China's self-defeating crackdown on 'Western values'

Minxin Pei says Beijing's attack on 'Western values' as it cracks down on its critics will only return China to decline and chase its top talent away

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 6:37am

The news from the mainland these days is mostly depressing, owing to the government's escalating crackdown on its critics. But what few observers seem to understand is that the Chinese leadership's fight against liberalism and "Western values" is directly undermining its efforts to root out official corruption, promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and deepen engagement with the outside world.

The government has intensified its censorship of the internet, rendering popular portals and sites all but inaccessible. Prominent human rights lawyers have been jailed.

Meanwhile, senior officials have begun enforcing political discipline within the Communist Party. Last June, Zhang Yingwei, head of the party's discipline inspection office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the institution had been "infiltrated by foreign forces" and "was conducting illegal collusion at politically sensitive times". Zhao Shengxuan, CASS vice-president and deputy party chief, responded by pledging that the academy would "treat political discipline as a criterion of the utmost importance in the assessment of academics".

Chinese academia more broadly has been the regime's chief target in its search for enemies, with universities dismissing professors for espousing "seditious" ideas such as constitutionalism.

A recent pronouncement by Education Minister Yuan Guiren threatens to do damage on a far larger scale. Yuan has vowed never to allow textbooks "promoting Western values" - especially those that "attack or defame the leadership of the party or smear socialism" - into Chinese classrooms. Given Yuan's position, this pledge could amount to official policy. One hopes, for China's sake, it does not.

The onslaught against free speech and Western values reflects the central political challenge facing President Xi Jinping, who must transform a one-party system enfeebled by greed and mistrust into a well-ordered, ideologically united regime capable of carrying out market-based reforms and sustaining its own long-term survival. A crackdown on liberalism, he seems to believe, will complement his anti-corruption campaign to advance this goal.

This vision is as intellectually flawed as it is impractical. It is virtually impossible to root out corruption in a one-party system without press freedom, a robust civil society or the rule of law.

The government's suppression of Western values is likely to spur an exodus of the country's best and brightest. To be sure, only a small fraction of college-age students attend universities overseas. But China's ruling elite are leading the rush to the exits by sending their children to the Ivy League and Oxbridge.

If Yuan has his way, China's universities would look more like their North Korean counterparts. That would have devastating consequences. The tens of millions of students who remain in China would not gain the knowledge and skills needed to maintain, much less improve, global competitiveness.

Unless the crackdown ends soon, Xi's "Chinese dream" of national greatness and prosperity will turn into a nightmare of accelerating decline and backwardness. One way or the other, the war on Western values is one that China can only lose.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the US. Copyright: Project Syndicate