China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China this week, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

How Will Xi Jinping Rewrite History?

At a meeting this week, the Chinese leader will take the opportunity to turn his narrative into doctrine.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Books on Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on display at a bookstore in Beijing on Nov. 8.
Books on Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on display at a bookstore in Beijing on Nov. 8. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to rewrite history at the Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum, Beijing practices military strikes against mock U.S. targets, and a renowned scientist joins the debate over COVID-19 policy.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to rewrite history at the Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum, Beijing practices military strikes against mock U.S. targets, and a renowned scientist joins the debate over COVID-19 policy.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Sixth Plenum Convenes in Beijing

A major Chinese Communist Party (CCP) meeting is underway in Beijing, and the runup to the event has been an exercise in synchronized sycophancy toward China’s President Xi Jinping. The Sixth Plenum is one of seven “plenary sessions” convened by the current cycle of the Central Committee, nominally the CCP’s most powerful body. The apparatus is largely borrowed from Soviet models, which accounts for the clunky terminology.

Theoretically, 205 full committee members and 171 nonvoting members gather to make big decisions. In practice, the power generally lies with a much smaller group of key leaders, although the whole committee has played a role in decisive action in the past. The Sixth Plenum traditionally focuses on ideological matters and usually sees reassertions and sometimes redefinitions of the party’s central role in the Chinese state.

Xi heads the meeting, which comes as he prepares to seek a third term next year after changing the rules for his own benefit—a very unpopular move with many political elites.

This plenum is particularly important because it will produce an official historical resolution—only the third in CCP history. The first, made by Mao Zedong in 1945, asserted the CCP’s claim to lead the country. The second, made by Deng Xiaoping in 1981, is the most important: It addressed the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Deng sought to provide a route for political rehabilitation for party figures targeted in mass campaigns, while blaming the violence on a few bad actors rather than criticizing the party. (Jordan Schneider deftly summarized the rhetoric involved earlier this week.)

There have been suggestions that the CCP’s historical rewritings are a legacy of the Chinese habit of dynastic histories, in which each empire wrote the tale of its predecessor. Unsurprisingly, each dynasty tended to characterize the last emperors of the previous dynasty as very bad people who deserved everything they got. But given the similar habits of the Soviet Union, the practice likely owes more to Marxism, an ideology obsessed with history that sought scientific laws that would explain it. CCP rhetoric often uses phrases such as “as proved by history,” usually as a lead-in to a particularly spurious claim.

By leading his own historical resolution, Xi is attempting to put himself on the same level as Mao and Deng. Chinese school textbooks have already been rewritten to put both Xi and his father, major CCP leader Xi Zhongxun, at the center of events. Although many of the important discussions will have already taken place, the resolution will be nominally drafted this week and may not be published for a few days.

The tone of the new historical resolution will be very different from the last: It will be an exercise in historical triumphalism, seeking to attribute China’s resurgence, power, and wealth to actions taken by Xi and the party. It may reference, directly or otherwise, the fall of the Soviet Union and how China can avoid a similar fate through the CCP’s wisdom. I wouldn’t be surprised by more explicit ethnonationalist content, further pushing the agenda of forced assimilation for ethnic minorities.

Xi’s problem is that this assertion of strength and power comes as China stares down the barrel of demographic crisis, economic slowdown, and global disparagement. A few years ago, the wealth and power rhetoric may have been easier to fall back on. Now, despite strong propaganda and heaping public praise for Xi, the message rings more hollow.

What We’re Following

Beijing’s new target range. China is practicing military strikes in its western deserts—where it often holds training—against mock-ups of U.S. warships. This isn’t surprising: Destroying a U.S. aircraft carrier in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea is a major goal for the Chinese navy. But it’s not clear whether the targets—which appear to be static and defenseless—serve a purpose beyond propaganda, as with the use of models of the Taiwanese presidential palace in military training.

One thing that worries me: Chinese military thought emphasizes morale and national spirit, alongside a belief that the United States lacks conviction. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been used to reinforce this case. But China could risk repeating the mistake made by the Japanese in 1941: the idea that a single dramatic defeat would cause a U.S. retreat, instead of a commitment to vengeance.

COVID-19 debate intensifies. Opposition to China’s zero-COVID-19 policy, which has led to continued lockdowns, got a boost yesterday after one of the country’s most well-known scientists said it was no longer workable. Guan Yi, who works at the University of Hong Kong, identified the SARS virus; he argues that the evolution of the coronavirus means the current tactics won’t work and that China needs to shift to a mass vaccination and mitigation approach.

For the moment, Chinese authorities are stubbornly sticking with the existing techniques, a new cellphone-based method that mandates quarantine for people passing through the same area as a positive case, even if they’re a half-mile away.

Anger in Vietnam, silence in China. A video of a top Vietnamese general and Communist Party leader enjoying a gold-covered steak from a virally popular chef in London has stirred public anger back home. The incident came after a more ideologically correct visit to Karl Marx’s grave. The story serves as a reminder of how much Vietnam sometimes looks like the China of the 2000s—and how much Chinese internet freedom has declined since those days.

This kind of story—an official indulging himself or behaving badly—used to go viral reasonably often in China, but tightened censorship and fear of punishment have largely destroyed the genre. The exception is last week’s accusations against retired top leader Zhang Gaoli by tennis player Peng Shuai, but even that is something that most Chinese will remain unaware of. Records of Peng, meanwhile, are disappearing.

Tech and Business

Evergrande avoids default. A German firm, DMSA, has made a dramatic claim that real estate developer China Evergrande Group has defaulted on payments to foreign investors, based on its own bond holdings. Some financial news outlets have picked up the story, but DMSA doesn’t seem to have much of a history: Its website includes only PR releases about Evergrande, with the earliest dated Oct. 17.

In fact, Evergrande seems to have made its payments today, albeit delayed. Evergrande is still teetering on the brink, raising cash by any means necessary, and grace periods for its debts are coming to an end. But China is trying to ensure a more controlled implosion than a complete collapse.

Climate statement mostly smoke. A joint U.S.-China statement following the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. One possible red flag: the commitment to policies that “encourage efficient balancing of electricity supply and demand across broad geographies.” That seems like support for China’s Global Energy Interconnection initiative, which U.S. security and energy experts have raised concerns about.

A global grid seems unlikely to happen in an age of increased decoupling, but it could become another part of the ongoing fight between climate cooperation proponents and China analysts inside the Biden administration.

China’s Cyber Monday approaches. Thursday is Double 11, an annual Chinese event that began as a mock festival celebrating Singles’ Day and was rapidly adopted by e-commerce firms as the equivalent of Cyber Monday, with deep discounts that spur massive online spending. Last year’s event set records, with $75 billion spent online as the economy recovered from the pandemic. This year isn’t likely to be as spectacular.

First, increased economic uncertainty, including warnings by the government to stock up for the winter, is likely to reconfigure spending patterns. Second, Alibaba, the main driver of Double 11, has been undermined by the crackdown on the technology sector. The limitations on online financing, including the slow dismantling of Alibaba’s financial arm, have also created new credit limits for shoppers.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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