Ai Weiwei is an artist and the author of “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir.” This column was translated from Chinese by Perry Link.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a major speech in Beijing late last month at a conference on United Front Work. As the state-run news agency Xinhua reported, Xi “stressed promoting the unity and hard work of Chinese people at home and abroad to pool strength for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” And he described the “united front” effort, the agency said, as one that would “truly unite all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation from different political parties, ethnic groups, social strata and groups, as well as those with different beliefs and living in different social systems.”
The speech’s unifying principle seemed vaguely to be ethnic, linguistic or cultural. But its main point, barely hidden, was to build fealty to the Chinese Communist Party.
The term “united front” has a long history with the CCP. In 1939, Mao Zedong said the party had thrived during its first 18 years thanks to three “magic weapons”: solid party-building, armed struggle and the united front. The party, an unchallengeable entity, established its dominance using force and ideological control. The word “unity” is a superficial fabric that it has spread, for eight decades now, over its bullying of people into a condition of spiritual slavery.
Despite its successes, the CCP has been plagued by a lack of confidence, for at least two reasons. One is a profound uneasiness about its right to rule. This is a long-standing problem, both unavoidable and insoluble. The CCP presents itself to the Chinese people and to the world as the legitimate representative of a nation and its people, but its leaders know that the Chinese people did not choose the party. The people have no right to vote freely or even to speak freely. Even the right not to speak — to maintain silence — has sometimes been denied. There is no free press or independent judiciary. Social order depends, ultimately, on force. This system works, but its “unity” is a veneer.
A second reason for the CCP’s insecurity, and a reflection of it, is the party’s constant need for an enemy against which to define itself — and to justify the craving for a “united front.” In 1925, Mao famously began an essay with two questions: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” No CCP thinker has ever put this key point more succinctly. Actual friends and enemies of the CCP have come and gone over the years, but the fundamental need for an Enemy has never changed. How can we know a friend if we don’t have an enemy?
One might think ideology could help sort out friends and enemies, but no. Over the years, the party has imitated the Soviet Union and denounced it, excoriated capitalism and embraced it, attacked Confucius and praised him. The enemy might change, but the need for one does not.
The CCP seeks today to draw a line between “the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” and the rest of humanity. But the “Chinese nation” is an artificial concept. The people who live in China or come from it are a jumble of more than 50 ethnic and linguistic groups. Much of the history of these ethnic groups are sorry tales of conflict, exclusion and forced or unforced assimilation.
The treatment today of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, who have been herded into “reeducation” camps and stripped of their native culture, then “united” with the CCP mainstream, is but an egregious example of a story that Tibetans, Mongols and other smaller and weaker ethnicities can tell as well.
But don’t people in these groups sometimes want to assimilate? Maybe some do. But to learn what they want, one would need first to give them the power of self-determination, and this is precisely what the forced concept of the “Chinese nation” denies them.
Xi’s emphasis on the “Chinese dream” of “rejuvenation” reveals the insecurity inherent in the CCP’s rule. One would not need to promote a dream over reality if one were confident that reality was doing well.
Looking at the standoff today between the CCP on one side and Hong Kong and Taiwan on the other, we can see that the terms “China” and “the Chinese” no longer refer to land or nationality. The burning question now is whether CCP culture will spread or not. Will all distinctions of language, class, religion and so on be destroyed by the CCP and buried with it when the party finally goes? That would be tragic. But we’re unlikely to see it in our lifetimes.
In the interim, there are many things — poetry, art, calligraphy, Daoism, cuisine and more — that “sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” around the world might proudly identify with. It is an odd choice to pin one’s identity to a self-serving and corrupt group that stands atop a brutal historical record.