On the morning of August 6, residents in London’s hip East End woke to find that the wall along Brick Lane, generally a riotously colorful canvas for local street artists, had been completely whitewashed. It was now adorned with Chinese characters in bold red paint spelling out the 12 “core socialist values” that have become central to the public community propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The slogans stretched for nearly 100 meters, completely covering up the murals and graffiti that had long made the wall an open-air gallery.
The work was the doing of a group of Chinese students from the Royal College of Art. One, Wang Hanzheng (王漢錚), who works under the pseudonym Yi Que (一鵲), shared images of their handiwork on the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu (小紅書), similar to Instagram. Despite its appearance as a mere reproduction of party-state propaganda, Wang wrote that the piece “used the framework of socialism to counter the false freedom of the colonial West.”
The work, Wang insisted, was “just a facade without political implications to speak of.” But it nonetheless sparked intense debate online and on the wall itself, which was soon covered with new graffiti and posters. In the contentious spirit of much urban art, these undercut the slogans, criticizing the CCP, and voicing support for causes such as the Hong Kong democracy movement, the independence of Taiwan and Tibet, and the plight of China’s Uyghur population. Seeing how the wall had become a battlefield, the local council in the Tower Hamlets borough moved to completely whitewash it yet again.
Some Chinese commentators have pointed to the “core socialist values” graffiti in Brick Lane as just another embodiment of freedom of speech in the West. Others have expressed pride in “core socialist values” as a kind of “cultural export.” But how should we understand the controversy that played out in Brick Lane, and what does it tell us about the vastly different understandings of these values that some have insisted are shared by China and the West?
Writing on Weibo shortly after the controversy broke, Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, contended that Westerners were just over-sensitive. “In theory, the twelve words encapsulating the core socialist values could also hold weight in the Western world,” he wrote. “Terms like democracy, freedom, rule of law, patriotism, and more are universally recognized and familiar, transcending mere politics to represent shared human values.”
Much of the debate circled around a single question: were the red-on-white characters a work of art, or an act of “red invasion?” Many Western commentators saw them as a channel for indoctrination, while Chinese nationalists argued that the “values” were universally embraced and devoid of ulterior political motives.
A deeper examination of how the “values” have been conceived and used, however, reveals how different the Party’s understanding of these words truly is from how they are understood in the West.
President Hu Jintao first unveiled the “core socialist values” (社會主義核心價值觀) in 2012 at the CCP’s 18th National Congress. China’s leadership hoped they could be the antidote to a perceived moral crisis sweeping the nation amid its breakneck economic growth.
Two years later, the Ministry of Education issued a document requesting all educational institutions to promote the values. Soon thereafter, local governments, media organizations, and artists were all required to join the campaign to promote the core values. In a speech to Politburo members, Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, declared: “We should make use of opportunities and occasions to form lifestyle conditions and a social atmosphere conducive to the cultivation and promotion of the core socialist values, so that the influence of core values will be as pervasive and omnipresent as the air itself.”
That last line is hardly an exaggeration. Walls adorned with the “core socialist values” are a common sight throughout the country. The graffiti in Brick Lane bore such a striking resemblance to the official, state-sponsored versions so ubiquitous in China that some wondered whether it wasn’t a form of “high-level black” (高級黑) parody — referring in China’s political culture to the use of exaggerated praise on the surface in what is actually an act of criticism.
Some of the “core socialist values” like democracy and freedom are redolent of Enlightenment ideals extolled by the West. But Chinese media have drawn clear lines between the two by framing these values within a distinctly socialist context.
One of the most revealing illustrations of the difference in meaning and understanding in the case of “core socialist values” is the regimented order in which they must always appear.
When I was in elementary school, our ideology and politics teacher would gather us on campus to recite the “core socialist values.” Every word had to be precise. Even the order could not be altered. This was because the sequence followed a strict hierarchy: the values applied first to the nation, then to society, and only finally, to the citizens. If you failed to march systematically from the abstract down to the concrete in this way, it meant your understanding had fallen short.
The words in bright red against the blazing white wall of Brick Lane were also attentively displayed in this order:
Beyond this implicit hierarchy of values, the individual words themselves are also prescribed a correct understanding that is not open to interpretation. According to the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP, values such as “freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law” have “fundamental disparities in understandings […] between different social systems.”
“There has never been any such thing as so-called universal values,” it concludes.
China’s specialized understanding of these terms comes through clearly in its own dogma about them. A piece in the Communist Party’s official outlet CPCNews.cn, titled “Western ‘Universal Values’ Must Never Be Allowed to Dilute Core Socialist Values,” argues that “universal values” played a pivotal role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the dramatic political changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe. As such, embracing them could spell doom for China’s socialist project.
Studies on Core Socialist Values, an academic journal from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, also demarcates the lines between core socialist values and Western/universal values. By characterizing Western values as empty, abstract, and expansionist, Chinese academics try to underscore the colonial undertones of Western universal values. In contrast, they portray “core socialist values” as grounded in context, centered around people, and ultimately serving the unique characteristics of Chinese governance.
In essence, as described by CCP officials and Chinese state media, these values are bundled within the framework of socialist development, rendering them applicable solely within the context of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Chinese mainstream media — “mainstream” referring in CCP discourse concretely to those that follow and promote the Party line as consensus — have chosen to stay silent on the graffiti controversy, and that some commentators have even retracted earlier remarks that sought to portray China’s “core socialist values” as universally embraced. Just as applying “universal values” to China threatens to blur the line between universal and ostensibly socialist values, so too does applying “core socialist values” to the West threaten to whitewash its dearest freedoms.
In the rhetorical universe of CCP propaganda, maintaining the cordon sanitaire between the two is more important than establishing the superiority of either.
This article has been published anonymously at the request of the author, who was wary of possible consequences in China, and upon careful consideration by the editors.