The language used in the mainland is making some Westerners uncomfortable

The language used in the mainland is making some Westerners uncomfortable

Mainland officials and media are talking tough about not following Western values, but what does it mean?

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A military band conductor practices during rehearsal ahead the opening session of the third plenum of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
A military band conductor practices during rehearsal ahead the opening session of the third plenum of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Photo: EPA

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Foreigners chat as they walk past a digital display board stating "Long live the great People's Republic of China, Long live the great unity of all ethnic groups" by China’s state media on display in Beijing.
Foreigners chat as they walk past a digital display board stating "Long live the great People's Republic of China, Long live the great unity of all ethnic groups" by China’s state media on display in Beijing.
Photo: Associated Press

Western values are a "ticket to hell," a newspaper published by the Communist Party said in a recent editorial that held up Ukraine and some Arab countries as examples of outside ideas causing turmoil.

It was the latest colorful example of a rising level of attack targeting critics of the authoritarian government. In the two-plus years since President Xi Jinping took charge of the Communist Party, state media have become louder in defending the one-party system and increasing nationalism.

Things that have happened in recent months have made things worse. Last autumn's pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong opened floodgates of disdain against "anti-China" forces. Last week, the Party supporting Global Times scolded well-known blogger Ren Zhiqiang for questioning official warnings against Western values creeping into mainland college classrooms.

The newspaper pointed to the war in Ukraine and unrest in the Arab world to show how any following of Western models by non-Western countries "basically amounts to the copying of failure."

Ticket to hell

"No matter how beautiful they appear on the surface, they are in fact a ticket to hell, and can only bring disaster to the Chinese nation," the newspaper said.

While Cold War language such as "running dogs of the American imperialists" have yet to return, there’s been an overall revival of tough language laying down the party's bottom line and looking to undermine opposing arguments.

Some critics fear things will go back to the extreme intolerance of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and will carefully look at the speeches at China’s annual ceremonial legislature opening tomorrow for more signs of the trend.

"Over the last two years or so, the propaganda has become less refined. There's a big market for this kind of crude nationalism,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong's ChineseUniversity.

The row about the blogger followed a stern warning in January by Education Minister Yuan Guiren against threats to communist ideological purity in higher education. His comments, in turn, reflected an internal party document, leaked in 2013, that warned against Western values such as sticking to a constitutional form of government, respect for civil society and press freedom.

A further echo was heard last week, when the president of the Supreme People’s Court, Zhou Qiang, demanded that judges stand strong against Western concepts of judicial independence and division of powers.

"Resolutely resist the influence of erroneous Western thought," Zhou said.

Such statements are clearly being ordered from the highest party ranks, said Li Datong, a political commentator who has been removed from a state media senior editing job for publicising sensitive subjects.

"These people talking so harshly now were only recently supporting greater openness, not less. Clearly things have changed," Li said.

Taking aim at the West

Foreign countries and leaders are also frequent targets.

The state media tore Britain to pieces after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. Britain, the Global Times said in a December 2013 commentary, is no longer seen as a "big power" among Chinese, but as "just an old European country apt for travel and study."

Beijing was very critical of the last year's Occupy Central protest movement in Hong Kong. It rejected protesters’ demands for open nominations for elections for Hong Kong’s top executive.

Protest leaders were accused of being pawns of shady outside forces and foreign governments. In October, the government newspaper People’s Daily accused organisers of seeking to "arouse social conflict and incite illegal activities under the name of election issues." They were leading democracy "into peril," it said in an editorial.

Government allies and retired officials condemning the demonstrators included former ambassador to the United Nations Zhou Nan, who warned that "anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong" were conspiring against the city and could threaten China’s socialist regime.

Observers see the more combative language as an outgrowth of Xi's calls for stronger party control and a stronger role for China on the world stage.

"I do think this is very much an initiative that Xi Jinping approved, if not started,” said Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.

Shortly after taking over as party leader in 2012, Xi took a hard line on issues of national sovereignty and state survival. He said that while China seeks a peaceful international environment, "No country should presume that we will engage in trading our core interests or that we will swallow the 'bitter fruit' of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests."

Xi seems nervous

Tsang said that approach shows Xi’s confidence in the political model he’s adopted, but also betrays his nervousness about the party's ability to keep power. The Hong Kong protests were especially nerve-rattling because they showed the influence of Western thinking over public attitudes in the city.

"Hence the current warning against Western values," Tsang said.

Beijing political commentator Zhang Lifan warned of a "vicious cycle" of insecurity leading to ever-sharpening criticism. Political debate already has fallen behind that of the relatively open 1980s, and threatens to revert to the violent intolerance of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang said.

Despite that, Lam said votes taken within the party showed that this tough talk was working well for the party as more and more university graduates are volunteering for the military.

"Xi's major objective is to stoke the flames of nationalism, especially among the young people. They’re proud of what Xi is doing for China's position in the world," Lam said. 

Yet, while surveys show high levels of patriotism, Chinese society also displays a strangely contradictory attitude toward the West.

Voting with their feet

Despite their willingness to defend their nation and join in condemnations of its enemies - particularly Japan - many mainlanders are voting with their feet when it comes to their futures. Most of those leaving are heading West. 

An estimated 274,000 Chinese are studying in the United States alone, with tens of thousands more in Australia, Britain and elsewhere. And while estimates vary, millions more are believed to have got foreign residency or bought property abroad, particularly among the elite.

So many mainlanders are heading overseas that financial experts have begun to warn of the dangers of money pouring out of the country, though China's economy remains on a firm footing.

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