Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why China Loves Conservatives

Conservatives in the West see in the People’s Republic of China a daunting nemesis: an oppressive tech dystopia ruled by a Leninist party that negates conservatism’s attachment to civil society, Christianity, and individual liberties. You might expect the intellectual mainstream in mainland China to denounce Western conservatism in return. China is still formally communist, and its leading traditions of political thought—New Confucianism, Marxism, and Dengist reformism—do not overlap with Western conservative outlooks. What affinities could there possibly be between Western conservatism and the intellectual mainstream in China?

A closer look reveals a surprising answer. In ­China there is a great deal of love for Western conservative authors: The works of Samuel ­Huntington and Leo Strauss, for instance, are studied and admired by Chinese intellectuals and academics. And Chinese interpretations of American politics often parallel those of the American Right. These affinities undoubtedly have many causes, but one shared belief stands out: a profound sense that any ­society, and a healthy one in particular, is held together by an integral, holistic culture.

Chinese thinkers are “politically incorrect” when measured against the progressive liberal standards dominant in North American universities. The Chinese term for North America’s identity politics—baizuo (“white Left”)—is strongly derogatory. It implies something like “the wild stuff lefty whites say these days.” Even scholars from China’s most liberal faction, such as intellectual historian Xu Jilin, judge North America’s baizuo to be excessive and divisive. In a forum on Black Lives Matter, Xu criticized “the coercive tactics the movement employs,” which amount to “purging history” and only provoke “deeper racial and ethnic conflicts.”

To many of a certain age, such as the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, baizuo recalls Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The memory of its terror against “class enemies,” committed in the name of cultural equality, leaves these thinkers allergic to progressive hyper-idealism—the kind of idealism that believes egalitarian utopia would materialize if only critics and moderates did not stand in the way of historical progress. They recognize that thought pattern wherever it emerges, and they know that narrowmindedness, coercion, and worse come in its train. No more of that, please.

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