Xi'an challenge counters the Shanghai syndrome

Tourists admiring the view of the financial district from Shanghai's Bund last month. The Shanghai syndrome was the product of intense relations with the West, while the Xi'an syndrome drew from the belief that China can become modern by choosing fro
Tourists admiring the view of the financial district from Shanghai's Bund last month. The Shanghai syndrome was the product of intense relations with the West, while the Xi'an syndrome drew from the belief that China can become modern by choosing from the outside only the skills China needs. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

THE calls of President Xi Jinping and the new leaders of China to take firm steps to reform the country's political and economic systems have been loud but not too clear. There is much evidence of divisions of views among policy advisers, scholars and media commentators.

The divisions derive from two obvious differences in Chinese society. On the one hand, there are the rapidly growing cities, all looking remarkably alike in the way they emulate the towers and highways of Shanghai.

On the other, there are the villages and small towns of rural China from which so many of the young are leaving to seek work in the cities.

At another level, there are cultural divisions between those who seek to be as modern as the developed West and those who still value local traditions and try to respect them as much as possible.

The urban-rural divide is part of a universal phenomenon and is remarkable in China because of the huge numbers of people involved. Premier Li Keqiang's plan to bring more people into cities and raise standards of living through urbanisation at a faster rate is proceeding. It is one way to reduce the significance of the divide.

The cultural gulf, however, is much deeper and harder to overcome. It manifests itself most in the strength of local cultures (xiangtu wenhua) as a form of resistance to the lifestyles that the new urban middle classes are pursuing.

Some years ago, after visiting Shaanxi province in western China, I was struck by the gap between what I saw there and what I was more familiar with in the provinces along the eastern coast. I called what I saw the "Xi'an syndrome" and contrasted it to the "Shanghai syndrome".

Although the city of Xi'an was trying hard to look like Shanghai, the underlying cultural adherence to traditional values was much stronger. I was persuaded, however, that it was only a matter of time before the western Chinese would change in imitation of their compatriots in the east.

My recent visit to Henan in central China and Sichuan and Chongqing farther west has made me pause. I found the Xi'an syndrome very much alive even where the authorities were constructing Shanghai-like cities.

The Shanghai syndrome was the product of intense relations with the West. Leaders who thought that being modern meant borrowing ideas and institutions from the West and making them look Chinese have shaped it over 150 years.

The Xi'an syndrome, on the other hand, drew from the belief that China can become modern by choosing from the outside only those progressive skills and technologies that China needs.

To put it simply, the former is prepared to Westernise to get ahead, while the second dwells on the urge to Sinicise whatever has been learnt.

The two impulses have led different groups of people to be at war with each other since the 1920s, not least in the political arena. It played a key part in the struggles between the KMT nationalists of the coastal provinces and the peasant supporters of the communist revolutionaries. By all accounts, the latter who drew strength from central and north- western China won the war.

However, since the economic reforms after 1978, the Shanghai syndrome has been given a new lease of life and its success has given fresh hopes to new generations of Chinese. The achievements are so impressive that it is expected that, sooner or later, victory will be complete and all of China will be "Shanghaied".

My visits since the change of leadership in Beijing earlier this year suggest that the Xi'an syndrome is fighting back. I am not referring to the efforts to popularise the Confucian classics. That is still superficial and unlikely to fill the moral vacuum that is troubling many people.

The Xi'an syndrome comes from China's inclusive traditions that have been strengthened over millennia, traditions that steadily absorbed whatever was alien and new as they spread out from north China.

There were fears that they would be destroyed by the impact of the maritime West. But they were strong enough to push back for half a century, culminating in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The leaders involved then realised that this had gone too far, and the reforms of the past 35 years have produced significant corrections. Many now see the Shanghai syndrome as needing a revision.

It is tempting to depict all this as a struggle for the soul of China or merely a partisan attempt to save the Communist Party.

What underlies it all resembles more the normal policy divisions within a country. The protagonists represent different interest groups and competing visions of the future. The central leadership, to keep the country united, seeks to provide an overarching blueprint that would get maximum support.

In short, those who wish for the prevailing Shanghai syndrome to remain ascendant would want to be sure that the Xi'an syndrome adherents would not fight to the death in opposition.

This is where Mr Xi's background in north-western China and his years working in the coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai are important.

Similarly of interest is that fact that Mr Li grew up in Anhui and moved from Beijing to Henan and then Liaoning.

These experiences would have prepared them to see that neither syndrome can stand for China.

The 25 members of the Politburo represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. We should not expect them to seek to be more Xi'an or Shanghai, but to act like coalitions of interests that hold the balance. Unless they agree that the current situation is critical for the country, they would be predisposed to be watchful and not make dramatic moves in any direction.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is chairman of the East Asian Institute and university professor at the National University of Singapore.