Xi Jinping goes back to the future to strengthen party control
Mao-style ideological campaigns and efforts to crack down on dissident run risk of backfiring
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From his "Chinese dream" to his "mass line rectification" and his recent call to "win the ideological war", President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping is fighting to consolidate his grip on power at a time when the country has never been more divided over its direction.
Analysts warn that Xi's latest campaign to rein in the country's unruly internet, curtail press freedoms and crack down on dissent will backfire in the longer term even if he achieves his short-term goal of placating all sides in the tense debate over the country's policy direction.
Last year, in the lead-up to the once-in-a-decade transition of power, Xi gave liberals some hope that he would continue the reformist path of his predecessors. But, shortly after taking office in November, Xi appeared to take a turn to the left.
First, he launched his nationalistic campaign to promote "the Chinese dream", a derivative of the American dream, which would result from a "Chinese renaissance". In June, he dusted off Mao Zedong's "mass line" leadership method to bring the party closer to the people.
Then, on August 19, Xi gave his most overtly leftist speech so far. He called for the revival of the "ideological purification" campaign initiated by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s that pledged to uphold the "four cardinal principles". Those are upholding the socialist path, the people's democratic dictatorship, the party leadership and Marxism-Leninism and "Mao Zedong thought".
The exact purpose of Xi's proclamations, and what effect they will have on his leadership, is itself a topic of debate and interpretation among analysts. Some say he is simply showing his true colours while others think he is playing a delicate and potentially dangerous balancing act.
In recent weeks, state media have rolled out one commentary after another echoing Xi's latest call for a campaign to defend orthodox communist ideology while censors crack down on the internet, close websites for "rumour-mongering" and silence popular outspoken social media commentators.
Steve Tsang, head of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said Xi was pushing to adopt some of the more effective methods devised under Mao to boost, or at least, preserve the party's power.
"The 'China dream' and the 'mass line' are all part of what Xi has been preaching since he became president," Tsang said.
Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre, felt they were signs that Xi feared communist rule was under threat.
"This is a highly political leadership [with] a clear core vision of the role of the party and the way in which it must defend its power or be overwhelmed by threats," Brown said, adding that the leaders "are strong believers that without a unified party, they are nothing".
For Zhang Lifan, a political affairs analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xi's tilt to the left in recent debates over the party's direction reflected the new leader's weak grip on power.
Following his transition to power in November, calls became increasingly loud for Xi to introduce meaningful political reform to one-party rule as many believed that the country had arrived at a critical juncture.
But, in recent weeks, nearly all major state-run media outlets, including the People's Daily, its affiliated tabloid the Global Times and Xinhua, have carried commentaries critical of reformists who advocate "Western ideas" such as democracy and "constitutionalism" - placing the party itself under the rule of law.
Zhang said Xi has faced an unprecedented challenge since he took office.
"Xi is apparently uncomfortable with his position and is struggling to consolidate his grip on power as he is faced with the challenge of a leadership that is deeply divided over future direction," Zhang said.
However, Tsang believes that Xi, compared with his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, is more comfortable with the party's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist heritage.
"This is where Mao's 'mass line' fits in, as a Chinese adaptation of the Leninist principle of democratic centralism," he said. "It is about controlling 'the masses' effectively by controlling their thinking and ambitions."
The internet clampdown comes as the new party leadership under Xi attempts to reach consensus within its ranks after last year's transition to power. It also comes as bickering over policy direction and reform has intensified ahead of a crucial upcoming party meeting.
Analysts expect Xi will unveil his policy agenda for the coming decade at the third plenary session of the party's Central Committee in November.
Chen Ziming, a political affairs analyst, said political debate had intensified ahead of the third plenum as the reformist and conservative wings sought to influence policymaking.
"The debate now is whether China should push forward an ambitious economic reform agenda or squander the opportunity once again," Chen said.
"So for them this sort of defence of party orthodoxy, when there are so many other ideological options swimming around, seems like the sort of disciplining in the ranks that an army undergoes before conflict," Brown said.
Some close to the core of the elite, however, had mixed their political loyalties too much with their business interests, Brown said. The state sector had become obscenely wealthy and profitable, while the purist elite at the centre were left with many temptations.
"Xi, with his evidently strong feelings of loyalty to the party and its almost quasi-religious nature and function in society, is having to rein people in, and attack some very powerful, but very greedy networks," Brown said. "The party around him obviously feels this is a very urgent fight no matter what the risks."
However, Tsang said that while he believed the tactic would work in the short term, he thought that over time the more repressive atmosphere would be strongly resented.
"People who have watched colour TV won't want to go back to black and white," Tsang said.