Ricardo García Mira is Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruña, Spain, and Visiting Professor at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), University of Bath, UK.
As soon as the subject of China arises in a conversation, one realises how little is generally known about this country. It is the most populous on Earth, with almost a fifth of the global population, it boasts the second largest economy, and it has the second largest military budget in the world. However, its impact on the education and cultures of "Western" societies through science, literature or the visual media is much lower than that of the USA.
To understand such "silencing" we need to look at the staggering evolution of China over the last century. And at this point, let me quote a little anecdote from during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit in 2018 to the Parliament of Spain, when he was received at an institutional event.
I was introduced to Mr Jinping and had the opportunity to hold a brief but relaxed conversation with him at the Senate Library. It had been barely a month since I had returned from China, where I visited Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Wuhan) and Tongji University (Shanghai) to give lectures. It was therefore easy for me to include in my words my admiration for the state of higher education and innovation in the Eastern giant:
"We are making a great effort in that direction”, said Xi Jinping, “with ambitious shock budgets that will allow us to modernise our universities, upgrade our scientific infrastructure, and grow our human capital".
Education has been at the root of the transformative policies of modern China. Mao Zedong projected himself as a teacher and defender of the education of the rural population, a socialist thinker, guerrilla and political leader, who led the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in almost continuous political and military activity to assume the undisputed leadership in the country at the end of World War II.
Education has been a fundamental dimension of China’s progress, but not the only one. It is not possible to get to know contemporary China and understand its processes of social, ideological, political, economic and security transformation without analysing the weight that each of these dimensions has on the different orders of life and the interactions between them.
In 2021, the centenary is celebrated of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the architect of the great changes that have taken place, which are underway and which explain the modernisation of the country. To get an idea of the changes that have taken place in China in the last hundred years, it is necessary to do so in the light of the evolution of its Communist Party.
Ríos (2021) in his book “The Metamorphosis of Communism in China” does not skimp on details and analyses the Chinese “miracle” with all its contributions, not only that of the communism of the “Great Helmsman” but also that of socialism promoted by Deng Xiaoping. Deng launched economic reforms focused on the transformation of agriculture, the liberalisation of the private sector and the modernisation of industry. Eventually, these put an end to modesty in foreign policy and opened China up to international trade.
All of these are key aspects that require attention, with a focus on those with the greatest impact in each period, in light of the resolutions of the various CCP congresses that allowed the implementation of economic reforms undertaken in both rural and urban contexts. It is necessary to be familiar with the different phases in which Dengism develops, and the balances China needs to make so that its trade relations are not dominated by Western interests, as Chinese investments abroad increase and the country attracts new investors - all with a goal that has always marked the development of the People's Republic of China: to correct social inequalities and territorial imbalances.
The environmental problem is no stranger here. China’s economic transformation has been accompanied by extensive environmental degradation, and in recent years, this has become an issue of profound Chinese concern (Ríos, 2021). Frantic economic growth, industrialisation and rapid urbanisation entailed a staggering investment in infrastructure with inadequate water management and the treatment of domestic and industrial waste. But it was not until 2011, at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Durban, that China’s first commitment to introducing emission reduction measures in 2020 emerged; and just two months ago China and the United States pledged to cooperate in the fight against climate change under the Paris Agreement at the virtual summit on 22 April.
Rios’ book also examines the leadership of Xi Jinping, who, in eight and a half years of CCP leadership, has not only consolidated his own extensive power, but has put in place a singularly ambitious reform agenda for China to complete its historic goal of modernisation, all in a process that includes measures that allow for its full development and prosperity. In this general context, we are shown the main goal of Xiism: to build an affluent and less unequal society, tackling corruption and promoting law-based governance, and defending the CCP as the guarantor of China’s strength and central position in the global system. The validity of socialist values constitutes one premise; another, the promotion of cultural self-esteem that allows the encounter between modernisation and tradition; and a third, the preservation of one's own socio-political singularities in comparison with "Western" culture and democracy.
Obviously, there are still several pending challenges, with a noticeable impact on the Western society with which China interacts and in which it develops its market and interests, as well as its political influence in matters of foreign trade, political and security relations. Undoubtedly, in this line lies the policy of centralisation of power in the ideology of the CCP. The centralisation of power, together with the rejection of partisan political plurality, is a major constraint for a positive social perception of China from the Western side. We might think that it is no more than a cultural model that invites us to reflect on the plurality of the West. Both constantly pursue the objective of coming to power, on the one hand, constituting a single party, and on the other, trying to reach an absolute majority, ridiculing the opposition to the point of exhaustion, and openly or subtly repressing internal dissent within the parties by means of marginalisation and irrelevance. From the communist perspective, criticism of the leader is not possible. From the Western perspective, criticism of the leader is always interpreted as something annoying, and as a pernicious response, which leads to behaviour that ignores the dissident and incorporates new mechanisms for the control of dissent, preventing anybody from contradicting the leader. It is the “Group thinking” phenomenon as described by Janis (2008, 2015).
From this point of view, political plurality in the West would be nothing more than a construct that allows any party to coexist on a day-to-day basis with all those parties that are part of the political spectrum, as long as it does not constitute a threat to the dominant party. At that moment, a whole machinery, which makes use of all the resources of power, is developed to eliminate it and to remain in control of the state apparatus. Yet in spite of everything, democracy, and with it inherent political plurality, constitutes the most appreciated value in Western culture and on which the principles of the operation of the rule of law are based. This is not always easy, as we observed in the resolution of the pro-independence problem in Spain, for example, which attains true political complexity. We could say something similar about the question of Hong Kong.
A critical point in the CCP's record has been complaints about its policy of population control of the Uighurs, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by Beijing. The surveillance policy that it maintains over this group has a lot to do with the existence of educational and transformation training centres or training centres against extremism, as they have been called at different times from Beijing. The Party has been accused of having camps for political, religious and identity re-education in the northwest region of the country, which bring together tens of thousands of Uyghurs, including hundreds of writers, artists and academics. China justifies their existence and surveillance as part of its anti-terrorist policy, due to the terrorist events that occurred in the area under the auspices of the East Turkestan Islamic Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Russia, the United Kingdom, and by the United States until recently, less than a year ago. It is also considered as a terrorist group by the United Nations and its Security Council. Nonetheless, human rights groups accuse China of using anti-terrorism to justify crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uighurs.
Some experts have linked this pressure on the area to the Silk Road Initiative, the One Belt, One Road Initiative, or BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), a large international project launched by China in 2013. There are two Combined routes, one overland and the other maritime, which would improve Chinese connections both in the Asian continent and abroad, giving China greater economic and political influence worldwide.
All these aspects undoubtedly introduce a level of concern; on the one hand, about how a specific policy could affect human rights, and on the other, about the growing commercial influence that China pursues in parallel to continuing to grow as a world political power, with influence at all levels. In this extension of its commercial influence, it will undoubtedly find interests in Europe, the United States and all those competing countries. The reason is that the Silk Road Initiative is not only a commercial project, but it is also part of its security-related foreign policy and financial policy, due to the debt that China's investments generate in many countries. It is also a cultural project, which allows China to export its culture through cooperation, and strengthen its presence in the world.
In short, delving into an objective and clear analysis of China's evolution in line with the ideological and political evolution pursued by the Chinese Communist Party today facilitates understanding of the important changes in a huge country, constantly evolving and with countless impacts on the global sphere.
Janis, I. L. (2008). Groupthink. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 36(1), 36.
Janis, I. L. (2015). Groupthink: The desperate drive for consensus at any cost. Classics of organization theory, 161-168.
Ríos, X. (2021), A metamorfose do comunismo na China [The metamorphosis of Communism in China], Pontevedra, SP: Kalandraka Editions.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.