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Timothy Cheek on His Latest Historical Research, Regime Resilience, and China in Comparative Context

China scholar Timothy Cheek talks to CACR about his upcoming research projects, the institutional charisma of the CCP, and how the CCP and comparable regimes survive crises. This interview is edited for clarity and length. (September 7, 2023)

Timothy Cheek is Professor with the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and Department of History, Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research, and Co-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).


Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been working on in the year or so since we last spoke.

I’ve been working on researching contemporary China in Xi’s “New Era”—bilateral tensions with China, political repression inside China, but not Cold War 2.0 (conditions are very different from the 1950s-1980s). But this is no longer “Reform and Opening”—we still don’t have a satisfactory term, and probably only historians will come up with one retrospectively. We’re in Xi’s New Era of tetchy diplomacy and domestic security anxieties on both sides. That’s the working context for scholars like me interested in contemporary China in general and the CCP in particular.

First, I have been working on a collaborative translation of PRC-published academic scholarship on CCP and revolutionary history called Revisiting the Revolution, which focuses on how smart minds outside government are making sense of Party history broadly (including social and cultural experience as well as specific Party policies, leadership, and events). Some themes of that work are listening to more diverse Chinese voices in the policy and policy-relevant fields, working with and engaging professionally with Chinese colleagues when we can and as we can under current conditions, training young scholars from China and Western societies to work together, and producing usefully legible information for scholars and serious policy analysts.

I have also been looking at Chinese statecraft in historical perspective. This is an example of moving from covering current events, issues, and leadership personalities (all very important) to analyzing the political system of the CCP, from institutions to discourse to cultural style, in historical and comparative context. That is, making a virtue out of necessity in Xi’s New Era, where our ability to work and think and engage freely in China is highly constrained, to sit back and go back to the mountains of primary documents on China we have amassed over the past four decades and work our way through them. This amounts to the New Sinology approach to Party History long advocated by Geremie Barmé. His goal is to demonstrate the policy relevance of humanities, particularly the 文史哲 approach from traditional Chinese scholarship. His website “China Heritage” continues that work today. Many of the establishment intellectuals David Ownby has translated at Reading the China Dream address the same questions that Barmé does, especially the New Confucians and even a number of those associated with the Chinese New Left. Likewise, but in a more sober, careful and academic voice, do the historians we translate at Revisiting the Revolution, such as Feng Xiaocai, Song Xiaopeng, Liu Yajuan, Huang Daoxuan, and Ying Xing.

For myself, I’ve joined with colleagues on a much more historical project looking at Chinese statecraft from the Ming Dynasty to today. By bringing together specialists on traditional and modern Chinese governance and politics, we are trying to see what the historical experience of Chinese statecraft has or could contribute to contemporary Chinese governance. God knows Xi Jinping thinks there’s a connection! But, unsurprisingly, we’re not seeing 5,000 years of Chinese history culminating in the CCP. What are we finding? Well, save your dimes for our edited volume next year. But so far, some interesting characteristics of Chinese statecraft across the centuries and Chinese politics today have emerged. First is 教化 jiaohua, or the commitment to “transformational education” of the cadre and the citizen by the pedagogical state. The content of the orthodoxy the state should inculcate has changed massively from Confucian patriarchy to science and democracy to violent revolution to today’s statism. And the tools available to the pedagogical state have become more fearsome (Wechat, the Great (Internet) Firewall, AI monitoring, etc.). But the intent, belief, and commitment of the Chinese state to “teach the people” has endured. Another surprising theme has to do with administrative style: turns out that campaign politics (运动 yundong) is neither a Maoist nor a modern invention in Chinese statecraft. We have documented examples of campaign-style implementation of policy in the Qing. Contemporary Chinese statecraft practices run deep, yet they are not unchanging. The “campaign” style politics we find in Ming and Qing statecraft did not include the modern effort to coopt social movements. We have to be attentive to both deep habits and contextual developments, but we should be able to do a better job at explaining the interaction of statecraft traditions and experiences to help us make sense of China today.

These are preliminary findings that follow on from really inspiring work by Vivienne Shue on “resonances” from traditional statecraft in modern Chinese politics, which in turn builds on the work of Angela Zito, Liz Perry, and earlier generations like Fred Wakeman, Jr. on Mao and Wang Yanming and Philip Kuhn on modern China’s constitutional order from a Qing perspective.

All in all, I’ve mentioned a dozen names but I could name dozens more. This gives me great hope in these dark days for scholars wanting to study contemporary China in this New Era. However, the challenge remains making this new scholarship legible and relevant to policy circles. Universities support this in-depth research but generally do not reward policy engagement by social science and humanities scholars. We need to change the incentive structure.

I want to build off of our discussion last year about the distinction between “capital-I ideology” and “small-i ideology.” China’s economy is in difficulty right now. If the days of miracle growth and a continuous improvement in the standard of living are over, will the fact that the Party doesn’t have a compelling “capital-I ideology” as far as the elites and the middle class are concerned undermine the longstanding social contract through which people acquiesce to the dictatorship of the Communist Party? Alternatively, do you think that the “small-i ideology” of generic nationalism is going to be enough to keep the Party secure if there are serious economic issues?

That’s a good question, and it’s something we’re all wrestling with: do people actually believe this stuff, the Xi Jinping stuff? I think nobody missed the challenges–the economic downturn, the complete mess of the end of COVID lockdowns in China. It was a major policy error.

I think that belief in big-I ideology is low, and corrosive, it’s not working, and I think it’s closer to how Eastern Europe was in the 80s, when nobody really believed what they were doing. That’s dire. The difference is that the small- i ideology is working. The nationalism is very popular. And the economy is in a downturn, and there are problems, but compared to the Soviet economy in the 80s, and the Eastern European economy in the 80s, it’s flourishing. But we also know that the French Revolution didn’t come from starving peasants, it came when the economy started to improve, and it was the sans-culotte, the lower middle class, who were angry. So, it is very dangerous, and I think that the Communist Party is incredibly aware of this. Hence the terrible orthodox political repression that’s going on. They really are willing to lose productivity, they’re willing to lose inventiveness for security, primarily the security of the ruling class but also social order. The lessons for leadership of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen 1989 shape how the CCP responds to current challenges: avoid luan “chaos” at all costs and never let the top leadership get divided as it was in those two cases. This justifies one-man rule.

This is a neo-Stalinist state. It’s not just like Stalinism in the 1930s, it’s not just like Mao in the 1960s, a lot has changed– but not everything. I think of Xi Jinping ideology as a public transcript. James C. Scott famously had a book on hidden transcripts, or how people in authoritarian regimes can resist anyway, but not openly, because it’s dangerous. But there’s a chapter that nobody reads, Chapter 6, on public transcripts, which is the story that the elite tell themselves to feel good. The American public transcript is Horatio Alger, and that capitalism is actually good and fair for everybody. Sociologists might beg to differ, historians disagree; it’s not always fair, but that’s what the elite tell themselves. So, what do we do about the belief and the big- I ideology in China? I think that the elite, who actually do control the levers of power, choose to believe in it, because there’s no viable alternative, and the general public just wants to be left alone. But the Party has successfully attached itself to China the nation-state, Chinese history, and so criticisms of the CCP play very badly in China, not just amongst the Communist Party. Thus, I think that until the policies fail a great deal more than they have, the Communist Party is actually more secure than they think.

Broadly speaking, what is your view on the importance of “capital-I Ideology” in keeping a regime in power? Is it normal for autocratic regimes to remain in power despite limited public and elite support in that regard? Do the citizens or subjects of autocratic regimes usually care much about the particulars of “capital-I Ideology,” or is generic nationalism (or economic fulfillment) good enough for them?

For citizens, there’s what I would call daily life and there’s crisis. In crisis, like zero-covid, the dysfunctional response by lower-level bureaucrats to a vague and absurd policy demand was the outcome of a choice between ruining the lives of the locals and disappointing their superiors, and they knew what they were going to do. In crises like that, there’s a real challenge to citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of their rulers. But day to day, I still think that the general Chinese public assumes there ought to be a nanny state, there ought to be a pedagogical state, that the appropriate thing is the state should be trying to address these questions. They may not like the way they’re addressed in particular or the answers they’re giving today, but it’s appropriate that the government be involved in those things. So, I still see a fundamental confidence in the system even though they’re unhappy with Xi Jinping’s repressive orthodoxy and zero-covid.

With regard to COVID, as terrible as it was, if you look at history since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, this pandemic absolutely paled in comparison to the cataclysm of the Great Leap Forward and the decade-long catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. In books about those crises, I’m not aware of ever seeing a reference to a serious challenge to the primacy of the regime. Does that call into question the idea that this economic growth is so important? If so, was it ideology that was keeping the regime afloat at that time, or is it simply the fact that even when people’s lives are bad, in a repressive, dictatorial system, there’s not much that they can do?

It’s a really good question, and I think you’re absolutely right that the challenges of Covid and the economic downturn today pale in comparison to the decade of political terror that was the Cultural Revolution and the state murder of people in the Great Leap Forward. And you’re absolutely right that there was not a sustained, substantive and articulate reaction against these crises, in the sense of opposing the Communist Party and trying to overthrow it and do something else. There were two reasons, I think, for that. One is the good old Leninist sinews of power, they had the control of force and they had inhibited social actors from coordinating and getting together. But the other key thing is that people just didn’t know. What we’re hearing particularly about the Great Leap Forward is people just assuming that they happened to be in a very bad place, but the rest of the country was probably ok. In other words, the control of information was near-total then, and that made a difference, but now it’s not. And this is why there’s such a heavy push on creating an interpretive filter– some of which is rhetorical ways of looking at things (shaping public discussion), but some of it is technical. They have the Great Firewall, and they’re moving from Weibo to Weixin/WeChat. On Weibo, you could have millions of followers; on WeChat, it’s just not possible. Step out of line on WeChat and you get shut down—along with that your WeChat Pay app, and more. It’s a deterrent.

Party leaders are historical materialists. They realize that consciousness is shaped by institutional and economic experience. I think the propaganda system in China is robust. It’s not that people believe every little thing, or that Xi Jinping is so wonderful, but they kind of accept the system. With regard to information, we see in the “free world” what algorithms can do, where people go into their own echo chamber. In China, that is reinforced by greater control. But the big difference between the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and today is that the party has much less control over information. And that’s corrosive to their goals.

Regarding that effort to understand the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in a comparative context to the crisis of COVID and the period now, your answer also made me think about the relevance of Soviet experiences in a comparative context. In the 1930s, there were people who lived in the Soviet Union who were not aware of the scope of what was happening, but there were also tons of people who were aware that lots and lots of people were getting killed and tortured, including people who were themselves detained and tortured– but despite this, one often heard the refrain from Soviet people that “Stalin didn’t know,” all the way through the period of Perestroika. Documentary evidence, of course, makes it clear that Stalin knew what was happening, if there were ever room for doubt.

People said that about Mao– Mao didn’t know about the Cultural Revolution. But people do tell themselves those things. As with Stalin, historical research on Mao shows he knew and he is culpable.

One of the things that we’re working with, and I think the Communist Party in China is wrestling with, is there’s always been a charismatic aspect to Marxism-Leninism. China is now in a Brezhnev era where there’s no charisma. And so, you try to buff up institutional charisma. For a lot of people on the quotidian side, the Party is the place to turn to to get that extra medical care, to resolve a local problem. And they do, particularly in the cities, deliver quite a lot for people. So, there is a real contrast between how the Soviet Communist Party worked on the ground and how the CCP works on the ground. The CCP has been much better at co-option. Before they went after Ai Weiwei, they tried to put him on the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Conference). When you’re a problem, they offer you a way in– and then if you won’t cooperate, they beat the living daylights out of you. Jack Ma came around in the end.

Looking at the present, it seems like the regime is making a clear choice right now between security and economic benefits. If they’re spooking all these foreign economic entities that have contributed to making China what it is today, they have to be alert to the strong long-term economic consequences of closing the door.

I think for understanding China, this is an important question to address. How do we make sense of what we would call counterproductive crackdowns? They want to control business, they want to control entrepreneurs, and so they do it, and the Chinese just sit on their hands and the foreigners go home and decide to invest in Japan or Thailand. And of course, there’s still a lot of economic connections—just ask GM and BMW—even though these are changes on the margin, but they are real, and they’re not nothing and they can add up to a real economic problem.

Why are they doing this? Why are they doing wolf warrior diplomacy and crackdowns on businesspeople when they’re trying to have friends around the world and a dynamic economy? We can wonder about that, but I think one important thing that we need to note is that we can see from published materials that there’s a lot of debate inside the Chinese elite. There’s still a public policy debate going on. Everybody is not stuck with a zombie-like groupthink. They’re arguing. And we’re only seeing the tips of the icebergs. That’s why services like China Digital Times and David Ownby’s Reading the China Dream are so important for us if we want to understand what’s going on in China today.

Regarding the regime’s resilience in response to crises, looking at the Stalinist and Chinese examples, you talked about how people are able to persuade themselves of whatever they want. Do you think that what’s more important is people’s self-delusion, or is it the monopoly on information? Why can regimes inflict such catastrophic damage on their people and still, as far as we can tell, be completely secure?

I don’t think they are completely secure. I don’t think the Communist Party is confident, and I’m not sure it was ever confident about having popular support, because when they look at the consciousness of the laobaixing (ordinary folk), they regard people as too luohou, too backward, to understand. Lenin was perfectly content to not be popular; he just needed to be in power, because he knew better than you did. And so, the Communists definitely have that approach, after all, they are Leninists. What contributes to people’s accommodation with authoritarian government–maybe rather than calling it self-delusion—we might best see as how people make sense of their situation. I always think comparatively, and in Canada, like the United States, we have street people, people who are living on the street, can’t get a job or a safe place to sleep, and I think, we’re the richest countries on the planet, and we can’t sort this out? The system I believe in allows this to happen? And an outside observer can criticize me for self-delusion, because you’re not really doing very much about it, Tim. At my church, we hand out bags of dried food and socks, but that’s just a band-aid. So, on the Chinese side, it’s not so much self-delusion as making their peace. It really is true that if you criticize the Communist Party, bad things will happen to you. And so, you can either live in resentment and brooding, or you can just get over it, be practical under circumstance that are very difficult to change. Part of the human condition is people respond to available options. And so far, the party is just not giving them the option. When Gorbachev gave folks in the Soviet Union the option, they took it. And Xi Jinping has taken note. So, I don’t see the Communist Party offering it to them any time soon.


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