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Xi Jinping Thought Is Facing a Harsh Reality Check

China's new ideological rigidity is being put to the economic and technological test.

A propaganda poster showing China's President Xi Jinping is pictured on a wall in Beijing on March 12, 2018.  (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
A propaganda poster showing China's President Xi Jinping is pictured on a wall in Beijing on March 12, 2018. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Rumors were racing everywhere I went in Beijing this July. Had a secret coup toppled the government? Was the Chinese economy on the verge of collapse? Had popular discontent, triggered by U.S. tariffs, reached the point of explosion? One deeper question lurked beneath these others: Had Xi Jinping—China’s top leader, who presents himself as all but omnipotent—overstepped his limits thanks to overconfidence in the inevitability of China’s rise?

At the center of this question are not simply the facts that fill headlines about China under Xi. The “personality cult” that Xi has built up since coming to power in 2013 is extraordinarily visible—on posters, on websites, in competitions to read the president’s work with the most sincerity—and some observers criticize it as reminiscent of the Mao era’s fervid devotion to the “Great Helmsman.” The intensified repression that Xi has overseen across China, especially in the western province of Xinjiang, which has become an unprecedented “digital police state,” has been condemned around the world.

Nor is the problem just U.S. President Donald Trump’s erratic trade actions, which have imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods and threatened other economic punishments. The core uncertainties are rooted in concern arising from Xi’s worldview about governing China—and how that worldview collides with reality.

For the leader of an opaque political system, Xi is remarkably forthright about how he sees the world and has taken actions in line with this worldview. He and his team of obedient officials constantly trumpet a set of ideas about how China should be governed and how China fits into a changing world. To borrow a phrase from Mao Zedong, Xi believes that politics should be in command. Xi envisions China becoming a self-reliant superpower with the Chinese Communist Party firmly in control over all aspects of life. He intends to lead China to become the world’s largest economy with a mixed socialist market system, a global leader in technological innovation with a modernized military, and the major force in Asia and beyond. He sees this as restoring its historic stature, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that only the CCP can produce.

These sprawling ambitions are carefully arranged into an ideological architecture—one that has been honed to a startling degree at a time when so many other world leaders appear erratic and unfocused. This ideology was recently written into the Chinese Constitution. It’s called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” or Xi Jinping thought for short.

This ideology is both backward-looking and forward-looking. It draws most directly on traditional Chinese culture and Marxist dialectical materialism, presenting Xi as the heroic avatar who can unite and carry forward those lineages. It seeks to adapt them to the 21st century—becoming what the Chinese scholar Jiang Shigong calls a “guide to action” and the basis of a newfound “cultural self-confidence and political maturity.”

Xi has been explicit that policy work (whether economic policy, foreign policy, or beyond) is meaningful only if it is built on this ideological foundation. His ideology aims to strengthen his individual mandate, identify the party with a set of principles, guide the development of policy, and foster values and beliefs in party members and the Chinese people. In other words, it aims to affect reality.

There are two big questions here. One is whether Xi Jinping thought will actually be able to strengthen the party and Xi himself or will have little to no effect. The other is whether strengthening the party and Xi will, in turn, facilitate or undermine the real-world success of the numerous policy goals that are part of China’s “great rejuvenation.”

These challenges are playing out in technological innovation, one of Xi’s central objectives. Innovation is bound up in both the Marxist and cultural lineages that Xi invokes. Xi has called technological innovation “the primary driving force behind development,” a materialist assessment that echoes Marx’s views about productive technology. Technology itself is, for Xi, an “advanced productive force,” and innovation means the material capacity to stand, self-reliant, at “the frontiers of science and technology.” But technological innovation is also proudly invoked as a central quality of traditional Chinese culture. Xi often praises ancient China’s “four great inventions”—paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder—when he speaks about his country’s greatness.

But this means that Xi’s ideology isn’t just an abstraction—it’s supposed to manifest itself in real technological innovation. If China doesn’t manage to become a world leader in innovation, Xi Jinping thought hits a wall. And within this worldview, that means the entire project of rejuvenation might collapse. The tenets of “Mao Zedong thought” were discarded in a prior era because they didn’t deliver on their promises, and the same fate could befall Xi Jinping thought. So, Xi’s China must innovate.

Of course, innovation arises not just from the top-down provision of resources but from individual creativity and society’s bottom-up ferment. In the real world, there are plenty of reasons to innovate—from curiosity and obsession to the pursuit of fame and fortune—that exist in China well beyond the central leadership’s control.

But Xi is aiming to change the balance. The party-state is now oriented toward managing innovators, seeing their work as adding to the ledger of rejuvenation and attesting to the validity of Xi Jinping thought. A 2017 report in China Today described the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ 100 Talents Program, which funds overseas Chinese scientists to return to China, as “an important force in the construction of a new innovative country.” In 2018, Xi was even more explicit, telling a meeting of scientists and engineers: “Party leadership is the fundamental political guarantee of advances made in the cause of scientific innovation with Chinese characteristics.” In other words, that might be: “What you do is only possible and meaningful because of what I do.”

Moreover, for Chinese researchers, an enormous amount of time must now be devoted to genuflecting before Xi Jinping thought. Centers for the study of Xi Jinping thought are opening on campuses across the country, and research on Xi Jinping thought was the No. 1 “hot research topic” of 2017, according to one official report.

More seriously, increasing ideological strictures on Chinese academia and a new emphasis on “political and ideological performance” mean that international collaboration and cooperation face new impediments, in what is a clear tightening after several decades of significant, if limited, space for independent inquiry. (Of course, new barriers to cooperation also exist on the U.S. side, including in the form of more restrictive visa policies on Chinese scholars.) And a CCP campaign has just been launched to increase “patriotism” and “political consciousness” among intellectuals, suggesting that these trends will intensify further.

Whether Xi’s approach will foster actual breakthroughs or distort the processes of innovation is a powerful test of what happens when Xi Jinping thought hits the real world.

Then there’s the all-important realm of economics. Xi’s expressed confidence in the economy is immense, despite serious problems, including debt burdens, demographic challenges, and trade conflict with the United States. Xi Jinping thought even suggests that China’s economic model is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization” and “offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” (Never mind that economists from countries as far afield as Hungary, Singapore, Brazil, West Germany, and the United States helped China figure out its economic policies.)

But reality is confronting Xi’s visions for the economy, too: There are numerous troubling indicators of a domestic slowdown, and there’s a trade war underway with the world’s largest economy. A significant number of observers believe that the economy is far weaker than party officials claim. Reality can quickly deflate ideological confidence if it begins to falter.

The centrality of economics to Xi’s vision has caused intense politicizing of economic debate, producing severe constraints on dissenting opinions there, as in other areas of Chinese society. The risks to the economy of this approach are too infrequently discussed. Ideology cannot solve economic problems by itself—that requires engaging with complicated and often conflicting data and analysis, and debating policy options.

In July, for example, members of the independent Unirule Institute of Economics were locked in their offices and told that they were being evicted. When I interviewed Mao Yushi, the outspoken founder of Unirule, in 2016, he told me, “The new leader [Xi] has given up Deng Xiaoping’s road and tried to take his own road.” This road evidently does not have room for economists advocating liberal ideas. By contrast, economists who have praised Xi’s favored policies are finding ready audiences—and others are adapting their views to the new political reality. This is doesn’t necessarily mean they’re acting in bad faith; many may genuinely support the policies that Xi advocates. But we now know what happens to economists who don’t.

Indeed, with intensifying political control, individuals and organizations that might once have provided critical feedback on policy choices, or even just participated in open discussion, face much stronger deterrents. The risks of criticizing a policy that has been chosen by Xi are enormous: Xi Jinping thought is now written into the constitution. The chilling effect on intellectual debate and risk-taking is already apparent. The economist Sheng Hong, Unirule’s director, told reporters last month, “We should be able to look at problems from a number of different angles.” But many problems “of great importance to society … aren’t being discussed within the system.” It seems almost inevitable that China’s leadership will make mistakes that more vigorous and open debate could have helped to avoid.

This, too, is part of Xi Jinping thought in the real world.

Above all, the uncomfortable question for Xi is whether his signature ideology can actually help achieve his goal of China’s “great rejuvenation.” It certainly may be able to help achieve elements of that goal—justifying pouring huge sums of money into technological innovation that will at a minimum make China more self-reliant and produce short-term economic gains, or bringing new investment to developing countries along with “Chinese wisdom” about how to modernize. But these alone do not constitute the broader achievements to which it aspires, including guiding action, serving to “inspire society,” and “ensuring that the party’s great vitality and strong ability are forever maintained.”

Xi Jinping thought raises expectations to the loftiest levels. It’s trying to be, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. One advantage of this approach is that it may be able to motivate and unite the party behind Xi—aided, of course, by repression and discipline. But it is extremely uncertain whether it will be able to inspire more broadly.

What’s at stake here is far more than the vagaries of elite politics or the niceties of ideological debate. China has a population of 1.4 billion people, all of whom have their own memories, communities, and dreams for what the future may hold. Far beyond the inventors or economists who make up China’s intellectual elite, Xi’s ideology is designed to shape ordinary people’s lives, too. The CCP makes claims about not only their public behavior but also their values, opportunities, and private imaginations. But will they believe in these ideas? Will they tolerate another decade of “politics in command”? The future of this ideology in China may depend most of all on how it will be received by a vast and diverse society.

This will depend on many factors. Successes may help legitimate the ideology and the leader who is claimed to be the source of those successes. But greater prosperity for the Chinese people will also raise the prospect, long predicted but not yet materialized, that a wealthier Chinese populace will demand broader political participation in ways that could challenge the CCP’s monopoly on political power.

Xi’s ideological hyping of China’s power may be creating an alarmed reaction from other countries, which will produce new problems for China—and may also create damaging pushback against this shift away from Deng Xiaoping’s cautionary assertion that China should “keep a low profile.” And if, instead of grand domestic economic successes there are significant setbacks for China and its people—even temporary ones—then Xi, his ideology, and his party will likely receive significant blame, even as they try to place blame elsewhere. The potential dynamic of Xi’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” may instead become harsh feelings of unmet expectations.

For now, it’s clear that observers trying to understand China today and tomorrow must be careful not simply to accept Xi’s ideas and utterances at face value. We must try to understand how they interact with the real world. And we must see that for China’s leaders, seeking daily to impose party ideology on unruly events, reality itself is a great source of pressure.

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.