What Xi Jinping did not say
A decade ago, the brilliant Chinese writer Yu Hua penned a collection of essays titled China in Ten Words. By turns caustic, funny, and tragic, the book was a pithy commentary on modern China’s travails but also some of its triumphs. Some of Yu’s chosen words came to my mind upon hearing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Xi Jinping’s speech last month to celebrate the CCP’s centennial founding. Specifically, the words: leader (lingxiu), revolution (geming), copycat (shanzhai), disparity (chaju), and bamboozle (huyou). These words underlined that what was interesting in Xi’s speech was not what he said, but what he did not say.
Yu’s essay on “leader” spoke about the cult personality of Mao Zedong. Xi paid respect to not just Mao but all the CCP chairs who came after him – Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. What Xi left unstated was that he has ensured he is, today, possibly the most powerful leader since Mao.
In 2018, for example, he abolished the presidential term limits put in place by Deng to ensure peaceful transitions. Xi carefully and continually referenced “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. That term has, of course, been officially enshrined in the party constitution as part of “Xi Jinping Thought” (a phrase Xi avoided in the speech), and it can be found all over China. Previously, only Mao’s “Thought” was included in the constitution while he was in office while Deng’s was added only after his death.
Within the word “revolution,” Yu acknowledged the contradictions of the Communist revolution – China’s economic miracle but also the violence of the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966, both of which wreaked economic and social havoc on Chinese society. Xi referred repeatedly to “revolution” in his speech – the triumph of the armed revolution that ended China’s semi-feudal, semi-colonial society; the socialist revolution that built a stronger China; the social revolution led by the CCP that would help China follow its own path – but, unsurprisingly, not to any of its violent contradictions.
Yet Xi is intimately familiar with the harrowing stories Yu relates in the book. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s own father, a senior CCP official, was exiled and tortured by the Red Guards. More importantly for China’s modern purposes, Xi’s stated path of revolution and the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics had little specifics or details on what those characteristics would be. As Lina Benabdallah’s excellent book, Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations shows, China has been offering its development path as a model for African countries but this is not based on ideology as much as social capital and social networks. In other words, in the absence of a model based on Chinese characteristics, China has been building relationships through people-to-people relations and human resource development.
This brings to mind the word “copycat” in Yu’s book. Yu used it to talk of the Chinese longing for a rich Western lifestyle. While today, given the rise of China’s billionaires, the Chinese may feel less of a need to aspire to Western models of luxury, the word is still relevant. This is because China’s path of development that succeeded and gave rise to those billionaires was not by rejecting Western style capitalism or Western order but by adopting and imitating it. Whether we talk of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), these institutions have less discernable Chinese characteristics than Western multilateral elements, which have been the bedrock of the post-World War II United States (US ) -led liberal order.
Yu used “disparity” to talk of China’s urban-rural gap. As is well-documented, China’s rural-urban gap, of course, persists even today. Xi ignored it by referring to how China has resolved its “problem of absolute poverty” although, it must be said, the CCP does deserve credit for making rural issues (agricultural production, rural development, peasant income) central to its platform.
Yu’s last word in the book is possibly the most provocative – bamboozle. Yu used it to illustrate how ordinary Chinese are repeatedly tricked by those in authority while, in turn, tricking them. Xi’s speech had, at times, an illusory quality. Phrases such as the need to carry out a “great struggle with many contemporary features”, and “adapt Marxism to the Chinese context” lacked any detail besides fine exhortations, while “uphold the firm leadership of the Party” omitted the words “in Xi’s powerful grip. ”
The lesson that India can take from all of this is that first, the insecurity the CCP continually struggles with was revealed in spades in Xi’s speech. The reason it was imperative for Xi to hammer home that the CCP had transformed China, had been crucial to China’s successes over decades, and would continue to be so for decades to come was because there is no socialist ideological glue that holds China together today. Rather, there is Chinese nationalism – and that, as the CCP government is well aware, can fast become anti-CCP sentiment.
Second, ideas matter – the deliberate dilution of old ideas can be risky, and the absence of new ideas inhibiting. Xi is playing a precarious game in pushing the CCP even further down an authoritarian path while the lack of a Chinese vision of a future order means there isn’t any real China-led alternative the world can buy into (or reject). India would do well to pay heed.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and research associate at the University of Oxford. She is on leave from the Pardee School, Boston University where she is associate professor.
The views expressed are personal
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