Daniel C. LYNCH

“Building a socialist spiritual civilization” is an official goal of the ruling Chinese Communist Party that was first proclaimed in 1986. The commitment to establish such an objective officially was triggered by deep concerns that as China advanced economically, it would regress spiritually.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted economic reform and opening policies in the late 1970s, many party members began to worry that if China pursued only the goals of economic development, society might advance in material terms but regress morally and ethically. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) had already done irrevocable harm to the Chinese moral universe. Within this context, unbridled pursuit of economic development under reform and opening could lead to a society whose citizens were materially wealthy but selfish, grasping, and base. They could become psychologically alienated: mistrustful of others and unable to cooperate for the public good or for their own good. Eventually material advancement itself might grind to a halt.

Concern mounted as Western television programs, films, and popular music flooded into China starting in the early 1980s. For many, this kind of popular culture was not seen as seriously challenging to the Chinese way of life. But older comrades, in particular, feared that in the spiritual vacuum prevailing after the Cultural Revolution, even seemingly innocuous concepts and cultural products from abroad could do great harm. They decided to launch a “campaign against spiritual pollution” in 1983 but had to cut it short after only a few months when it started slowing economic growth. Clearly, in any contest between material and spiritual civilization, the CCP would favor the material. But it did formally adopt “building a socialist spiritual civilization” as a fundamental goal for all of society to pursue at a high-level Party meeting in September 1986.

Has the CCP achieved this goal or even made substantial progress toward it? Most would say no. The problem is twofold.

First, the Party has still not articulated a clear and distinct image of what a socialist spiritual civilization would look like. What should people think and do to build one? How should they change their behavior? Usually the answers given were that people should “have lofty ideals,” “proceed from a scientific spirit,” “love genuinely beautiful things,” and other vague banalities. They should also strive to do the opposite of anything currently defined as bad. For example, if corruption is defined as bad, they should not be corrupt; if spitting on the sidewalk is defined as bad, they should not spit. Beyond such homilies little in the way of concrete guidance was offered, nor practical policies introduced. The only significant exception would be the massive campaign to make Beijing more “civilized” in the months leading up to the August 2008 Summer Olympics.

A second problem is that the incentive structures necessary to build material civilization frequently reward behaviors opposite to those believed necessary to build spiritual civilization. Too many “lofty ideals” and too much altruism would lead inexorably to failure in the brutally competitive economic marketplace. To get rich was undeniably glorious, but no individual could be assured that the wealth of today would not be arbitrarily expropriated through corruption or otherwise lost in some unpredictable way tomorrow. Self-protection took precedence over concern for the achievement of nebulous public goals. Eventually a new sort of amorality took hold. It stressed the “virtues” of not being so foolish as to take building a socialist spiritual civilization seriously. Nevertheless, it remains an official CCP goal, one that many people in society would support and contribute to pursuing—if only they could trust their neighbors to support it.

Building Socialist Spiritual Civilization

In December 1980 Li Chang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, sent a letter to a member of the party Central Committee discussing the concept of socialist spiritual civilizations, in the hope of combating what the academy called “Western bourgeois material civilization.”

Since the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Central Committee, inspired by the idea of “improving and strengthening the Party leadership,” I have felt all along that, after the ten disastrous years of the “Cultural Revolution,” there still exists within the Party the pernicious influence of the ultra-left line of the Gang of Four, remnants of the factional ideology of feudalism, selfish individualism of the bourgeoisie, anarchism of the petty bourgeoisie, and colonial ideas that worship things foreign. Under these influences, ideological demands inside and outside the Party have grown somewhat slack….I feel that, along with the general goal of realizing the Four Modernizations, we should also consider putting forward a goal of “building socialist spiritual civilization.” The phrase itself first appeared in Vice Chairmen Ye’s 1979 speech at the meeting in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

I consider that the socialist spiritual civilization includes a concrete aspect (such as well-developed education and thriving science, literature and art) as well as an ideological aspect (such as social ethics, traditions, and customs)… It was wrong of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four to emphasize the primacy of the spiritual role. However, we should not overlook the fact that spirit can play a definite role.

Source: de Bary W. T., & Lufrano, R.. (2000). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 493–494.

Further Reading

Deng Xiaoping. (1987). Fundamental issues in present-day China. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Lynch, D. C. (1999). After the propaganda state: Media, politics, and “thought work” in reformed China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Source: Lynch, Daniel C. (2009). Socialist Spiritual Civilization. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2026–2027. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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