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“Occupy Wall Street” and Communist Chinese Propaganda


This essay summarizes Dr. Ford’s longer paper “‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Communist China’s Emerging ‘Neo-Kong’ Discourse of Antidemocratic Legitimacy,” which is available on the Hudson Institute website by clicking this link.

China’s state-run media, it has accurately been reported, “had a field day [in the] autumn [of 2011] with [the] Occupy Wall Street [movement], spinning an almost daily morality play about capitalism gone amok and an American government unable or unwilling to aide the victims of a rapacious elite.”  This coverage, I contend, provides a fascinating window into the developing propaganda discourse advanced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in response to its modern legitimacy crisis.  I think Chinese “OWS” coverage also helps illustrate how the CCP’s modern discourse fits remarkably well with – and indeed may be in the process of coopting and appropriating – what I call an emerging “Neo-Kong” school of quasi-Confucian political theory that builds a modernized scheme of Confucian politics upon a philosophical critique of Western democracy.  This “Neo-Kong” discourse may prove extremely useful to CCP propaganda authorities as they seek to stake out for themselves some kind of politico-moral high ground both in the domestic political arena and in ideological competition with the United States abroad.

There appear to have been two main themes in coverage of OWS.  First, the coverage seemed to stress the ways in which OWS allegedly showed the U.S. political system to be dysfunctional in its inability to respond to the economic needs of the people.  To my eye, this was not primarily an economic critique.  It emphasized inequality and economic injustice, to be sure, but it focused upon the inability of American politics to respond to these problems.  This narrative thus implicitly contrasted governance in the United States to the Chinese system of Communist Party rule, which has rooted so much of its legitimacy as an authoritarian regime in its claimed responsiveness to the people’s needs for economic opportunity, and which has staked so much on its ability to provide huge growth rates year after year.

This emphasis upon the political origins of the problem – that is, the inability of American politics to respond to the challenges of economic inequality rather than the existence of such inequality per se – was important, of course, because China is nowadays notorious for its own income inequality, which is notably more extreme than in America.  A critique based upon inequality and economic injustice alone, therefore, would say more damaging things about the CCP and its rule than about the United States.

Accordingly, it was apparently important to make clear that the American dysfunction illustrated by “Occupy Wall Street” was not just economic but also political.  The point was thus not so much that economic problems existed in the West, but that our democratic political system was supposedly unable to address them.  (By contrast, of course, China’s government was depicted as being in the process of benevolently, efficiently, and competently responding to analogous challenges at home.  Tom Friedman would be proud.)

But it wasn’t just that OWS provided Chinese authorities with a convenient narrative with which they could criticize U.S. democracy and implicitly defend their own system.  The second part of their “Occupy” narrative saw this purported American political dysfunction as being tied to a parallel story of how U.S. politicians were responding to OWS-style discontent not by acting to address national problems but by trying to distract American voters with scapegoating to shift blame from their own incompetence.  Specifically, it was repeatedly alleged that American politicians responded to their country’s economic and political problems by pointing the finger at Chinae.g., with regard to currency manipulation and other trade issues.

In these twinned interpretive narratives, the CCP regime thus seems to have used OWS as an opportunity to propagate an image of U.S. economic and political paralysis, and perhaps indeed our current or inevitable future decline.  This image served CCP purposes in that it both provided a contrast with the purported benefits of the Party’s supposed ability to provide decisive leadership in response to the people’s needs, and provided an explanation for why current problems in the Sino-American relationship are not China’s fault but rather the result of structural problems in the American democratic system.

In this sense, I suggest that this twin narrative of the “Occupy” movement fits well into emerging themes in the Chinese Party-State’s discourse of self-legitimation and of differentiation from Western political models.  In short, the CCP regime is looking for a political ethic to replace its traditional themes of revolutionary rectitude and Marxist orthodoxy, and there are some intellectuals who are self-consciously trying to provide such a system by articulating a framework that builds upon existing themes in CCP self-justificatory propaganda but embeds these themes in a broader discourse of virtue and legitimacy claiming roots deep within China’s own cultural tradition.

The emerging counter-discourse originates in and centers upon not the once-Marxist economics but instead the PRC’s still-Leninist politics, reconceptualizing its pervasive political authoritarianism through the prism of quasi-Confucian notions of virtuous rule in which benevolent leaders pay close attention to the wishes and needs of the people in order to make decisions wisely and in the best interests of all.  To some extent this process of reconceptualization has been underway for several years, with Hu Jintao, in particular, being known for promoting the ideal of a “harmonious society” managed by benevolent CCP administrators who have been selected and promoted not just for party loyalty but also on the basis of broad and sophisticated educational qualifications rooted in conceptions of technocratic merit.  The Party-State has been fumbling toward a discourse in which the CCP oligarchy is not merely necessary but also actually good – and for which American-style democratic pluralism is not merely not a model, but in fact serves as something of an anti-model of unharmonious and paralyzing contentiousness.  And there are some in China today offering such a framework in prepackaged form, apparently hoping that it will take root.

In this respect, my paper discusses the work of what some have called modern China’s “political Confucians” – a group of thinkers for whom I suggest the label “neo-Kongs,” in honor both of the sage Kongzi (a.k.a. Confucius) who inspires them and of modern American “neo-conservative” thinkers (a.k.a. “neo-cons”) who were themselves often accused of wishing to remake the world in their own ideological image.

One of the more prominent articulators of this emerging ethic is a political philosopher and former PRC intelligence analyst named Yan Xuetong, now a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.  Yan’s vision, as he has offered it to date, mostly focuses on international affairs, but he and his fellow Neo-Kongs actually have much to say about domestic politics as well.  Taken together, they seem to offer a vision of what I call “meritoligarchy” – that is, rule by an allegedly benevolent managerial caste chosen not through the unpredictable whimsy of democratic elections but rather on the basis of merit and empowered to make decisions on behalf of the people as a whole precisely because of their superior wisdom and ability.  This provides what Tsinghua professor Daniel Bell approvingly calls a discourse of “nondemocratic legitimacy” involving “morally superior decision-makers” taking public policy benevolently in hand – and it purports to offer a system superior to the democratic pluralism of the West.

In recent remarks I attended at Tsinghua University, for instance, Yan offered a pointed critique of Western values of “freedom, equality, and democracy,” counterpoising against them what he said were the ancient, and superior, Chinese values of “ritual,” “fairness,” and “righteousness.”  Yan complained, for instance, that “[f]reedom is not something very civilized.”  In fact, he said, “[i]t is animal nature,” and it needs to be appropriately restrained – by the rituals of good manners and harmonious self-restraint – in any civilized society.  Equality is similarly limited as a source of value, he opined, for civilized societies limit equity by the principle of fairness, which is a higher and better good.  Finally, since the “democratic process can result in evil decision[s],” it must be restrained by righteousness that will prevent immoral choices.

Perhaps the scholar who has taken such notions the furthest in the domestic political context is Jiang Qing, who has established his own Confucian academy in a remote part of China’s Guizhou province.  Jiang writes elegiacally about “Confucian constitutionalism” and believes that “the way ahead for China’s political development is the Way of Humane Authority and not democracy.”  He says he has lost faith in democratic politics and argues that political life should be run instead by “meritocrats.”

The jumping-off point for this analysis is a strident critique of democratic forms of government as practiced in the West.  He feels that democratic politics is just “a politics of desire,” and because it “singl[es] out … the will of the people as the sole source of legitimacy,” democratic government lacks “the … restraint that ought to be provided by sacred legitimacy.”  Consequently, it “lacks morality,” and nothing prevents democratic politics from following “[a]n immoral will of the people.” Consequently, he views democratic forms of organization as representing nothing less than a threat to harmonious order in the world:  “The political problem of today’s world is that democracy itself presents a serious problem.”  According to Jiang Qing, however, a Confucian-inspired meritocracy can repair the “deficit of legitimacy” that has haunted Chinese politics “for the past hundred years.”

To be sure, Jiang Qing goes quite a bit farther in his Neo-Kong political agenda than it is possible to imagine CCP authorities accepting.  (Do not expect the CCP to countenance a tricameral parliamentary system anytime soon, even if two of the houses are made up of unelected worthies.)  Many Western Sinologists still seem quite dismissive of the Neo-Kongs, regarding them essentially as marginalized academic cranks and hobbyhorse theoreticians given little attention in elite Party circles. Nevertheless, it is striking the degree to which the modern Party-State’s propaganda discourse seems increasingly to agree with Jiang Qing’s diagnosis of the problem – namely, the impoverishment, ineffectiveness, and undesirability of Western-style democratic forms, and the need for a clearer alternative moral vision of antidemocratic legitimacy.  And it is striking, too, the degree to which the CCP seems to be trying to articulate its political platform in terms that color the CCP as just the very sort of benevolent meritoligarchs that the Neo-Kongs desire to put in charge.  Never mind that the CCP propaganda machine uses such narratives as a cloak for its own hegemonic Legalism (the ancient enemy of Confucian ethics), rather than a vehicle for the presumably genuinely benevolent paternalism for which Jiang Qing and the other Neo-Kongs seem to long.  The discourse of political Confucianism is temptingly ripe for opportunistic appropriation by CCP power-holders looking for a self-justificatory framework tied to China’s philosophical traditions and which can deploy the concept of meritoligarchic (and antidemocratic) legitimacy against the appeal of Western political traditions at home and abroad.

The rulers of the Chinese Party-State do seem to be interested in some such borrowing in service of the CCP’s continued one-party hegemony.  The CCP’s official narrative of itself holds that the great thing about Chinese socialism is that it enables China, in Premier Wen Jiabao’s words, “to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.”  Justifying its own “steady hand” and decisive leadership as the only way for China to accomplish the great national telos of effecting its return to global status after 19th and early 20th-Century humiliations suffered at foreign hands that are still obsessively invoked in China, the CCP claims not just to be the only alternative to chaos but in fact to be exactly what the country needs – the best answer to all of China’s problems.

It is hardly a new idea in China, of course, that stable and successful governance requires the firm hand of a meritocratic mandarinate that is selected rather than elected, and empowered to rule in the best interests of all.  And while few if any present-day CCP leaders have yet openly to invoke ancient Chinese political philosophy in support of their positions, it is striking how consistent the domestic theorizing of the Neo-Kong meritoligarchy ideologists appears to be with where senior CCP leaders have been taking their own public policy pronouncements in recent years.

Hu Jintao’s report to the Seventeenth Party Congress in October 2007, for instance, is rich with such themes, stressing as it does not just the importance of a “harmonious society” but also the CCP’s role in advancing an essentially meritoligarchic conception of political order in which wise and virtuous Party leaders conscientiously consult and engage with the people in order to remain attuned to their needs, provide the population with a means of redressing grievances by requesting aid and redress from central authorities, and otherwise temper their despotism with benevolence.  Though the word “democracy” is frequently invoked, the program has nothing to do with actually allowing the people to choose or change their rulers; it is merely about improving the ability of Party power-holders to rule wisely and well.  Most of these themes, moreover, were not new with Hu Jintao, for CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin had made many similar points in his own report to the Sixteenth Party Congress in 2002.  (Their two work reports are discussed in some detail in my paper.)  Modern China looks very little like such a benevolent dictatorship, of course – a more honest description would simply forego the adjective – but the articulated vision is clear enough, and these notions seem increasingly important to the CCP’s narrative of its own legitimacy and indispensability.

What is interesting about the emerging ideological discourse of meritoligarchy, of course, is not its proponents’ boldness or originality in articulating an ethos of nondemocratic legitimacy for China.  Arguments about the need for the steady guiding hand of a wise ruling elite, after all, have a tiresome predictability: they have been made in many countries and at many points, whenever questions have arisen about establishing or extending the electoral franchise.  What is intriguing about the Neo-Kongs is rather their openness about Sinicizing this discourse – that is, articulating it in terms redolent of China’s long history of rule by a Confucian mandarinate.  And the gradual Sinicization of the CCP’s official legitimacy discourse is already underway, and seems to have been for some time.

All of which brings me back to “Occupy Wall Street,” for whether or not one accepts a Neo-Kong Sinification of the discourse, the CCP’s model of nondemocratic but aspirationally meritocratic legitimacy works best when paired with an accompanying anti-model of what is likely to happen when a polity foolishly chooses a different – more genuinely democratic, perhaps, but also more “disharmonious” – course.  The growing importance of the Chinese Party-State’s self-image as an exemplar of meritoligarchic rectitude thus provides an interesting window into Chinese commentators’ fascination with the “Occupy” movement in the autumn of 2011.  It is hardly surprising that stories about OWS seem to have been watched with more attention and interest in government offices in Beijing than they were in American living rooms.  Chinese coverage of the short-lived but seemingly symbolically rich “Occupy” phenomenon is only a small piece of a very big picture, but I think it offers an interesting window upon larger themes in contemporary Chinese political discourse.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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