Perspectives on Xi Jinping Thought (I)

It is 2021 and this year marks 100 years since the Communist Party of China’s/Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) founding. Also, Happy 牛 Year in advance if you are feeling tired of that rat of a year already.

China has made it halfway through Made in China 2025 and is now in the early stages of the 14th Five-Year Plan, aiming to make China even more of a manufacturing powerhouse and more economically self-sufficient at the same time. 2020 was the year by which the CCP wanted to achieve (and subsequently declared to have done so) a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), ie. eradicating extreme poverty across the country. This was one of the Two Centenaries (两个一百年), or centenary goals; the other being the achievement of “a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious modern socialist country” (富强民主文明和谐的社会主义现代化国家) by 2049 (marking 100 years since the founding of the PRC) (Chen). This reminds us that we should now be 72 years into the “100-Year Marathon”.

Can’t write MMXXI without “XI”

Not to forget, “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) was added to the Party’s own Constitution in 2017 and to the PRC Constitution’s preamble in 2018 when the National People’s Congress decided to abolish presidential term limits. This has made Xi’s historical standing as paramount leader comparable to Mao Zedong (Garrick and Bennett 99; Doubek). I concur with Garrick and Bennett insofar as Xi Jinping Thought

has not faced sufficient critical academic scrutiny outside mainland Chinese Marxist theorists, but should, due to the global implications of the sheer scale of China’s economic growth and market reach (Garrick and Bennett 99).

Xi Jinping Thought (in full: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”) is laid down, among others, in 1) his 2013 “Uphold and Develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” speech, 2) the government-produced, multi-volume collection of Xi Jinping speeches titled The Governance of China, and 3) the 2017 “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” report. The first speech early in his presidency calls for deeper commitment to socialism at a time when, as Xi admits, there are doubts over China still being a socialist country (Greer). The latter report contains the 14 points that are central hallmarks of his thinking and are summarised as:

  • “Party supreme
  • People-centric approach
  • Deepening reform
  • New development ideas
  • Representative institutions
  • Rule of law
  • Socialist values
  • Social welfare
  • Coexistence with nature
  • Stronger national security
  • Party’s authority over army
  • Reaffirming national unity
  • Common human destiny
  • Party discipline” (His Own Words: The 14 Principles of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – BBC Monitoring).

The Governance of China – Coming to a bookstore near you…

It is obvious from the above that Xi Jinping Thought cannot be seen as a few, easily digestible theories. At this time, I focused more on The Governance of China simply because the publication of these books by Thalia in Germany in fact made it into German news last year (Metzger) while its circulation among Facebook’s leadership, shortly after being published, had previously made headlines (Taylor).

After speed reading through the 2014 edition (a good couple hundred pages), I quickly realised that the contained speeches run the whole gamut of governing China from the A to Z of Xi’s political priorities. For the most part, these speeches are meant to defend, embellish and, at the same time, adapt earlier elements of Party ideology and governing practice to 21st century circumstances. Unsurprisingly, it is not a descriptive, in-depth analysis of how governance in China works in reality – rather, it is filled with many forceful ‘should’s and ‘must’s – Xi’s personal instructions to fellow party members and compatriots with a few instances of signalling his intentions to foreign audiences.

There are parts of the speeches where Xi’s handwriting (anti-corruption and disdain for backwardness) clearly shines through and which read refreshingly candid and even surprisingly cautious, concerned, and idealistic (I would like to quote a few excerpts here for illustration, but I will refrain from doing so due to copyright issues. I will leave it to you to give the original document a read). Xi’s views on the future role of China’s youth as the driving force of innovation for example could in part be mistaken for a motivational quote from a Steve Jobsian commencement speech. By contrast, his stated conviction that socialism continues to take on the inevitable savior role (with himself at the helm for the foreseeable future) in guiding the Chinese people’s destiny (more on that in future posts) reminds Western, HK, and Taiwanese audiences in particular that the core ideological dogma is alive and well. It also makes me want to investigate to what extent KMT and prior imperial parlance had already incorporated this guardianship rhetoric.

All in all, I would not call reading The Governance of China an overly tiring exercise in political analysis, but the material is definitely too wide in scope as to be covered in one or two posts. As a side note, Garrick and Bennett have produced a brief overview of Xi Jinping Thought that I wanted to share.

Before reading the book, I thought it would be interesting to highlight where Xi Jinping Thought draws from earlier -isms (and I still think that is a worthwhile undertaking in tracing the history of ideas) and whether a new and revolutionary -ism has been developed. But certain passages hint at such a let’s-see-what-will-suit-us-best, trial-and-error approach to future challenges that I wonder whether it could not just as well be summarised as Chinese absolutist techno-pragmatism of sorts (leaving aside certain geopolitical flashpoints that always risk being “solved” in less than pragmatic fashion) with an uncompromising intolerance towards public dissent and questioning Party primacy. There is Alice Su’s sobering assessment that

“[N]o Chinese leader since has held as much authority — until Xi. But he is not Mao 2.0. A disciplinarian, not a revolutionary, Xi is driven by a need for control. He is a legalist in the tradition of Han Feizi, the philosopher who taught China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, that people are fickle and selfish and must be kept in line through law and punishment. An ethnic nationalist, Xi holds a vision of Chinese revival that draws on allusions to past empires. He speaks in Marxist terms of class struggle and uses Maoist tactics such as self-criticism and rectification, but his brand of communism also promotes Confucius and e-commerce” (Su),

but only time will tell. Indeed, what is left of Mao Zedong Thought in the 2014 edition of the book tends to revolve around Mao’s insistence on China’s national sovereignty, the importance of “the masses” as well as “seeking truth from facts” (Xi). Orthodox views on Communism and the economy seem to have long been superseded by Deng Xiaoping Theory.

Nothing New in the East?

Instead of going through his writings chapter by chapter, I have decided to review other commentaries/papers on the interpretation and impact of Xi Jinping Thought to learn more about its meaning and present you with the distilled wisdom I have gained from them.

This first nugget is from The Diplomat. Asked about her interpretation of Xi Jinping Thought, Chongyi Feng made the following remarks:

Communist power is established on and legitimated by an articulate ideology, irrespective of whether it is consistent or whether the rhetoric is matched with the reality [emphasis added]. Maoism is a combination of communism and nationalism and a combination of Leninism and the Chinese peasant populism, deviating far from Marxist orthodoxy. Dengism is supplementary to Maoism in taking a pragmatic approach of being parasitic on capitalism for regime survival. Due to the decline of communist ideology, Xi has put more emphasis on nationalism [emphasis added], hence highlighting the slogans of ‘China dream’ and ‘national rejuvenation’ (Kuo).

It might be tempting to agree with Feng that at first sight

“[T]here is hardly anything new in ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.’ Judging from the speeches and writings published under Xi’s name, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is nothing but a mixture of dissimilar ingredients taken from his predecessors, bristled with the old fancy slogans of the past, including the slogans of the Maoist China and the reforming China” (Kuo),

but what we have seen so far may only be the beginning. It is true that Xi Jinping has been known for being dismissive of lofty political rhetoric (His Own Words: The 14 Principles of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – BBC Monitoring), which would fit the pragmatist image and make him appear more or less trapped in having to uphold and carry on the ideological heritage. At the same time, he leaves no doubt among readers that he is convinced that socialism with Chinese characteristics is the only way forward and his historical record is now tied to the achievement of the Two Centenaries – with all the power he has accumulated there is no political obstacle in sight that would prevent him from being even more “experimental”, both in theory and practice, in the future.

As for this blog, this renewed emphasis on nationalism and national security is what I will try to focus on next…

 

Image: そらみみ (Soramimi), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Sources:

Chen, Elizabeth. ‘Behind Xi Jinping’s Declaration of Victory Over Poverty’. Jamestown, https://jamestown.org/program/behind-xi-jinpings-declaration-of-victory-over-poverty/. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

 

Doubek, James. ‘China Removes Presidential Term Limits, Enabling Xi Jinping To Rule Indefinitely’. NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/11/592694991/china-removes-presidential-term-limits-enabling-xi-jinping-to-rule-indefinitely. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

 

Garrick, John, and Yan Chang Bennett. ‘Xi Jinping Thought: Realisation of the Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation?’ China Perspectives, vol. 2018, no. 1–2, French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, June 2018, pp. 99–105.

 

Greer, Tanner. Xi Jinping in Translation: China’s Guiding Ideology | Palladium Magazine. https://palladiummag.com/2019/05/31/xi-jinping-in-translation-chinas-guiding-ideology/. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

 

His Own Words: The 14 Principles of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – BBC Monitoring. https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c1dmwn4r. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

 

Kuo, Mercy A. China’s Political Culture: Assessing ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/chinas-political-culture-assessing-xi-jinping-thought/. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

 

Metzger, Nils. Buchhändler Thalia bewirbt chinesische Staatspropaganda. https://www.zdf.de/uri/dbd365ee-0e8c-474f-8e6b-7ee74d526eed. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

 

Su, Alice. ‘Dreams of a Red Emperor: The Relentless Rise of Xi Jinping’. Los Angeles Times, 22 Oct. 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-10-22/china-xi-jinping-mao-zedong-communist-party.

 

Taylor, Adam. ‘Why Would Mark Zuckerberg Want Facebook Employees to Read the Chinese President’s Book?’ Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/12/08/why-does-mark-zuckerberg-want-facebook-employees-to-read-the-chinese-presidents-book/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

 

Xi, Jinping. The governance of China. 2014.

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