September 25, 2013, by Tony Hong

Summarizing and Reflecting on “The Chinese Communist Party and the Politicization of Traditions” Workshop

By Dr. Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley,

China Media Centre at the University of Westminster, UK.

A workshop on “The Chinese Communist Party and the Politicization of Traditions” took place at the University of Zurich, 6–8 June 2013. It brought together political scientists, East Asian Studies specialists and China observers to discuss what, why and how traditions are communicated and politicized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today. The organizers identified a relatively unknown area of the CCP which deserves more scholarly attention, i.e. the CCP’s internal decision-making process. A more rounded insight into the CCP’s mechanism of power and the discourses it chooses will provide the basis for a better and more effective engagement with China. The workshop was designed to investigate how philosophical and religious terminologies and practices may have been reinterpreted as traditions by the CCP, and to determine which historical narratives have been adopted to strengthen the Party’s ideological standing.

The invited presentations are largely divided into two categories: political analysis and the discussion of cultural, philosophical and religious traditions.

Representing the former approach, Natalia Lisenkova (University of Zurich) situated the theme within a broader context. She argued that it is increasingly difficult to separate international and domestic perspectives on China. She unpacked how different political concepts were shaped by China’s leaders, and in turn how Chinese foreign policy has evolved under the weight of the domestic political environment. Gary Rawnsley (Aberystwyth University) also discussed the workshop’s theme from an international perspective. He analysed China’s approach to soft power and focused specifically on the way narratives of culture, tradition and history are used in soft power strategies.

Nele Noesselt (German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg) looked at the domestic dimension and urged us to examine the continuity of the Chinese regimes. She noted that while Chinese culture and tradition have provided Chinese leaders with sources of legitimacy, President Xi Jinping is now advocating “the Chinese Dream” as his contribution to Chinese socialist thought. This “dream” may reveal the strategic direction of the new leadership. Benjamin Lim (China correspondent for Reuters) summarized the domestic and international challenges that China faces. He stated how observers of Chinese politics speculate that Xi Jinping may be a leader who can define a new era. Since the CCP will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, it will be interesting to explore how Xi will lay the foundations for his legacy.

In the field of philosophical and religious tradition, Giorgio Strafella (University of Nottingham and University of St. Gallen) explained how Marxism in CCP discourses became an invented tradition. He adopted textual analysis to demonstrate how Marxism has been transformed by the CCP over the decades from dialectic thought to a guiding ideology; from a continuing tradition to a faith. Julie Remoiville (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris) presented her research on Daoist temples in Hangzhou and illustrated how religious traditions can be easily politicized by local authorities. However, she pointed out that the most serious challenges for local Daoist temples and priests are not necessarily politics, but financial hardship and the difficulty of finding willing successors to carry on local religious traditions. André Laliberté (University of Ottawa) outlined the management and administration structures of religious affairs in China. His work on Buddhist charities in Taiwan and China has led him to explore the ways in which philanthropic associations contribute to the disciplining of the labour force by supporting an ethos that emphasizes compassion and selflessness.

Ai Jiawen (University of Melbourne) highlighted the tension between conservative Marxists and neo-traditionalists by studying why the statue of Confucius disappeared from Tiananmen Square. Philipp Hetmancyzk (University of Zurich) analysed the transformation of the CCP’s ideology by examining how the role of religion changed from being labelled “feudal superstition” during the Cultural Revolution to being seen as part of an “intangible cultural heritage” in Party rhetoric today. Ralph Weber then offered a philosophical framework to conceptualize this empirical observation and provided theoretical analysis of cultural traditions. He used the CCP’s reinterpretations of Confucian texts to illuminate the Confucianization of the PRC where filial piety becomes law. This also helps explain the political implications of the Confucian notion of self-cultivation, upon which the state claims a harmonious society can be built.

The workshop in Zurich offered a valuable platform for trans-disciplinary dialogue and cross fertilization of ideas. It helped unlock the secrets of the CCP’s mechanism of power and its internal decision-making process and did so by approaching the subject from an understanding that culture and tradition continue to play a big a role in Chinese politics.

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