Can the CCP avoid the Stalin curse under Xi Jinping?

Fatal flaws in the Soviet system, or the Stalin curse, led to the eventual demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. These systemic flaws had different manifestations at different levels of the system. The current CCP leadership is aware of these problems and has tried hard to avoid travelling down the same path of the Soviet Union, but tinkering with the same Leninist vanguard party is not going to ensure its survival. Instead, a new model of party building is needed to break the Stalin curse.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at the end of the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at the end of the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The fatal systemic weaknesses as exposed by the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the USSR’s demise are what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must overcome in its institution building. It would help for us to clarify this issue from the angle of the “dynastic cycle” in Chinese history.

When Huang Yanpei visited the base of the CCP’s Central Committee at Yan’an in 1945, he found himself in a refreshing milieu — one of unity, equality and vibrancy. He became convinced that the “Mandate of Heaven”, so to speak, was with the CCP.

However, Huang raised a question to Mao Zedong: Would the CCP be able to avoid the dynastic cycle in which new dynasties inevitably descend into a state of decline and eventually die?

Mao’s reply was a very confident “Yes”. The reason he gave? “Democracy”! 

Why democracy could not take root in the CPSU or CCP

When Lenin first established the Soviet regime after the October Revolution, he insisted on the principle of democracy. However, his original vision of the people’s democracy was later put in the ground by the enormous bureaucracy which took shape under Stalin. The basic framework of this system was adopted by the CCP. Thus, both parties had turned their backs on democracy. 

But why? To a great extent, the reason had to do with the nature of the vanguard party.

The basic mission of a vanguard party is to mobilise, organise and educate the masses according to its ideals, so as to lead them towards an established goal in the future. Democracy, however, enables “those at the rear” to determine where politics is heading using their votes. 

Women wearing plastic rain coats walk on a pedestrian bridge near a Stalin-era skyscraper on Kotelnicheskaya embankment on the northern bank of the Moskva River in Moscow, Russia, on 11 August 2021. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)
Women wearing plastic rain coats walk on a pedestrian bridge near a Stalin-era skyscraper on Kotelnicheskaya embankment on the northern bank of the Moskva River in Moscow, Russia on 11 August 2021. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

The system established by Stalin was effective for large-scale industrialisation. This has been proven by the past experience of both China and the USSR. However, there were innate flaws in this system that led eventually to the serial downfall of communist states in the late 20th century.

As a matter of convenience, we shall call this fatal nexus the Stalin curse. The curse manifests itself in the upper, medium and lower echelons in different ways. 

The Achilles heel of this model is power succession. Most of the political crises in the communist states had broken out over this critical point.

Personality cult and poor institutionalisation

In the top echelons, it takes the form of the “great leader model”. Lenin’s personal charisma in the CPSU’s early years was the origin of this model. After Lenin died, Stalin lacked such charisma, so he could only secure supreme power slowly through power struggle. In the process of doing so, he physically eliminated almost all of the other leaders of the October Revolution. Subsequently, he had to rely on purging and a personality cult to maintain his position. 

The mammoth bureaucratic machine obeys only the supreme leader. With superb leadership, such a system can indeed be mobilised to achieve great things. However, the overwhelming dependence on the leader also results in its low degree of institutionalisation. We see this, for example, in the Cultural Revolution. In those days, Mao Zedong could smash all the institutions and established rules, take down most of incumbent officials, and yet still be able to maintain a firm grip on the political situation.   

The Achilles heel of this model is power succession. Most of the political crises in the communist states had broken out over this critical point. Furthermore, the supply of great leaders is fraught with uncertainty because great leaders are an extreme rarity. They come along only by chance. When those “not-so-great leaders” come to power, they have to spend a lot of time and energy to consolidate their own positions. They would resort to constant chastening and hammering on loyalty and discipline. Other side effects of the great leader model include personality cult, irrational thinking, obsessive zeal, political instability and so on.  

In the middle echelons, the Stalin curse mainly manifests itself in two forms. One is what the CCP calls bureaucratic “bowel obstruction”, the other is the formation of the privileged class. We are talking about a high-pressure system here. The mid-level bureaucrats therein lack autonomy. In all things they look only to their superiors and obey them subserviently.

When the top-down control is tight, they scuttle in fear and anxiety, and are risk-averse instead of achievement-oriented. Their inertia would dissipate any pressure from the top leader — no matter how strong-handed he is — through the multiple layers it passes through, and reduce it to little more than a whimper by the time it reaches the bottom. 

People walk through a puddle after the rain in downtown Moscow, Russia, on 10 August 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)
People walk through a puddle after the rain in downtown Moscow, Russia on 10 August 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

When the pressure from the top is lax, these bureaucrats do whatever seems right to them, each pursuing their own self-interest, buttering up the higher-ups but arrogant to those below. As they cover for one another, these officials ossify into a decadent privileged class.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was directly linked to the depravity of the medium echelons. It was their bad example that led to the prevalent loss of Communist faith among the CPSU members. When the motive of most people for joining the party is to become part of the privileged class, the Communist Party has decayed.

In the lower echelons, the Stalin curse is the lack of safeguard that the “people’s government” will actually serve the people. The relationship between government officials and the populace is one of indeterminacy. Officials can be either haughty oppressors or humble, dedicated servants to the people. There is no institutional guarantee for cadres to practice either “the people being the masters” or “being masters of the people”. They are ultimately accountable to the higher-ups, not to those below.

Since the common folk can have no institutionalised impact on their bureaucratic careers, acting as haughty oppressors is only natural for these bureaucrats. For those acting as dedicated servants to the people, more often than not they are putting up a show for their bosses. 

The grassroots-level cadres are the front desk of the party, so to speak. What they do directly impacts the communist regime’s reputation and legitimacy. If their bad behaviour and their disregard for fairness and justice become the norm, popular resentment against government officials will surely brew. Let’s not forget: such sentiments were the gunpowder keg that brought the CPSU down. 

The desired reform of the top echelons should be about breaking free from the great leader model through the modernisation of national governance. 

Consolidation of the Leninist vanguard party not the solution

Mao Zedong saw the flaws of the system very clearly. That was why combating and preventing revisionism, as well as maintaining the regime’s affinity with the people, became the focus of his political career in his latter years, which remains his unfinished business.

Since reform and opening up began in China, the entire party has concentrated on economic development. Nevertheless, there have also been exploratory attempts to run things differently, such as decentralisation of power, village-level elections, instances of consultative democracy, and “opinion polls” in selecting cadres. But none of these ever became a systematic fixture. 

Xi Jinping’s current large-scale institution-building is an attempt to rise above the Stalinist model. However, the main thrust of his “comprehensive and strict governance of the party” is to restore the original nature of a Leninist vanguard party. The danger here is that, if the lessons from the past are not adequately learnt and the extent of innovation falls short, there is the possibility of perpetuating the Stalin curse.

This photo taken on 9 June 2021 shows a man walking past a propaganda mural that reads "Chinese Dream: Make the country prosperous and strong, rejuvenate the nation" along a street in Beijing, China. (Noel Celis/AFP)
This photo taken on 9 June 2021 shows a man walking past a propaganda mural that reads "Chinese Dream: Make the country prosperous and strong, rejuvenate the nation" along a street in Beijing, China. (Noel Celis/AFP)

The desired reform of the top echelons should be about breaking free from the great leader model through the modernisation of national governance. This requires ditching the bad habit of deifying the supreme leader, so that the massive party/state machinery may run on the strength of its institutions instead of particular individuals, according to collective wisdom instead of the autocratic decisions of an individual.

Only then can the state prevent a great leader from bringing about an equally great disaster, and the top leader would no longer have to pretend to be an all-round genius and a superhuman being of sorts. His authority would be rooted in well-established institutions, not in flattery and suppression. To strengthen the system would be to strengthen that authority.

Instituting checks and balances yet granting autonomy

Successful collective leadership is rare in communist states. Under the troika (general secretary of the CPSU, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the premier), the Soviet Union was devoid of vitality, conservative, and stagnant on all fronts. The praxis of Vietnam under reform seems to work fairly well.

In China, however, the sharing of power at the top degenerated into an oligarchic state of affairs described as one of “nine dragons exercising control over the waters”. It’s not that the principle of collective leadership is wrong. It’s just that the explorations have not gone far enough. A viable way will surely be found if people were to keep trying.

In Chinese history, it was collective decision-making that had always been the mainstream. After all, was It not for this purpose that Chinese emperors held court every morning? And yet, something like the famous “three visits to the thatched cottage” (made by Liu Bei in the 3rd century AD to hear vital strategic advice from Zhuge Liang) has become inconceivable today when top leaders play gods themselves.

In addition, in this system, the checks on the power of the highest level is almost non-existent. For this aspect, the government can take a page from China’s time-honoured tradition of official remonstrators. Improving the transparency of decision-making — by, for example, setting up and expanding organs for remonstration and platforms for policy deliberation — will help to break the Stalin curse at the top. 

...the post-Mao leaders are nowhere near Mao in terms of status, and yet they are demanded by the system to exercise authority like he did.

To break the curse in the medium echelons, institutional streamlining and functional change are needed to overcome the legacy of the planned economy. Equally needful is appropriate devolution of power, by which mid-level cadres may be given room for fulfilling their ambitions. Suffocating control tends to produce mediocre, indolent and corrupt officials.

Given China’s vastness and complexity, even Mao Zedong, powerful as he was, did not demand uniform and total “alignment” with the highest authority; neither did he push for the “Four Consciousnesses” and “Two Upholds”. A continuous emphasis on such tenets over a long time is indication that the Stalin curse is still at work: the post-Mao leaders are nowhere near Mao in terms of status, and yet they are demanded by the system to exercise authority like he did. While Mao could hold the reins with absolute control, post-Mao leaders have to deal with both overt and covert attacks from various forces that make their jobs that much harder. 

A man takes a photo in front of a painting of people carrying a poster of late communist leader Mao Zedong titled "Yan'an Torch", by artist Cai Liang, at an exhibition of art celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in Beijing, China, on 24 June 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)
A man takes a photo in front of a painting of people carrying a poster of late communist leader Mao Zedong titled "Yan'an Torch", by artist Cai Liang, at an exhibition of art celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in Beijing, China, on 24 June 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)

‘Dual circulation’ of grassroot cadres

To break the curse in the lower echelons, one possible way to first pilot a framework of “dual circulation” for grassroot cadres, so that these people may play a role similar to that of the local gentry historically — that is to say, they would represent both the state’s authority and the locality-based interests, striking a general balance between the two.

With this framework, they would still be in the national officialdom’s personnel circulation, but they would also be a genuine part of the local elite with good credibility, reputation, social status and material stakes in their respective localities. They would participate in the circulation of the local elite too (hence dual circulation). In this way, these officials would no longer fix their eyes solely on the higher-ups. They would genuinely care about what happens to the local community.

A system for the people to cast votes of confidence is worth a try.

In other words, Xi’s people-centred governance ideal should be anchored on institutions and personal stakes. A system for the people to cast votes of confidence is worth a try. It would allow the ordinary folk to have a say with regard to the officials’ bureaucratic careers. Thus, no longer would corrupt officials still get promoted, and the appointment and removal of cadres would be kept in step with the people’s wishes.

The dual circulation suggested here requires some of the historical autonomy and self-governance of the grassroots to be restored, so that there is separate room outside of officialdom for cadres to fulfil their ambitions. A zone for positive interaction between government officials and the people would thus be created.  

Guarding against a police state

There is a great temptation for the China of today to develop into a police state. The various means, facilities and organisational structures for it are already available. Nevertheless, the founding principles of a Communist Party entail the rejection of the police state. While Stalin failed to reject it like he should, Mao Zedong did. The mass line of the Mao era came with a whole set of institutions and practices for connecting with the masses, and achieving the goal of policies coming forth from the masses and going back to serve them.  

This whole package has basically fallen into disuse ever since China’s reform and opening up began, save in relation to poverty alleviation, the Communist Party’s traditional forte. The wide-sweeping anti-corruption efforts in recent years have won the people’s favour quite significantly, but the masses have not become a systemic factor for fighting and preventing corruption. They are still applauders by the side, not actors who play a part. There is a need to let some of the traditions and spirit of the Mao era shine again in the new situation at hand. 

Formal institutions can be banged out overnight; the right organisational culture, on the other hand, requires long-term nurture. 

People walk at the Nanluoguxiang alley in Beijing, China, 20 August 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People walk at the Nanluoguxiang alley in Beijing, China, 20 August 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

It should be noted that institution-building itself is liable to the Stalin curse. Efficient institution-building requires a degree of centralisation of power for carrying out top-level design. Institutions resulting from compromises and negotiating tend to be watered-down and ineffective. However, the “great leader” is often above the constraints of institutions.

Formal institutions need to be augmented by informal rules or culture to endure. Formal institutions can be banged out overnight; the right organisational culture, on the other hand, requires long-term nurture. 

If the leader fails to abide by the formal institutions himself, an organisational culture would fail to grow and develop. Formal institutions would then go up in smoke after the leader departs from the stage, leaving in its ashes the one thing that remains unchanged — rule of man.

For this reason, the purpose of centralisation of power is not only to build various institutions but also to establish their authority. The value of an institution per se should be emphasised, not its utility to the powerful. 

One also has good reason to expect that Xi will leave behind a proper system for power succession...

Xi Jinping is a pragmatist. His institution-building comes with a visionary blueprint. That alone puts him above his predecessors. Even though people may debate about whether the blueprint (or some of its specific measures) is fitting for the country or appropriate for the broader situation, there is no denying that Xi has put an end to a longstanding state of inaction. He has also re-summoned the spirit of socialism.

One also has good reason to expect that Xi will leave behind a proper system for power succession — one that is better and has more staying power than the current one that entitles top leaders to designate a future successor for the generation after the next.

Related: 'Red peril' or benign power: How different is China's CCP from USSR's CPSU? | Rise of China's CCP and demise of USSR's CPSU: A tale of two communist parties | The CCP’s massive left turn and the post-Xi political landscape of China | Can the CCP forge an inclusive social contract and build a healthy civil society?