For the party to supplant the government’s functions, the party’s rules to prevail over the laws of the country, the party’s self-revolution to drive social revolutions, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to create “a new form of human civilisation” — That’s how Lenin’s “vanguard party” model is being taken by “Xi Jinping Thought” to whole new heights. What we have here is Leninism of the 21st century, and its manifesto has been proclaimed at the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The party’s exercise of “full and rigorous self-governance” and thereby maintaining its vitality perpetually is thought to be the hallmark of “Chinese-style modernisation” and the key to the Chinese nation’s rejuvenation. The party is to ensure that all its members “closely follow the Central Committee in terms of political stance, orientation, principles and path, and that the party’s solidarity and unity are maintained”.
Upon this foundation, all are to “uphold the party’s overall leadership”, “uphold … socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “implementing the new development philosophy”. Such is the “understanding [the CCP has come to] through many years of practice … a conclusion of paramount importance”.
Quite a convoluted mouthful of words, isn’t it? That’s exactly what Xi Jinping Thought is like.
This complicated system, which the CCP’s 20th Party Congress report expends over 32,000 Chinese characters to lay out, will determine not only China’s future form, character, trajectory and behaviour, but also its relationship with the rest of the world (especially the US and other Western countries). How then are we to assess the plan of action that has emerged from this congress? Let’s point out its merits first.
China is not going the way of capitalism and electoral democracy. Instead, it will proceed with Chinese-style modernisation...
Undoubtedly, the 20th Party Congress has put an end to the long struggle between the Left and the Right once and for all. It lays out the party’s direction and line clearly, formulates a comprehensive plan and rather concrete policies for achieving established goals, and even paves the way in terms of personnel set-up.
China is not going the way of capitalism and electoral democracy. Instead, it will proceed with Chinese-style modernisation, which is defined as “upholding the leadership of the Communist Party of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics, pursuing high-quality development, developing whole-process people’s democracy, enriching the people’s cultural lives, achieving common prosperity for all, promoting harmony between humanity and nature, building a human community with a shared future, and creating a new form of human advancement”.
Lofty goals that could change the world
The value system embodied in such a political programme, apart from absolute party leadership, should be widely acceptable throughout the world.
If China manages to perform outstandingly in the realisation of these values, Chinese-style modernisation would become hugely appealing and worthy of study and emulation. China might thus truly become one of the pioneers of a new form of human civilisation.
After all, who could say no to the following? Fighting corruption and promoting moral integrity among cadres; common prosperity; the eradication of poverty; the protection and enhancement of the ecology and conservation of resources; governing the country by law; establishing a ruling party that is corruption-free and full of a self-sacrificing spirit; people-centred development; promoting well-rounded human development; improving public service and the social security system; building a “healthy China”; green, sustainable development; maintaining social security; encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship; reinforcing education, science and technology; perfecting the market economy system; furthering the spirit of the Chinese people, as well as their cultural traditions; rural revitalisation; infrastructure improvement; expanding the scope of opening up; better protection of property rights; institutionalising “whole-process democracy”; improving “the social governance system based on collaboration, participation and shared benefits”; raising the effectiveness of social governance; taking the path of peaceful development; championing multilateralism, free trade and facilitating globalisation; “building a community with a shared future for mankind”; strengthening international cooperation; providing aid to developing countries … The list goes on.
The capacity shown here for long-term integrative planning and implementation is rarely seen in other states.
Some of the items above are very difficult or simply impossible to achieve for capitalistic development, and so they become the foci of political struggles in capitalist countries, including, for example, the polarisation of the rich and the poor, the long-term planning and coordination of resource environmental protection, responses to climate change, good and affordable medical care, social and political stability, the pursuit of material wealth without sacrificing spiritual richness, etc.
Capacity and will for system-building
One of the notable features of the congress's plan of action is its comprehensiveness, systematicity, foresight and integrative coordination, complete with specific objectives, substantial operability and explicit deadlines for fulfillment. The capacity shown here for long-term integrative planning and implementation is rarely seen in other states.
Part of the ambitious package, for example, is to “take a holistic and systematic approach to the conservation and improvement of mountains, waters, forests, farmlands, grasslands and deserts”, “carry out coordinated industrial restructuring, pollution control, ecological conservation and climate response”, “promote concerted efforts to cut carbon emissions, reduce pollution, expand green development while pursuing economic growth”, “prioritise ecological protection, conserve resources and use them efficiently, and pursue green and low-carbon development”. All these are integrated into a two-step strategy for attaining the goals of the second centenary (up to 2049), alongside goals for the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army, etc.
Even in areas generally regarded as the weak points of the CCP, such as democracy, the 20th Party Congress promised building up institutions for "whole-process people’s democracy"...
The second feature of the stated programme is that it comes with large-scale institution-building.
Apart from party-building to which Xi devoted the bulk of his efforts over the last ten years, substantial progress has been made in building up the legal system, environmental protection and governance, such as the river and lake chief system, as well as promoting the notion that “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets”. Improvements have been achieved in improving the system for assessing cadres’ performance, market institutions and its regulatory framework.
Even in areas generally regarded as the weak points of the CCP, such as democracy, the 20th Party Congress promised building up institutions for "whole-process people’s democracy", such as "strengthening the work capacity building of the deputies to the people's congress, and strengthening the connection between its deputies and their constituency, and building up mechanisms for gathering public opinion and people's wisdom, and a system of grassroots legislative contact points". The intent is to lay the institutional foundation for the next stage of China's development.
The stated purpose is to integrate Marxism “with the best of fine traditional Chinese culture, and with the common values that our people intuitively apply in their everyday lives”...
Linking Marxism with Chinese culture
The third notable feature is a return to the time-honoured, rich cultural traditions of China.
Marxism seems to have been harnessed to serve China’s purposes. For example, the congress report asserts that traditional values and maximums such as “pursuing common good for all; regarding the people as the foundation of the state; governing by virtue; discarding the outdated in favour of the new; selecting officials on the basis of merit; promoting harmony between humanity and nature; ceaselessly pursuing self-improvement; embracing the world with virtue; acting in good faith and being friendly to others; and fostering neighbourliness”, all presented as “the crystallisation of the wisdom of Chinese civilisation”, are “highly consistent with the … propositions of scientific socialism”.
The stated purpose is to integrate Marxism “with the best of fine traditional Chinese culture, and with the common values that our people intuitively apply in their everyday lives”, so as to consolidate “the historical basis and public support for adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times”.
The system of grand unity bolstered by highly concentrated power can do great works as well as tremendous evil.
While public opinion in China is focused on all the above, foreign media is casting the spotlight on a totally different set of observations — not least Xi Jinping’s breaking the presidential term limit and staffing his new leadership team almost entirely with his proteges, and the ensuing absence of checks and balances, etc.
The system of grand unity bolstered by highly concentrated power can do great works as well as tremendous evil. According to the Western understanding of human nature, the former is a possibility, whereas the latter is a certainty. People like Hitler and Stalin had extraordinary achievements, but they were also guilty of tremendous evil. When tremendous evil is the end result, extraordinary achievements can only be perceived as an extraordinary threat. Thus, the greater China’s achievements are, the more the country is seen as a threat.
Exacerbating perceptions of the China threat
It follows then that one of the probable negative effects of the 20th Party Congress is the further worsening of relations between China and the West, and the aggravation of their conflict. Western political theory and wisdom downplay the importance of party platforms because it is common for politicians to make exaggerated campaign promises. The actual execution of the stated visions is a whole different matter, dependent on the distribution of power and how the political tug of war transpires.
In the foreseeable future, the international environment for China’s development will further deteriorate. Even the danger of war may be on the rise.
What Western observers see in the congress’ concentration of power under one individual is the tendency towards totalitarianism. To them, totalitarianism is necessarily evil. Unlike totalitarian autocracies of the past, the emerging Chinese version is underpinned by unprecedented power and magnitude. Given that unchecked power strengthened by modern technological means is especially terrifying, all the more they would feel the need to band together against it.
Xi understands this very clearly. He not only describes the rise of China as “a great struggle” but also urged the CCP in his report to “have the courage and ability to carry on our fight”, and incorporates this idea in the party constitution.
Xi emphasises “carrying forward our fighting spirit”, as well as fostering “a firmer sense of purpose, fortitude and self-belief in the whole party and the Chinese people, so that we cannot be swayed by fallacies, deterred by intimidation, or cowed by pressure”. In the foreseeable future, the international environment for China’s development will further deteriorate. Even the danger of war may be on the rise.
The biggest danger however is that after the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and "philosophy of struggle" is re-summoned, the Red tide brought in its wake may sweep China back to the revolutionary zeal of Mao’s time...
The second possible negative effect of the congress is domestic, including cadre inaction, weak economic growth, the bosses of private corporations voting with their feet, etc. The biggest danger however is that after the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and "philosophy of struggle" is re-summoned, the Red tide brought in its wake may sweep China back to the revolutionary zeal of Mao’s time and its idealism that still has a hold on Xi’s generation of princelings.
The younger generation of party members and cadres grew up in post-opening-up materialism, so they easily respond to the calling of spiritual pursuit. They do not have personal experiences of suffering in and a clear understanding of the madness of the Mao era.
As they answer Xi’s call to “make intraparty political life more politically oriented, up-to-date, principled and combative”, they may passionately embrace a Cultural Revolution-style philosophy of struggle. This is also a consequence of the CCP not being thorough in its review of the Cultural Revolution.
Ossification and groupthink
The third possible negative effect of the congress will be ossification. To formulate such a grand plan as the “Xi Jinping Thought” amid “changes unseen in a century”, it is all the more important to have mechanisms for correction and adaptation in place. And yet the congress report and the agenda of the congress pay inadequate attention to the dire situation China is facing now both at home and abroad. We see no countermeasures for it.
The CCP’s understanding of itself is seriously out of kilter with its international reputation. In Western opinion polls, China and its leaders are both reaching new lows in terms of reputation. Yet China is not seriously reviewing itself and seeking remedies. Instead, it continues, on one hand, to yammer about how it should “better tell China’s stories, make China’s voice heard, and present a China that is credible, appealing and respectable”; and on the other hand, to flaunt “wolf warrior diplomacy”, staunchly insisting that it “stands on the right side of history and on the side of human progress”.
Now, the party is concentrating power on a colossal scale on one hand, and fighting mightily the inevitable consequences of centralisation on the other, as if the two are unrelated.
The domestic manifestation of ossification is in fact strongly criticised in the congress report. They include “pointless formalities”, “bureaucratism”, the imposition of rigid uniformity, the stacking up of excessive standards down through the hierarchic levels, cadre inaction, and detachment from the masses. But then again, these are actually old problems that have been around in one form or another throughout the history of the PRC.
During his time, Mao Zedong did much to try to uproot them, even to the point of mobilising the masses to tear down the enormous party-state bureaucracy. He understood that the problem had its roots in the concentration of power and cadres losing touch with the masses. Now, the party is concentrating power on a colossal scale on one hand, and fighting mightily the inevitable consequences of centralisation on the other, as if the two are unrelated.
The fourth possible negative effect of the congress will be the deterioration of the political ecology. Some people may ask: what about the crackdown on corruption and the party’s “full and rigorous self-governance”? Isn’t all that effort for the sake of improving the political ecology? But what I’m referring to is another form of ecological deterioration associated with the concentration of power.
... we are likely to see massive displays of flattery across China over the next five years.
Based on how the official media acted with regard to the congress, how officials and delegates spoke with one voice and a single tone at the press conferences, we are likely to see massive displays of flattery across China over the next five years. The policy and political effects of such deterioration will be endless falsehood, vacuous talk, distortion of information that feeds into decision-making, as well as simultaneous feverishness throughout the hierarchy. One of the precedents in PRC history is the Great Leap Forward.
In summary, 21st century Leninism may add new colours to Leninism, but it may also be the swan song of that root ideology. One of its greatest dangers is that it can stifle social vitality and creativity.
Since everything (including the wording of it all) is designed by “the great leader”, everyone just has to follow it faithfully and parrot it closely. Despite Xi’s dictum that “empty talk misleads the country, hard work rejuvenates the nation”, it may well turn out that everyone pretends to be "rolling up sleeves and working hard", but are in fact talking empty talks — and no one dares to break the news that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.
Related: With Xi-ism, is extreme power quietly taking shape in China? | Death of China’s factional politics | Xi's model of Chinese modernisation shaking up China and the world | What’s new in Xi Jinping's 20th Party Congress report | [Party and the man] Ditching presidential term limit an exception not the rule | How Xi Jinping consolidated power over the past decade | [Party and the man] Factions and fence-sitters in Xi Jinping's China