism gave cadres a second chance, if they conform.

Since this ideology is really not necessarily believable or believed on its own, is it an exaggeration to say that there is an ideological vacuum in China today? Absent the remarkable economic progress that we’ve talked about that China’s enjoyed for some time, could the emergence of more popular ideologies threaten the legitimacy of the Party-state?

Yes. There’s an ideological crisis in Chinese society. The intellectuals that David Ownby and I look at, when they’re not trying to advise the Party, they’re worrying out loud about the lack of public morality. Xu Jilin at East China Normal University uses the Weberian term “disenchantment,” which means if you don’t believe in God or Mao or the Party, what do you believe in? On what basis do you not just cheat everyone and assume everyone’s trying to cheat you? That’s a pretty nasty, brutish, and short way to live, and China’s intellectuals don’t like it.

That’s why you see the revival of Confucianism, because combined with a sort of nationalism that responds in understandable ways to the underlying racism of Western liberal theory, as they experience it and as the more radical colleagues in my university put it. Liberal democracy has its faults. So, it’s not just that Maoism or Xi Jinping Thought is not believable. Nothing is. And China’s educated elite are really worried about that. They’re looking for a civic religion, and they disagree and what it should be. Some say it’ll be Maoism– the New Left, that’s what they say. The liberals will say it’ll be commitment to constitutional civic virtues, and the New Confucians say it will be Chinese, not foreign (neither socialist nor liberal).

Going back to Confucius?

Right. You got it. The guy to read is Bai Tongdong at Fudan, who did his degree in the United States but writes strongly for a Confucian view, but it’s not the same as we’ve seen in Party propaganda. Confucian thought in China is as complicated as the Catholic. There’s the Opus Dei version of Confucianism, which is very state-centered and power-oriented, and there’s the liberation theology version of Confucianism, which is what Xu Jilin and some others are peddling these days. So, the short answer is, there is an ideological vacuum, but the Party’s ideological challenges are only a subset of the broader social ideological crisis in China today, or crisis of meaning, crisis of belief. That is general. And the Communist Party is definitely trying to answer that challenge by offering Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.

I wanted to talk about the Party-state’s capacity for ideological change. Obviously, the Party’s ideology changed enormously from true Communism, or their version of it, to allowing de facto capitalism under a Leninist system. It has outlived that enormous ideological retreat for some time.

To the amazement of all concerned.

Can the Party simply appropriate any ideologies that become effective or popular over time, or are there limitations to the ideological adaptations that it can make?

The amazing flip-flops in actual policy during Mao’s life and since then certainly raise your question. It’s like, they just keep changing all the time, and is there a there there? One answer is, it’s all about power. And you just look at the Chinese version of the focus group and say, what will keep us in power for the next five years, and then we’ll say that. The other answer is that there is a consistency, and the example that I use is the much maligned, often-mocked San ge daibiao. So, do you remember The Three Represents, the great theoretical contribution of that Marxist theorist Jiang Zemin?

I remember its name being taken in vain many times.

There you go. And I did too at the time. Because it was just, oh, spare me. But what it showed us is that there is doctrine as distinct from theology. You have church doctrine on when can women become priests or not, when can priests get married or not. When there’s a major change, the pope has to do an encyclical, right? And so there has to be a Central Committee decision. And what the San ge daibiao, the Three Represents, did in the late 90s and just at the turn of the millennium, is they said, the Party represents the advanced forces of production, the advanced forces of culture, and all the people of China. And that was doctrinal, in their orthodox language, giving a way for Party members to understand as Marxist-Leninists why it was ok to have capitalists in the Party, why you should stop beating up on intellectuals, and why we’re going to stop class struggle. And so, it’s actually terribly important at the church level rather than the society level.

Those of us who do not take dialectical materialism seriously forget that everything’s a contradiction and that what constitutes correct policy is the identification of the main contradiction under current historical circumstances. If it means that if you kill the capitalists this year and have them join the Party ten years from now, from the Leninist perspective, that is not a problem, so long as it is a scientific assessment of changing conditions. Scientific means that it has to be passed by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, because the Central Committee is the peer-review laboratory of social science. In other words, there is a way in which true believers of the Party system can convince themselves that all these flip-flops are totally fine, because they’re just addressing changing contradictions and historical circumstances.

Stepping back to your question, is there any limit to the stuff they can claim is Communist? Yes. But it’s awfully broad. It’s clear there’s a lot they can take on. But I would say that there is a prime directive, and that is monism: Only us, and never let the other guy organize. The reason the Party came down so hard on Falun Gong in the 90s was their demonstrated organizational capacity. Previous to that, there were a lot of senior Party members who were doing Falun Gong exercises. In other words, the CCP is more Leninist than Marxist.

I think Joseph Fewsmith, who’s on our board, has been talking about that.

Indeed. He’s got a brand new book on that, Forging Leninism, and he’s dead right.

What are the other sources of ideology in China today? Has the Party-state succeeded in stamping out other potential sources, such as religion or foreign political ideology?

Clearly not. There are a number of competing belief systems in China today. One of the great failures of the Communist Party, including in their own eyes, is their inability to eradicate religion. One of the weaknesses of the Chinese Communist state, perhaps its Achilles heel, is its inability to handle religion. The horrors of what they’re doing in Xinjiang and their recurrent spats with Chinese Christians are so unnecessary from an agnostic political science point of view, but the Party feels challenged, because religion is another ideology.

Now, if they can do the Three Represents and say capitalists are fine in the Party, they could get a Fourth Represent. They could find a way to accommodate religion. I know a couple Muslim Party cadres, and that’s what they want. They would be happy to be Maoists and Muslims. The Party won’t let them. It’s an Achilles heel.

There are other sources of ideological coherence and meaning. The obvious one is lived Confucianism, let’s call it. But there’s also still great variety within the Communist Party of the Chinese Marxist tradition itself.

There have been liberal and cosmopolitan strains in the Communist Party over its century, that’s the theme of the history of the Communist Party that Hans van de Ven and Klaus Mühlhahn and I did, The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives (2021). So, when you ask if there are alternatives, there are – most poignantly different great religions, which clearly have power in China. Of course, we talk about the Muslims and the Christians, but the greatest number of religious Chinese are Buddhist. But there’s also Confucianism, and I would say heterodox, or non-official, Marxism.

I suppose the existence of liberals in China also speaks to the existence of foreign liberal political ideology in China as well.

All of these ideologies we’ve been discussing, with the exception of Confucianism, are foreign, including Marxism. But liberals have the greatest force amongst a small but important group, which is China’s highly-educated cosmopolitan middle class. There are definitely Chinese liberals. But we should remember two things. First, most embrace a liberalism that does not necessarily include universal suffrage. Rather, they focus on constitutional constraints on power. In terms of Hayek’s notable formulation, they focus more on liberalism more than democracy. Second, Chinese liberals have had a bad run in the twentieth century—a liberal government has yet to work in China. But, hey, maybe the “key contradictions” of history have changed and democratic liberalism has a chance now?

But remember, amongst some millennials, the Party is a great success. Its failure was to accommodate religion, but its success was to identify itself with nationalism. Every time the Japanese or the Americans or whoever assists the Communist Party by pissing them off and saying or doing some offensive thing, everybody jumps to the Party. They want to stand up for China, and to stand up for China is to stand up for the Party. In terms of political change, there has to be a split. People have to find a way to say, I’m a Chinese, but I don’t like this Party. And currently, that’s very hard.

Is there anything that could make it easier for liberals in the future? Because that’s obviously a million-dollar question for people who are liberal and want to see change in China.

I’ll say this with the preface that I would be glad to be wrong. I’m of the glass-half-empty view, which is that we’ve got the Communist Party with us for a very long time. So, I look at likely political change as change within the Party. I’m looking for the next Three Represents, or the Three Represents 2.0, which says, wait a minute, we can accommodate religion, we can accommodate people who are apolitical but loyal to China. And you don’t have to sing in the key of Xi.

I wanted to also ask about the impact of the opening part of reform and opening on China’s ideological realm. Obviously, the existence of liberals as one of these main ideological or philosophical groups speaks to the impact of opening on how Chinese people are thinking and expressing themselves publicly. I would think that the introduction of these liberal political ideas would be considered a threat by the Party-state. So why has it not pulled back at all on opening? Obviously, there’s the economic angle, but there’s also the freedom of travel. How many Chinese people are able to go overseas and study in the United States and so forth? Given that this process seems to have given rise to competing political ideologies, why has the Party-state not cracked down on that? Or have they?

Well, it is now. And this is what the Party means by “historical nihilism.” But it’s only in the last 3 or 4 years that they’ve done it big time. And this is the new worrying development of Xi Jinping’s likely third term. What they want is of course the economic benefits of opening, and they would like the pleasure of traveling all around the world, and what they’ve offered the middle classes and even the lower middle classes is consumer choice, that’s their freedom. Closing off from the world and not being able to travel, your consumer choice is restrained, and you don’t feel so free. So, the Party has a real challenge here.

The Party is attacking Western thought now, and they don’t want textbooks that are by foreign authors anymore, they’re not translating our stuff anymore, or they are at a much smaller rate. It’s the Party pushing back. Before, the Party said, we just have to eat it, it’s the flies that come in with the free air, as Deng Xiaoping talked about it. But they’re out to get the flies now. They’re at a point where they think that they can have their cake and eat it, that they can be open to the world and not put up with any ideological heterodoxy. Technology and a controlled social media is, so far, working for them.

However, apropos my theme at the beginning, we have to look at the distinction between the Party and society, the Party and the people, as Bruce Dickson calls it. I agree with Liu Qing, who’s a professor at East China Normal University, who said that 30 years of opening and reform has not made China democratic, but it has made China plural. In other words, there’s a range of communities that have different experiences, beliefs, and interests. It’s not pluralism, because pluralism is the valuing of those differences. But plural means those differences are a social reality. And I think that’s the great challenge, because one of the weaknesses of Xi Jinping’s ideology is that it can’t accept the plural nature of Chinese society that reform and opening has created. It wants a monism. And at best, that monism is going to be superficial.

When I asked David Ownby what it is specifically that Xi has cracked down on, the first thing he said was that they’ve been cracking down on pluralism. If you allow this idea that there are alternatives, that’s a threat to the notion that it has to be the Party.

And going back to what I said about how the social and economic and political conditions of the China of the 1940s and the China of the 2010s are different, what made rectification work back then was that they could enforce the monism, since warfare had blotted out all the pluralism, and now, most Chinese don’t want to go back to that ideological farm having seen the bright lights of reform and opening. Some of them want to be Buddhists, and some of them want to glory in Guangxi culture. Some stand up for women or gays. It’s a continent. Can you imagine ideological uniformity in the EU?

If Xi Jinping’s Counter-Reformation is unlikely to work in the psychological realm, does it mean that the Party is better off just giving up on its ideology? What purpose does it serve?

They cannot give up on the ideology and be the Party. We from the West say, they keep changing the ideology, it’s all rubbish, the reason they’re popular and do well in the Harvard surveys is because they deliver the economic goods. But there is a belief side.

I think the whole core of my work is that ideas matter, and they matter politically and they matter in terms of power. But they’re not simple. Xi Jinping cannot tell people what to think and they will do it like a bunch of automatons. This is not the Borg.

But people need to know why they’re doing things. There’s a broad expectation in China that the government ought to talk like a church. Chinese politics is about values and morality. Western politics at least used to be about interests. No wonder we misunderstand each other.