By Jessica Batke
This article originally appeared on ChinaFile. The text below does not include the primary sources and translations that are part of the full article.
In a rural county in southern China, more than ten thousand volunteers, scattered across mountain villages and rice paddies, are out gathering local folk songs. Their charge: to bring back paeans to “the new era and new thought” at the heart of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s political future.
The folk song compilers are just one of “seven detachments in the mountains,” teams of volunteers throughout Longli County in China’s Guizhou province working to “forge mass solidarity, guide the masses, inculcate a correct cultural disposition in individuals, improve social mores, and adjust people’s behavior.” Members of the “Pure Folkways” detachment go door to door to urge thrift and discourage lavish spending on events like weddings and New Year’s banquets. The “Grateful to the Party” detachment’s formerly poverty-stricken households work to assist their less fortunate neighbors. Other detachments mediate disputes, organize neighborhood clean-up, and tend to children and elderly relatives left behind when working-age adults in their households seek employment elsewhere.
Organizing all of this local uplift was a new feature in Longli’s political landscape, its New Era Civilization Practice Center. Since 2018, tens of thousands of such entities have cropped up in rural and urban areas across China. The centers’ agenda, laid out in directives issued by senior organs within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the past five years, includes coordinating social services, hosting cultural activities, shaping people into “new” citizens with “new” habits, and pushing the doctrine known as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” into the hearts and minds of the masses. The ambitious initiative—sprawling in its aims, and now continuing to expand throughout the country—provides a window into how China’s current leaders perceive their most vexing political challenges, and how they hope to see them conquered.
Though New Era Civilization Practice Centers have received little attention outside of China, ChinaFile has traced their emergence as a new feature of the country’s political topography through Party directives, procurement notices, and state-affiliated media. The centers are designed to deliver a mix of social services and political indoctrination, to draw China’s citizens ever nearer to the Party by giving them tangible reminders of the Party’s largesse and by molding them into the type of citizens the Party would like them to be. By intertwining practical services with Party theory, the planning documents show, the CCP seeks to reassert itself as a source of well-being and meaning in individual and collective life, restoring an intimacy between “the masses” and their rulers that decades of economic liberalization have worn thin.
By design, the initiative puts China’s population on both the delivering and receiving end of the centers’ long menu of practical and ideological services. Volunteers should be the “main force” animating the centers’ work, according to an “Implementation Plan” issued jointly by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department and its Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization in the fall of 2019. They should model the kind of behavior the Party deems “civilized” and help “truly open up the ‘last mile’ in terms of propagandizing to the masses, educating the masses, leading the masses, serving the masses.”
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New Era Civilization Centers first appeared in 2018, when the powerful Central Party Committee General Office launched a pilot program establishing centers in 50 counties. Towns and villages within these counties set up their own “New Era Civilization Practice” units (called “institutes” at the town level and “stations” at the village level), ensuring that residents could easily volunteer, attend events, or learn about the latest Party theories no matter where in the county they lived. In 2019, the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization—a Party institution concerned with the “ideological, moral and cultural” progress of the populace—broadened the trial to include a total of 500 counties. And in November 2021, Party propaganda chief Huang Kunming extolled the pilot program’s “substantial achievements” and called for the further construction of the centers throughout the country.
By then, such construction was already well underway. At the end of 2019, Jilin province boasted that 60 counties in the province already had centers in all of their towns and villages. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the part militia, part agricultural enterprise, and part colonial settler program that governs areas of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, had already built upwards of 2,000 centers in neighborhoods, regimental farms, and companies under its jurisdiction. And in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, the local government claimed in October there were nearly 3,000 centers in its downtown district alone—or one every half-kilometer.
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The type of civilization on offer at New Era Civilization Practice Centers, by design, takes many forms. There are fairly straightforward attempts to address national-level social problems, like what happens to young children whose parents become migrant workers. At the Hongguang Resettlement Site in Yunnan province, local centers arrange for these “left-behind children” to spend the weekend basking in the “motherly love” of volunteer caretakers at “Children’s Stations.”
There are efforts to spur social progress and cultural uplift: In Guangzhou’s Conghua district, rural cooks visit a center to learn fine Cantonese cuisine from a master chef employed by the city’s Conrad hotel. “Hopefully local farmhouses will be able to serve up not just farmhouse fare,” says the chef, Tan Guohui, in an announcement from Guangzhou’s government, “but also the dishes of a five star hotel.”
There is techno-utopianism: In Guangzhou’s New Era Civilization Practice Hall, visitors can press a button on an interactive display to learn about water pollution remediation or “experience a park-like sewage treatment facility.”
And of course, New Era Civilization also includes a hefty dose of old-school ideology. In the Binhai New Area of Tianjin, residents can take in lectures such as a “Theoretical Discussion Forum on the History of Materialism and the Historiography of Marxism.” In Beijing’s Haidian district, young Party members and volunteers offer “Micro Party Classes” via online streaming services and virtual reality technology.
Centers can also function as a way to better coordinate social control. In Guangzhou, centers integrate the surveillance protocol known as “grid management” into the government services and “Party-masses services” they provide.
If the centers’ activities can appear oddly matched, that is in part due to the sometimes incongruous impulses of China’s current political ideology. The 2018 Party policy document that inaugurated New Era Civilization Practice Centers tied the initiative to a laundry list of slogans, including “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” the General Secretary’s signature addition to China’s canon of guiding theories; the “Five-in-One” plan, which defines China’s continued development through an interrelated set of “economic, political, cultural, social and ecological systems”; the “Four Comprehensives,” another Xi-era shibboleth related to clean governance; the “new development philosophy” and the “people-centered development philosophy,” which seek to align national growth doctrines with current realities and popular expectations; “doing two jobs at once and attaching equal importance to each,” a decades-old dictum pressing for “spiritual” as well as “material” progress; and “rural revitalization.”
Undergirding the centers’ strategy is a shift away from measuring the country’s progress (or the Party’s potential for longevity) in largely economic terms toward a form of governance that encompasses both greater responsiveness to citizens’ non-material needs and greater Party control. The Party intends the centers to improve citizens’ quality of life but also improve what it deems the “quality” of the citizens themselves.
These outsized ambitions strain the tidy political slogans China’s leaders tend to favor. Tasked with summarizing the centers’ “One Goal, Four Arenas, Five Tasks, Three Attainments, and Four Capabilities,” propagandists at the Building Spiritual Civilization Commission titled their infographic “What Is 14534?” as though admitting their search for the right words had ended in defeat.
Yet, if the precise mission of practicing New Era Civilization eludes summary, that is in large part due to the number and complexity of the challenges China’s leaders find themselves facing. Though the country as a whole has seen astonishing economic growth over the last four decades, its fruits remain very unevenly distributed, even as growth is slowing and the population is aging. Add to this citizens’ growing concerns about quality-of-life issues, such as pollution, the cost of child-rearing, and housing prices, and it’s not difficult to see why Party leaders are casting about for new modes of governance.
Since 2017, the Xi Jinping administration has identified the volatile mix of socioeconomic inequality and citizens’ rising expectations as the country’s current “principal contradiction,” a term used in Party theory to label the root cause of society’s ills that the country’s leaders must cure, or face being overthrown.
“China will no longer be defined by growth,” writes the Paulson Institute’s Damien Ma, “but by how it tackles long neglected scarcities across the economic, social, and political realms—in order to meet ‘people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.’ That is the new principal contradiction in a nutshell.” The principal contradiction also underpins the ongoing “common prosperity” campaign, which seeks to address China’s yawning wealth gap in part by encouraging well-off individuals to increase their philanthropic giving. The government explicitly ties these themes to the work of the centers. The hashtag “New Era Civilization Practice” accompanied a recent official social media post about a local entrepreneur in Nanjing donating winter gloves to sanitation workers.
Still, if New Era Civilization Practice Centers exist in part to meet citizens’ growing expectations of their government, they are also deployed in efforts to shape those citizens in a manner that affords the Party more time, tolerance, and buy-in as it puts its house in order. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Party’s own formulation of the centers’ functions—“propagandize to the masses, educate the masses, lead the masses, serve the masses”—which puts the “people’s ever-growing needs” last.
The Yinliu Town New Era Civilization Practice Station in Tianjin encourages adherence to the town’s “Code of Conduct” via a point system. According to the Tianjin Building Spiritual Civilization Commission social media account, people receive or lose points for their “love for the Party and country, respect for their elders and family, righteousness and trustworthiness, pleasure in helping others, hard work, and thrift in running their household affairs.” They can spend their points at the local “Points Supermarket” shopping for laundry detergent, plastic wash basins, and air freshener.
Exactly how much the Party-state is spending nationwide on air freshener, or any other center-related expenses, is difficult to pin down. However, government procurement notices offering glimpses of such outlays suggest they are sometimes substantial. ChinaFile’s review of a cache of procurement notices from the Chinese Government Procurement Network website shows that authorities in more than 300 unique localities and institutions across the country spent upwards of 700 million renminbi (U.S.$110 million) on projects related to building, provisioning, or running New Era Civilization Practice Centers between August 2018 and September 2021. Purchases ranged from the minor (one city district in Shandong province paid 8,300 renminbi (U.S.$1,300) to air condition the rostrum of its center’s cultural auditorium) to the major (a city district in Yunnan province shelled out 9 million renminbi (U.S.$1.4 million) to renovate and decorate its entire center building). In Jilin province, the provincial government reported it had spent at least 18 million renminbi (U.S.$2.8 million) by the end of 2019 to fund its pilot sites, while the central government had kicked in an additional 20 million (U.S.$3.1 million), a figure that together is just less than the province spent on unemployment subsidies that year.
Rarely does a New Era Civilization Practice Center buy its own goods and services. Much more often, a local propaganda department is the one signing the checks. But a mix of different local Party and government offices foot the bill for the centers’ infrastructure and activities. Government procurement notices show that the Daiyue district Water Resources Bureau, in Shandong’s Tai’an city, purchased a video conference system for its district’s center. In Yunnan province, Lanping county’s Human Resources and Social Security Bureau paid for the local center to train people to cook for tourists.
Some localities invest in technology to handle the centers’ work. One district in Ya’an city, Sichuan province bought a “smart management platform” in September for its centers; just a few days later, Shanxi’s Jinzhong city paid for an upgrade of its existing cloud system. Companies’ online descriptions of such platforms include both public-facing content provision as well as task management. One Jilin firm draws on materials from schools throughout the province to offer continuing education, vocational education, and “moral quality” classes. Jiudian Lianxian, a company based in Shanxi province, touts a system that allows citizens to put in requests, center administrators to dispatch volunteers, and service recipients to offer feedback.
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If the Party is the brain of New Era Civilization Practice Centers, volunteers form the arms and legs. A 2019 Party directive for “Constructing New Era Civilization Practice Volunteer Service Mechanisms” proposed that centers enlist 13 percent of permanent county residents to participate as volunteers to focus on a mix of nationally mandated and locally relevant issues. Volunteers remain under the close watch of local Party cadres, 80 percent of whom are supposed to volunteer themselves.
Why does practicing New Era Civilization require so many volunteers—some 140 million of them, if 10 percent of citizens participate? “Volunteer service with Chinese characteristics,” explained The People’s Daily, should “share the government’s worries and solve problems for the masses, so that every family can feel the warmth of the Party and the government.” But beyond sorting trash, planting flowers, or ensuring elderly residents can access the Internet, the centers’ volunteers, like generations of proselytizers before them, promote Party piety and the “civilized behavior” adherents should display.
The regime stands to benefit if it succeeds in integrating volunteers and volunteer organizations into its local service provision system, writes Ming Hu, an expert in social work and social policy at Nanjing University, in his review of state-supervised volunteerism from the 1980s to 2017. “[V]olunteer services that are provided for free and often in effective and innovative manners” can also “absorb citizens’ interest [in] public participation . . . both of which will contribute to social stability and state legitimacy.” This remains true even if state control only allows volunteers to work on issues in line with Party priorities and cuts off avenues for citizens to engage in “expression-related volunteering areas such as policy advocacy and public education.”
And yet, the top-down nature of the campaign, with its volunteer quotas, also suggests its limits. The question, says Dimitar Gueorguiev, a political scientist at the University of Syracuse, is, “‘Who are the unlucky 13 percent? And who gets to weasel their way out of this?’”
In many ways, New Era Civilization Practice Centers feel anything but new. They continue a decades-long effort to minister to the spiritual health of the masses. After the tumultuous Mao era, and with the onset of the equally seismic “reform and opening” of the 1980s, the leadership began to fear for the country’s “spiritual” as well as its “material” progress. The Party needed a way to inculcate a set of shared socialist values and, according to scholar Geremie Barmé, to reintroduce “the concept of civility as crucially important for the rebuilding of public life.” In 1997, the Party established the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization—the same institution that issued two policy directives about the centers.
The Party views imparting “civilization” (wenming, 文明), as critical to long-term regime stability. “Wenming is a system of self-monitoring and state monitoring,” says Carolyn Cartier, a professor of International Studies and Global Societies at the University of Technology Sydney. “It is simultaneously undefinable and aspirational.” The centers’ emphasis on wenming echoes the aims of the country’s much-discussed social credit system, which combines online and real-world surveillance in varying degrees to nudge people into more “civilized behavior,” without recourse to heavy-handed “stability maintenance” measures.
How effective are these centers? Do they indeed “occupy a central position in people’s spiritual lives”? Have they caused Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era to “take root” in the masses’ hearts? Are they even hitting their more quantifiable target of 13 percent of local residents serving as volunteers? Or, like numerous campaigns during and before the Xi Jinping era, are they merely efforts to encourage people to show outward signs of compliance while generally remaining uncommitted and unaffected?
“Maybe this is the Party-state saying, ‘We need to remind people that they are part of this process, that they are active and engaged in it,’” says Gueorguiev. “But it’s so counter to what’s worked in the past. It seems like a lot of performative signalling.”
Whether or not they can achieve their ultimate goals, the New Era Civilization Practice push looks more durable than some of its predecessors. In a sign Beijing intends centers to have the clout to carry out their commissions, the 2018 trial program designated county Party secretaries—the most politically powerful leaders at that level—to lead the centers, with county propaganda chiefs running the day-to-day affairs. Procurement notices show that some localities have built or renovated facilities to house the centers, physical infrastructure that is more of an investment than just a few posters or billboards easily pasted up and forgotten.
Previous “spiritual civilization” programs have a spotty track record. Some of them—like the National Civilized City program, which Cartier terms “a hybrid form of social control and urban governance” initiated in 2005—are still going, while others have faltered. General Secretary Hu Jintao’s “eight glories and eight shames,” a 2006 bid to promote “healthy social conduct and good moral standards,” came and went with a whimper.
Decades on, the Party remains obsessed with the state of the country’s collective soul. As the Building Spiritual Civilization Commission says on its “online classroom for volunteer service,” quoting Xi Jinping himself, “a nation without spiritual strength will struggle to stand on its own feet; a cause without its foundation in culture will struggle to sustain itself over the long term.”
The coming years will tell whether or not these centers can truly ensure the people’s “spiritual progress” satisfies an atheist Party mostly concerned with its own salvation.