I Mastered Xi Jinping Thought, and I Have the Certificate to Prove It

Study of the leader’s half-baked ideas is increasingly compulsory in China.

(Courtesy of Kevin Joseph Carrico/Foreign Policy illustration)
(Courtesy of Kevin Joseph Carrico/Foreign Policy illustration)

Classes in Marxism have long been compulsory in Chinese universities, normally welcomed by tired students as an excellent chance to catch up on their rest. But now students and workers alike are suffering a new imposition: the need to study Xi Jinping Thought. The ideas of Xi, China’s most personally powerful leader since Mao Zedong, are increasingly mandatory and have even been enshrined in the country’s ever-changing constitution.

From the outside, Xi Jinping Thought might seem like authoritarian banality mixed with a growing personality cult. That’s why I was so excited to learn this August of a new course offering on the edX website, a U.S.-based learning platform: Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era—the official full name of Xi Jinping Thought. The instructor was none other than the Tsinghua University professor Hu Angang, known for his close links to senior government leaders and his claims that China has already overtaken the United States as the primary global superpower. Who could be better to explain the intricacies of the new era? I determined that I was not only going to take the course—I was going to ace it.

The course’s promotional materials promised that learners would obtain “[s]ystematic and full knowledge of the [Chinese Communist Party]’s people-centered core concept,” as well as a “deeper understanding of the socialist road with Chinese characteristics.” Admittedly, I might not have been the student they had in mind. I’ve spent the past two decades studying Chinese political culture. And at the moment, I am unable to visit mainland China due to my work on self-immolation in Tibet, as well as other writings criticizing Xi’s dictatorial tendencies and comparing him to a knockoff Vladimir Putin. This would be a welcome chance to rectify my thought.

I am well-versed in the bloviations of Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, both of which I studied in graduate courses in Nanjing. I also lived in China during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras, gaining—much to the annoyance of my friends who took no interest in these matters—an understanding of their respective philosophical contributions of the “important thought of Three Represents” and the “scientific outlook on development.” My exile has thus left me feeling slightly left out of Beijing’s latest self-congratulatory ideological contortions. On top of learning the new political language in which Beijing now chooses to describe its policies, anyone who paid a $49 fee, as per edX policy, would receive a verified certificate with the instructor’s signature upon completion of the course. That sealed the deal for me.

I paid the fee, uploaded my driver’s license for identity verification by edX, buckled my seat belt, and entered the “new era.” It’s not clear how many other people did the same; on the online discussion board, there were just seven other participants.

If there were ever a university course able to be concisely summarized in a brief article, this would be it. After four hours of watching Hu’s brief, wandering, yet also repetitive video lectures, I can tell you this: Xi Jinping Thought is the greatest invention since sliced bread.

The course itself is divided into six sections, each on a supposedly distinct yet also interrelated (and generally awkwardly subtitled) form of development derived from Xi Jinping Thought: people-centered development, innovation development, green development, coordination development, opening-up development, and sharing development.

Learners begin from people-centered development, as it is, according to Hu, the core of Communist Party governance. Novice learners may be puzzled as to how Hu imagines Western societies are structured when he states, “It’s fair to say that China is a society different from the Western society. It mainly established a people’s society.” More advanced learners, however, will know that for a government to truly represent the will of the people, it needs to use the word “people” anywhere and everywhere.

So, Hu reminds us that the Chinese republic is the people’s republic, the national bank is the people’s bank, the police are the people’s police, and the army is the people’s army. But wait, there’s more. Hu proudly reports that Xi used the term “people” 203 times in his report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017—more than any other term. This is, of course, equivalent to arguing that America is “huge” simply because the current president uses the word frequently. But as if to quell any doubts, the number 203 flashes triumphantly across students’ screens.

People-centered development is the core of Communist Party practice, according to Hu, from which it has never wavered. At the same time, it is also the only solution to contradictions that have emerged in the process of development, which has always been people-centered but perhaps just not people-centered enough until Xi arrived. Searching for logic in this is missing the point; this is about ideological fealty, not argument. Hu, five decades after the Cultural Revolution, confidently declares via edX to the people of the world that Xi’s people-centered thought is a “spiritual atomic bomb,” mimicking his comrade in arms (and later condemned traitor) Lin Biao’s famous assessment of Mao Zedong Thought.

The course proceeds through its themes, never wavering in its enthusiasm for the new era: Great new innovations are happening, green development is being realized, development is better coordinated between regions, and China will continue opening and will share the fruits of its development with the world in a way different from the superpowers of the past. I have heard and read much of this before; there are some people who can still come off as intellectually sharp even when engaging in such konghua, or “empty talk.” There can be a certain art to this type of ideological showmanship. Sadly, this is not the case for Hu, whose boisterous gestures reflected the glossy confidence of Xi Jinping Thought while his blank stare embodied its substance.

Setting aside for a moment the ideological acrobatics, my glimpse into the new era suggests that its real essence is disorganization. Originally advertised in English, for a number of weeks only one out of six sections of the lectures, delivered in Mandarin, had English language subtitles. Gradually, subtitles for all videos were provided, although some translated transcripts remain incomplete, while others are nearly incomprehensible.

For example, in section three on “green development,” students are told that “in the whole picture of China’s modernity, ecological civilization becomes important from an unimportant position, turns into a priority from a trivia, and changes from aimless to ambitious.” Moments like this left me yearning for the relative clarity of Martin Heidegger.

Once all of the transcripts were provided, a final issue remained—as of Oct. 12, two weeks before the end of the class, no homework had been posted. Having paid my $49 fee, I faced the possibility of not receiving a certificate solely because the relevant authorities had not posted any assignments. After posting questions about this conundrum on the discussion board with no responses, I wrote a brief email to edX support last week explaining the situation. They reassured me that they would be in touch with the conveners and this issue would be corrected.

Within a few days, 34 multiple choice questions were posted, addressing the course’s six sections. Based on my notes and a few Google searches on topics that the quiz setter had included but that hadn’t been addressed in lectures, I was able to receive a final score of 100 across all the multiple choice quizzes. A new notification appeared on my edX sign-in page: My PDF certificate was now available.

I was now a certified master of Xi Jinping Thought.

In essence, Xi Jinping Thought is not all that different from his predecessors’. People, development, reform, ecological civilization, innovation, opening—anyone who has spent any time in Beijing in the last 40 years will consider these terms all too familiar terrain. But the unwavering emphasis on Xi Jinping Thought as fundamentally new is different, and the greatest takeaway from the class was in fact the state of political and intellectual life in China today under Xi’s leadership.

The Chinese government claims to be building “world-class universities.” It has designated 42 universities as qualified to develop to “world-class” level by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist takeover. Tsinghua University, the content provider for this particular course, is regarded as one of the leading academic institutions in China today, ranked 22nd in the World University Rankings.

But at the same time, China is clearly dedicated to enforcing an ever greater degree of ideological purity in higher education. Several universities have in recent years established institutes for research on Xi Jinping Thought. Researchers seeking funds must include slavish praise of Xi in their bids, and money flows, even in relatively free Hong Kong, to anything related to Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Even the smallest deviation from the Xi line means exclusion or persecution: Just last week, Zhao Siyun of Zhejiang University of Media and Communications received an official reprimand for a speech advocating the ideal of the “public intellectual” who comments on national affairs. Such matters, I assume, are now the sole purview of Xi himself.

There is a fundamental incompatibility between these two goals: One cannot simultaneously have world-class universities and rigid ideological servitude. Nowhere is this contradiction more glaring than in this course on Xi Jinping Thought, which gives a global community of learners an unprecedented opportunity to observe the poverty of China’s state-enforced ideology. It comes across as a cash-rich North Korea. Yet some committee decided that this particular course would be an appropriate way to introduce Tsinghua’s “world-class” education to the world. Perhaps, most likely, once the idea of offering such a course on a global platform was raised, no one at Tsinghua had the courage to raise any questions or doubts.

Nor, of course, did edX see any problem with this. Assuming that edX has quality controls, someone there also greenlighted this empty paean to a dictator who has overseen the arrest of hundreds of human rights lawyers, the destruction of civil society, and the arbitrary and indefinite detention of more than a million Muslims in internment camps.

These dangers, in the end, are the real lessons of Xi Jinping Thought—a subject in which, I remind you, I have a verified certificate.

Kevin Carrico is a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, the translator of Tibet on Fire, and the author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today.