By Filip Noubel
Understanding social issues in China is essential to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Thirty years ago, its survival was challenged as the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement picked up, and since then, the CCP has been very wary of any large-scale social movements.
Global Voices spoke with Chloé Froissart, a lecturer in political science at the Chinese studies department of the University of Rennes 2 in France, about the status of social science in today’s China and to what extent it is used as a tool for the Party’s survival.
The following is the abridged transcript of an interview between Global Voices and Froissart from May 2019:
Global Voices (GV): What is the role played by the social sciences in China?
Chloé Froissart (CF): Social sciences have never existed independently from the centre of political power in China. In fact, researchers in social sciences have always been ordered to serve the Party, and to help it govern so that it can remain in power. But there are indeed several ways that this task is achieved, thus the space for freedom from the Party for researchers in social sciences has evolved in time. One way to serve those in power is to identify and to analyse socio-economic issues, and to find solutions in order to help the Party face them. This is why social sciences in China have always been more quantitative and supported by large surveys, rather than qualitative. Thus it is more technical than critical of the system. Another way, which is the reason why intellectuals were rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping after years of persecutions during Mao’s period, is to legitimize reforms and to provide ideas in order to promote them. Chinese researchers have often been operating as go-betweens linking the West and China, appropriating ideas in western theories, whether social, political or economic, and adapting them to the Chinese context, thus finding inspiration in the West in order to launch new experimentation in China.
GV: What has changed since Xi Jinping gained power in March 2013?
CF: The Xi Jinping era has put a brutal end to the policies of reforms and opening initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Everything that comes from the West is now regarded with utmost suspicion if not paranoia. It started in April 2013 – one month after Xi Jinping was elected President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with orders given to researchers, journalists, publishers to no longer use expressions regarded as “too Western” such as “universal values”, “freedom of expression,” “civil society,” “independence of the judiciary”. Professors, researchers, as well as editors and journalists are forced to attend brainwashing sessions during which a Xi Jinping way of thinking is instilled via study programs taking place on campus or outside of work on weekends, but sometimes also for entire weeks. The irony is that in Chinese, to study is pronounced the exact same way as “studying Xi’s thought” ( xuexi / xue Xi / 学习 ) thus it seems that the only thing to really study is indeed the thought of the new helmsman. A new App, called « xuexi qiangguo » which can be understood as “studying to strengthen the nation” （学习强国） but also as “studying Xi’s thought to strengthen the country” appeared in 2018. Professors and researchers are supposed to spend at least two hours per day on it in order to read articles about Xi’s thought and to watch propaganda videos. Xi has assigned a new mission to researchers: contributing to the development of the regime’s ideology and of a model of social, economic, political and environmental modernity that can be exported abroad. According to Xi Jinping, this represents the ultimate revenge that China must take on after the Opium Wars. Researchers are thus expected to finalise the Chinese Dream, which is ultimately a dream of world domination.
GV: Is there then any space left today for independent research in social sciences?
CF: The space has shrunk considerably, there are constraints everywhere. Chinese researchers can only rely on funding from the CCP. Even studying abroad is now possible only thanks to a grant from the Chinese government, as any foreign funding is considered extremely sensitive. Of course, some researchers develop avoidance strategies. One can always mask a research project as seemingly fitting the official political line, or ask her or his assistant to surf on the Xuexi APP. One colleague was telling me recently that she scrolls down articles on the APP without even looking at it while working. Yet the margin is very thin, and even when masked, a seminar on workers’ class conscience, protest movements or the rule of law will not be permitted.
GV: What is happening with the labour movement in China today?
GV: The labour movement is now completely censored in China. It had become quite radicalized when Xi Jinping took power. Chinese workers quickly went from mobilising efforts aimed at applying the labour code, to more political requirements aimed at the implementation of the law thanks to the recognition of collective rights, such as the right to go on strike, to elect their own trade-unions and representatives in charge of negotiations with employers. There was a major crackdown on NGOs and lawyers in December 2015, and not a single NGO advocating workers’ rights remains. At the same time, the reform of the official trade-unions remains frozen. As China’s GDP slows down, and unemployment grows, the situation will get worse with the absence of any mechanism for social dialogue. One cannot rule out an explosion of frustration and violent riots.
GV: No one can predict the future of China, but if there were significant socio-political changes to happen, where do you see them potentially coming from?
CF: They will come as a result of an alliance between high-ranking state officials and key sectors of society: students, intellectuals, workers, sexual minorities and affiliated NGOs, people who can no longer practice their faith, in other words all who suffer from the current regime, which represents a lot of people. The Party learnt that lesson well during the pro-democracy movement in 1989. After that date, preserving a consensus within the CCP became an intangible principle in order to prevent a vertical alliance between the people and some of the political leaders, yet Xi Jinping has shattered this consensus, which has led to increased repression within society but also within the Party. Xi’s fight against corruption is mostly a political purge in disguise. This game is extremely risky because even if people do not show it, they are very frustrated. In fact Xi has created a situation of permanent crisis, that is very dangerous: if the fragile balance is broken, the only alternative will be a violent change.
This article originally appeared on Global Voices