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Panopticonfucianism: The Political Use of the Concept of "Tradition" in Contemporary China

Kevin Carrico
Cornell University
Kevin Carrico
Cornell University
Open Panel

Abstract

Despite countless predictions of the collapse of the People''s Republic of China in recent decades, this authoritarian state nevertheless appears increasingly strong and secure, not only internationally but also domestically. This paper is based in the premise that such strength cannot be solely accounted for by domestic economic growth and internationally directed nationalism (often focused upon the United States, Taiwan, and Japan). Instead, based upon 3 years of ethnographic work in urban China, I argue that the purportedly inherent uniqueness of millennia of “traditional culture,” in the form of harmony, Confucianism, and "Chinese values," has been appropriated for state ideology over the past decade. This paper analyzes various official and semi-official discourses of “traditional culture” to demonstrate the political manipulations within what appears to be a natural reflection of the past. On a macro-political level, I argue that the notion of “culture” has been reified and appropriated to produce a teleological ideology naturalizing the sociopolitical status quo. On a micro-political level, this ideology of culture reinforces its limits by recruiting and investing individuals in a normative yet coherent and indeed self-fulfilling image of oneself within “five millennia of tradition.” My critique of cultural determinism and its ideological allure concludes by proposing an aleatory perspective on political culture.