Tsinghua University professor Hu Angang would never have imagined the unenviable position he finds himself in today. Just five months ago, on March 2, China Central Television (CCTV) began running the “Amazing China” documentary miniseries, showcasing the purported superiority of scientific and technological accomplishments the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made since its current leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The nationalism-and-hubris-saturated documentary’s name in Chinese, “li hai le wo de guo,” conveys a much more aggressive tone than the English “Amazing China” implies.
Professor Hu Angang’s writings are the academic counterpart to “Amazing China’s” televised haughtiness. A 2015 article he wrote boasted that in terms of overall power, China had already surpassed the United States. As the founder and director of Institute for Contemporary China Studies (ICCS) at Tsinghua University, Hu’s theories enjoyed prominent standing in state media coverage, academia, social media, and the like.
That all changed with the U.S. sanctions against ZTE and the start of the Sino-American trade war. Hu Angang’s academic works are at the center of criticism, and “Amazing China” is no longer shown in theaters. More than one thousand Tsinghua alumni have signed a petition demanding that Hu be fired.
‘Research’ With Chinese Characteristics
Unlike the free world, the social sciences in China have a very specific task, which is to eulogize the Party’s leadership and demonstrate its greatness. Once a political decision is handed down from the CCP elite, all resources are devoted to it. In recent years, there have been numerous projects and grants established for the research of Xi Jinping’s speeches, writings, instructions, and theories. Working on these subjects can bring prestige and funding. There was even the so-called “Great Learning of Liangjiahe,” referring to the village where Xi was sent to do farm work in his teens during the Cultural Revolution.
This kind of politically motivated research is not new. Within days of the political campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual practice that began on July 20, 1999, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) established a “Falun Gong Phenomenon Comprehensive Research Group”, headed by the vice dean of CASS and covering the six institutes of Philosophy, Marxism-Leninism, Religions, History, Sociology and Law.
In less than a month, from Aug. 3 to Aug. 31, the Research Group published more than 60 articles in the Party-run media, and enjoyed many grants for its operations. Much money and manpower were squandered just to prove the rectitude of then-Party leader Jiang Zemin’s persecution campaign. These worthless studies continue to this day, as does the repression of Falun Gong. Every year, the CCP sends delegations to Western countries to promote its persecution and invites foreigners to attend conferences in China, free of charge.
There has been no real academic freedom in China since the CCP seized power in 1949. After the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, the Chinese intellectual, whether traditionally educated or trained with Western methods, has effectively ceased to exist. Scholars who conduct genuine research are marginalized. Even when reality does one day vindicate their findings, their voices go unheard among those who wield power.
Misleading and Misjudging
Following the humiliations involving ZTE and the tariffs levied by Washington on Chinese imports, Hu Angang has been lambasted on Chinese social media, his Tsinghua alumni, and even in some state-run media.
The fact that Hu can be criticized in public shows that he has been intentionally abandoned by some of the Party authorities, who otherwise exercise strict controls over online discussion. Hu wasn’t in a position of any power. He wasn’t the one who ordered the construction of artificial islands in South China Sea. He didn’t create the “One Belt, One Road” policy. He couldn’t have had any input on the abandonment of the “tao guang yang hui” (to conceal one’s strength and bide one’s time) strategy advocated by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who introduced the economic reforms. He probably doesn’t know anyone in the Politburo Standing Committee personally. His “theory” is only a small corner of the whole picture.
Penny Pritzker, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, recently described a conversation she had had with Wang Yang, one of the CCP’s seven Politburo Standing Committee members. In it, Pritzker explained to Wang how it was China’s unfair trade policies that drove the American people to elect Donald Trump — and bring economic punishment upon the CCP regime.
That fact that Wang Yang could hear this information from Pritzker means that the Party leaders have ample opportunity to listen to reliable sources. In other words, the CCP leadership actively chooses to ignore facts and instead prefers to believe its own propagandistic “research.” The Party’s approach of making empty promises had served it well in the past, so why would it fail now?
The Positive Feedback Loop
In most societies, intelligentsia and think tanks give negative feedback to policymakers, which provides some insurance that mistakes will be corrected eventually. But in communist China, once a policy — it is usually a bad one — is made by a paramount leader, the academics and the institutions will at once be set to work on conducting studies to demonstrate its greatness and importance. Meanwhile, the propaganda machines such as People’s Daily, CCTV, or Xinhua gear up for the same mission: convince all Chinese people that the Party and its leaders are great, glorious, and correct. These efforts sometimes even manage to convince foreign governments and media.
This would be well and good were it not for the fact that the Party leaders, too, are convinced that they are great leaders and geniuses of statecraft. Their interaction with the Party media and academia forms a positive feedback loop, which will continue until the bad policy causes the collapse of the entire system.
In the CCP’s 69 years of rule, not a single wrong policy or political campaign was stopped before it became a total disaster. The Cultural Revolution continued right up to the death of Mao Zedong. Before that, all political campaigns ended with the total destruction of the “enemies of the Party.”
The loop usually begins with the “great brain” of the top leader, not the scholars toeing the Party line. The researches are just active or passive reflections of policy. Most recently, it was the CCP and its leadership that misjudged the U.S. and President Trump, not the regime-controlled academics.
Hu Angang is not the only, or the most significant, of these academics. Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning is an even more prominent example. As a senior theoretician, he was the one who crafted the official ideological contributions of three generations of CCP leaders. No serious scholar could do this, but Wang did it nonetheless. He packaged Jiang Zemin’s rule by corruption into the “Three Represents.” He created Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” which I still can’t make sense of.
It came as a surprise when Wang became a Standing Committee member at the 19th Party Congress last year. Having served as the theorist behind the two previous Party leaders, he seemed like the last person Xi Jinping would tolerate in his administration. But Wang then crafted Xi’s “China Dream.”
Coming up with official ideology is easy, but Wang Huning is also in charge of propaganda, which has proven something of a catch-22. In order to pump up the Chinese people’s patriotism and nationalism, he must boast about China’s political, economic, cultural, and military strength, at a time when the CCP is struggling to downplay its aims.
The CCP has toned down its jingoistic rhetoric, but not due to negative feedback. The real reasons are the sanctions against ZTE and the trade war that has put it in a precarious state.
No Backing Down
Reuters reported that there is disagreement within the CCP leadership as to how best to handle the trade war with the United States. This is probably the reason why Hu Angang can be criticized openly. But it’s not likely that the Party will really back down from the U.S. demands. Keeping promises made upon joining the WTO is something that the Chinese people or the Chinese state could do, but it’s impossible for the Communist Party.
The WTO regulations would benefit China and the Chinese people, but directly threaten the CCP’s rule. For China to accept the request Washington placed with the WTO on July 26, would mean the dismantling of the CCP’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Free trade is simply incompatible with the CCP’s rule.
Party leaders are determined to win the trade war at any cost. That cost is the well-being of the Chinese people.