Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2021-07-12 15:17:47 Published on Jul 12, 2021
China’s communist party has survived where others have failed — a testament to its capacity to adapt and reinvent itself with the times. Mao’s successors put ideology aside and focused instead on economic growth.  Yet today, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, there is much lip-service paid to the ideology of the communist past, even while key communist principles like collectivism are actively undermined. With a slowing down economy, communist propaganda and nationalist fervour are Xi’s attempts at distraction from China’s reality.
Chinese nationalism, with socialist characteristics?

This article originally appeared in The Institute of Arts and Ideas (IAI).

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its centenary day on 1 July. President Xi Jinping opened the centenary celebration with an hour-long speech dotted with nationalistic rhetoric and grand vision for the country and the party. The grand event comprised of 70,000 delegates cheering, singing and waving in magical unison with great fanfare symbolised a confident nation that China has become. A massive nation-wide celebration was organised to send a message to the world that the party and the state was strong, unified and confident of challenges.

A centenary celebration is not a small achievement. Most communist regimes including the mightiest Soviet Communist Party disintegrated like pack of cards. The CCP’s century-long survival speaks a lot about the capacity of the regime adapt, reinvent and to stay in power despite huge challenges. But Xi’s sharp speech during the celebrations, warning adversarial nations they would face a “Great Wall of steel” in case they try to intimidate China, hints at the nationalist turn the party took under his leadership. And even 100 years after its founding members were inspired by Marx and Lenin, the party is returning to communist practices and principles in order to regain a sense of its identity, and retain its grip on power.

Even 100 years after its founding members were inspired by Marx and Lenin, the party is returning to communist practices and principles in order to regain a sense of its identity, and retain its grip on power.

The CCP’s 100-year journey

Founded in Shanghai in 1921 by 13 delegates (one of them was Mao Zedong), the CCP suffered many major setbacks in its early decades leading to its military retreat (called Long March). It finally defeated the Nationalists and captured the power in 1949 to establish a Leninist state. Yet, the violent war that the CCP waged to defeat the Nationalists stayed with it, shaping its programmes and outlook in dealing with foreign countries. Such an outlook produced many catastrophic events such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, where millions perished.

The CCP’s history indicates that its leadership was pragmatic enough to bring about a necessary course-correction to Mao’s disastrous path. In Deng Xiaoping, the CCP found an able leader and a visionary who hugely transformed the party’s ideology and organisation and steered a closed socialist economy towards liberalisation, what is now called as “second revolution.” Deng launched a series of economic reforms under a “state-capitalism model” which powered China’s unprecedented economic growth, turning a poor and weak Asian nation into the world’s second largest economy in about four decades. The sustained high growth which helped the country to lift more than 800 million people from poverty and created a huge urban and middle class population greatly restored CCP’s lost legitimacy during the Mao era. Yet, during the liberalisation and high growth period, the Chinese leadership from Deng to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, the CCP and its rigid ideological projects took a back seat. This period witnessed significant dilution of ideological rigidity and some political opening, prompting many western analysts to predict the communist country’s eventual transition to democracy.

The CCP’s history indicates that its leadership was pragmatic enough to bring about a necessary course-correction to Mao’s disastrous path.

The Xi-Factor: A turn towards nationalist and the return of communism

However, the brief period of political opening was a short affair. Once Xi took the party’s mantle in 2012 as the General Secretary, communist orthodoxy has returned to the party and its cadres in a systematic fashion. The CCP which had prioritised economic development over class struggle since the 1980s is now on a reverse course correction. Since taking over the mantle of the party and the government, Xi has underlined the importance of Maoist-Leninist ideology to 92 million strong party members. Not only are students made to compulsorily learn party history and ideology, a secret memo (Document Number Nine) was issued banning the teaching of western concepts such as constitutional democracy, human rights at the school levels. Further, the CCP under Xi’s tutelage has done everything to sanitise Mao’s disastrous acts and to paint him as a saint of communism, and has given a new lease of life to once defunct party committees who keep an eye on everything including issuing alerts on possible political troubles. Such control and ideological indoctrination have been extended to private firms as well by issuing guidelines and opening party cells in them. Entrepreneurs and start-up funders like Jack Ma are primary members of the party.

And yet, Xi has systematically destroyed the key communist principle of collectivism by making himself the supreme leader and controlling all levers of power. Plus, he has pushed the party and its cadres on a nationalistic course. For example, Xi in 2017 exhorted his people that the time was ripe for China to take global leadership and demonstrate its unique economic model. He said, “a flourishing economic model of socialism with Chinese characteristics offered a new choice for the world.” According to Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP who was in charge of political training when Xi became the General Secretary, the party, which enjoyed some degree of autonomy under previous leaders, has come under the heavy hand of Xi. He has assiduously worked to establish himself in the party’s history as the third greatest leader after Mao and Deng. Xi has done this is by eliminating his key political rivals through frequent political purges. As a testimony to his dominance, in the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017, Xi was declared “the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping”; and the party enshrined the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” A major turning point in the transformation of state and the party was also the abolition of the two-term limit in 2018, which allows for a lifelong presidency.

In other words, President Xi has dismantled the collective leadership convention that acted as a sort of restraint on the regimes of both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Deng’s intention to institutionalise collective leadership — separating the party from the government — was to keep at bay the type of authoritarianism experienced during Mao’s long and disastrous rule. Xi has used two key drivers: hypernationalism and collective anxiety to maintain his grip over the party and the government.

Xi has used two key drivers: hypernationalism and collective anxiety to maintain his grip over the party and the government.

Nationalistic sentiments are manufactured and amplified by the CCP and its propaganda machines both online and offline round the clock. While hypernationalist narratives have been created to justify the country’s strong measures to curtail political freedom in Hong Kong and over re-education camps in Xinjiang, this is more visible in China’s successful handling of Covid-19. Even the mild criticism of the Wuhan coronavirus episode by Fang Fang was painted as an unpatriotic act, and millions called for her hanging online.

According to scholar Jiang Shigong, Xi is aware of the fact that the post-Tiananmen economic momentum that has ensured legitimacy for the party may not last forever. The CCP needs something else to galvanise people and this is where hypernationalism has come as a handy tool and diversion tactic. Xi has floated slogans like “The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “Chinese Dream of rejuvenation,” as well as phrases such as “getting rich” and “become powerful” to divert attention from a slowing economy and related challenges.

Beyond this, the CCP under Xi has been using the fear of external threats (Hong Kong and Xinjiang) or foreign powers envious of Chinese prosperity to target rival power centres as well as exert control over key institutions such as the People’s Liberation Army. This has resulted in the transformation of the CCP and greater emphasis on doctrinal Marxism-Leninism which had lost its ideological appeal as China embarked on greater economic liberalisation and globalisation. In short, rigid communist principles have come back with a vengeance under Xi’s close watch.

Exporting propaganda abroad

While China stayed mostly inward and focused largely on its domestic challenges for all these decades, this has gone for dramatic makeover after Xi arrived the centre stage. The CCP under Xi Jinping has been making determined efforts to spread its influence and not shying away from interfering in the domestic affairs of countries in both near and afar regions. This is being done in multiple ways. First, contrary to earlier trends, most private firms have come under its radar as party committee members sit in their decision-making bodies. Importantly, the CCP has been empowered in recent years to use enormous amounts of state resources (estimated at US$ 10 billion per year) to continue its influence operations abroad. The second and most important development during Xi’s tenure is the growing role of the key propaganda arm of the party, once marginalised the United Front Work Department (UFWD), named the ‘Magic Weapon’ by analysts, in launching ‘influence operations’ abroad. Founded in 1924 and called as one of the three jewels by Mao (other two being the CCP and PLA), the United Front was largely intended to carry out the propaganda and indoctrination within China. However, it has received a new push by Xi by expanding the scope of its intervention. To give a greater push, Xi has elevated United Front to co-opt Chinese diasporas and build relationships with Western sources so as to ensure the “foreign serve” the CCP well.

In short, rigid communist principles have come back with a vengeance under Xi’s close watch.

In several instances, UFWD has funded NGOs embedded within the Chinese diaspora in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Finally, CCP and United Front-connected funding is finding its ways into the realms of idea production, influencing think tanks and premier universities, NGOs, newspapers and other related media outlets in these regions. The net outcomes of such influence operations by CCP and United Front are revealing. The most striking cases of Chinese influence operations in recent years were Australia, New Zealand (buying up influence through political donations) and the United States. It became such a major political controversy in the US prompting the Trump administration to launch a crackdown on Confucius centres, blaming them of indulging in ideological indoctrination and espionage. This together with mega geopolitical projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative is meant to showcase the party and state’s hard and soft powers in the world.

While holding on to power over seven decades and transforming an impoverished agrarian country to unprecedented economic prosperity deserves praise and acknowledgement for the pragmatist vision of its past leaders, the party under Xi the current regimehas become ideologically dogmatic and hypernationalist. Despite unparallel successes domestically and at the global stage, the CCP and the government under Xi appears highly insecure and suffers from a siege mentality. This is reflected in its actions in Hong Kong, supressing even slightest forms of dissent and criticism, shutting down publications, closing down libraries and archives, denying visas to foreign journalists, cracking down on civil society groups and even cancelling cultural exchanges. The CCP stands at a critical crossroad and notwithstanding its past achievements, its next 100 years seem a lot more uncertain.

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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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