Briefing: historical nihilism, patriarchy and misogyny, and Chinese-Australians in the public service

20 April 2021

Neican Briefing is a weekly analysis of China-related current affairs. This series is made possible by the support of the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

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1. Party history

The CCP’s Party History Learning and Education (党史学习教育) campaign, kicked off in February, is now in full swing. The case of CCP history serves as another poignant reminder of the importance of history in understanding contemporary China.

Propagandising and popularising Party history is more about finding a path into the future than about excavating facts about the past. The CCP’s official historiography is a product of politics and serves a political agenda.

In the case of the current campaign, it aims to strengthen ideological cohesion, confidence, and a sense of historical destiny. In doing so, it will likely reinforce the legitimacy of Xi as the Party’s helmsman and his political project of “national rejuvenation”.

In his speech kicking off the campaign, Xi outlined the importance of Party history learning and education for the future of China (and the CCP). Essentially, Xi views human history as a linear, unidirectional process characterised by progress. The laws of historical development, to Xi, foreshadows China’s final triumph under the CCP. As the locomotive of Chinese history, the Party is driving it towards its end point, which for Xi is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

We could call this sense of historical inevitability by its other name: hubris. As any good (or even passable) student of history should know, history is not linear nor inevitable. The tumultuous history of modern China is a testament to the fragility of the human condition against greater forces.

2. Historical nihilism

In order to make sure your version of history dominates, it’s not enough to “educate”. You should also try to demolish competing versions of history, and preferably destroy the standing of their advocates. Enter “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义)...

This year is the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. The Party-state’s propaganda apparatus and the Party history campaign are both glorifying its achievements. The other side of the coin is that the Party has begun cracking down on so-called “historical nihilism”, that is, views on history that the Party deem harmful. The rationale is quite simple, and in Xi’s words:

It is often the case that hostile forces at home and abroad make use of the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of the new China, doing their utmost to attack, vilify and smear them, with the fundamental aim of...inciting the overthrow of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and our socialist system. 

Earlier this month, the Cyberspace Administration of China opened a hotline for the public to report cases of “historical nihilism”. Four categories of activities are being targeted:

  1. distorting the “four histories” (CCP, “New China”, reform and opening up, and development of socialism);

  2. attacking the leadership, guiding ideology and policies of the Party;

  3. denigrating heroes and martyrs

  4. denying the excellence of Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture.

In theory, any critique or dissent would fall within the scope. In practice, the Party will only punish a few individuals to send a warning.

This is a renewed attack on intellectual pluralism. For Xi, pluralism weakens ideological cohesion, and provides opportunities for hostile ideas to “infect” the Chinese people. But can a society really flourish if the space for pluralism is denied by the state?

3. Censorship, patriarchy and misogyny

Misogyny is rife in many parts of English-speaking social media. And unsurprisingly, it is also everywhere on Chinese social media.

How do Chinese social media deal with the problem? Well, they don’t. Instead, misogynistic voices are elevated. Meanwhile, their targets, feminist accounts, are censored.

Many misogynist accounts on Chinese social media such as Weibo, are also ultra-nationalist. This bears some similarities to the “incels” on English-speaking social media, a subculture defined by a mixture of misogyny and white supremacy. On Chinese social media, nationalistic and sexist (mostly) men troll, harass, and dox feminist activists, accusing them of being “disloyal to China” because of their feminist ideas.

Social media platforms favour public conflicts and arguments. These conflicts drive engagement and clicks that lead to more profit for the social media companies. These companies can choose to stop harassment if they face enough pressure from the public or from the government.

Yet in a surprising twist, Weibo and Douban have banned the accounts of a number of Chinese feminist activists, while leaving the accounts of misogynists untouched. It’s unclear whether it’s due to popular pressure or government directives, or both. Douban told the banned groups that their views on heterosexual sex, marriage, and child-rearing, “contained extremism, radical politics, and ideologies”. Weibo has also banned prominent feminist accounts.

It is instructive that rejecting marriage and child-rearing is seen as “extremist” ideas, while persistent misogyny is not. We have noted previously that the Chinese Government’s policy direction is moving towards more “pro-birth” and away from “family planning”. As part of that, the Government is also emphasising “traditional family values”.

Rejecting certain heterosexual notions of marriage and child-rearing are now increasingly being viewed as a direct challenge to state policy. The Chinese government does not only want to influence what you think, it also wants to have a say in what you do with your uterus.

4. Chinese-Australians in the Australian Public Service

Australia has a large, diverse and growing population of Chinese-Australians, but the public service is failing to take advantage of this. Better harnessing their skills and knowledge would benefit Australia’s public policy-making.

In a report for the Lowy Institute, I (Yun) argue that:

  • As tensions escalate between Australia and China, Australia needs China-capable public servants in policy roles more than ever.

  • There is a dire lack of policy expertise on China in the Australian Public Service and few signs that this is improving.

  • China capability is found mostly among the Chinese-Australian communities. Yet Chinese-Australians are significantly under-represented in the public service. This is not simply a problem of workplace composition lagging demographic changes.

  • Despite the urgent demand for Chinese language and cultural skills, the existing skills of many public servants are being overlooked or not used at all.

Chinese-Australians in the public service face many barriers preventing them from reaching full potential. I identified four of these:

  • Recruitment practices;

  • Security clearances;

  • Management preconceptions that hinder Chinese-Australians from working on China-related roles, which contributes to a mismatch of expertise and roles; and

  • Promotion systems that value “generic” public policy skills rather than “specialised” knowledge, including country expertise.

On management preconceptions, I think:

When Chinese-Australians with deep knowledge of China are recruited to the public service, management preconceptions may hinder their placement in China-related roles. There is a tendency to perceive their ethnic and cultural background as an impediment or “conflict of interest” to work on issues related to China, even after they have successfully completed the exhaustive security clearance process.

The result is that government departments may spend substantial resources training public servants to speak a Chinese language and improve their expertise on Chinese society and culture, while those with existing Chinese language skills, knowledge and experience are side-lined.