The larger message, however, appears to be about the man behind it all: Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been busy centralizing power and cementing himself as China’s main man above all else. Xi’s political philosophies — enshrined in the constitution as “Xi Jinping Thought” in 2017 — are the driving force behind the guidelines, which noticeably omit references to other key Communist leaders, including icons Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
With Beijing battling some big obstacles — a slowing economy, a trade war with the United States, unrest in Hong Kong — the guidelines are a way for Xi to entrench his worldview and bolster his ability to dictate public and private norms.
How to be a model Chinese citizen
The guidelines offer a wide range of instructions, from describing the “cultivation of civilized and self-disciplined online behavior” to the “implementation of an environmentally friendly way of life and manufacturing” and the “full development of etiquette and courtesy,” among other directives.
Other clauses implore people to have “faith” in Xi and the Communist Party, the antithesis to religion at a time when Xi’s administration has been implementing repressive “reeducation” internment camps for Muslim Uighurs and oppressing other faiths.
Such hyper-nationalist codes of conduct are not new for China: The document released Sunday replaces a previous 2001 version and is replete with typical Communist rhetoric and propaganda. But what is new is how this version codifies Xi’s teachings as the “core” of his view of Chinese morality.
Why Xi released the new guidelines now
The new guidelines were released ahead of a major party leadership meeting in Beijing and come at a time when Xi is facing challenges both at home and abroad.
As The Washington Post previously reported, “In 2017, Xi elevated himself to the same level as Mao and Deng in the Chinese Communist pantheon … Xi wants to present himself as heir to the ‘struggle’ Mao began and discount the leaders who came between them, analysts say.”
The ongoing protests in Hong Kong — where protesters have donned cutouts of his face to circumvent bans on face masks — along with an already slowing economic growth worsened by a trade war with the United States, all pose challenges to Xi’s political vision and legitimacy.
As Carl Minzner, China scholar and a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, told Canada’s the Global and Mail that the new codes are “totally consistent with Beijing’s pivot toward nativism and political tightening over the past decade — a pivot which has steadily engulfed one field of human endeavor after another: law, media, culture and higher education. All of this raises deep questions of exactly how much further such trends might run. And that could have serious implications for a range of academic, economic and person-to-person ties binding China with the rest of the world.”
Other countries’ takes on morality laws
In China, the Communist Party and Xi are invoked as the source of legitimacy for the nation’s morality codes.
In contrast, governments in other countries use religion to justify morality laws that in turn help preserve conservative and repressive rule. In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, so-called morality police roam the streets looking for people committing infractions, such as women not wearing a compulsory head covering or genders mixing too closely in public. In 2016, Saudi Arabia amended its law, taking away the right of these forces to arrest people, though they still pass on the information to official law enforcement.
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.