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In China, It’s One Man, One Ideology, One Party

Xi Jinping’s unified vision is taking the country into a dead end.

By , professor of law at Singapore Management University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at the Great Hall of the People.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at the Great Hall of the People.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 23. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

At the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that the meeting had been a “complete success.” And it certainly was—but only for one person: Xi himself. He was able to achieve all of his objectives: one vision, one leader, and one party.

As Xi announced in the closing session, the first benchmark of success was the unification of vision within the party, which he described as “Chinese-style modernization,” a term that has evolved over the course of the last few decades.

Modernization has been the goal of China since its humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars. The CCP kept emphasizing the idea after it took power in 1949, but most people in China today would associate the concept with Deng Xiaoping, who made the goal of reform to achieve the Four Modernizations—industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology—after he came to power in 1978.

At the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that the meeting had been a “complete success.” And it certainly was—but only for one person: Xi himself. He was able to achieve all of his objectives: one vision, one leader, and one party.

As Xi announced in the closing session, the first benchmark of success was the unification of vision within the party, which he described as “Chinese-style modernization,” a term that has evolved over the course of the last few decades.

Modernization has been the goal of China since its humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars. The CCP kept emphasizing the idea after it took power in 1949, but most people in China today would associate the concept with Deng Xiaoping, who made the goal of reform to achieve the Four Modernizations—industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology—after he came to power in 1978.

Ever the pragmatist, Deng knew very well that modernization could not be achieved using the old planned economy model that had held the country back under Mao Zedong. He thus proposed the theory of the “primary stage of socialism,” which provided the necessary ideological camouflage to develop the economy using capitalist tools.

A more detailed plan was unveiled at the 13th Party Congress in 1987, which divided the path to modernization into three steps: first, to double the gross national product (GNP) from the 1980 figure; second, to double the GNP again to become a “moderately prosperous society” by the end of the century; and third, to raise the per capita GNP to the level of moderately developed countries by the middle of the 21st century. The timeline was pushed forward by the 19th Party Congress, which announced that modernization would be substantially achieved by 2035—now only 13 years away.

Putting aside the question of whether the CCP will achieve the target on time (my bet is that it will, at least according to the party’s own propaganda), the more important question is what will happen once the Chinese-style modernization is achieved. Here we enter some uncharted territory, but I would suggest, based on my reading of Xi, that under CCP ideology this means the end of the primary stage of socialism and the start of a more advanced stage—and possibly radical changes to follow.

The CCP Central Committee also confirmed this in its proposal for China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), adopted at the Fifth Plenum in 2020, which states that one of the objectives for 2035 is having made “obvious substantive progress … in achieving common prosperity for all people.” If you want some concrete examples of what this looks like, just look at China’s three great socialist transformations in the 1950s, which resulted in the total elimination of private ownership and the disastrous people’s communes that led to the Great Famine.

Another obsession of Xi’s is his emphasis on “one leader,” which was first reflected in the 2016 slogan of Four Consciousnesses, i.e., political consciousness, overall consciousness, core (meaning Xi) consciousness, and alignment (with Xi) consciousness; the 2018 slogan of Two Safeguards, i.e., to “resolutely safeguard General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core position of the Party Central Committee and the core position of the whole party” and to “resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee”; and the latest Two Establishments in 2021, i.e., the “establishment of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee and the core of the whole party” and the “establishment of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guiding thought of the party.”

Causal observers of Chinese politics might regard such wordplay as petty and pointless, but it is not. Instead, it serves a real purpose: to establish Xi’s position as the one supreme leader. Despite everything, the theoretical side of communism is still important in the party’s internal self-justifications and propaganda. Thus, what might appear to outsiders as mindless recitation of meaningless words by party officials actually serves an important purpose: the inculcation of Xi’s status as the indisputable leader.

Again, Xi was able to score another major victory on this front, by inserting into the revised CCP constitution an obligation for all party members to strengthen the Four Consciousnesses and achieve the Two Establishments. Of all the amendments in the constitution, this one is the most important, as it basically turns the CCP from a political party into a personal party, building on the emphasis on Xi’s ideology in everything from classrooms to apps. This ritual of ascension was finalized through the public humiliation of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, as it sent the unmistakable message that Xi is the only one true leader.

To become the one leader that guides the party with his one vision, Xi needed to make sure that the party is one party: his party. He did this through the control of personnel—removing those who might have challenged his power through the ruthless purges of the last 10 years, with the able help of Xi’s hatchet man, Wang Qishan. Then he put in new figures entirely under his thumb, composed mainly of his secretaries and subordinates from when he was a provincial official, such as Li Qiang, Cai Qi, and Ding Xuexiang, three of the seven members of the new Standing Committee.

This new approach is most evident in the selection process for the members of the 20th Central Committee. As Xi emphasized, the selection process does not follow any established party conventions. Instead, the No. 1 criterion is the political standard, which includes political position, political attitude, political consciousness, political judgment, political intuition, and political execution.

If you think this sounds too cryptic, the selection committee further explains that the key is to find out if the candidate has a correct understanding of the Two Establishments, whether he or she has strengthened the Four Consciousnesses and carried out the Two Safeguards, and whether he or she has faithfully implemented the spirit of Xi’s important instructions.

In other words, what matters most is whether you have surrendered yourself, both physically and spiritually, to the almighty power of the general secretary. This is why the new Central Committee is filled with Xi’s men (and a dozen or so women), why Li Keqiang and Wang Yang were kicked out despite the fact that they are both still shy of the (unofficial but conventional) retirement age, and why the Communist Youth League faction, which was once so powerful, is now totally gone.

In a way, by turning one of the biggest parties in the world into an extension of himself, Xi has made the job of China watchers worldwide much easier. Instead of having to delve into the intricacies of different factions and the backgrounds of different officials, now we only need to understand one person: Xi. Anyone who has been to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing knows that the only thing visible from a seat perched at the top of the building is Mao’s mausoleum. And that is what Xi sees as his only task: to finish off where Mao left off. As we all know, there is only one result from such an endeavor.

Henry Gao is professor of law at Singapore Management University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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