‘Neo-Conservatism’ is a major trend in the spectrum of political thought that emerged in China after 1989. It is a product of the political climate of the 1990s and also a reflection on and reaction to political and cultural radicalism that was prevalent in the 1980s. Some of its basic ideas can be found in the so-called New Authoritarianism. Neo-Conservatism takes radicalism as its foil and criticizes various radical propositions for ignoring China’s reality and for trying to transform the country by totally rejecting the existing order and authorities. In this view, the democracy movement of 1989 becomes another example of romantic radicalism. Interestingly, the failure of the Reform Movement of 1898 is attributed to the radicalism of Kang Youwei rather than to the obstructionism of the Empress Dowager Cixi. Similarly, the ‘New Authoritarian’ Zhang Binjiu had argued in the 1980s that the necessity of separating economic from political reform explained if not quite justified Yuan Shikai’s assassination of the democrat Song Jiaoren in 1915.
In 1990, Xiao Gongqin, who held the abovementioned interpretation of 1898 and offered Yan Fu (1853–1921) as a model, became the first person to label this trend of thought ‘Neo-Conservatism’ and to elaborate its main arguments.
Neo-Conservatism holds that modernization is a gradual process (incrementalism), and that, during this process, traditional values, the existing order and an authoritarian government are necessary to maintain social stability and ensure a successful social transformation. On the other hand, Neo-Conservatism distinguishes itself from traditional conservatism and fundamentalism by emphasizing that the legitimacy of the existing (political and ideological) authorities is secured only through supporting and promoting reform and modern transformation. As far as China’s reform is concerned, Neo-Conservatism advocates the strengthening of government authority, especially the central authority, so as to direct the reform and speed up economic development, and also to ensure stability and fairness while combating rampant corruption and crime and the decentralization produced by the economic reforms of the 1980s. Neo-Conservatism is also characterized by a state-centred nationalism and a retreat from the cultural cosmopolitanism of the 1980s, two characteristics it shares with the advocates of post-modernism (see postmodernism (houxiandaizhuyi) and ‘post-ism’ (houxue)), National Studies and New Confucianism. The leading proponents of the Neo-Conservative trend in political thought include Chen Yuan (b. 1945, son of Party elder Chen Yun), He Xin, Wang Huning, Wang Xiaodong, Yang Ping and Xiao Gongqin. However, it has been criticized by Liberal and New Left intellectuals as trying to defend authoritarianism and obstruct democratization.
Further reading
(1996). Chinese Law and Government 29 (March/April) [includes translations of several of the important statements of Neo-Conservatism]
Fewsmith, Joseph (2001). China Since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 75–100.
Li, Youzhou (1997). ‘Will Neo-Conservatism Dominate Post-Deng China?’ China Strategic Review 2.2:31–40.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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