I have come to think of “theories” in Chinese political culture to function like guidelines to acceptable behavior. The difficulty for folks in Shenzhen arise from contradictions between extant theories and changing social condititions, or what might be called “double bind theory”; General Secretary Xi Jinping has tightened the space of critical thinking and debate, even as his government, especially Premier Li Keqiang is exhorting people to be creative. But there’s the rub; people need to take critical stances in order to create new solutions to entrenched problems and critical stances have been routinely discouraged throughout the Reform and Opening era, begging the question: can Shenzhen evolve from “suck it up theory” to creativity?
In the first years of reform, Chen Yun used “feel theory (摸论) to remind the country to be careful as they began to restructure Chinese communism as we knew it and Deng Xiaoping recycled “cat theory (猫论)” to urge the country to focus on the results of economic action, rather than the political implications of those actions.
Announced during the 1992 Southern Tour, Deng Xiaoping’s “don’t debate theory (不争论)” was even more explicitly a call for political stability as a means to grow the economy. In his selected essays, Deng wrote:
I invented don’t debate theory. Not debating secures more time for action. As soon as there is debate, time is used up debating, and nothing else is achieved. Don’t debate, bravely path break. Rural reform is like this, urban reform should also be like this. (不搞争论，是我的一个发明。不争论，是为了争取时间干。一争论就复杂了，把时间都争掉了，什么也干不成。不争论，大胆地试，大胆地闯。农村改革是如此，城市改革也应如此《邓小平文选》第三卷第374页).
Clearly, unhappy youth were to get on with economic actions and stop arguing over why the fat cats seemed to be in cahoots with corrupt rats.
Don’t debate theory reasserted itself in late 2008, when Hu Jintao promoted “don’t waste time theory (不折腾论)” in a speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, when Deng Xiaoping repudiated Maoism and established the hegemony of Reform and Opening. An opinion piece written for the China Youth (中国青年报) explained what “don’t waste time theory” meant:
折腾 is a northern colloquialism that refers to making mountains out of molehills, creating controversy where there was none…What is “don’t 折腾”? Based on the experience of our Party, the most basic meaning is don’t engage in class struggle, don’t conduct any more mass movements. This is because in our country’s current stage of early socialism, class struggle is no longer the primary social contradiction, and under the people’s democratic dictatorship, all contradictions can be resolved through legal means, so there is no longer a need for mass movements. To do anything else would interfere with implementing the Party’s basic line, and prevent the establishment of socialist modernization.
Given the Party leadership’s penchant for elevating colloquialisms to polical theory, in English, don’t waste time theory could also be translated as “don’t rock the boat theory” or “suck it up theory”. On the face of it, these theories might have been useful when keeping assembly line workers on task. Nevertheless, these theories grow ever worrisome because China in general, and Shenzhen specifically are trying to cultivate a creative economy.
In Shenzhen, the limits to creativity are not as much caused by the Great Firewall (because not many people anywhere actually explore Internet worlds beyond their hometown nets), but rather caused by the ongoing policing of “orientation (导向)” in Chinese language media, scholarship, and popular culture. In fact, there are two general orientations that cannot be questioned or debated–the four foundational principles and national security. The four foundational principles (四项基本原则) are: maintaining the path of socialist development, maintaining the democratic dictatorship of the people, maintaining the leadership of the Party, and maintaining Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Thought.
In practice, creativity requires acess to as much information–especially contradictory information–as possible. The problem with policing “orientation” is that it makes it difficult to establish a genuinely critical position with respect to society because there interpretation of what constitutes an “orientation” error is constantly shifting. In turn, people can’t create new ways of being modern or Chinese or environmental or artistic or even humorous if they’re worried about the consequences–and there are consequences–of not maintainting correct orientation.
Thought du jour: As Shenzhen prepares for its Cultural Industry Faire in May and its Maker Faire in June, the question of creativity is being posed with respect to growing the economy. However, it may be that what we need to create a sustainable economy would be to take critical positions within and against one of the most “successful” economies on the planet and its concomitant pragmatism. I’m thinking we might call our critical pragmatism “get out of the box theory” and take seriously the idea that in Shenzhen, “innovation is encouraged and failure is tolerated (鼓励创新，宽容失败)”.