Helmsman Xi and China’s Future
The general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has been inspired by his own scrupulously scripted celebrations of the party’s centenary in July to drive China back towards the future.
He has moved swiftly as the party’s second century starts, intensifying the core programs already underway to rein in the private sector and especially its most successful entrepreneurs. Xi is also reconstructing school and university curricula to focus on CCP dogma and ‘Xi Jinping thought’, and has striven to build support in the ‘masses’ beyond the party to return China to Mao-era party verities.
Thus, Xi anticipates, an unstoppable demand from inside and outside the CCP will insist on his reappointment for a further five-year term and effectively for another decade, at the 2022 party congress, which will also fully endorse his top priority: to ‘stay true to the Party’s founding mission’.
The politburo has announced that the sixth plenum of the 19th party congress will meet in November, because, ‘A review of the major achievements made and the historical experience accumulated during the Party’s 100 years of endeavor is needed for the new course of fully building a modern socialist country … and for upholding General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core position at the CPC Central Committee and in the whole Party, as well as the authority of the Party’s Central Committee and its centralized, unified leadership.’
So, ‘reviewing’, especially of history, is to be entrenched as a core priority.
The new economic and social goal is to build ‘common prosperity’ as ‘the essential requirement of socialism,’ Xi said in August. ‘Unreasonable incomes’ are to be ‘rectified’. A swathe of China’s leading-edge industries, including information technology, ride-sharing, e-commerce and education provision, have been hit by new state-imposed constraints, and Chinese equities have lost a trillion dollars in value.
The politburo announced that ‘the Party’s leadership’ in all educational institutions would be strengthened. As an early outcome of this, school-age children are to be banned from playing video games during weekdays, and allowed an hour a day on Fridays and weekends, by official order.
A WeChat post by Li Guangman that was republished, highly significantly, in all major official media channels, including the People’s Daily and Xinhua, said that while the new party campaign wouldn’t ‘kill the rich to help the poor’, the government needed to ‘combat the chaos of big capital’.
Li wrote: ‘Each of us can feel that a profound social change has begun … It is necessary not only to destroy the decadent forces but also to scrape the bones and heal the wounds. A profound change or revolution is taking place in the economic, financial, cultural and political fields. This is a return from the capital clique to the masses, and a change from capital-centred to people-centred. All those who block this people-centred change will be abandoned. This profound change is also a return, a return to the Party’s initial aspirations … to the essence of socialism.’
He said: ‘This change will wash away all the dust: capital markets will no longer be a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight, cultural markets will no longer be a paradise for ‘sissy’ stars … We need to build a lively, healthy, masculine, tough and people-oriented culture.’
This is a swift, natural elaboration on the manner in which Xi drove the party’s centenary. He didn’t stint on adjectives in his hour-long celebratory speech to the 70,000 invitees to Tiananmen Square to mark the event: Great. Glorious. Tenacious. Magnificent. Dauntless. Brave. Unstoppable. Of course, historic.
These are the attributes of a person, or an institution, that has now reached the top. But if we’re already witnessing peak party, what follows?
The CCP doesn’t seem in great need of such praise. It stands alone. There’s no organisation in China that doesn’t defer to it. Almost all social groups and businesses contain party branches. It controls the way history is understood, the way China itself is perceived, the way the world’s swirling trends are explained to the Chinese people. The mighty People’s Liberation Army is the party’s own army.
At the end of the spectacular The Great Journey show at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, Xi led all in standing to sing: ‘Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China.’ The CCP’s jealousy of any other source of morality, validation or history, and its fear of the broader Chinese people, have driven it to seek to consume China itself.
The picture that Xi painted in his crucial, intensely workshopped but also bloviated Tiananmen speech, as the party pivots from its tumultuous first century, is of a body also aptly described with other adjectives: Self-obsessed. Anxious. Domineering. Ritualised. Demanding.
The key question that the show, and Xi’s speech, failed to answer is, has the party anything new in its agenda or program, apart from Xi’s semi-protectionist ‘dual circulation’ aim to produce at home almost everything China’s economy needs?
Xi said in his speech about ‘the journey ahead’, his roadmap for China’s future, ‘We must uphold the firm leadership of the Party … work ceaselessly for a better life … rely closely on the people to create history … continue to uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought …’, through of course to his own ‘New Era’ thought:
We will … continue to develop the Marxism of contemporary China … We must follow our own path … adhere to the Party’s basic theory, line, and policy … accelerate the modernisation of national defence and the armed forces … promote the building of a human community with a shared future … strengthen the great unity of the Chinese people … keep firmly in mind the old adage that it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel [he did not add: and high-class Australian iron ore and metallurgical coal].
This all amounts to a pledge simply to keep on keeping on—with fresh energy injected, since the centenary events, into that core goal of restoring the primacy of socialism, especially in the economy and in educational institutions.
The party, Xi boasted, ‘is still in its prime’. His concluding toast in Tiananmen was: ‘Long live our great, glorious, and correct Party! Long live our great, glorious and heroic people!’—in that order.
The point of vulnerability is clear, in the somewhat strange, to outsiders, use of ‘correct’. Earlier, Xi had stressed: ‘We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.’ When the obverse of such a statement would clearly be considerably more surprising, that raises the question of why it was included—and indicates an area of anxiety.
That’s surprising, given the extent of the CCP’s controls over all forms of communication, offline and online, in China today. But it’s also suggestive of underlying vulnerability concerning the party’s insistence on monopolising the ‘correctness’ or not of every Chinese person’s view of the world, way of life and understanding of China’s story. Xi clearly views preaching or lecturing by non-CCP elements as potentially very attractive to Chinese people—some of whom may take a different view on what is ‘sanctimonious’—and thus especially perilous for the party. How long can the party keep this lid on?
‘The Party has no special interests of its own,’ Xi averred. ‘It has never represented any individual interest group, power group, or privileged stratum.’ Apparently the proletariat—now very much a minority among the CCP’s 95 million members—has been simply forgotten. It is the party that is now its own sole ‘special interest’, ‘power group’ and ‘privileged stratum.’
However assiduous, ubiquitous and popular the anti-corruption purge—now institutionalised—that brought Xi to power and that is keeping him there, and whatever the debt that many Chinese people feel they owe the party for providing the stability helping them to prosper, all acknowledge that the party is China’s ruling class, holder of all power and privilege. And Xi insists that the chief qualification for leadership, or even membership of the party, is to possess—as does he, the son of a Long Marcher—‘red genes’.
In Qiushi, the party’s ideological journal, Xi urged party members, ahead of the centenary, to ‘inherit red genes and pass on the red country from generation to generation’. The legitimacy of China’s rulers is thus to be derived from previous generations’ rule. We seem to have been here before in Chinese history.
The only references to reform in the speech were to acknowledge in passing its role in the previous Deng Xiaoping-inspired era.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics—also under the supervision of Xi, as vice president assigned that role—was the party’s party to celebrate its success in opening to the world.
But the 2021 centenary was marked by an entirely inward-focused series of events, slogans and speeches. In vast numbers of new TV series, special showings of party-venerating movies required twice weekly at cinemas, endless propaganda sessions at schools and universities, the Chinese population was reminded of the party’s glory. The members were involved most of all, including repeating their admission vows with fists raised, along with General Secretary Xi’s, at The Great Journey show.
Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, has said that, under Xi, the party’s members are now reduced to being ‘slaves of his will’.
The great strides made under Xi to tighten, to the point of inseparability, the Party and China, and the Party and the Chinese people, make any challenge to the party or its history, ideology or leadership—as intended—appear to be a rebuke, threat or insult to China itself.
The very redness of China in 2021 makes any change seem impossible. But societies rarely stand still for long. Pressures build. Especially on bodies that parade their own peakness.
Most of the Xi generation, who were born in the People’s Republic and whose lives were turned upside down by the Cultural Revolution, have worked tirelessly to rebuild their families’ fortunes. They have focused fully on ensuring their own children—mainly, a single child—received the full education they were in many cased denied. They and those children have worked and saved hard, achieving a great and deserved surge in living standards.
But they, their children, and especially their grandchildren, aren’t going to want to keep this pace up forever. It’s inevitable that even some party members let alone members of China’s broader public—whose underlying culture is individualistic, and whose educative experience over recent decades has reinforced their natural curiosity about others’ lifestyles—start to feel exhausted by Xi’s constant exhortations, as in his centenary speech, to ‘ceaseless work’, to ‘great struggle’.
One of China’s 2021 online phenomena has been tang ping, which translates as ‘lie flat’. Young people have posted that they’re tired of the demands made on them. Another common Chinese meme is ‘996’—working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week—especially in the tech sector. They say they just want to chill, to enjoy the fruit of their family’s, and perhaps also their own, labour.
Their world is a million kilometres from that of party leader Xi, whose speech was punctuated in the original Chinese version by 49 exclamation marks. The official English translation permitted only three, providing a rather different sense of the tone.
Xi is girding the party up for one more big push—achieving per capita prosperity matching China’s east Asian neighbours, cementing global respect for it and for the PRC, and annexing Taiwan. China’s national income and the determination of its leadership indicate that some of these ambitions might be within their grasp.
But the PRC remains, as Chinese strategic academic Zhu Feng has described it, ‘a lonely rising power’. Without a successor in sight, Xi’s leadership will become an increasingly distracting issue now that he has centralised and personalised power so profoundly. And how can the party bridge the gap between Xi’s olde-worlde ideological focus and the tang ping generation?
Much work still lies ahead for the CCP as it enters its second century. This party that claims omnipotence and omniscience must fear any single failure all the more.
Rowan Callick is the author of Party time: who rules China and how (Black Inc.) and an industry fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute.
This article was published by ASPI on September 3, 2021.
Featured Image: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images.