Social Control in Contemporary China

Social Control in Contemporary China

Read all the articles of the month


A incident occurred in May 2013, involving a 14 year old Chinese boy named Ding Jinhao, while he and his parents were visiting the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. The little boy became famous worldwide after having written on the walls of the temple, on a decorative border, “Ding Jinhao was/visited here”. This deliberate damage to a historical and precious relic was, of course, shocking for a lot of people, the story went viral on the internet, and discussions were so fierce that Ding Jinhao’s parents had to make public excuses. Along the way, this incident restarted a recurrent debate in China on the degree of “civilisation” (wenming 文明) of Chinese tourists, and of Chinese people in general. Chinese media underlined the fact that several incidents involving non-wenming Chinese tourists were reported these last years, and that these incidents contribute to blemishing China’s reputation and image abroad. Most of the media articles converged on the necessity to make the Chinese population more wenming.

But what does “make the Chinese population more wenming” exactly mean? What does wenming mean?

In classical Chinese language, wenming meant clear-sightedness and talent. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals started to use wenming to translate the western concept of “civilisation”, right after the Japanese used the same word (pronounced bunmei) to do so. At that time, “civilisation” meant an advanced stage of human social development and organisation, but it was also a political tool to justify the colonisation by the West, to emphasize the process of civic and moral education within the colonial project and the material, social and cultural benefits supposedly brought to colonised people through European colonisation. Therefore, “civilisation” not only refers to the advanced cultural and technological life of a community, but also refers to a process that aims to conform people to moral and social practices that are culturally and socially constructed as being the most advanced. As it was a translation of the western concept of “civilisation”, the word wenming also became associated with westernisation and modernisation and was then used to refer to someone civilised, enlightened, in opposition to barbarism and in association with the Western world and modernity.

These etymological and historical approaches seem necessary and are quite useful but only allow us a limited comprehension of the word wenming, since a word is mostly defined by how it is used rather than by what root words it originates from, and an etymological approach detached from contemporary and common usage is in itself too limited. Since wenming is a term massively used in contemporary China, especially by politicians, political institutions and ideological campaigns, there is a lot to learn from how this word is used in political texts and discourses.

In the middle of the 1990s, the transition from a plan-based to a market-based economy forced the shutting down of numerous state-owned industries, which led to massive unemployment and major social issues. At the same time, the new rules of capitalist economy, the hard conditions of life in the countryside and the attraction of major Chinese cities in terms of employment forced millions of jobless peasants to migrate to large cities looking for professional perspectives and incomes. Those migrant peasant workers, who are referred to as mingong (民工), were regarded as outsiders and suffered, and are still suffering, from discrimination as some of the locals saw in them a threat to social stability. They were commonly associated with images of danger and otherness, in a typical amalgam between poverty and crime, dirt and illness. It was however these very workers (millions of urban jobless workers and mingong) who, working in tiring and terrible conditions, built the spectacular economic growth of China often described in Western countries as “the Chinese economic miracle”. It was therefore necessary and imperative for the ruling authority to accompany and frame this transition towards a capitalist economy with a substantial civilising process. In the mid-1990s, a framework of rules regarding morality and behaviour started to be extensively displayed in the form of formal “charters of civilisation” (文明公约), which mostly targeted poor, underprivileged people living in urban areas or likely to migrate there.



“Charter of Civilisation of the Citizen of the Capital”, T. Boutonnet, Beijing, 2009.
The Charter goes: “1. [The civilised citizen] passionately loves the country, passionately loves Beijing, promotes the harmony of the nation and preserves its stability. 2. [The civilised citizen] passionately loves the work, loves his/her position and respects his/her profession, is honest, loyal and shows abnegation and frugality. 3. [The civilised citizen] respects the law and the discipline, preserves the public order, devotes him/herself with courage to justice and fairness and shows righteousness and integrity. 4. [The civilised citizen] beautifies the city, cares about hygiene, promotes ecological public spaces of Beijing and protects the environment. 5. [The civilised citizen] cares about community, respects public goods, devotes himself to the public interest and protects cultural legacy. 6. [The civilised citizen] praises science, respects educators, improves him/herself without sparing his/her efforts and raises his/her quality. 7. [The civilised citizen] respects the elderly and loves children, loves the people and supports the army, respects women and helps the poor and the weak. 8. [The civilised citizen] gets rid of old habits, has a healthy life, uses birth control and keeps his/her body in perfect shape. 9. [The civilised citizen] acquires civilised manners, welcomes hosts with politeness, is noble and generous and enjoys helping people.”


The “charters of civilisation” were a series of aphorisms addressing many aspects of Chinese daily life, stipulating norms and standards regarding the morality, behaviours and political thoughts that every ordinary citizen should obeserve. As Anne-Marie Broudehoux has pointed out, “this golden list appeared everywhere in Beijing, on construction sites, near bus stops, and along major streets”, it constitutes an obvious attempt to force newcomers to the city to comply with norms of civility, and “conveys a clear picture of the ideal citizen”.[1] While some of these aphorisms promote greater respect and tolerance within a collective space (the emphasis on protecting the environment and respecting public areas and goods), others can only be described as forceful intrusions into individuals’ moral and intellectual practices (love work, love the country, raise one’s quality (素质) – another ambiguous term which is used in the negative to describe those considered not wenming enough). More than a simple definition of the good manners that a city resident should have, this charter displays all the virtues of the Chinese “new man”, it is a moral framework with which any Chinese individual is supposed to comply. Here, wenming clearly involves a process, a transformation, a normalisation, and obviously echoes what sociologist Norbert Elias defined as “process of civilisation”, a standardisation and normalisation of behaviours, habits and attitudes in a given society in order to comply with the social conventions and moral standards practiced by the upper classes and the urban elite.[2]

Through these “charters of civilisation”, we can clearly see that the word wenming, in the politics of contemporary China, serves a project of civic and moral education of Chinese citizens. The political project to civilise Chinese individuals and to transform them into ideal citizens is not, of course, something new in modern China. One can for instance think of Liang Qichao’s idea of guominxing (国民性) under the Qing, or Chiang Kai-Shek’s xinshenghuoyundong (新生活运动) during the Republic era, or the mass campaigns during the Mao era. But the rhetorical framework of this civilising project were strongly reinforced during the late 1970s by the contribution of Deng Xiaoping.

In 1978 when Deng Xiaoping decided to put China on track towards the market economy and to this end planned to implement and initiate a policy of “reforms and openness” (改革开放), he did so by building a specific ideological framework in order to create an imaginary around the changes to come. Deng’s “two civilisations” program (两个文明), which differentiates between “material civilisation” (物质文明) and “spiritual civilisation” (精神文明), constitutes the core of his ideological framework. In this program, Deng Xiaoping drew an ideological line in his clear separation of two “civilisations” for the Chinese: “material civilisation” refers to economic growth led by market development and mass consumption, while “spiritual civilisation”, which can also be understood as the process of civilising minds, consists in a set of moral standards and practices such as hard work, abnegation, patriotism and trust in the Party, and therefore requires Chinese people to be morally beyond reproach. Right from its beginning, this “process of civilising minds” involved the purpose of accompanying the growth and development of “material civilisation”, configuring and adapting minds to the new rules and socio-economic practices deriving from capitalist economies.

Nicholas Dynon has demonstrated that while “material civilisation” meant the development of the production and of the consumption of goods in order to bring Chinese people to a stage of material modernity and economic well-being, “spiritual civilisation” was mainly about conditioning minds (and bodies).[3] It was about instilling “a ‘proper’ commitment to both the market and the state, promoting an ethos of production and consumption that is market driven yet collectively oriented”.[4] As Anne-Marie Brady has mentioned, it was and still is a “form of social control, which is backed up by the law and police system” in a society destabilised by the intrusion of new modalities of existence.[5] So the concept of wenming and the “charters of civilisation” clearly reveal that, they evoke more than good manners and politeness: wenming shapes a way of life, cornering its every aspect, from political to social appearance, including interpersonal relations, work, family, education and ethics.

Since the 1980s and the launch of the “two wenming” program, the concept of wenming has been substantially exposed and deployed in social and public spaces through all kinds of events and items related to “spiritual civilisation”. One can of course think of the 1983 campaign against spiritual pollution; or the resolution, voted by the Central Committee in 1986, to build a “socialist spiritual civilisation” (中共中央关于社会主义精神文明建设指导方针的决议); or the creation in 1997 within the Central Committee of a Commission in charge of the building of a spiritual civilisation (中央精神文明建设指导委员会), whose task is to rule and coordinate all the Civilisation offices (文明委办公室) in place in every major city and district in China and in charge of civilising the minds of Chinese people, A official website has even been launched for this purpose (中国精神文明网, by the government.

During the 2000s and the 2010s, several other events and campaigns took place in China to promote “civilised” Chinese citizens. Among them, Hu Jintao’s “Eight Honours and Eight Shames” (八荣八耻) campaign is to be noticed. Made of eight orders or directives, this code of behaviour was supposed to express and clarify the “socialist concept of honour and disgrace” (社会主义荣辱观). Each directive exposed a human or moral behaviour, differentiated bad from good, shame from glory and explained what kind of virtue should be a privilege to embrace and a shame not to respect. This moral code explained, for instance, that loving your country was an honour and harming your country was a disgrace, or that respecting law and discipline was an honour and violating them a disgrace. It also explained that luxury and laziness were disgraces, work and hard struggle honours. Although its original purpose was to promote the moralization of Chinese political life, this moral code of behaviour was very quickly exhibited everywhere in China and actually addressed the whole Chinese population: it was a large and massive moral education campaign, whose objective was to “raise people’s quality” (提高人民的素质) and to convince lower classes of the importance of a simple life.

Wenming became ubiquitous in Chinese political propaganda in the 2000s and the 2010s. Wenming was at the core of an assessment launched in 2003, the “National Civilised cities” (全国文明城市) program, which regularly distributed awards to model cities for their excellency in terms of governance, infrastructures and social control. Numerous criteria are needed to apply to become a ‘Civilised City’, such as education of party officials, government transparency, public security, providing cultural facilities, environmental quality, protecting labour rights, but also the maintenance of social stability (维护社会稳定), civic education (市民教育) and the moral and ideological education of children under 18 (未成年人思想道德教育). Wenming was also to be found in the promotion campaign for the 2008 Olympic games (迎奥运 讲文明 树新风), during which Beijing was cleared of all the city’s poorer populations or, more recently, in CCP’s propaganda to promote core socialist values (社会主义核心价值观).