Inside Document No. 9, the Secret Memo That Ensures There's No Democracy in China

On Monday, the New York Times revealed that the Communist Party of China had reiterated its ideological stance to cadres all over their country by issuing Document No. 9 back in April.

The memo warns Party members that they risk losing their authority unless they address “subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.” These include “Western constitutional democracy,” human rights, media independence, civic participation, pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and outside criticism of the party.

The document is significant because it purportedly reveals Xi Jinping’s official stance since his rise to power. The language is decidedly conservative and seems to be at odds with his policies of gearing toward greater market reform and the crackdown on government corruption.

The news brings a long-standing divide to the forefront. On the one hand, many liberals want rule of law, civil rights, and a freer market; on the other, conservatives assert that greater authority over the economy and establishing tighter controls on society would stem foreign influence. Such fear is deeply rooted in modern Chinese history in events such as the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War, and more recent security threats such as the U.S.’ strategic military focus on Asia. However, associating these institutions with the West and then labeling all of them subversive brings up language that harks back to the Maoist era, and seems backward even for the ideologically entrenched party. Even if such language is just for show and Xi Jinping will continue with market reforms, such contradiction between their policies and their professed ideologies is confusing.

But the duplicity is not surprising. Xi Jinping and the rest of the Politburo must appease conservatives and liberals alike, so they must not offend the conservatives who are ideologically mired in a previous era, nor anger those who are discontented with the current state of society for fear of engendering revolution.

This document may very well embody the backlash by top cadres against many Chinese’ voracious embrace of foreign culture and values, as well as the zero-sum mentality that only one nation can claim the top spot. With Xi Jinping playing to both extremes of the ideological spectrum, it is only natural that such contradictions will hinder the implementation of his policies.

In an attempt to disregard popular demand for greater social change, party officials associate empowering institutions such as media independence and human rights with anti-Western sentiment. But some of these elements could be conducive to the social and economic policies of the Politburo. For example, a freer press is one tool the government can use to fight corruption. News platforms and social media were integral in bringing the scandal of Bo Xilai’s wife to the public, as well as a railway official’s corrupt negligence which resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries in a high-speed rail accident. Moreover, a shift toward rule of law instead of party primacy is a step toward addressing the social and commercial concerns of civil society.

Although Chinese society's fascination with the West is palpable, there are values and principles that are universal and can serve the central government’s desire for the next stage of economic and social development. Adopting a hard-line approach toward proponents of change and the discontented is only going to further erode citizens' trust and uneasy abidance to the ruling government.