Does China’s Regime Have a ‘Culture of Being Kind and of Giving Face to Others’?

(photo by Jorge Láscar via Wikimedia Commons)

In September 2020, Zhang Weiwei (张维为), the director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said during an interview on Chinese television:

The Chinese have a culture of ‘being kind to others’ and of giving face to others, which the West does not have. That’s why I often say that in order to communicate better with the West (与西方交流), we have to learn to confront the West (与西方交锋), and after confrontation we can often communicate better. Of course, confrontation does not mean you shout yourself hoarse, as the Chinese say. Confrontation is about stating your principles clearly. Western culture is a culture of the strong (西方文化是强者文化). They respect the strong, respect the winner. If they raise a provocative issue and you dare not respond, dare not confront, then you have lost. And you’ve lost representing the country.

On May 31, a collective study session of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) discussed the issue of propaganda and messaging towards the outside world.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized the need to “strive to create an image of China that is trustworthy, loveable and respectable” (努力塑造可信、可爱、可敬的中国形象).

This particular sentence was quickly picked up by US media and misinterpreted as “a sign that Beijing may be looking to smooth its hard-edged diplomatic approach”, as Bloomberg put it.

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David Bandurski at China Media Project rightly pointed out that Xi’s statement needs to be analyzed in the wider context of the session and of CCP propaganda. From this standpoint, it does not seem to signal any softening on the CCP’s part, but rather an attempt to carry out propaganda more effectively.

Xi argued that the Chinese government should “effectively guide international public opinion and carry out the public opinion struggle” (有效开展国际舆论引导和舆论斗争).

He said the authorities should use “China’s theories to explain China’s practices” (中国理论阐释中国实践), resort to “new concepts, categories and formulations” (新概念、新范畴、新表述) to “tell China’s stories and explain the ideological and spiritual strength behind them” (展现中国故事及其背后的思想力量和精神力量).

Furthermore, he stated that the authorities should “more forcefully propagandize and explain the Chinese Communist Party, help foreign audiences recognize that the Chinese Communist Party genuinely struggles for and pursues the happiness of the Chinese people” and help foreigners understand “why socialism with Chinese characteristics is good” (要加强对中国共产党的宣传阐释,帮助国外民众认识到中国共产党真正为中国人民谋幸福而奋斗,了解 … 中国特色社会主义为什么好).

Professor Zhang Weiwei was one of the people consulted by the CCP leadership, and he provided his ideas and suggestions during the study session.

As David Bandurski noted, Zhang is a proponent of a “post-Western” discourse. For instance, he once stated:

Chinese intellectuals should no longer be subservient to the Western discourse, but should think independently and, with their own conscience, knowledge and patriotic spirit, absorb the wisdom of the world while rejecting Western neo-obscurantism (西方新蒙昧主义). They should jointly explore and construct a Chinese discourse system in the era of “post-Western discourse,” making their own contribution to the formation of a new world order.

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There is nothing wrong with the idea that the world should have a plurality of voices from different countries and backgrounds. But that is not what Zhang Weiwei or Xi Jinping are suggesting. The CCP does not really want its intellectuals to “think independently” or follow their own “conscience”. Only a few days ago, human rights activist Wang Aizhong was detained for criticizing the Chinese government, as have numerous other people who truly dared to think independently. When professor Zhang talks about “patriotic spirit”, he really means “CCP-aligned”. Because the CCP uses the term “patriotism” as a synonym for “loyalty to the CCP”.

What the CCP leadership is doing, is to adapt the old totalitarian playbook to new circumstances, to equate “China”, a diverse country, with the CCP regime, and to argue that the CCP’s regime is the voice of China.

Zhang Weiwei also distorts Chinese culture and history to suit the CCP’s agenda by claiming that the Chinese “have a culture of ‘being kind to others’ and of giving face to others”. The CCP is interpreting and enlisting Chinese culture for political purposes, and using it as a tool to promote nationalism and the image of the Chinese people as victims of uncouth Western bullies.

There is no question that foreign powers invaded the Qing empire and that their actions were wrong. This is something that everyone has to acknowledge. But this is not the actual point of contention.

First of all, Zhang’s argument rests on a false narrative regarding the concept of face. As explained in a previous post, face in Chinese culture is about status, reputation and power (面子, mianzi), or about adherence to social norms and expectations (臉, lian). For instance, even a powerful but corrupt official can have “face”, meaning that he has high social status.

Read: The Concept of Face in Chinese Culture and the Difference Between Mianzi and Lian

Second, it is absurd to argue that the Chinese are always kind to others, especially when the argument comes from the Communist Party, which has been one of the most brutal forces in Chinese history.

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Mao Zedong, who is still officially worshipped in the People’s Republic of China and by Xi Jinping himself, openly advocated for violent revolution and terror. In his Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan from March 1927, Mao wrote in praise of the peasants’ association:

[T]he peasants are in a sense “unruly” in the countryside. Supreme in authority, the peasant association allows the landlord no say and sweeps away his prestige. This amounts to striking the landlord down to the dust and keeping him there … People swarm into the houses of local tyrants and evil gentry who are against the peasant association, slaughter their pigs and consume their grain. They even loll for a minute or two on the ivory-inlaid beds belonging to the young ladies in the households of the local tyrants and evil gentry.

At the slightest provocation they make arrests, crown the arrested with tall paper hats, and parade them through the villages, saying, “You dirty landlords, now you know who we are!” Doing whatever they like and turning everything upside down, they have created a kind of terror in the countryside.

This is what some people call “going too far”, or “exceeding the proper limits in righting a wrong”, or “really too much”. Such talk may seem plausible, but in fact it is wrong …

[A] revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another …

To put it bluntly, it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area, or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside or overthrow the authority of the gentry.

(my emphasis)

Mao’s penchant for violence and class struggle found its logical culmination in the numerous campaigns of terror and brainwashing that took place after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and ultimately in the Cultural Revolution.

The CCP continues to silence dissent, to exclude any critical voice from its definition of “China”, to imprison those who have a different vision for the future of the country as the regime, and without its use of the army to crack down on dissent in 1989, the CCP might not even be in power today.

All the talk about “face” and “kindness” is nothing but empty propaganda, an attempt to use simplistic nationalistic tropes to hide the power structure and the real intent behind the CCP’s words and actions.


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