Ideas matter. They especially matter in world affairs. And in communist countries, it is communist ideas, not supreme leaders’ personality traits, that matter most. That is the reality in the People’s Republic of China.
All Chinese communist leaders — from Mao Zedong (毛澤東) through Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), from Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) through to Xi Jinping (習近平) — have always held two key ideas to be sacred and self-evident: first, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is infallible, and second, that the Marxist-Leninist socialist system of governance is superior to every alternative.
The ideological consistency by all CCP leaders, regardless of their individual characteristics, is remarkable. They all uphold these two fundamental tenets, often with devastating consequences for the Chinese people. Mao Zedong said it all in 1954, and all his successors to date have held it as the absolute ideological shibboleth of the Party state, that “The core force that must lead our cause is the Chinese Communist Party, the theoretical foundation that must guide our thinking is Marxism-Leninism.” Communist ideological fanaticism becomes the main source of the CCP leaders’ conduct. In today’s China, anyone who openly challenges this supposition will be dealt with severely, with long jail terms or worse.
Claims of infallibility and superiority typically require empirical persuasion, or else they will fall apart. Therefore the CCP, since its founding, has launched endless, ideologically-driven political movements and indoctrination campaigns, just to sustain these fictions. All governance matters, be they economic or public health issues, disaster responses, cultural or entertainment matters, educational initiatives, sports programs, or — as the world has witnessed — epidemics, are turned into mass political movements with whole-nation mobilizations by the CCP. These mobilizations are meant to showcase the infallibility of the Communist Party and the superiority of their monopolistic power.
The result of all these fanatical commitments to these two fundamental communist tenets is calamity for China and the Chinese people. These incalculable sufferings and pogroms have lasted for as long as the CCP has existed, and wherever the Party tries its hand.
Mao engineered his murderous “land reform” and urban collectivization to fulfill Marxist principle of destroying private ownership; communist Utopian thoughts also propelled him to launch the Counterrevolutionaries Liquidation Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution; Deng Xiaoping enshrined the Four Cardinal Principles of Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, conducted the bloody Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and the Tiananmen Massacre; to strengthen the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in China, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao pioneered today’s mass surveillance state and Orwellian high-tech totalitarian repression; and today, Xi Jinping is carrying the CCP’s dictatorship to its logical conclusion by perfecting a communist model of governance decades in the making, from Xinjiang, to Hong Kong, and every city in between.
The current madness in enforcing the CCP’s zero-COVID policy in Shanghai and other Chinese metropolises affecting nearly half a billion Chinese population is another of the CCP’s mass movements to fulfill its ideological commitments. If the Party is omnipotent and infallible, and the socialist system is infinitely superior to the US-led free market and democratic system, then General Secretary Xi Jinping must use state power and resources under his command to sustain the myth that not a single case of COVID could withstand the Party.
But Xi has proven to the entire world the opposite is the case: the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power and ideological mobilization is an abject failure. Socialism is undeniably inferior to the democratic system of freedom and human rights. The locked down and starving people of Shanghai would no doubt agree.
Today, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China is beset with problems at home and abroad. The Chinese people’s grievances and anger are rising.
Some believe that the fault lies with Xi. He is obstinate, arrogant, incompetent and insistent on micro-managing everything. Many foreign analysts seem to believe that since Xi is more authoritarian and dictatorial than some of his predecessors, he is the ultimate problem. In this thinking, China would be better off and the CCP would be less of a threat to freedom and world peace if Xi were to go.
It is true that Xi is a poor leader, not the mastermind many have supposed. But he is certainly not the only cause of the problem. The main source of China’s sorrow and antagonism toward the free world is the communist ideological system of governance. This system has created political leaders like Xi, and before him Mao and Deng. The worldviews of these communist leaders and their policy dispositions are uniformly conditioned by the same ideological tenets. Just like Xi, Mao, Deng and Jiang were Marxist-Leninists who would not bat an eyelid at the loss of human life and individual dignity, either in Tibet, Xinjiang, Tiananmen or Shanghai.
This is not to say that every CCP leader acts exactly the same. Xi Jinping no longer believes in Deng’s maxim of “hide and bide.” He wants to actively accomplish something for the world to see the true ideological and political contours of the CCP regime.
The free world should thank Xi for this clarity about the nature of the Chinese regime. It’s been a long overdue, but much needed education for many Western policy and political elites, including some who have long been under the CCP’s spell. Xi’s brazenness and ideological clarity are essential factors in reversing US policy toward China in recent years.
The same ideological tenets that give Xi his boldness also make the Chinese political system and the CCP’s monopolistic hold on power fragile. This vulnerability manifests itself in three ways: power makes the CCP arrogant, corrupt, and ignorant.
The arrogance of power is a fundamental trait of the Chinese communists’ political system. This hubris makes it not beholden to the constraints of any other force, check, or balance. A power unchecked is a power unbridled. The arrogance and domineering manner with which the CCP has indulged itself, both at home and on the international stage, are not news.
The latest example of this arrogance is the CCP’s handling of the pandemic. It is a major public health crisis that should have been handled with science and medical measures, with preponderant care and balance for human dignity and individual freedom. Yet, since day one of the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese communist authorities have had no intention of taking a scientific and balanced approach. Instead, they made the pandemic a political issue, ordering lockdowns and cover-ups with precious little regard for whether people would live or die, and suppressing and silencing doctors, journalists, and other knowledgeable people speaking up.
Every measure the Chinese Communist Party has implemented to deal with the pandemic was designed not for public health, but first and foremost to protect the Party’s myth of infallibility and its all-round greatness. They were meant to prove the superiority of the system in which all power is concentrated in the Party. It was precisely because the Party was arrogant, and its power unchecked that it could insist that the virus would not spread throughout the country. Mao believed the Party could kill all the sparrows in China in the late 1950s. Xi believes the CCP can kill every single coronavirus in China. The results in both cases are devastating.
To demonstrate the CCP’s omnipotence, to prove the absolute efficiency of the socialist system of centralized power, a nation of 1.3 billion people was forced to bend to the will of one man who, with a doctorate in “Scientific Socialism,” professes to be the guardian of authentic communist fundamentalism.
On a single order from Xi Jinping, it was deemed that the country must be completely COVID-free. Most recently, the 26 million people in Shanghai were thrown into a nightmare lockdown. China’s most modern city would, in the blink of an eye, become a gigantic concentration camp overseen by hoodlums and “the dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The depth of misery, the degree of suffering to which the Shanghainese are subjected demonstrate the arrogance that reigns when the CCP brings to bear the power concentrated in its hands and proves the institutional defects of the socialist system.
The arrogance of power under the Chinese communist regime is also on full display in its foreign policy. Every country bordering China has either been bullied, provoked by the CCP in recent history or is deeply suspicious of its giant neighbor. Even ostensible allies of “lips and teeth” closeness and “all-weather” guarantee, such as North Korea or Pakistan, cannot completely trust China. China has no true allies in the world. When the CCP felt its national strength was insufficient to achieve its aims, its leaders decided to “hide and bide.” This policy was often disguised as advocacy for “peaceful co-existence.” But when the CCP feels self-assured, that it is time to stretch its wings, it resorts to “great power diplomacy.” In foreign policy terms for the CCP, this means the same kind of megalomania that is more frequently seen in domestic policy.
Arrogant power also becomes corrupt power. And corruption within the Chinese regime is rampant and institutionalized. Power’s tendency to corrupt also makes the Chinese communist’s ideological and institutional commitments fragile. It threatens the collapse of the system; and it is spiritually corrosive.
A New York Times team conducted a years-long investigation into corruption in the CCP, and discovered that the families of senior communist officials, including the country’s supreme leader and its premier, are fabulously wealthy. They stash prodigious assets in places like Hong Kong. This corruption is true at every level of the Party state. The CCP has over 2,000 senior cadres at the provincial and ministerial levels throughout China, and since the 18th National Party Congress in 2012, the year Xi Jinping ascended to supremacy, more than 230 have been arrested for corruption and other crimes, a crime rate more than ten times that of the population of China as a whole.
Corruption is even more rife among grass-roots cadres. During the fascist-like lockdown in Shanghai, the caged residents of that city discovered, to their chagrin, that many low-ranking Party officials at the residential committees had been hoarding emergency relief supplies for themselves. They didn’t care about the fate of the starving and dying residents unable to go outside. It has been said that the entire CCP cadre system is run like a massive criminal syndicate. There’s truth to that statement.
The Chinese Communist Party also fails because of the level of ignorance the monopolistic hold on power breeds in those who hold power.
An arrogant, corrupt regime is incapable of governing a country with correct and sage policy recommendations or prescriptions. Under the CCP’s system, the supreme leader is considered to be all-knowing and all-powerful; he is always regarded as a genius, a master strategist. His dictates cannot be questioned. Even the slightest dissent will be met with heavy punishment. And too often the transgressors suddenly disappear into oblivion, becoming non-persons.
From Mao to Deng and now to Xi, the Chinese communist system has produced and prolonged astonishing levels of ignorance in Party leaders. Killing sparrows and professors is asinine; backyard steel furnaces are stupid; building aircraft carriers without capable offensive airwings is ridiculous. But over the last several years, Chinese leaders’ ignorance has only got worse.
Ill-conceived policy measures, such as the zero-COVID approach, are portrayed as flashes of brilliance in public. But the ignorance and incompetence of senior communist officials are joked about at after-dinner conversations in international forums, with people sighing at the folly of it all.
The misery and tragedy in Shanghai have once proven the absurdity of the belief that China’s ideological system is better at dealing with the epidemic than democratic systems. Many of the 26 million Shanghai residents will no longer buy the CCP’s lies.
Those who believe in the superiority of the Chinese Communist system point to China’s economic growth. Beijing’s propaganda machine often refers to the Party’s leadership and socialism’s superiority as the reasons for China’s economic prosperity. This is absurd.
There is no doubt that China has grown greatly in power, especially in the last fifteen years or so, including rapid economic and military development. But by the Chinese state statistics bureau’s own admission, nearly half of the entire Chinese population of more than 1.3 billion people live on under US$5 a day. This is not prosperity by any stretch of imagination.
Furthermore, even among the well-off, the so-called prosperity is not always linked to China’s arrogant, corrupt, and ignorant communist system. In reality, China’s economic development is the result of the enormous growth of wealth created by the Chinese people’s liberation from the Communist Party’s controlled and planned economy, and the opportunities offered by the international free-market system. The wealth created by the Chinese working people has been arbitrarily taken and exploited by the monopolistic Communist state, which has lined the pockets, and developed the military power of the Party and its millions of executioners.
This kind of economic success is not sustainable. It is without institutional logic. Furthermore, due to the CCP’s intransigence and its predatory economic policies, opportunities provided by the free-market system are being closed off to the regime. The illusion of an economic Pax Sinica is evaporating.
The current Chinese communist rule under Xi Jinping cannot stand up to the challenges of a democratic and free system. In fact, precisely because of China’s institutional inferiority, the regime is weak and constantly in a state of fear — fear of being subverted by its own people at any moment, fear of being told by the world that the Party does not represent the Chinese people, and fear of the truth that China and the CCP are two different, clearly conflicted entities.
The CCP’s systemic weakness is also reflected in its insecurity and sensitivity to international public opinion. Beijing is paranoid about the advent of a peaceful evolution influenced by international democratic forces. This paranoia has driven the CCP to enhance communist ideological indoctrination programs at home.
Xi has launched a nationwide campaign called “Never Forget Your Initial Commitment (to Communism.)” Since most Chinese people believe that communism is a bankrupt ideology, the CCP has grown desperate. Currently, there are about 2,500 universities and colleges in all of China, but there are nearly twice as many CCP “Party Schools.” These institutions’ sole mission is to train ideologically-committed communist cadres at local, provincial and state levels. General Secretary Xi has forced the nation to suffer from an intense indoctrination campaign to beef up the CCP’s “Four Confidences” in socialism, communism, Party monopoly, and “socialist culture.” And he has pushed the CCP’s infamous “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy abroad.
None of these measures can hide how fragile and bankrupt the CCP’s ideology and institutions really are. A single tweet by a US sport manager in support of the Hong Kong demonstrations from far away caused a major political spasm in the “great power” of Beijing. And the state censors have used all the tools at their disposal to protect Xi from comparisons to a cartoon character, Winnie the Pooh.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said more than 200 years ago that some Asian authoritarian societies represented by dynastic China had actually remained in the infancy of civilizational development and had not yet matured. Popular Chinese folklore has often compared the CCP to a giant infant baby locked in a powerful body, without the mature development of the brain and the rationality of an adult. But even Hegel would never have expected a giant baby in the infancy of civilizational development to have the ambition to dominate the world. Such communist “Internationale” must not be allowed to happen.
By understanding that ideas matter, and that the ideas of Marxism-Leninism are the sources of the CCP’s conduct, we can better understand their behavior, their vulnerabilities, and how to secure freedom now and in the future.
Miles Yu served as the senior China policy and planning advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the Trump Administration.
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