Wed, Feb 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

What is ‘Xi Jinping Thought’?

By Steve Tsang

In October 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the party enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping (習近平) Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era.”

At a time when a rapidly modernizing China is a leading global player, it is tempting to dismiss this doctrine as anachronistic “party-speak” from a bygone age.

We succumb to that temptation at our peril.

Five months after the constitutional change, the Chinese congress abolished the presidential term limit, meaning that, barring a political earthquake, Xi — who, at age 65, remains healthy and vigorous — could remain president for perhaps another 20 years. His eponymous doctrine will therefore shape China’s development and global engagement for decades to come, and perhaps longer.

In a sense, the inclusion of Xi’s name and thought in the CCP constitution delivered to him the exalted status of the People’s Republic’s founding father, Mao Zedong (毛澤東), as well as the architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) — the only two other leaders mentioned in the document.

That, together with the removal of term limits, has led many to argue that Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.

However, even if true, this does not mean that Xi is attempting to restore Maoist totalitarianism. While Xi has a much more positive view of China’s Maoist past than any other leader since Deng, he is no Maoist.

Instead, Xi’s approach to governance closely resembles that of China’s first president under Mao, Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), a devoted Leninist who selectively adapted Confucian ideas to build a Sinicized party-state.

For Liu, the party was pivotal; for Mao, by contrast, it was ultimately dispensable, as the Cultural Revolution — of which Liu himself was a casualty — demonstrated.

Unlike Mao, who found chaos exhilarating, Xi shares Liu’s longing to exercise control through the CCP, which he expects to take the lead — and apply “Xi Jinping Thought” — in all policy areas: political, military, civilian and academic.

The contrast with Deng is even sharper. Deng’s reforms were defined by pragmatism and experimentation, aimed at identifying the most effective approach to modernization.

In the 1980s, Deng even briefly considered the radical possibility of separating the CCP from the state, though he abandoned the idea after the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Nonetheless, Deng and his successors — Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) — continued to open China to the West, and remained willing to tolerate the spread, within limits, of some liberal ideas.

This is not the case with Xi, whose repeated commitment to deepening reform is muddied by his redefinition of what that should entail.

Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, and regards democratization, civil society and universal human rights as anathema.

Deepening reform means solidifying control over the CCP, via his “anti-corruption campaign,” and over the population, including through the use of advanced technologies enabled by artificial intelligence.

Such digital authoritarianism will, Xi hopes, prevent liberal or democratic ideas from taking root and spreading, even as China remains connected to the rest of the world.

Chinese citizens may enjoy freedom as consumers and investors, but not as participants in civil society or civic discourse.

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