This thesis looks at the political use of tradition in contemporary China. It argues that the post-1978 party-state uses China’s traditions politically. This is because China’s traditions are deemed by the party-state to fill the void in the ideological system left by a decline in the official political doctrine in general, and to combat the influence of Western liberalism on Chinese politics and society in particular.
Since the introduction of a market-oriented economy in 1978, the party-state has been faced with two critical issues. One is the decline in the influence of its official political ideology and the other is the growth in the influence of Western liberalism. Since 1978 the decline in the influence of Marxism-Maoism has been palpable. The introduction of a market-oriented economy by the party-state is a betrayal of the principles of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. More importantly, this introduction has led to an increase in the influence of Western liberalism, which is the underlying ideology of market-oriented economics.
The post-1978 leadership of the communist party-state has consciously chosen to make political use of China’s traditions that are seen as including all the beliefs, customs and values manifest in Chinese history. Such a vague definition suggests that the party-state is not sincere in its belief in the value of China’s traditions, rather, that these are political tools to be used to consolidate the power of the party-state. This is described in the thesis as the official Marxist view of China’s traditions.
The contemporary discourse in China on China’s traditions takes two key forms. These are the liberalist and neo-traditionalist forms, though there are anti-traditional liberalists and middle-way liberalists in the liberalist camp as well. Anti-traditional liberalists oppose the use of China’s traditions in the pursuit of liberalism. Middle-way liberalists see China’s traditions as valuable in establishing a liberalist authority. Chinese neo-traditionalists are those who truly believe that traditionalist ways of being and living are better than modernist ones. From their perspective, China’s traditions encompass Confucianism, Daoism and Chinese Buddhism.
This thesis examines three examples that highlight the political use of China’s traditions. They are the children’s reading-of-the-classics movement, the construction of a Chinese Cultural Symbolic City and the construction and subsequent removal of a statue of Confucius in and from Tiananmen Square, and the revision of the official list of public holidays.
The three cases manifest the manipulation of China’s traditions by the party-state. The latter seeks to use China’s traditions by using cultural nationalism and the invention of tradition. By being culturally nationalistic, the party-state argues that China’s traditions are useful as a way to generate a sense of belonging among the Chinese nation, that is, among the Chinese people. In terms of the invention of tradition, the party-state portrays itself as the legitimate custodian of China’s traditions. It also uses its power to decide what China’s traditions in particular should be included and promoted. In the process, it invents ideas such as love of the party and of the party-state, and it attempts to imbue the Chinese people with them from top to bottom.