Xi Jinping Is the Life and Soul of the Party
The Chinese president’s ambitions can’t be separated from the CCP’s ideology.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, much of the commentariat will naturally focus on Xi Jinping as a singularly ruthless Communist Party leader charting a hyperactive path for China to superpower status.
Within China, Xi’s ascendency has triggered the frenetic construction of the intellectual and ideological scaffolding needed to support the leader’s grandiose ambitions for both his leadership and their country.
Under Xi, such work has flourished as the party’s theorists have grappled with the key question of their era: Where does Xi Jinping start and the Chinese Communist Party end?
It is, by now, a familiar tale of Xi the disruptor, overturning Communist Party norms at home to keep himself in power and ditching China’s long-standing positioning in abroad to maintain a low profile and not challenge the United States.
But it is little appreciated how much Xi represents continuity as much as he does disruption.
The two go hand in hand. Xi is much like the prince in the classic Sicilian novel The Leopard, who says the only way to maintain his family’s power is to upend the existing power structures. “Everything needs to change,” the prince says, in the book’s most famous line, “so everything can stay the same.”
Take foreign policy. Under Xi, China has built massive new islands in the South China Sea and flexed his naval muscle by challenging any foreign ships which sail nearby. Xi also unilaterally declared a new Chinese air defense zone near Japan and South Korea.
For all the drama that came with these measures, neither initiative represented fresh policy. Xi was simply executing ambitions the party had always had in its back pocket but worried that it didn’t have the capability to press ahead with.
When Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, came to power in 2002, China had just joined the World Trade Organization, something that has proved to be an immense success but that at the time was considered risky for the Chinese economy.
As well as inheriting a smaller, more fragile economy, Hu, along with his predecessor Jiang Zemin, also took charge of a much less powerful military than the one bequeathed to Xi.
By 2012, the WTO had proved a good bet for China, with the economy exploding from $1.4 trillion in 2002 to $8.5 trillion. That economic strength was immediately translated into bigger defense spending. Between 2002 and 2012, China’s official annual military budget increased fivefold, from $22 billion to around $110 billion.
In other words, by the time he took power, Xi had the money and the military to do many of the things that the system had always wanted to do but felt it couldn’t.
Xi has certainly been decisive on foreign policy, but he has also had the wind in his. A stronger military and a weaker United States have both propelled him forward.
Likewise, in domestic politics, Xi did not conjure out of thin air the enormous executive power bestowed on the CCP leader to lock up corrupt officials. But Xi has wielded the authority that resides in the party’s anti-corruption bureau like no other leader, not only exploiting the system but also extending it to cover more public officials.
Similarly, Xi wasn’t the first CCP leader to strengthen the role of the party in private businesses, local and foreign, but he has pushed to entrench it far beyond anything that Hu or Jiang did before him.
Upon this foundation of continuity, however, Xi has built a legacy of disruption, at home and abroad.
For sure, Xi used brute force and intimidation to make party members submit to agenda and diktats. Along the way, he has collected powerful enemies, ranging from the corrupt officials and their families and cronies who once enjoyed privileged lifestyles to many members of the technocratic elite disillusioned with his authoritarian ways.
To keep his enemies at bay, and his own star ascendant, Xi has made sure to play by the rules of Chinese retail politics in at least one fashion: by packaging up his power in slogans, backed by theory.
Much like the dynasties that preceded them, CCP leaders have always kept scholars at court, empowering them to package sensitive policy changes and help guide them through the propaganda system.
These intraparty theorists mix several roles. They are establishment professors who operate like spin doctors to seed their work through China’s internet. In contemporary terms, they act as high-grade, in-house influencers.
The job of the party theorists is not to explain the basis of China’s claims to the South China Sea, for example. The details of Beijing’s claim to those territories—propped up by everything including 19th-century maps and dubious linguistics— can be pieced together by workaday party historians and then amplified through the propaganda and education systems.
But Xi has needed the theorists close at his elbow to buttress the most radical and far-reaching parts of his agenda and construct the all-encompassing political and ideological legend required for a leader of his ambitions.
Some of the Xi-era slogans are short and simple, in the manner of Western advertising, such as the “Chinese Dream,” the catchphrase embodying the party’s aim to become a global power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People Republic of China.
The often-repeated message is tailor-made to stoke national pride and support for the party: that China stood up under Mao Zedong, got rich under Deng Xiaoping, and is becoming powerful under Xi.
But that is only half of it. A more complex, and more thoroughly ideological, set of theories underpins the justification for Xi’s rule, created by these same scholars.
In the words of Document 9, a foundational intraparty communique circulated in the early months of Xi’s first term in 2013, and later leaked to a Hong Kong magazine: “We must also clearly see the ideological situation as a complicated, intense struggle.”
The document envisages a multifaceted struggle against constitutional democracy and the notion of universal values, a dismantling of civil society, and strict controls on journalism and journalists to make sure they are loyal to the party.
In a way, this is also nothing new. But Xi has taken the propagation of ideology and the cult of personality to extremes not seen since the days of Chairman Mao.
One of the best known and most influential of the scholars is Jiang Shigong, of Peking University. He has strived not just to create a continuity with the 70 years of the People’s Republic of China, but also to present the Xi era’s grand synthesis, blending Chinese socialism with traditional political philosophies, such as Confucianism.
Jiang is not shy about the need to reinforce the power of the party and the state, which has been a feature of the Xi era.
“The state superstructure includes not only the political and legal system, but also culture and ideology,” he wrote, according to a translation published by David Ownby and Timothy Cheek. “All governmental systems need the support of corresponding core values, thus becoming a political education system in which politics and culture are mutually reinforcing.”
Jiang’s overarching thesis echoes Xi’s determination that the party must retain its ideological anchors and stay perennially on the front foot in the battle against malign Western influences.
His theory draws heavily on traditional Chinese culture, which he uses to reveal the historical mandates gifted to rulers, in this case, Xi’s CCP.
Certain forms of foreign influence are just fine, however. Defending against malicious outside forces means not just protecting at all costs the CCP’s own history and leaders, from Mao Zedong onward, but also buttressing the party’s political roots in the Soviet Union as well, at least up until the death of Stalin, when Xi believes the country started to go off the rails. That’s an old line too: Maoist theorists long blamed “Khruschevite revisionists” for everything that went wrong with the Soviet Union.
“The reason that China has been able to avoid following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union,” Jiang writes, “is precisely because from the very beginning Mao Zedong severely criticised Khrushchev’s revisionist line and pushed China to thoroughly abandon the Soviet model.”
After seven years in office, Xi has stuck to his guns, pressing ahead with both his ideological fixations and his anti-corruption campaign, his chief weapon for making sure cadres heed diktats from the center.
Xi seems to have only trimmed his sails in one area: economic policy. After years for highlighting the importance of the state sector, Xi began to change his tune in mid-2018, when the economy started to slow alarmingly.
Many officials and economists used the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the introduction of market measures, known as “reform and opening” in CCP-speak, to excoriate Beijing’s economic policymaking and, by implication, Xi himself.
Xi seemed to listen. Around that time, he began inviting in the entrepreneurs, whose companies are responsible for about 70 percent of China’s GDP, for high profile meetings.
As Andrew Batson has written: “Xi does not view prosperous Chinese entrepreneurs as a threat that must be eliminated, but as a constituency to be placated.”
Xi’s response to entrepreneurial grumblings prompted some to label him as a pragmatist, one in a long line of practical Chinese leaders. But Xi is moving on all fronts, not just listening to entrepreneurs but making sure they listen to him as well.
In late September, Hangzhou announced it was dispatching officials to be permanently embedded inside 100 companies to “facilitate communication” with the local party-state apparatus. Hangzhou sits at the heart of the Chinese private sector and hosts the headquarters of global companies such as Alibaba and Geely.
The ultimate disruptor of the “Chinese Dream” in the short term is unlikely to be Xi’s ideological campaigns—the Chinese people are used to them in one form or another.
But as in Hong Kong, when the economy unravels, or at least hope of a better life disappears, the ideology that had been marketed as underpinning prosperity starts to look threadbare as well.
Yet during the fanfare of the 70th anniversary, Xi’s ideology and the Chinese Communist Party will be inseparable. Together, they will have never looked stronger.
Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and the author of numerous books on East Asia, including, most recently, Xi Jinping: The Backlash.