Jonathan Culbreath on December 13, 2021
American conservatives have complained much about the uptick in “woke” ideologies, such as LGBTQ ideology and Critical Race Theory, taking over American institutions such as the media, the schools, Big Tech and even the governance of America’s largest corporations.
As this trend has come to a head, the partisan divide has reached a point of all-out ideological warfare. This warfare was particularly pronounced under the presidency of Donald Trump, whose strong anti-woke and anti-elitist rhetoric stirred the nation.
Yet surprisingly little was done under the Trump presidency to counteract the spread of such ideologies in a concrete way, despite the fact that this was ostensibly what Trump was elected to do. Trump’s anti-woke stance was mostly rhetorical. At the state level, a small number of red states have undertaken to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in their schools. But beyond this, relatively little was achieved at a national level.
What should the conservative establishment have done when they were in power? What should Donald Trump have done? Any answer to such questions can only ever be hypothetical, since they may fail to account for the concrete factors that prohibited a truly populist and anti-woke program to be implemented. Nonetheless, it might still be useful to ask the question, so that if conservatives of a populist streak should ever come to power again, they may have a clearer vision of their goals.
I suggest that conservatives look to the example of China, where the term baizuo is colloquially used as an insult to describe white woke liberals. The Chinese government, unlike the American government (whether it is dominated by Republicans or Democrats), is extraordinarily attentive to the ideological currents that shape the entire globe, and it is keen to control just how much those currents affect its own national culture.
In the past year alone, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping, has embarked upon a campaign to eradicate certain “woke” ideologies from many institutions of Chinese society, such as the media. The CCP has begun enforcing several measures intended to protect Chinese culture from many of the very same ideologies that are having a corrosive effect on American culture.
For example, the Chinese government has been heavy-handed in its censorship of LGBTQ ideology and activism, including the deletion of several LGBTQ accounts on the Chinese social media app WeChat this past summer and the shutdown of the activist group Shanghai Pride under pressure from the local government of Shanghai.
China has also cracked down heavily on the entertainment industry, including a campaign aimed against “boy bands” whose “sissy men” set standards of morality and fashion that the CCP does not wish to see inculcated in its population. Such standards go against the ideals of strength and masculinity which the CCP would rather see embodied in its national culture, and has even advised to be taught in its schools.
China has long exerted close control over its social media platforms, under the rubric of maintaining “cyber sovereignty.” This is again partly to counteract the outsized influence of American culture around the globe, which the Chinese scholars Liu Yangyue and Zhang Xu have identified as caused by the concentration of the world’s social media companies in the United States, despite the fact that so many users of these platforms are not themselves Americans. In other words, China expressly seeks to limit what it sees as the corrosive influence of late American culture by means of social media.
These are just a few among several similar measures that China has taken to combat ideological colonization by what it perceives to be an effeminate Western ideology, the same ideology that is currently wreaking havoc on American soil and is being spread across the globe by American cultural imperialism.
Ostensibly, the motivations behind such heavy measures are to move away from a culture that glorifies wealth, glamor and celebrity. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has also embarked on a “common prosperity campaign,” whose purpose is to reduce the yawning income gap between China’s rich and poor. These campaigns go hand in hand, since the culture of wealth and celebrity, which the CCP perceives as linked to the effeminate culture of a “tittytainment” industry deeply influenced by its American counterpart, only serves to reinforce the class divide that still remains in Chinese society, posing a threat to China’s age-old aspiration to the ideal of common prosperity.
Wang Huning, perhaps the leading intellectual behind Xi Jinping’s governing philosophy — and key player behind the common prosperity campaign, has expressed China’s vision of governance in his widely cited article, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture“:
“Thus the most urgent task in the transformation of Chinese political culture is to form a new value system,” Wang Huning wrote. “We of course cannot conjure this value system out of thin air; on the one hand, it must accord with objective political, economic and cultural developments, and on the other, it must promote a higher-level cultural and spiritual atmosphere that will contribute to the objective development process. Only when the new value system is established and fully socialized will the situation we have been discussing finally change.”
Such an approach runs counter to the usual conservative approach in America, which is based on the Breitbart doctrine that “politics is downstream of culture.” The Chinese government, to the contrary, displays remarkable confidence in the power of political intervention to have concrete and lasting effects upon Chinese national culture, both by direct intervention in the “culture industry” and by intervention in the economic relations that are reinforced by that industry.
In this way, by contrast to the ruling elites of many Western countries, the Chinese government displays a clear vision of what it believes is good for the country, and it does not hesitate to use its power to curtail a variety of cultural, ideological and economic crises which threaten to undermine that vision. Thus, in a certain sense, China is an example of what Adrian Vermeule has called “common good constitutionalism.” Whatever one may think of its substantive merits, Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” is nothing other than his vision of the common good for China and the path to achieve it.
While a part of this governing philosophy certainly comes from the CCP’s Marxist heritage, its overall vision of governance also includes a markedly conservative or traditionalist component, displaying what I have elsewhere identified as the collapsing boundaries between conventional political categories.
As Wang Huning writes in the above article, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [of Marxism].” China is motivated by a desire to rediscover its ancient values, its traditions and its high level of spiritual culture, while at the same time advancing to a high level of shared material prosperity that can support the re-emergence of such a culture in a modern context.
To put it differently, the governing philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party today might be expressed as something like “Make China Great Again.” And the Chinese government has shown that it is willing to do what it takes to achieve this lofty goal.
Jonathan Culbreath is an independent writer and researcher living in Southern California.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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