Ideological void could impede China’s economic growth

I had the opportunity to attend an Asian Studies Development Program conference at Xavier University on Friday. In one presentation titled “The Chinese Century,” Oded Shenkar, gave a brief overview on the ongoing growth in China’s economy and analyzed the major challenges it currently faces. One of them is the lack of ideology in its bureaucratic system.

Shenkar, a leading scholar in the field of Chinese business management, serves as the Ford Motor Company chair in global business management at Ohio State University.

The bureaucratic system has existed for thousands of years in China, and in many aspects, the current system is similar to its ancient predecessors.

In the Confucian school of thought, bureaucrats are first on the social ladder, a position that they still enjoy fully today despite the self-designated title “servants of the people.”

And just as the bureaucrats of old were accountable to the emperor, who granted them local authority, their modern-day counterparts are accountable to the central government.

Despite the government’s claim that a democratic system is in place to select local leaders, in practice, positions are almost invariably filled by hand-picked candidates from within the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, the bureaucrats’ power is vested in party leaders in Beijing, not in their constituencies.

A major difference between the bureaucratic systems of the imperial age and of today is the lack of a convincing ideology in today’s China, and that causes a great problem, Shenkar argues.

During the imperial period, official actions were to be (at least ostensibly) anchored in a sacred text in accordance with Confucianism, for the Confucian ideology validated the imperial rule and the bureaucracy that it endorsed.

Since the CCP came in power in 1949, however, Confucianism was denounced as a remnant of the “old society” and was largely abolished, replaced by Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, or Maoism, as the ideology of the society.

However, the painful memories of the Cultural Revolution and the economic developments in the past two decades have made the old Communist ideology impractical and largely ignored by the masses.

This vacuum of social ideology makes for a dangerous situation, Shenkar argues, for a society without ideological guidance lacks stability, especially in a time of drastic economic expansion.

Beijing has also realized the magnitude of the problem, and it’s working to fill that ideological void.

The CCP has been carrying out a pragmatic revival of Confucianism, endorsing parts that it deems acceptable and useful, in hopes of improving the deteriorating social stability in the market economy.

According to Shenkar, the government is also offering 1 million yuan plus research funding toward any project that attempts to reconcile Marxism with the current China and its market economy. This official offer, a humbling acknowledgement of CCP’s ideological failure, shows China’s seriousness in its pursuit of a pragmatic ideology.

Despite all the challenges, one has all the reasons to remain optimistic of the future of China’s economy. According to a relatively conservative estimate by Goldman Sachs, China is poised to take over the United States as world’s greatest economy in 2041; the speaker went further, perhaps radically, with his own estimate of 2025.

No matter which year one leans toward, the opportunity is ripe in China for foreign investors — and scholars of social and political ideology around the globe may also want to seriously consider that million-yuan offer.

Linsen Li is a history and journalism junior. E-mail [email protected]