China’s “Spiritual Pollution”: The Foreign Influences


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

China’s irrepressible intellectuals initiated a wave of philosophical “blooming and contending” in 1982. On a number of college campuses, vigorous debates broke out on the question of whether Western concepts such as “individual alienation” and “universal humanism” had any contemporary relevance for China. This was a time when urban Chinese seemed ready to embrace anything and everything foreign.

Image of a Chinese college campus
Debates on relevance of Western concepts were held on several college campuses. (Image: Xiaojiao Wang/Shutterstock)

Universal Humanism against Marxism

The debate on the relevance of Western concepts in modern China heated up when a liberal-leaning editor of the People’s Daily published a provocative commentary. In the essay, he defended the idea of “universal humanism” against orthodox Marxist theoreticians who dogmatically asserted the importance of class-based interests and denied the possibility of shared human interests.

Publication of this essay, and others like it, triggered a fresh firestorm of controversy within the Chinese Communist Party. Predictably, liberals rallied to defend the concept of “universal humanism”, while conservatives attacked it. After sitting on the fence for several months, watching the two sides attack each other with growing intensity, Deng Xiaoping finally intervened. 

At a Central Committee meeting in the fall of 1983, Deng vented his growing irritation with the liberal humanists and rejected the concept of universal humanism as “un-Marxist” in character.

But he did not stop there. Broadening his attack, he suggested that several other “unhealthy” ideas had become fashionable among liberal intellectuals. Much of his ire was directed at questionable cultural imports and influences that were entering China from abroad.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Open Policy

Under Deng’s “open policy”, tens of thousands of foreign tourists, students, entrepreneurs, and merchants had begun to descend on China’s coastal cities and Special Economic Zones, bringing with them many of their own “decadent” and “materialistic” cultural habits and values.

From the outset of “reform and opening up” at the end of 1978, party conservatives had argued that foreign commercial and cultural imports would seriously pollute and corrupt China’s pristine socialist values. 

However, at the time, Deng had remained adamant.

Spiritual Pollution

But now Deng seemed to be having second thoughts. Now he expressed impatience at the “money fetish” displayed by Chinese commercial artists and writers. He also turned a critical eye toward a new breed of unscrupulous Chinese merchants who, influenced by Hong Kong’s free-wheeling commercial culture, were employing extravagant advertising campaigns and misleading product claims to con credulous consumers out of their hard-earned money.

Employing a new term to describe such evil tendencies, Deng referred to them as “spiritual pollution”.

Learn more about Chinese communism.

Image of Deng Xiaoping.
Deng’s criticism of spiritual pollution was taken to heart by some conservatives. (Image: Schumacher, Karl H/Public domain)

Conservative Culture Warriors

With Deng’s blessing, the party’s conservative culture warriors now launched a full-blown attack on “spiritual pollution” in the autumn of 1983.

Initially aimed at liberal intellectuals and humanist theoreticians, the campaign soon spilled over into Chinese society and popular culture. Its targets were now expanded to include everything and anything that could be regarded decadent or immoral in bourgeois society. There was no shortage of targets to aim at.

In Mao’s day, all personal income, over and above what was needed for daily necessities, had been directed toward savings and investment. Anyone who displayed a tendency toward personal acquisitiveness or material self-indulgence invited harsh criticism for harboring bourgeois tendencies.

As a result, even moderate displays of conspicuous consumption would end up with an unfriendly visit from the local “granny police,” followed by a round of “self-criticism”. By the early 1980s, however, a new culture of personal consumption had taken root in China.

China’s New Values 

People were rejecting the rigid austerity of the Cultural Revolution era, and they were openly coveting the creature comforts and material symbols of modernity. Department stores now began to stock basic black-and-white television sets, refrigerators, and motorbikes.

Women also began to dress more colorfully, wearing makeup and jewelry. Western-style miniskirts and long boots were fashionable, as were sheer, see-through blouses. Beauty parlors offered Western-style permanent waves and were filled with customers. 

In their eagerness to throw off the repressive personal austerity of the Maoist era, urban Chinese now seemed ready to embrace anything and everything foreign. Given China’s history of catastrophic encounters with foreigners, it is hardly surprising that conservative cultural watchdogs would categorically reject the fetishism of worshipping foreign things. And with Deng’s evident blessing, they now went on something of a rampage.

Learn more about China’s special economic zones during the economic revolution.

The Pollution Police

In some cities, groups of self-styled “pollution police” began harassing people whose hair was unusually long or who wore bell-bottomed pants. In other places, factory workers were mobilized to search employees’ dormitories for pornographic books and tapes.

In one province, a local police chief ordered his gendarmes to issue citations to any man who sported whiskers or a mustache or who sang off-colored songs. In Beijing, the following notice was posted on the front gate of the headquarters of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee: “No admittance to persons with hair too long, skirts too short, slacks too tight, or face powdered and rouged”.

Cultural Vigilantism and Foreign Investors

With such cultural vigilantism on the rise throughout the country, foreign investors grew decidedly uneasy. Having been induced to invest in China by Deng’s promise of a relaxed and tolerant commercial environment, Western businessmen began complaining to their Chinese government intermediaries that the campaign against “spiritual pollution” seriously undermined their ability to do business.

When Deng Xiaoping was informed that several foreign firms were threatening to cancel their investments in China, he intervened, issuing an order to terminate the “spiritual pollution” campaign. As abruptly as anti-pollution patrols had begun a few months earlier, they now ended with equal abruptness.

For the time being, at least, the conservatives were silenced.

Common Questions about China’s “Spiritual Pollution”

Q: How did Deng respond to the new influences that plagued the Chinese nation?

Since he saw China’s socialist values in danger, Deng warned of the “spiritual pollution” that was affecting the country. This, in turn, led to campaigns against such spiritual pollution.

Q: Why were party conservatives against Deng’s “open policy”?

From the outset of “reform and opening up” at the end of 1978, party conservatives had argued that foreign commercial and cultural imports would seriously pollute and corrupt China’s pristine socialist values. 

Q: How did the campaign against “spiritual pollution” end in China?

Foreign investors became concerned with rising cultural vigilantism all over China and threatened to cancel their investments. When Deng heard about this, he ordered the termination of the campaign.

Keep Reading
The Revolutionary Mao and his Self-contradictory Dualism
China’s Relations with the US: From Nixon to Carter Regimes
The Normalization Agreement between China and the United States