‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – a break with China’s past?

The president’s governing principles are expected to become official Communist Party dogma this week in an attempt to define a new era for the country at home and abroad

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 7:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 4:18pm

On the surface it seemed just like any other speech.

The glimpse offered by the official state news agency covered familiar ground using well-worn jargon, urging cadres to sprint to the finish to achieve the “great Chinese revival”.

But the address President Xi Jinping delivered on July 26 was like no other.

The minister-level cadres summoned to Beijing to hear it behind closed doors were not allowed to take notes, according to state television. And Xinhua offered just a few paragraphs about its content, before spinning those fragments into a series of high-profile commentaries.

The secrecy surrounding the speech was a sign of its significance – Xi was setting out his agenda to set the direction for the country’s future.

Those ideas – running the gamut from macroeconomics to foreign policy and ideological control – are expected to be set in metaphorical stone over the next week as the Communist Party marshals its elite to elevate Xi in name and thought into the party’s constitution.

Most of China’s previous state leaders have also had their political ideas enshrined in the party’s constitution, bending dogma to justify their own policy changes while also trying to at least appear consistent with their predecessors in the interests of party unity.

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If Xi’s thought or theory is added to the party’s constitution with his name, it will put him on a par with late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – the only two other communist leaders to have their names attached to a doctrine in the document.

But Xi’s contribution is expected to be different. Observers expect to see a major shift in direction on the economy, foreign affairs and ideology, and a new tack on power distribution within the party away from the course charted under Deng and continued with presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

IN THE BEGINNING

For such a landmark moment, though, there has been little official word on details of what Xi’s thought might be. Instead, observers must sift through the policies already put in play in Xi’s first five years in office, Xinhua’s responses to the speech, and leaks from the countless study sessions lower-level officials have attended to examine the address.

Analysts said Xi started charting his course five years ago in response in part to the different challenges he faced as he rose to rule the world’s second-biggest economy and the 90 million members of the Communist Party.

At that time, the party, with a membership outnumbering the population of Germany, was plagued by corruption and had little determination to serve the public.

Cheng Chen, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University at Albany in the United States, said party discipline and cohesion had greatly eroded over the previous decades.

On the economic front, the administration was grappling with the end of China’s rise on the back of cheap labour, with a wave of strikes and factory shutdowns. The country was also groaning under a mountain of debt amassed by state-owned enterprises and local governments, a legacy of Xi’s predecessors’ bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis.

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In addition, China was saddled with one of the world’s widest wealth gaps and pollution problems that Xi said had become so bad they would easily trigger protests.

Yang Dali, a political scientist with the University of Chicago, said the challenges amounted to a new stage of development for China.

“Deng’s emphasis was development, but that was when China was much poorer. He was in some way willing to let inequality grow and let the environment be damaged in order to achieve that growth,” Yang said. “Now that China is more developed, Xi is emphasising that he wants political, economic, cultural development but also an ‘environmental civilisation’.”

FOUR SELF-CONFIDENCES

Party propagandists have indirectly heralded Xi as the spearhead of a new era by trumpeting the three stages of the people’s republic, or the “trio 30 years”.

The first of those three decades is the Mao era, which continues until the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the second is the Deng era which extends through Jiang and Hu up to 2012. The third is “the new era”, understood by all though never spelt out, to be the Xi era.

Kawashima Shin, a sinologist with University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said Xi’s administration was seeking to outshine his predecessors in a clear break with the past.

“Xi and his followers intended to usher in a new Xi era, which will aim to outshine the 30 years under Mao’s era and that of Deng Xiaoping,” he said.

Central to that “new era” is Xi’s focus on the “Four Self-confidences”, a need for China to have faith in its system, path, theory and culture. In the aftermath of international political and financial upheaval, Xi maintains that China needs to have confidence in its one-party political system and its traditional culture, as opposed to Western political ideas and values.

Xi has also promoted “a war on fortified spots” to eliminate domestic and foreign threats standing in the way on China’s road to “becoming strong”.

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Chen said confidence was behind China’s increasing ambition over domestic and foreign policies.

“[These concepts] suggest more confidence in designing and implementing policies that match the regime’s stated strategic objectives at home and abroad,” Chen said. “The tone is much more strident compared to that of Jiang or Hu.”

In terms of the domestic economy, this has translated into “the new economic normal” and “supply-side reform”, both references to an effort to tackle immense industrial overcapacity and shift the country away from its reliance on manufacturing and towards consumer-driven growth.

Unlike Deng, who said some people could “get rich first”, Xi has focused on the need for wealth redistribution, or “precise poverty alleviation”, to lift everybody in the country above the poverty line by 2020. As part of that effort, China spent 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) last year on poverty alleviation to “leave no one behind”.

WAR ON IDEAS

But it is in the realm of politics and the party where Xi’s approach has been felt most, with a crackdown on rights activism across the country and a sweeping anti-corruption campaign within the communist ranks.

These two pushes are part of the “struggle of ideology” that Xi’s chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, said was a key element of the president’s outlook. It refers to a war for Chinese hearts and minds against Western political ideas and lifestyles, a stark contrast to the pragmatism of the Deng era, when Deng urged China “not to argue” over political issues and focus on economic development.

That struggle came to the surface in Beijing’s crackdown on rights lawyers and activists, which started around July 9, 2015 and became known as the “709 crackdown”. By the time it was over, about 300 rights lawyers and ­activists were detained, interrogated or threatened in what some rights groups and observers have called the harshest campaign against human rights and civil society in decades.

Xi has been equally merciless to dissenting voices within the party. His signature anti-graft campaign, applauded by the masses for sacking senior officials at previously unseen levels, has also resulted in the expulsion of top cadres for discipline offences like “reckless discussions on the party’s key policies”.

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The lack of opposition within the top ranks today is a long way from the full-throated debate over economic growth that broke out between two members of the Politburo roughly six years ago. Back then, Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s then party chief, argued it was more important to “cut the cake” well, while his counterpart from Guangdong, Wang Yang, argued that “making a big cake” was the key.

Critics have said Xi’s war on graft is politically motivated and aimed at asserting his personal power over the thinly established but fragile collective leadership that Deng sought to build after the hard-learned lessons from the excessive concentration of power during the Mao era.

That view gained credence last year, when Xi was elevated to the “core” of the party. It is not clear to the outside world what power exactly a “core” has, but it is widely understood that Xi has more say than state leaders who do not have such a title, including Hu, who never gained the status.

Nabil Alsabah, a researcher with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said that during his first term, Xi had been “successful” in making Chinese people recognise the party’s values, partly by cracking down on dissent.

“In China, the acceptance of the [Communist Party] has been improving because of the perception of a strong leader, who not only punishes corrupt officials but also stands up for China’s interests,” Alsabah said. “I think you have an increased sense of pride in Xi Jinping and in the party.”

But the heavy-handedness also carried with it the threat of a backlash, he said.

“Xi Jinping is centralising power, the question is whether a central decision-making organ can make adequate policies for a diverse country,” Alsabah said. “My fear for Xi Jinping’s second term, and for China’s future, is that the authority of Xi will become so entrenched that people will not dare question him during internal decision-making.”

THE CHINA SOLUTION

Xi’s growing assertiveness is also reflected in foreign policy, where the president has promoted a bigger role for China on the international stage through peacekeeping and championing climate change. China now contributes more troops to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. And earlier this year Xi urged the international community to stand behind the Paris Agreement as the United States decided to pull out.

On Xi’s watch, China has also tried to reshape the US-led order of global governance by launching the “Belt and Road Initiative” to revive ancient trade routes, and the Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to plug infrastructure gaps in the region.

In Xi’s words, asserting China’s role in global governance serves the purpose of the “great Chinese revival”. Beijing also said it was offering a “China solution” to a world plagued by political and financial uncertainties.

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These initiatives underline Xi’s call that China should “try to make a difference” on top of “hiding its strength and bide its time”, a thinly veiled signal to break away from Deng’s well-remembered motto.

In addition, Xi was personally behind Beijing’s high-handed approach to disputes in the South China Sea, raising ever more concerns among China’s neighbours.

Before 2012, Beijing had done little beyond finger-pointing to other claimants of the South China Sea, but since then it has swiftly expanded and militarised disputed islands in the area. Beijing also dismissed an international tribunal’s ruling against China’s claims in the waters as a piece of “waste paper”.

Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, said Beijing was expanding its international presence “in a world after the financial crisis of 2008, when the global economic system seems much less reliable from China’s point of view”.

“The problem of democratic systems in the rest of the world, the election of US President Donald Trump, Brexit in the UK, these things give confidence to [the Communist Party],” Mitter said.

THE BIG PICTURE

So what will Xi’s name in the party’s constitution mean for the way the country is governed?

If history is any guide, it could mean a little or it could mean a lot.

Although Mao is still worshipped as the country’s founding father, few officials now would consult “Mao Zedong Thought” for foreign policy or economic strategies.

In contrast, Deng’s push for market economy reform, though not without boundaries, is still viewed as a guiding principle today.

Deng Yuwen, former deputy editor of Study Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Central Party School, the party’s top academy, said Xi’s ideas about China’s administration were more comprehensive than those of his predecessors and had already had an impact.

“[Xi’s] thoughts have already influenced China’s governance profoundly over the years, though it has not been written into the constitution yet,” Deng Yuwen said.

“The party has grown more confident and is more proactively going after threats to its stability such as corruption, civic activism, ideological differences and sovereignty disputes.”

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But while some basic principles like the unchallenged one-party rule had remained consistent since the Mao era, policy directions were easily rewritten and adjusted, he said.

“State leaders don’t usually decide on policy direction using the governance theories left by their predecessors. However strong the former leader is, those in power always come up with their own policies,” Deng Yuwen said.

“No matter how long Xi plans to stay in power, his successor will invent his own governing thoughts no later than his second term.”