Sex and Conservatives in China

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 5th, 2010


It looks like Charles over at the new China Divide blog has found a new source of clicks to revive the China blogging scene: debating the crackdown on pornography in China.

While I don’t usually support any kind of censorship, I have to say I couldn’t care less for the cause of porn in China. From what I have seen, sex peddlers are the most disgraceful, spammy, virus-ridden and generally useless sites of the internet, and they distract netizens from doing more important things like reading my blog. You can be sure that you won’t find me in the ranks of the protesters when those websites get banned.

There is however a more important problem with banning porn, and it is that the definition of the Chinese authorities goes way further than what we usually understand as pornography. It applies to some wonderful works of art, including films such as An Lee’s Lust and Caution, or this great TV serial and book by Liu Liu. It is used to marginalize some excellent artists like Tang Wei, and in general it contributes to further stifle the creativity of the Chinese literary and artistic scene.

To be sure, many times the banning of “unhealthy” content is just an excuse to get rid of dissidents or to justify protectionist policies. But generally speaking, when Chinese authorities act against porn it is out of a genuine ethical concern. And here is where I see a more interesting angle to the discussion, linking up to the question I asked last year in the post about TV serials and communist ethics: why are the commies so prudish?

From my experience living in various communist and ex-communist countries, I conclude that this is not a strictly Chinese phenomenon. In fact, it is not even a communist phenomenon, but rather a common characteristic of conservative people everywhere. I maintain that the reason why erotic content is banned in China is just that the CCP is an extremely conservative organization, and as all conservatives everywhere they abhor public displays of sex, even if in private they might think nothing of going to the brothel 5 times a week.

Why then, do conservatives tend to have this particular attitude in common towards sex? And in particular, why are communist regimes, all of which abolished religion, at the forefront of sex related puritanism?

The Red Conservatives

First of all, I want to add here a definition of conservatives, just to avoid having the whole discussion turn around the meaning of a word. Like most political terms, this one can have different meanings in different places. The meaning I use for this post is one that I think is most intuitive and understood internationally. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Political attitude or ideology denoting a preference for institutions and practices that have evolved historically and are thus manifestations of continuity and stability. It was first expressed in the modern era through the works of Edmund Burke in reaction to the French Revolution, which Burke believed tarnished its ideals through its excesses. Conservatives believe that the implementation of change should be minimal and gradual; they appreciate history and are more realistic than idealistic.

In the case of communist countries like China it is always complicated to use the normal political terms of conservative/progressive, or right/left. The reason is that during 1949-1978 the paradigm was changed, and the old conservatives were exterminated. As a consequence, a  “new country” was created from zero, so for the purpose of Chinese political life, the “institutions and practices that have evolved historically” only count as defined in the history of the Communist Party. And the conservatives in China tend to be communist.

This phenomenon is hardly unique. It follows the logic of revolutionary movements everywhere obtaining mainstream power: their focus suddenly shifts from “changing the world” to “maintaining the status quo”, and conservative mindsets normally take control.

It is hardly necessary to explain this to anyone who has lived in China, but I have the feeling that some Americans still find it strange to call a communist regime “conservative”. If you think all this is just intellectual blabber, you are missing the point. The supporters of the CCP are genuinely conservative people and they behave exactly as you would expect from a conservative elsewhere.

From my conversations with some passionate young men in the CCP, and my long chats in the internet-less nights of North Korea, I have a reasonable understanding of what moves those convinced “communists”: they dislike foreign influence and they attach an absurd importance to nationality and ethnicity; they are averse to anything that sounds like free thinking or questioning of the old ideas; they like to marry traditional girls, pretty by the old canons, who don’t wear mini-skirts or speak too much in public; they don’t like homosexual people and they are quick to call “whore” when a girl behaves exactly like many men do.

The tragedy is that these conservative people will never be able to connect with their counterparts in America, because both sides are still bound by their own religious and Cold War rethoric. Someone should invent a party with the slogan like: Conservatives of the World, unite!

A soup of political terms

I am going to have to cut this here for today, because my new blogging policies don’t let me do more than 1000 words per post. We will continue in the next one, but before I finish I want to mention the very interesting problem of political terms in China.

Due to the reversal of paradigms mentioned above, there is still a good deal of confusion in the West about which English words should be used to name the different ideologies in a communist country. I am no scholar in Chinese politics, but from the books I have read on the subject (including academic works like Victor Shih’s) I get the impression that the terms are not standardized. The only book I have seen that attempts to do a taxonomy is the little manual: “What does China Think” by Mark Leonard.

I am hoping that someone will lend me a hand here and point me to some other resource where I can look this up. In the meantime, from what I remember of that book and my own initiative, the main denominations go as below:

Old Left: Hardliners in the CPP who want to revive Maoism. Contrary to the West, these lefties are actually very conservative people.

Old Right: Admirers of Taiwan and the KMT, practically invisible in the mainland today. I never met one, so not sure if they are conservative characters or not. I assume many members of the FLG would respond to this description.

New Left: Politicians like the Prime Minister Wen, who push for more social policies, equal distribution of the wealth, etc, within the rule of the CCP. The mindset is still conservative, but less than the Old Left.

New Right: Politicians, thinkers and some business sharks inspired in Deng Xiaoping’s “get rich first” who want to give priority to the coastal regions and build a ruthless capitalist system. They don’t have any mindset because they are too busy getting rich first, and they don’t care about political ideology as long as their cats catch mice.

Right Left: This is my own dysfunctional term to include people like Xu Zhiyong or Liu Xiaobo, as well as some within the CCP who call for political reform, democracy and civil rights. Many of them are not dissidents, but just brave party members who dare to raise their voice. These are the only ones that respond to the idea I have of “progressive” mindset.

What do you think of this terminology?

NOTE: This list is not meant to be taken as reference, but rather to invite participation, please do propose any term you want, or point me to some good read about modern Chinese politics. For those who came here to find some sex, please come back tomorrow when I will continue with the main subject of the post and I will attach SEXUALLY EXPLICIT IMAGES of Chinese. Have a nice day.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    The vocabulary, is, indeed, broken, it seems. I think my thinking on this topic has been heavily influenced by Eric Hoffer’s work, “The True Believer,” a really piercing exegesis of mass movements of any stripe, be it political, religious, or social. One of the things he argues is that the success of a revolution is at some point followed closely by a rapid reversal of revolutionary values, simply by virtue of the obvious fact that the old regime to be overthrown has been overthrown and replaced by “us.”

    China is a special case. The revolution was “complete” by 1949, but I think most of us would agree that the Cultural Revolution itself really *was* another revolution although the key persona of both the rise of the CCP in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution itself was Mao. Arguably, I think, China’s consolidation period came after Mao graciously left the scene and Deng took up the reigns. It’s during this time period we see the shift from “revolutionary” to “conservative” that Hoffer points out.

    Here’s where the vocab breaks, I think. “Left” and “Right” are most appropriate for societies that are relatively removed from their political anchors - so this goes, for, say, the US and France, which is several centuries removed from the historical events that form its political foundation. This also goes for pre-revolutionary China or Russia, as in these cases “conservative/liberal” or “left/right” could be defined *in relation* to the historically cumulative ideology of Csarist Russia and “imperial” China.

    So my take is - and I think by reading your post you agree with me here - is that it’s sort of forcing a square peg into a round hole, that is, using vocabulary for a society that really is only a few decades removed from its revolutionary foundations and when you get right down to it that’s not much time. There hasn’t been time for clear ideological factions to coalesce, unlike, say, in Taiwan or in Japan, and that’s naturally compounded by the fact that the PRC isn’t an intellectually free country.

    So I like the terms you’ve made, though I’d argue even further that we should just drop the “left” and “right” and just make new terms altogether so we don’t have to deal with the baggage!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    @Porfiriy: I agree with most of what u say, and thanks for the tip, I will check out that book.

    Indeed, it is during the long process from 49 to 78 that the paradigm changed, not immediately in 1949. I just read an article by MacFarquhar in the last China Quarterly which says just that: the “liberation” was in fact only a military victory, the real social revolution came afterwards when Mao abandoned his initial idea of the “New Democracy” in favour of radical reform.

    Regarding Left/Right, well they are just words, I guess it is not really important which ones we choose as long as we understand each other. What I would definitely like to see is the end of the ridiculous Cold War rethoric of some hardcore Americans bigots, who continue to think that the Chinese are the red menace. What a bunch of 脑残, any European country today is way more socialist than China!

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar

    As for the sex, I think my contribution, or rather, Eric Hoffers, is that since all post-revolutionary leaders tend to revert to a self-interested conservatism, that’s why we see the puritanism. I think the question:

    And in particular, why are communist regimes, all of which abolished religion, at the forefront of sex related puritanism”

    May perhaps be better rendered as “why are post-revolutionary communist regimes… at the forefront of sex related puritanism?

    I’m no expert on this unfortunately, so a question to you or other commenters: was the CCP sexually puritanical *before* the revolution? During the Long March and the hidden meetings away from the eyes of the KMT were they *then* also being hard-nosed about sex?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    @Porfiriy, I found some interesting material regarding that question in both China and the USSR. In particular, I know the USSR was more open in that way in the early days, at least in theory. More about this in the next part.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar

    Uln, great post.

    Many people in the West, especially Americans, have taken to making distinctions between “political” or “social” conservatism/liberalism. For example, you’ll get people who declare that they are “politically liberal but socially conservative”. Sometimes, of course, that’s a perverted way of saying “I’m pro-democracy and Christian!”, which is a combination strongly ingrained as being the right one to have, and thus necessarily needing to be reconciled.

    I think that distinction might be useful here. “Right” and “Left” though, are usually applied to political ideology, so that’s okay, but I think saying “conservative” and “liberal” while mixing political and social dispositions amongst the Chinese might contribute to additional confusion. Historically, “communism” is Left, liberal, revolutionary, but its obvious that there are many socially “conservative” predispositions to those who profess to be “communist”.

    Finally, I’m not so sure the FLG would be classified as the Old Right. And, LoL, your “Right Left” term is indeed dysfunctional! But I understand what you mean, just don’t think the term is useful.

    Rock on, Uln.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    @Kai, about the “politically liberal but socially conservative”, yeah, I heard about that. In Europe we are still not so sophisticated politically but I get the gist :)

    But in spite of all the bells and whistles, I think there is still a very intuitive concept that all of us grasp of what makes a conservative mindset, in the lines of the Britannica definition above. That is what I mean by conservative, a certain type of character, regardless of the political affiliation or the labels that you may put on it in each different country.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar

    Wen is not a New Left asy you have defined, he is just a politically(not economically) powerless figure, if you could recall him saying”Democracy is a value for all people all countries” and immediately attacked by 3 of his fellow politburo perma-committees simultaneously.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @justkeeper: Yes, I remember that from last year’s lianghui. This year Wen is speaking of dignity rather than democracy, so he will probably avoid the trouble.

    In any case, power or not, I don’t see what this has to do with he being Left. Or at least he is representing that kind of position. Of course a different thing is what he thinks in private (but then you could say this about any politician)

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Mar

    Old Right: Admirers of Taiwan and the KMT, practically invisible in the mainland today. I never met one, so not sure if they are conservative characters or not. I assume many members of the FLG would respond to this description.

    Maybe it was living in the old capital of Nanjing for 2 1/2 years, or the fact that I had lived in Taiwan and spoke openly about it, or simply the fact that, being of a Thatcherite point of view conservatives are more likely to express their true opinions to me, but I met a good number of this type of person whilst in China. They were almost universally people of the yeoman type - the kind of people who become police officers, skilled labourers, NCOs, small business owners etc. These people are also the back-bone of the KMT in Taiwan.

    FLG members - well, I cannot say for sure if I have met them, but I know people who are members of similar groups, and the one thing most certainly not is conservative. These are the wide-eyed idealists, believers without any sense of proportion, the group which they most nearly resemble is the one you call “Right Left”, although they are essentially members of what might be called China’s “Millenialist Faction”.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    I am surprised you encountered so many admirers of the KMT in China. I guess it is because you told them you had lived in Taiwan and they were more ready to speak about that. I almost never speak of Taiwan with Chinese people. I don’t usually avoid other conflictive subjects like Tibet, but in the case of Taiwan I feel the situation is so complicated and so unfair on both sides that I usually don’t know what to comment. Also, my knowledge of Taiwan history is not enough.

    But then again, not sure we are speaking of the same. I have definitely found people that would like to have Taiwan’s system ie. more freedom, no communism, cool pop singers and all that. But that is hardly what I mean by the “Old Right”. What I meant is people who were actually yearning for the old pre-49 regime KMT. I would imagine that most of those existing today are in Taiwan, Malaysia, US and Canada and have been out of China for decades. For people that have been inside China for the last 60 years, it is hard to imagine how they could have kept alive those convictions for so long.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga, I’ve never actually met any who straight-out said that they wanted a KMT dictatorship, but fans of the KMT were hardly hard to find in Nanjing, this was especially true about the time when KMT supremo Lian Zhan visited Nanjing back in 2005.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Apr
    Robert Woo

    I have a related post on political spectrum in China. I also come down to 5 categories.

    [Reply to this comment]

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