Political ideology in China, explained by Jason Wu

Domestic News

Broadly speaking, ideology has become more important in Xi Jinping’s China and played a more prominent role in U.S.-China relations. But what does political ideology mean to people in China? Survey research indicates that the familiar “left” vs. “right” distinction might not apply.

spiderman pointing meme, but it's china ideology confusion
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Jason Wu.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on the site at supchina.com, including reported stories, editorials, regular columns, explainers and trackers, as well as a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway in China as the Red New Deal is rolled out. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

It’s become quite commonplace for American commentators to describe this contest between the United States and China as one rooted in ideology. Too often, though, that claim is left unexamined. Even if we accept as broadly true the idea that there’s an ideological dimension to this, we’re not sure what exactly the competing ideologies are supposed to be. Leaving aside the American ideology for the time being and just focusing on China’s, most people I’ve asked, at least, can’t quite describe what the positive content of Chinese ideology actually is. We’re mostly unclear how widespread certain political beliefs or even belief systems are in China. We’re not sure how committed to those beliefs the people who espouse them in fact are. We’re mostly unclear how our own familiar typologies of ideology — left or liberal, or progressive, right, or conservative, or reactionary — how these map onto China, if indeed they do at all. And there are all sorts of definitional issues. Is authoritarianism really an ideology? And what about generic nationalism? Is that an ideology on its own? And what about more basic impulses — attitudes, emotions that have clear political elements to them, but are largely inchoate.

Since this podcast has been focused, at least at the outset of what promises to be a very politically important year, on thinking about how we think about China, it strikes me that how we approach understanding ideology, not just China’s ideological landscape, but even the very idea of ideology, is tremendously important. So I’ve asked someone here to help me puzzle this out. I am delighted to be joined by Jason Wu, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and one of a group of brilliant young scholars who are doing fascinating work about ideology in China. Jason, welcome to Sinica and thanks so much for taking the time to join me.

Jason Wu: Thank you for the invitation, Kaiser. It’s an honor.

Kaiser: Oh, I’m very pleased that you could make it. I was just thinking about how the UCSD program that Susan Shirk and Barry Naughton built — where you did your Ph.D., by the way — it’s just been badly overrepresented on this podcast. I think either just by chance or maybe, as I suspect is more likely, because it’s just a phenomenal program that’s just produced an absurd number of talented academics and managed to place all of them. I mean, that’s what I was thinking about, how many of you got jobs, it’s great.

Jason: Yeah. We’ve been very lucky in many respects, but also I think it’s just a credit to the scholars at UCSD.

Kaiser: Yeah. Victor Shih, I think, is the only person I haven’t had on [recently]. I think I had him on a long time ago, but it’s been a while, so I’ve got to reach out to him and get him back on. Anyway, I am one step closer to collecting the complete set now.

Jason: I guess so. That’s great.

Kaiser: Okay. So before we jump in, in case anyone wants to hit pause and take a look at the two papers that we’re going to be discussing today, what’s the easiest way to find your work, Jason? Is it at your personal website?

Jason: Yeah, so they’re posted on my website under the research section. So it’s “The Nature of Ideology in Urban China” and “Categorical Confusion,” which is about ideological labels in China.

Kaiser: Yeah. You want to spell out the URL for that? It’s Jason… You spell it out.

Jason: Jason, J-A-S-O-N-Y-U-Y-A-N-W-U.com. (https://www.jasonyuyanwu.com/)

Kaiser: Okay. So, Jason, that was an easy first one. So now I’m going to hit you with one that might be a little tougher to spell out. What do modern American political scientists mean when they say the word ideology?

Jason: That’s a great question and it’s a confusing question because political scientists mean something different from sociologists and even different political scientists might have different things in mind, but the tradition that I’m working in is related to this public opinion research. And what they’re doing is they’re looking at how people think about politics and how they answer questions about specific issues. And so there’s a way that we describe it, which is the sense of whether someone has an understanding of what goes with what, like the degree of constraint in their political thinking. So mathematically you can look at it as like a set of correlations between your preferences about different issues, but you can also just think about it as like if you know something about someone’s ideology on one issue, can you predict what they’re going to think about something else? If you can predict pretty well, then you can say that person’s pretty ideological or they’re pretty constrained. If you don’t know anything about what someone thinks about another issue based on what they think about the first issue, then you would say they’re not constrained.

Kaiser: It needs to possess then constraints to some degree in order to qualify as an ideology? So in this broadly Western sense of it, ideology actually has to have some coherence to it then?

Jason: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to think about it. There are other people who think about it and they would describe it a lot of different ways — a system of thought, some kind of set of principles that shape how you think about the world or how you conceive of issues. And those are obviously just as valid, but when we’re doing the sort of public opinion research, we tend to go with this constraint. I do.

Kaiser: So, I mean, even if we can’t say exactly what it is, maybe it’s one of those things that falls in the category of “you know it when you see it.” So, I mean, I can say with a great deal of confidence that AOC has an ideology and that Marjorie Taylor Green has an ideology and that Liu Shaoqi or Liu Xiaobo had ideologies as separate as they were. American right wing populism, that’s an ideology. And so was Chinese Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong thought. As was the liberalism espoused by Liu Xiabao. What about other things that I mentioned? Things like authoritarianism or nationalism or traditionalism or cosmopolitanism? Are these by themselves sufficient to count as freestanding ideologies to you?

Jason: So I think you could certainly think so, although I would say cosmopolitanism and nationalism are more sort of coherent. It’s funny you bring up authoritarianism, there’s this controversial past in terms of how people think about it. After the Second World War, there was this idea about is there such a thing as authoritarianism in personality or something? And it was measured with things like how people think about their children and what sorts of parenting techniques they would endorse?

Kaiser: Like corporal punishment or not. Right?

Jason: Yeah. Order versus creativity or something like that. But there’s also within political science, we think about how to define autocracy. And the tradition is to consider it this remainder category where first you define what is democracy, and then everything else that’s not a democracy is an autocracy. And it seems unsatisfying intellectually in a lot of ways. And I guess authoritarianism as an ideology feels similar to me. It’s like everything that’s not —

Kaiser: Democratic.

Jason: Or within, yeah, within that tradition.

Kaiser: Yeah. You said something to me in an earlier conversation about ideologies as heuristic shortcuts, as kind of easy ways to anchor sets of beliefs without having to arrive at your positions anew, ex nihilo, for each new issue that you face. So I think you used Elizabeth Warren. What would Elizabeth Warren think about this issue? As an example. Can you unpack that a bit?

Jason: Yeah. So if you think about how complicated the world actually is, which is something I do a lot these days, because we just had these twin boys at our house now, they’re six months old. You sort of see the world through their eyes. They’re trying to figure out everything on its own terms. And it’s just this overpowering set of conundrums. I think it was memorably described as this blooming buzzing confusion.

Kaiser: That’s great.

Jason: And I think that we are in that same position all the time, actually. We’re looking at the kinds of intellectual issues, policy positions, we’re forced to take a position on because politics is changing all the time. There are all these things that we’ve never thought about before and suddenly they become politicized. And now we have to have an opinion about them. And you just think about how much work that would be if there wasn’t a bunch of heuristics you could use. If you couldn’t look to people who have invested more time into this and then say, “Well, Debbi Selighsohn thinks this. Maybe I should think this too.”

Kaiser: That’s often how I… I use Debbie as my basic orientation.

Jason: National political figures are useful for this. Right? And so I think that there are a wide range of heuristics that people use and some of them are about what do elites think? And some of them are about what do people like me think? And that gets people most of the way there without having to think nearly as hard about the issues and gather all this information and pay all this cost basically.

Kaiser: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense to me. And yeah, the buzzing confusion is getting to me as well. Even though my kids are grown, that causes its own set of confusion. They’re teenagers. So anyway.

Jason: I see.

Kaiser: Believe me. There’s quite a gap though, I think, between how Chinese people use the word ideology and how it’s understood here in the United States. How would you characterize that difference? I mean, when Chinese commentators speak about ideology, whether they use the word sixiang or yishixingtai, what is it that they mean? And are there subtle differences between these various words that they use?

Jason: Yeah. So I think that for them, it’s more of a concept that’s useful for elites or for people within the system. I don’t know that they are as concerned or have thought as much of about whether ordinary members of the public are constrained. I think they do think about whether ordinary members of the public will go along with something or whether they approve of something, but the sort of consistency in terms of public opinion, they have a gift of not being able to, or not having to always think about that. But I think that for them, ideology is something that’s primarily about these philosophical schools in contention with one another, that then get transformed into something that the officials can use. And it’s primarily about a coordination device in my view, which is this idea that we can summarize for everybody through our yishixingtai what is it that we’re trying to do? What’s the sort of main melody here? And how does that guide how you then do your work?

Kaiser: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. What about these words that they use, like I said, like sixiang or yishixingtai? And there’s a whole bunch of them like sixiang yishi. If you were to go, I haven’t done it in a while, but you go to a translate software and you type in ideology and see what the Chinese word for it is, there are several. And I haven’t really puzzled out what the different shades of meaning actually are.

Jason: Yeah. What is sixiang gongzuo and what is yishixingtai and how is that different exactly? That’s a great question. I guess I would say I don’t know.

Kaiser: That’s good. You don’t either.

Jason: I might not be the right person to ask about this, but maybe this is a question for Jude.

Kaiser: I can ask him. Yeah.

Jason: I don’t know. What would I say about this? I mean…

Kaiser: I mean, they seem to be used sort of interchangeably.

Jason: Yeah. I think that it might have some kind of term of art and meaning for people that I just haven’t picked up.

Kaiser: What about for Chinese social scientists? You work with a lot of Chinese political scientists. Do they have a different operational definition from the elites that you just described? I mean, you’re talking about the Party. Right? The Party, of course, it has its idea of ideology and that is of course… What do we call it now? Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Right? That is the ideology. But yeah. I mean, they would say there are other ideologies; fascism is an ideology, democratic socialism is an ideology. But yeah. What about political scientists? Do they have something that’s closer to the American political scientist’s idea, operationally?

Jason: Yeah. I mean, I think that if they’re working in the same tradition, then their definition would be the same. And if they’re talking to the sort of more Marxist tradition, then they mean something else. It’s kind of unhelpful in some ways that you have to explain what you’re about every time, but it’s an important word.

Kaiser: So based on some notional American mainstream discourse about Chinese politics and about U.S.-China relations, how would you characterize what your average, reasonably high information American thinks of when they say China’s ideology? I mean, because when I try to imagine it, I feel like it’s pushed by really contradictory messages from the media. I mean, they’re all rabid capitalists, but also they’re reviving the Cultural Revolution and ready for this radical redistribution of wealth. They’re all longing to break the chains of Leninist authoritarianism. Also they’re all raging nationalists who hate American democracy. So you’re in Bloomington in the American heartland, what’s the thinking on this? What does the American imagine Chinese ideology to be all about?

Jason: Yeah. So I think that because there are actually these competing sort of archetypes to draw from, you put them together and you get somewhere closer to what it is. But I would say there’s still this communist and communist “other” kind of way of thinking about it. There’s the crony capitalism and this is what happens if you don’t have as much social democracy style regulation. There is the response to the sort of swaggering nationalism. And I think there’s also still this mysterious character to…

Kaiser: The word’s inscrutable, Jason, you got to go with inscrutable.

Jason: I suppose.

Kaiser: So before we actually get into your research in ideology among actual Chinese people, let’s stay with official ideology for a second here. What would you say is the actual content of the ideology that is espoused by the Chinese party-state in recent years? I mean once upon a time you could point, I mean, even like during Deng’s time to Four Cardinal Principles that were meant to be a kind of a fence around the core Marxist-Leninist beliefs. Everything else was kind of up for grabs, up for debate. I mean today though there is this thing, and it’s got a name, it’s got a clunky name, it’s this Xi Jinping Thought with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. Some folks have just kind of dubbed it Xiism. I suppose we could go with that. Without having to read his fine book, which I’ve heard has just great reviews on Amazon, what can we say about Xiism as a set of beliefs? What is this official ideology?

Jason: Yeah. So I think that it has a couple of different directions to it. I think that one part of it is about the need for the center to take back the reins of the commanding heights of the economy and to sort of reform, but reform in a way such that they preempt or undo some of the problems that have come across through market reforms or the way that they’ve been practiced in China. I think another part of it has to do with some kind of Chinese exceptional…. this is our own way of doing things and this is not really up for discussion, whether or not it’s correct or not because it is ours.

And then I think that another part of it is about, I don’t know, I mean, this is not in the content so much as the subtext, but this idea of this is how we’re going to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union and this is how we’re going to have a new masculinity and this is how we’re going to have this like new toughness to how we do things. And so I think you see that in terms of all of these otherwise somewhat puzzling cultural moves.

Kaiser: So what about other features of kind of more orthodox Marxism-Leninism? For example, do they actually believe in material determinism or dialectical materialism?

Jason: I don’t know. I think that there’s a mix of people who really do take that very seriously and then people who are kind of doing it lip service and just mentioning it so that they don’t, I don’t know, have to explain themselves too much afterwards. But I think that they have moved a little bit beyond this idea of looking back to the text to figure out what they should do about contemporary things. I think that they have a fair bit of discretion there and it’s not like a what would Marx do?

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, I can’t imagine that outside a really small circle of Xi Jinping’s sycophants that there are many people whose ideology actually does embrace all of these things. But there are still foundational ideas about the Party and its role, it’s historical mission and stuff like that. I mean, I got to think that there are still core beliefs that the modern Party member or pro-Party person would espouse about the role of the state, the source of the state’s legitimacy, things like that. Wouldn’t you say?

Jason: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think that a lot of the precepts that Mao put forward about the relationship between the Party and the people are being revived or rehabilitated. Or just brought back to the forefront, I think. And I guess there was this debate about, is Xi very Dengist or not, and how much of what he’s doing is in opposition to what Deng sort of stood for and how much of it is sort of reaffirmation of that. And I think that they’re very eclectic with how they select from the past traditions. I mean, there’s such a broad corpus of things that they could select, it gives them a bit of flexibility actually.

Kaiser: I’ve always found it’s really frustrating when I’ve tried to engage Chinese friends of mine to try to get them to talk about the core philosophical beliefs that weirdly kind of form almost a part of our American political culture, just almost at the surface. You can’t get them to talk about what is the correct relationship between the state and the individual? Or what are the actual moral responsibilities of the state? What should and shouldn’t they include? I mean, that sort of thing. It’s weird. I’ve had so much trouble just trying to tease that out of people.

Why don’t we dig into a couple of these papers of yours that you worked on that are focused on ideology. In “The Nature of Ideology in Urban China,” you and your co-author Meng Tianguang look at the relationship — he’s at Tsinghua University by the way — you guys look at the relationship in China between political knowledge on the one hand and ideological constraint on the other. In other words, you’re looking at whether people’s views are more constrained, more consistent, more clumped together or less constrained according to how much they know about politics. And you found something very different from what other researchers have concluded both in China and when you look between China and democratic countries. And it happens that I’ve actually talked with the author, or one of the authors, of one of these other studies that your findings depart from, and we’ll talk about that in just a sec, but into your findings first. Could you talk about that dataset that you looked at and what your conclusions were and how they differed?

Jason: Yeah, so the data comes from this National Urban Survey that was done back in 2015, under Tianguang’s direction, and what we found was pretty paradoxical for people who are looking at the situation from, I don’t know, assumptions that are built from other contexts. So in most countries, not just in the U.S., but most other countries that they’ve done this kind of research, the more knowledgeable someone is about politics, the more structured they are, the more constrained they are, the more that their thinking is described with one principle, basically. So in the U.S., we would describe this as liberal-conservative spectrum. And so if you look at people who don’t know very much about politics, you ask them a bunch of factual questions, like “How long’s a Senators term?” and stuff like that. People who don’t do well on that part of the knowledge test, you can’t explain very much of their answers about political issues using liberal or conservative, this idea. But as they sort of are more knowledgeable, you can do better.

And as you look at elites, people who go to the national conventions, for example, then they are very constrained by this underlying principle, almost as much as the people in Congress when they’re voting on various bills, amendments, and so forth. And in China it’s just not that way. And what we found is that the people who are more informed in our survey are less constrained in the sense that one principle doesn’t explain as much of what they’re thinking about these sorts of questions that we ask them, whether there should be a minimum wage or whether the current political system is the best for China in its current circumstances. And that suggests that the way that the ideological landscape is organized in China is not really in this sort of one underlying principle describing everything. I guess our reason for thinking that is that the conceit is that the people who are more informed have a better understanding of how these principles are actually organized.

Kaiser: Yeah. Let’s come back to that, why your explanations for your findings in just a sec, but I want to do a couple of things first. One is, so you and and Tianguang posit that there are just two basic ideological dimensions, so left-right economic dimension, and a kind of authoritarian-liberal political dimension. This is pretty normal. This is something you see in the United States too, most of the sort of political compass types of surveys, you see them all over the internet. It kind of yields these four quadrants. So let’s put this in a Chinese context. What were the types of questions and what types of answers to them would qualify one, say as economically left or economically right? And then politically authoritarian versus politically liberal? What are some of the examples of the sorts of questions that they had in this urban survey?

Jason: Yeah. So if you ask a question like do you think that market reform produces more inequality? Or something like that. Or if you ask and you say, “Yes,” that would put you farther to the state end, this left end. If you asked a question like, “should the government control the housing market?” Then that would put you… And you disagreed with that, that would put you farther to this right, sort of more market. And on the political dimension, something like whether a multi-party system is suitable for China? If you say, “Yes,” that would push you in that more democratic direction. And if you said, “No,” that would push you in this more authoritarian direction.

Kaiser: Okay. So there’s another study that we talk about that was that Jen Pan and Yiqing Xu looked at in their paper, a pretty well known paper. And I’ve actually talked to Yiqing about this as well. That includes another axis, which is nationalist versus what do they call it? I mean, I would say cosmopolitan, but let’s… Anti nationalist or pro nationalist. How did you decide not to include that? Did you feel like it all sort of ends up lining up too neatly already with authoritarian versus democratic?

Jason: Oh, so I mean, the actual names of those axes are in part a product of what you asked on the survey. And so our questions did tap into some of the nationalist understandings of things, but I would guess more obliquely. Like you have questions that seem to be about whether the political system is the best suited for China’s circumstances? That could be a political system question or the China circumstances part makes it more of a national question. And so I don’t know that that difference in emphasis is so significant because that’s driven by what you’re able to include. So, because the data sources are different, some of the questions are also.

Kaiser: So let’s just take your low information and high information respondents. And if we were to do this in the United States, you end up with these four quadrants where you’d find in one corner kind of authoritarian statists. Those are actually pretty rare in the United States. People who would be sort of economically on the left, but also all in favor of state involvement in morality and things like that. And then you have your left liberal who are basically socially liberal and favor things like progressive taxation, also more robust social safety net, more aggressive antitrust, blah, blah. And then you have your basic conservatives, who are socially conservative but against “big government”. And finally you have your libertarians who are sort of both economically and politically in favor of the individual and for freedom. So in China, where are they clustered? Let’s take low information and then high information, which quadrant do they correspond to as it were?

Jason: So that’s a great question. And as it turns out, there is not that much organization in terms of this. I mean, you can draw the quadrants and you can find people who are say authoritarian but pro-market for example. And there’s a little bit of a axis of there’s more people in this pro-state control of the economy, more authoritarian. And there are a little bit more than you’d expect in the pro-market pro-democracy sector. But if it were a really tightly bound together, actually one sort of principle, then you would see many more people in those two quadrants than the off diagonal. And actually you see a lot of people in the off diagonals too. And I think what we conclude from this is that there’s just not such a strong sense of a coherent belief system for most people. And so they’re not in this world where there’s polarization.

Kaiser: It sounds like a blessing for me in America right now. But yeah. And even less, as you say, as you’re finding, say, when you’re talking about high information respondents. Which is just, yeah, it’s a very, very interesting finding. So what’s interesting though, is that, like I said, this paper builds on this Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu thing. I’ve talked to Yiqing, as I said, it was last summer, by the way, for listeners who might recall or want to go back and listen to it. But Jen and Yiqing seem to have found something very, very different from you. They basically saw quite a bit of constraint overall, so that even though they were looking at these three axes, they had that nationalism axis too, respondents tended to clump into pretty simple left and right. People who favored state involvement in the economy and they also favored authoritarianism and nationalism, by the way.

And people who wanted less state involvement in economic matters were also more liberal politically and more cosmopolitan. So as we would expect sort of in America. So here’s what puzzles me though, is that this was based on that political compass survey, Zuobiao, which is online and it’s opt-in and presumably would attract what you, in your study, would call high information individuals. But they show remarkably high levels of constraint and yours shows lower levels of constraint for that same kind of analogous group. What do you think explains this difference? I mean, how are these participants so unlike your high information, urban participants?

Jason: That’s a great question. And it’s a bit of a puzzle. I think that one possibility is that high information in the urban sample was just relative. The more informed people of the people that they talk to face to face, but even like someone in the top third or the top 10% of that overall knowledge spectrum, that’s still a different kind of person from the person who will choose to take an ideology study online. And then they must have some kind of hobby or curiosity. But yeah, I think that’s a great question.

Kaiser: That was going to be my explanation. I mean, the curve must bend again later on. I mean, even into higher levels of political knowledge, you go back to high-constrained.

Jason: That would make a lot of sense, I think, for a lot of our priors. I don’t know, I think that we would need to study elites or maybe have a narrower definition of who we consider to be really sophisticated to study them. So we’ve looked at this before where we looked at party members within the sample, for example. Something like eight or 10% of the sample are Party members. And we’ve also looked at, there was a separate question about participation, which was like, “Would you ever consider participating in a protest?” And what’s interesting is that even those two groups of people are not that different in terms of their ideology. They’re pretty similar on the state and market dimension.

And then the potential protestor people, those people are a little bit more democratic and the Party members are a little bit more authoritarian, but by comparative standards, it’s a pretty close relationship actually. And so maybe this is because they’re not really enforcing constraint upon each other. It’s not like the potential witnesses are talking to each other about like, “Okay, this is what we think about this. And this is what we think about that.” But the party is kind of doing that. And so I think it’s interesting that you have that sort of diffuse character to things despite all of that.

Kaiser: This is just, yeah, it’s utterly fascinating. And again, I’m kind of envious of the way that they can be so sort of syncretic in their beliefs. They can kind of combine all these things that to me just seem contradictory. I’ve seen this same thing in musical ideology. It’s kind of great.

Jason: How is that? How does the musical part play in?

Kaiser: Yeah, no, it’s funny because — like I tell a story. I told it on Radiolab not too long ago. So there’s supposed to be these beliefs about certain genres of music. If you’re an aficionado of punk rock, you’re supposed to kind of be anti-technique. You’re not supposed to encourage virtuosity. In fact, it’s kind of the worse you are at your instrument sort of the more authentically punk you are. But in China you find people playing in the punk genre who superficially, I mean, it’s kind of that brash and snotty, major key, kind of open chords. But in the middle of a song they’ll throw in these blazing guitar solos that are just these really kind of conspicuous displays of virtuosity and that’s kind of not supposed to be there.

And then same in other genres where virtuosity is supposed to be. It’s not just virtuosity, it’s things like complexity and composition or there’s sort of philosophical underpinnings of these sub genres or genres in the west that don’t translate into China. And the weird hybrids you get when you kind of uproot a plant and plant it in Chinese soil, it grows weird fruit. And sometimes that fruit is amazing.

Jason: Yeah, it reminds me of something that I remember Barry Naughton was telling me before the 18th Party Congress. We were trying to puzzle out what’s Xi Jinping going to do? And I remember he told me these guys coming through the system, they get to the top and they’re capable of just about anything. And I didn’t really understand how that would work at the time. But now you see if society is this malleable in some sense, where there aren’t sort of determined pockets of public opinion that really already organized and ready to pounce on you for doing something that’s contrary to their organization, then you really do have a lot more freedom to operate and sort of choose what kind of policy you want to implement.

Kaiser: Maybe this is where that famous Chinese pragmatism comes in. That it’s not just your… You don’t feel like you owe an allegiance to this philosophical tradition that you ostensibly belong to. And that instead you could just sort of say, “Look, we’ll do what needs to be done to kind of address the conditions that we find.”

Jason: Yeah. You can’t have so much technocratic government if the electorate is demanding something different.

Kaiser: Yeah. Right. So let’s talk about what these results mean. I mean, I said we’d come back to your explanations for it. So let’s throw out this group of sort of the self-reporting people on the political compass survey and look at your urban survey here that you and Tianguang did. You posit that propaganda and censorship have something to do with why political knowledge seems to be correlated with less constraint on issue positions. How do you explain that? How does the management of media play into this?

Jason: So a couple of thoughts. First, I think that as difficult as it may be to work with the sort of opt-in political compass style data, I think that Jen and Yiqing really did an amazing job of rebalancing that and then bringing in… They also brought in a face to face survey to corroborate a lot of what they found. So I think that we largely agree about sort of the character of how things look, but I would also say that… So, okay, you have a propaganda censorship system and how does operate well, we know from work by people like Gary King and Jen and…

Kaiser: Molly. Yeah.

Jason: And Molly Roberts that this is about protest, but there’s also pre-publication filters on different keywords and so forth. And I think what this is doing is it’s saying something like here are these restricted areas, but then we’re not going to have a lot to say necessarily about the minimum wage. We’re not going to have a lot to say about some of the nuts and bolts policy issues. And because of that, I think that creates the sort of space for a lack of constraint. I think that if the party did explain all of its policy positions in the sort of public facing rhetoric, much more then maybe you would get a different pattern among people who are highly informed, maybe they would adopt this as a package or resist it. But if your high level public facing stuff is just more abstract and more basic than this, then I think that that produces this kind of uncertainty and diffuseness.

Kaiser: No, that makes a ton of sense to me. And what do you think that this means in terms of Chinese politics. In particular, your paper suggests that this low level of constraint means that the party leadership can actually divide and conquer. Spell that out. How would that work or indeed how how has that worked in practice?

Jason: Yeah. So I think that if you don’t allow for very much organized interest, then this idea of an issue public that cares deeply about an issue and is going to hold your feet to the fire if you break your pledge that you signed to them or something like that. If that’s not really there, and even when you do collect information from the public and you’re consultative and so forth, it’s sort of dealing with people individually, as opposed to in these organized groups. I think that means that you can sort of do something and then see if it works before there’s a strong pushback against it. And that allows you the ability to try things that you just wouldn’t think about trying in other contexts. And so I think that helps explain why from our point of view, the CCP is capable of very sudden policy changes.

Jason: I think it’s because they’re… It’s not that there aren’t interest groups within the system or outside of the system, it’s not that they don’t have influence, but they have a little bit more freedom here. And I would also say that this extends not just to the policy that they can execute, but it also extends to the way that people talk about politics. And so there’s this other paper that I’ve been working on that looks at ideological labels. So if you ask people if they’re zuopai or youpai, you give them a one to six scale, and this was done originally all the way back in 1993 by Shi Tianjian.

It’s really interesting because it turns out that people don’t really know what party goes where. They were asked about the Communist and also about the Kuomintang. And it turns out that if someone says that they’re on the right, then they think the Communist Party is also on the right and they think that the Kuomintang is on the left. But if they say that they’re on the left, they think the Communist Party on the left and the Kuomintang is on the right.

Kaiser: Categorical confusion, as you say.

Jason: Yes. Basically like the people who say they’re on the far right meant to say they were on the far left, but just had it flipped in their head. And I just find that that’s… You see this actually in a lot of places, there are a fair number of people who are not that informed about politics, who will make that mistake if you do a similar study in other contexts. But in China, this is most of the people who say they’re on the right. And then of course you have the plurality who just say they don’t know, or they put themselves in the middle.

Kaiser: You say that original study had been done back in, what, you said 1993?

Jason: The data was collected in 1993, but the paper is being done now.

Kaiser: Wow. That’s really interesting.

Jason: There’s a lot of these sort of data sets that have been collected over the years where they were done for one purpose, but they had some other things added on that you’d maybe go back and reinterpret later on.

Kaiser: Okay. So the upshot of your findings with this paper, “Categorical Confusion: Ideological Labels in China,” the upshot, it’s pretty straightforward that based on results from two national surveys, you found that people are willing to locate themselves left or right, like you said, but they don’t really, the words don’t have a ton of meaning. It’s very muddled. I mean, that might strike a lot of people as odd, because these labels do get used in Chinese political discourse. They have been for a long time. I mean, you said zuopai / youpai, obviously. Think about this anti right campaign, left deviationism, right deviationism. And even in more recent discourse you have this word baizuo. And so this left and right thing, it originates, as I think many people know, in 18th century France, just based on where people sat in the Estates General in 1789. And we see these ideas in use in China, just like a century later, in the early 1900s, you already see people using these words to understand all these political theories that are pouring into China and competing for the affections of Chinese intellectuals. I’m wondering though, was there a re-borrowing of the two words since reform and opening began that might have contributed to the confusion?

Jason: Yeah. So my sense is that it was more common in the Mao era as a pejorative of like being a rightist and so forth, and then later on being an ultra leftist was also suspect. And it’s something that Deng used to talk in these terms to sort of explain what reform and opening was and who was opposing him and so forth. And I think that they’ve sort of deemphasized this language, at least officially, after that. Now, commentators just reach for this because it’s such a useful abstraction for us. But I think that when we then use these terms, we should remember that they don’t necessarily have meaning for ordinary people and that means that we can sort of go often to the wrong direction if we think that they’re moving left or they’re moving right and people understand what we’re talking about.

If you look at the positions on issues, people who say that they’re on the left or people who say that they’re on the right, they don’t think anything different about specific issues from people who say that they’re in the middle or people who say they’re on another side. And so that sort of raises this question of what are they actually talking about? Maybe we can get some clarity out of an intellectual. We can pin them down, a specific person, but in aggregate that information is just not really there.

Kaiser: It’s so funny then that it’s always — in the American mind, it’s the Chinese who are ideological. We are actually a lot more. I mean, I mentioned at the beginning that in the U.S., it’s become just really common to speak about US-China relations in terms of a contest of ideology. I think certainly in China many have come to see it that way and are framing a lot of these differences between the US and China very much in that light. I was struck yesterday, I was reading, you know this guy Zichen Wang, he publishes this great substack called Pekingnology, and yesterday he translated an essay by that guy Ren Yi — Chairman Rabbit or Tu Zhuxi.

He wrote this piece looking at COVID responses, contrasting this disparity in responses to COVID 19 pandemic between the U.S. and China. And he basically chalks it up to ideological differences. I mean, he says that American political ideology basically limits the power of the government and limits the expectations that are placed on it, the central government, especially federal government. While Chinese political ideology saddles the central government with both a moral and political responsibility to ensure public health and safety. And it would hold the central government responsible were it to allow the kinds of death rates that we’ve seen in the United States. He also points out that there’s only, he says like 3.6 ICU beds per 100,000 people in China. Whereas there’s 10 times that many, like 34.7 ICU beds per 100,000 in the United States. So maybe that has something to do with it too. So in your estimation, what are the right ways to take on board the importance of ideological differences between China and the United States without exaggerating them or assigning them too much explanatory weight? I mean, clearly there’s something there.

Jason: Yeah. The COVID example reminds me. So I was talking to my dad who’s an immunologist and —

Kaiser: Oh, wow.

Jason: … he was telling me about this paper that was looking at historical patterns of disease. And apparently the Black Death, they can do this fancy disease detective work now. And it started in China, but the Chinese government at the time was able to suppress it and it ended up being a bigger deal in Europe. And so I wonder, is that an ideological consistency? I don’t know, but yeah, so how do you avoid making this analytical error? I was thinking about this and in part this theme that you guys have of thinking about thinking about China. It seems like one kind of error you can make is, they’re just like us. They think about things the same way. And then when they don’t do something exactly the same way, you’re kind of surprised.

Jason: But I think another way you can make an error is you can think, “Well, they’re nothing like us and the intuitions that we can build off of studying ourselves don’t really apply to what people in China think or what people in China want to do.” And I think that also pushes you in terms of being surprised about a lot of things. As far as how to use ideology to think about this international competition, I mean, I don’t see anything untoward about it. It’s used to describe this kind of contest between systems, I guess it seems to not be an equal conflict in my view, where China’s still fighting this mostly defensive battle where they’re just trying to say like, “Wait a second. Your way of thinking is too universalist to apply here.”

They’re not making a counter universalist argument the way that the Cold War was this sort of exporting socialism versus exporting capitalism, democracy. And so, I don’t know, I think that for the Chinese side, this ideological competition has to do with efforts to stoke peaceful evolution and so forth. And for the American side, I think that people sometimes see other societies, sort of other dictatorships try to adopt some of the techniques that the CCP has taken. But in my view, that’s more about tools and strategies and less about the realm of the should or what you want to be when you grow up.

Kaiser: It’s less normative. Right?

Jason: Yeah.

Kaiser: And there’s no effort to export it necessarily. It’s more passive. A borrowing rather than… Yeah.

Jason: Yeah. I think there’s this trade off between how universal and how sort of far reaching your way of thinking is, and then like how much you maximize support in one context. And I think that the CCP is all about the second end of that.

Kaiser: Yeah. That sounds right to me. So this morning as I was taking the kids to school, I was listening to The Daily, the New York Times podcast, and Michael Barbaro was talking to David Leonhardt about a poll on COVID attitudes and behavior among Americans, and it was larger than 4,000. It was a pretty big poll. So I think probably nobody is surprised there were huge partisan divisions on things like vaccine status. I asked, I said to my kid, I said, “Hey, guess. What would you guess? What percentage of adult Democrats are vaccinated?” And he was right. He said, “Over 90.” Yeah. Over 90, it was correct. But he also guessed correctly that he thought about maybe 40 to 50% of Republicans weren’t, and that’s right too. It’s 40% aren’t vaccinated.

And I mean, it’s very strange because Democrats, of course, of all ages, report being very, very worried about getting COVID and Republicans report being very un-worried. So they’re both on kind of the wrong side of the science in a lot of ways. So this got me thinking that it’s like ideology is so deep at this point that it actually affects behavior significantly. I was trying to think if there’s anything analogous in China. Does commitment by any large group of Chinese people to some ideological position, has it ever had its grip so much on people in recent decades that it’s affected their actual behavior in potentially life and death issues like partisan identity in America has? I can’t even think of anything. I mean sure, there’s nationalism, they’ll go out in the streets and protest, burn Japanese cars in 2012, but it wasn’t even that widespread.

Jason: Well I mean, we talk about the Chinese COVID response and it’s been interesting to see sort of the Western reaction to the Chinese response and how that’s changed over time. But arguably you get to this point now and it’s like can they sustain zero COVID or are they doing this indefinitely? And I think that there could be an element of identity or the way that they think about the system or something like that that then makes some people so willing to go along with this at this point. I don’t that that’s purely a cost benefit thing anymore.

Kaiser: No, I don’t think it is. I think that there’s part of sort of national pride that’s wrapped up in the success of this policy now, and that’s got to be driving some of the behavior. That’s I was thinking might be part of the response.

Jason: I wonder how much nationalism drives which vaccine you take. You look at the Russians and why are they so unwilling to get vaccinated? And I think there’s a lot of trust issues and stuff like that. I guess the thing I don’t know is I don’t know how much access China would have to the American or the British vaccines or something. And if that sort of national identity is determining their COVID strategy.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, people who like to chastise China for not having taken that opportunity to work with Pfizer and BioNTech on the mRNA. Yeah.

Jason: I’m not sure if that’s their fault or that might be pressure from Western governments or something like that.

Kaiser: Who really knows. Anyway, what a fantastically interesting conversation. I highly recommend that people check out these two papers, because they’re easy to understand and really eyeopening. So check them out. Go to Jason’s website and you can find all his research there as well as a treasure trove of other research. Jason, man, thank you so much for taking the time to join. Let’s move on to recommendations. Before we do that, let me quickly remind people that if you like the work that we’re doing here with the Sinica podcast, the best thing you can do to help us out is to subscribe to SupChina Access. It’s the beginning of the year, this is a really important year. You’re going to want to follow Chinese politics really carefully. And the best way to do that is by subscribing to this fantastic newsletter, SupChina Access. And yeah, by the way, check out all the other shows in the Sinica network. There are lots of them right now, and I’m very pleased to tell you that one of my favorites, Strangers in China, is coming back in just a couple of months. And so stay tuned for that as well. All right. Let’s move on to recommendations. Jason, what do you have for us, man?

Jason: So, this is a tough thing for me to narrow it down to. So I’m afraid that I have a couple-

Kaiser: No, that’s great.

Jason: One is, I don’t know, I really enjoy this genre of the campus novel and there’s this sort of tradition of satirical novels about people in academia. I guess the most recent manifestation is The Chair or something like that.

Kaiser: Which was controversial, but I loved it.

Jason: Yeah. So my favorite in this genre would be the classic I think is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. And then there’s more recently Straight Man, which I thought was just really funny…

Kaiser: Who wrote that?

Jason: It’s like Richard Russo I think

Kaiser: Oh yeah. That guy. He wrote Empire Falls. Is that that guy?

Jason: Yeah. It’s great. I think that people sort of enjoy seeing stuff written about people like themselves. And so maybe that’s part of it, but I think it’s also just funny in a way that I don’t know if I would’ve found it funny when I was younger, but there’s something about this sort of making peace with who you are, which is just kind of funny.

Kaiser: I’m buying it right now. I mean, even as we speak I’m just buying it.

Jason: And then the other thing I would recommend, I guess, is this board game called Twilight Struggle. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it before.

Kaiser: No, no I haven’t.

Jason: But it’s this two person game. It’s based on the Cold War, it captures the sort of paranoia of the Cold War very well because there are all these different events that happened in reality like-

Kaiser: The Cuban Missile Crisis or-

Jason: Yeah. Or the Arab-Israeli War or something like that. And the first time you’re playing the game, you don’t really know what’s going to happen and everything’s a surprise and you’re trying to control different parts of the world. And you’re not really sure why you’re doing something. You’re just sort of responding to what the other person is doing, which I think captures this sort of cold war paranoia pretty well. But then if you play a little bit more and you sort of know all the things that could happen, there’s still this balance that comes about of kind of play around what other people are going to do. And I think what’s really interesting is there was this Chinese, separate Chinese community, that had their own way of playing the game that sort of developed in parallel to the sort of way that it was played in the U.S. and other places. And they actually discovered a set of better strategies that became standard once they started playing each other.

Kaiser: Interesting. Twilight Struggle. And the Chinese take on Twilight Struggle. I’ll have to look this up. That sounds really interesting. I haven’t played a board game forever. I’m one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t played Settlers of Catan yet. Everyone keeps telling me, “Oh, we’re having a Settlers of Catan party.” I’m like, “Not going to go to your super spreader event.”

Jason: Yeah. I mean, I think that they’re not necessarily something that everyone has to enjoy, but if you do think you’ll enjoy thinking about this sort of-

Kaiser: I’ll stick with Wordle.

Jason: Fair enough.

Kaiser: All right, man. Thanks. Those are great. So Straight Man and Lucky Jim, two campus novels. And Twilight Struggle. I’ll check those out. So my recommendation is I am actually finally reading Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, which of course is set in Davos. And I was thinking about Davos just because, well, I was supposed to be there in January. Of course it didn’t happen. For, God, 20 years or something, getting on 20 years, I’ve had this great gig with the World Economic Forum where I go there as a summary writer. I just basically go, they assign you to sessions, you take notes, and then you have to be able to write quickly. That’s the thing is I type fast. So you’re kind of a glorified stenographer, but not really. I mean, you end up writing up these sort of summaries and then you write a lot of press releases and stuff like that too.

So it kind of matches my skillset because they could assign me to China stuff or tech stuff or sort of geopolitics stuff and I could deliver. But I was supposed to go. They sorely reduced the number of writers they invited to Davos this month. Couldn’t go. And of course it’s now being pushed back until the end of May. And I guess I’m going to get to go. So I’ve said, “You know what? I’ve been to Davos so many times and I’ve never read this book that everyone is always talking about.” So it’s actually really, really good. I mean, it was written, it started in prewar period. Thomas Mann started writing it and then he finished it after the war, I think 1924. But it’s good. I mean, it’s just subtle sort of psychological explorations of people and it’s a kind of wacky novel. It’s very funny. It’s very funny. I kind of hadn’t anticipated just how comedic it is. So yeah. Check it out. It’s a very long novel. I’m I’m only maybe a third of the way through right now, but I’m very much enjoying it.

Jason: Isn’t it great when you eat your vegetables and it turns out the vegetables taste good?

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe next time I’ll recommend my favorite saag paneer or palak paneer recipe. Yeah. It’s my favorite way to eat spinach. Okay. Thanks man. Thank you so much. What a pleasure it was to talk to you.

Jason: Thank you, Kaiser.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com. Or just as good, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews and make sure to check out all the other shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening and see you next week. Take care.