Tea Leaf Nation

In Xi’s China, Everything Old Is New Again

Eighty years after the end of the Long March, a Communist leader asks for another one. What is he really seeking?

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 6:  China's President Xi Jinping looks on during a signing ceremony with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Great Hall of the People on May 6, 2013 in Beijing, China. Abbas is visiting China from May 5 to 7. (Photo by Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 6: China's President Xi Jinping looks on during a signing ceremony with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Great Hall of the People on May 6, 2013 in Beijing, China. Abbas is visiting China from May 5 to 7. (Photo by Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images)

In late October, wearing a dark suit and a maroon tie, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood before an audience of thousands of veterans, soldiers, and officials inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The most powerful man in China issued a declaration that might seem more at home in a history textbook: China’s future turns on bringing the sacred memory of the Long March, a foundational event in Communist Chinese history, into the 21st Century. Xi was not yet alive when the trek took place, but his rhetoric sought to make it his own — and to double down on an implicit promise to citizens offering prosperity in the future in exchange for complete loyalty right now.

The gathering in Beijing had been called to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the great trek across China, which began in 1934 in the country’s southeast at a perilous moment in Chinese Communist Party history — when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists seemed on the brink of annihilating rebel red army forces — and ended two years later with the establishment of new guerilla bases in the country’s north. Every Party leader since the triumph of the revolution in 1949, beginning with Communist strongman Mao Zedong himself, has treated the event with veneration. Like the American Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge, the Long March is a seminal foundation myth — an epochal struggle against long odds, in which someone who would become the first leader of a new country played a central, sometimes seemingly superhuman role. It was no surprise, then, to find that Xi, whose father participated in the event’s final stage, continued this tradition, extolling the Long March as a “stately monument” and calling on those assembled to join him in embarking on a “new Long March” to realize the complete “national rejuvenation” that he has made his signal goal.

In China, it seems, everything old is new again. Xi’s Long March speech extends the leadership’s pattern of rhetorical moves to reclaim and repurpose elements of the Party’s past, and tie the current leader to Mao, Xi’s best-known precursor. State-of-the-art fast trains take travelers not just to skyscraper-filled and smog-shrouded business districts, but also to sites associated with the lives of both Confucius and Mao that have become peculiar historical theme parks, a mixture of Epcot Center and Colonial Williamsburg. (Some of these locales have received Xi himself.) It is a country where Xi calls for a “New Silk Road” to connect Beijing to other Eurasian capitals; extends the existing global network of government-affiliated Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture around the world; and seeks to elevate what previously would have been modestly marked commemorative moments, like 2014’s 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that triggered the start of the Sino-Japanese War, to major state events. It was only a matter of time before the Long March would come in for a reboot.

Xi’s vision of a new Long March centers on the heroism, military strength, ideological unity, loyalty to the leadership, and determination associated with the original journey, but applied to a set of problems that would have been unimaginable to Communist soldiers in the 1930s. These include slowing economic growth, official corruption, environmental degradation, and a major demographic transition whittling down the ranks of the work force. Xi promises to overcome these challenges in a way that also leaves his countrymen more prosperous and powerful than ever before. Small wonder that Xi made clear China urgently needs another “human miracle” on the order of the Long March.

The Long March is ideally suited to what has become a favorite strategic move of Xi’s: setting big goals for national rejuvenation, then increasing his own authority in order to achieve them. Xi has set sweeping objectives for economic reforms, then in December 2013 established the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, which he chairs, as a way of implementing them. He has identified a need to reorganize the military and reshape its relationship to the Party, then in March 2014 inaugurated the Central Leading Group for Military Reform, which he also leads.

By announcing a new Long March, Xi is also staking his claim to the heroic tradition in the Party’s history. Shortly after his speech, a closely watched four-day meeting of the Party’s Central Committee culminated in a statement elevating Xi to “core” leader, a term some had thought retired in the Hu Jintao era, which reflected a more collective leadership style. Now, Xi joins Mao, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin as Chinese leaders who’ve born the designation. It’s no coincidence Xi’s new status and his Long March goals were announced in swift succession. Both are initiatives of the central leadership emphasizing the dramatic challenges facing China, including entrenched domestic interests — and thus, the need for total loyalty to the Party, and to Xi.

This is not the first time that China has heard the idea of a new Long March from a “core” leader. Deng, the most important post-Mao leader until Xi, used the same phrase in a strikingly different context nearly 30 years ago. In the 1980s, Deng pushed forward with reform and opening in the face of staunch opposition from conservatives, not to mention the myriad risks and difficulties that arose in transforming a poverty-stricken planned economy into a modern, market-driven powerhouse. To help sell this risky, bold program, Deng, who had participated in the actual Long March a half-century earlier, had to tap into the Party’s lore and repurpose it to emphasize that promoting “economic development” and “opening up domestically and internationally” was another epic struggle deserving of heroic effort. With a characteristic flourish, he called it “our new Long March towards modernization.”

To some extent, this re-appropriation happens everywhere — it isn’t vastly different from uses of the “Tea Party” in U.S. politics in recent years. The focus of such reinterpretation isn’t on factual accuracy; it’s on how the spirit of a historical episode can be deployed to meet current needs and explain or legitimate a direction for the future.

For their part, China’s rulers continually reinterpret the narrative of the Party’s rule to present different visions of China’s future. But Xi’s re-appropriation of the phrase is intended to serve objectives more inward-looking and suspicious of the outside world than was Deng’s: tremendous pushback against “hostile foreign forces” allegedly wreaking havoc in the economy, the media, academia, and beyond, as well as an intense focus on domestic political challenges like Party corruption.

Repurposing of the past can be particularly risky in an authoritarian society like China. It means that alternative interpretations become heretical, or what the Party calls “historical nihilism,” defined as an interpretation of the past that “undermines” the legitimacy of “New China.” For example, middle-aged Chinese listening to Xi’s use of the phrase “new Long March” may hear an echo the leadership didn’t intend. One of the biggest albums in China’s history is the rock star Cui Jian’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March. Cui was a voice of the students who protested in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, the same year that he released the album. Cui performed a song from the album, “Nothing to My Name,” for protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing two weeks before troops massacred protesters near the square, and elsewhere. As recently as 2014, shortly after Xi came to power, state-run Chinese Central Television refused to give Cui permission to perform that same song.

These overlapping, sometimes dissonant echoes of the past resound through Chinese politics today. Historical episodes that don’t get revisited become themselves telling, providing a sort of photo negative of Xi’s vision, one predicated on centralized power and absolute unity. Recent years have brought anniversaries that some in China wish to see acknowledged, but which the Party lets pass unmarked. In 2014, efforts to prevent acknowledgement of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre appeared more intense than ever to many analysts, with journalist Louisa Lim telling the Los Angeles Times that for the first time, even closed-door commemorations were banned. In 2015, Xi declined to mark the 10-year anniversary of the death of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist leader who developed the major economic reforms of the 1980s but was purged during the Tiananmen crackdown for sympathizing with protestors.

As Xi launches his new Long March, it is worth remembering what the original trek actually was: a retreat to safety in isolation, a gambit to break out of the grip of an encircling enemy, and the beginning of a turn inward to restore Party unity under a new strongman ruler. This history, too, recalls Xi’s rule today, with its turn away from the openness and interconnection with the outside world that has powered China’s record-breaking growth, all amid cries of “encirclement” by the United States and other “hostile foreign forces.” In this sense, Xi’s new Long March may be a more apt use of the metaphor than Deng’s (characteristically inventive) repurposing.

Even if contrasts obtain between Xi’s vision of the Long March, Deng’s variant, and the actual event, the overarching project of both men remains the same: to find in the history of the Communist Party stories that help legitimate its continuing rule of a society that has gone far from the path Mao envisioned. Yet if Xi’s new Long March is fundamentally a march inward, it will pose a great risk to China’s long-term success. For China truly to thrive, a path must be found for it to reconnect with the spirit of openness — to new ideas, both domestic and foreign, and to partners from around the world — that has periodically flourished in the land, as it did in the years leading up 1989 and other moments since. This opening up to the world after decades of insecurity and isolation was also a “human miracle.” It is time that Xi recognize it as such.

Jason Lee/Getty Images

Julian Gewirtz is an academy scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Californian, teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.