Chinese citizens in January 2020, wearing face masks in accordance with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) health guidelines.
Perhaps a vestige of the Red Scare of the 1950’s, the “Chinese communist ideology” continues to generate political and social stigma beyond the country’s borders. From “a communist liberation” from pre-1949 social turmoil to 21st-century socialism driven by a near-capitalist economy, China’s political ideology and domestic and international opinions towards it have evolved substantially. The first installment of this series, published in November 14, recounted how China’s communist founding blossomed into a socialist-capitalist amalgam; this installment analyzes slogans and sentiments within the Chinese mainland; a third installment come spring will identify international portrayals and distortions that deserve further interrogation.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world, China’s say and sway in international diplomacy remain as consequential and delicate as ever. Critical to an informed understanding of the world’s most populous nation is a grasp on the sentiments and slogans that dominate the nation’s culture and politics. This installment of the “Chinese Communism” series strives to introduce that understanding.
In the past months, no single subject has defined the rhetoric and sentiments of the Chinese mainland more than the Covid-19 pandemic, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. In a nation where just 3% of the population over sixty lives in nursing care facilities and the vast majority of the elderly live with or near their children, the vulnerability of senior populations to Covid-19 infection quite literally hit home. Chinese families entering quarantine adopted a cultural sentiment of collective obligation; failure to quarantine would jeopardize not just themselves but the some 250 million seniors with whom they shared neighborhoods and homes.
Social trauma compounded the urgency generated by the intergenerational integration of China’s senior population. Domestic news of the outbreak in late 2019 triggered haunting recollections of the 2003 SARS epidemic that took nearly 350 lives nationwide. As social media flooded with citizens’ harrowing accounts of the epidemic, a desire to curb the reenactment of history defined the nation’s reaction to the 2019 pandemic. The Chinese populace had what too many nations lacked: an immediate internalization of the virus’s severity and an immediate urge to contain it.
The Chinese Communist Party’s response echoed this alarm: an entire nation hunkered down as CCP officials severed all public transportation to Wuhan for 76 days and erected 14,000 public health checkpoints across the nation within weeks. To a populace bound to their homes, “anything it takes” and “one nation, stronger together” were among the mantras that flooded billboards, hospitals, and families’ television broadcasts with faith in the state-coordinated response. The ensuing months would see a proliferation of similar slogans as citizens arranged Chinese characters—a linguistic medium particularly suited to rhymes and puns—into soundbites that encouraged smiles and a collective coping with the pandemic. Indeed, these newfound sayings communicated an optimism and collective responsibility that proved instrumental to China’s expedient pandemic response. In tandem with the rapid construction of temporary health facilities and a robust network of personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing, these slogans were indelible to the nation’s ability to keep cases down and spirits up. By the fall of 2020, faith and face masks had paid off—as the nation rebooted its economy and ended quarantines, it was left with an affirmation of cultural values and slogans.
Among the Chinese populace, the success of the pandemic response amplified a national pride towards the CCP that continues to permeate the nation’s public discourse. Countless state-sponsored initiatives in the wake of the pandemic have redoubled this sentiment—chief among them is the CCP anti-poverty campaigns. Since 2015, such campaigns have sought to direct the fruits of rapid economic growth to the nation’s most impoverished populations under the slogan “eradicate crises: serve the poor.” In that time, the CCP has ratcheted up to $3 billion year-over-year increases in anti-poverty spending targeted at educational, healthcare, and infrastructure reform. In the months following the pandemic, the CCP’s return to poverty alleviation efforts drew public praise. In 2020 alone, $20.6 billion in anti-poverty spending has sustained thousands of programs across the nation, and 775,000 officials and experts have been dispatched to survey rural communities on the efficacy of local initiatives.
As poverty alleviation returns to the fore of political and public discourse, slogans resembling what one party secretary termed “China Dream, poverty alleviation dream” have replaced pandemic-era calls for unity. China’s digital infrastructure, which matured by leaps and bounds during quarantine as home-bound citizens turned to screens and social media, has followed suit; slogans of the likes of “with insurance comes stability, with stability comes prosperity” evidence public support towards state-sponsored commitments to the collective enrichment of its populace. Where countries like the U.S. face a crisis of public confidence towards effective governance, the PRC rides a high in cultural and rhetorical appeal. Indeed, China’s strides towards poverty alleviation and the success of its pandemic response relative to other nations of its geopolitical stature have cultivated a national pride apparent in public discourse, online forums, and television screens. That collectivism is no coincidence, and current domestic approval of the work of the CCP highlights the extent of its influence.
The existence of such sentiments does not diminish the nation’s ugly truths—and well-reported international critiques—of repressive censorship, diplomatic malpractice towards Taiwan and in the South China Sea, and breaching of human rights in Hong Kong and towards the Uyghurs people, among a host of additional wrongs. Such critiques are well-founded and will be treated with a critical eye in the third installment of this series. Less frequently reported alongside such critiques, however, are the more collectivist sentiments shared by the overwhelming majority of its populace. If the events of the past months have revealed anything, it is the indelible influence of such sentiments in the nation’s development and identity. This installment sought to shed light on domestic conceptions of China’s political and cultural essence; the upcoming installment will interrogate its international rendering.