Last week, Xi Jinping gave himself full Marx. The Chinese Communist party’s sixth plenum, a gathering of top political cadres, passed a resolution on “Certain Questions in the Party’s History”, in which Xi’s system of thought was defined as “Marxism for the 21st century”. Not only that, but that it also served as “the essence of the Chinese culture and China’s spirit”.
These are not terms that sound natural in English, but their significance is immense, because only two previous resolutions of this sort have ever been passed – in 1945 and 1981. The resolutions on party history are meant to provide a definitive statement on the CCP’s record in governing China. The 1945 resolution sealed Mao Zedong’s status as the definitive party leader, ahead of his victory in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists four years later. The 1981 resolution was more intriguing, because it was a very rare admission of fault by the party itself; its language was tortuous but it consisted of a grudging apology to the nation for the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.
Forty years on and the new resolution shows no sign of contrition, instead stating the party’s “transformation” of China. It praised Xi, Mao and Deng Xiaoping for leading it to achieve “the tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong”. This is a turning point in the history of the CCP. The resolution elevates Xi to a position held only by Mao and Deng before him, as a moving force who did not just carry on the Chinese communist revolution, but recreated it. If Mao is the founder of the People’s Republic of China and Deng the reformer who made it wealthy, the “new era” of Xi is one in which China becomes a prosperous society at home and a global one in influence.
“Party history” in China is a very specific term and it does not only mean a description of the CCP’s past. That past is fascinating to historians because of the factional battles and violent confrontation that marked the party’s passage from a tiny group in 1921 to its status as a machine that rules a quarter of humanity. “History” should be read as Xi has flagged it, as a Marxist sense of the determinism, or inevitability, of a particular outcome: a socialist society driven by Xi Jinping Thought. Of course, it helps to bring about such inevitability if alternative possibilities are closed off. One ideological deviation that Xi has condemned frequently is “historical nihilism” – criticism of the officially approved version of the party’s history, which removes almost all attacks on events such as the famine that killed millions in the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 and greatly underplays the traumas caused by the Cultural Revolution.
The 1981 party resolution opened the way for a limited, but real, ability to criticise that terrible era in public. Now that space has shrunk. This year, the cyber-administration of China reported that it had removed more than 2m online posts relating to unacceptable views of party history that “distort” it by “slandering” its leaders and their actions since 1949. However, even if Xi shares Mao’s distaste for dissent, his political thinking is very different. Mao’s provided political rocket fuel for radicals around the world, whether Parisian students in 1968 or Peruvian peasants in the Shining Path terror movement of the 1980s. Xi Jinping Thought does not provide that kind of briquette for the revolutionary fire. It does not remotely encourage individual uprising against the forces of oppression, but instead praises massive state power to develop the ultimate goal of “common prosperity”. The “new era” seeks Chinese influence globally in all areas that matter, from security, not just in east Asia but more recently in the Indian Ocean and the Arctic, to norms on trade and technology and even cultural production.
It matters that it is the party, not just Xi, which is protected in the battle against “historical nihilism”. Xi’s personality cult, while real, does not make him the equivalent of Vladimir Putin, who has built a political system around himself. The Russian leader benefits from the ambiguous placement he has within his own country’s history, both a product of the old system (as a former KGB agent) and the president of a post-Soviet state. In China, the party still rules supreme and Xi’s status derives from his continuity in a sequence that includes Mao and Deng. However powerful he is, his legitimacy derives from his status as party secretary-general, as the heir to the century of historical development, one reason why he is so keen to make sure that the party’s reputation is untarnished.
Yet tradition is not everything. Last week’s events are the start of a year leading up the party congress, widely expected to be held in October next year, when Xi will probably seek and gain a third term in power. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were forced to step down after two five-year terms each, preventing the kind of personalised rule for life that Mao had enjoyed. Xi, in contrast, has made it clear that he intends to go for a third term and perhaps beyond. His keynote speech at the party congress in 2017 argued that Chinese-style socialism was no longer just a strategy for survival in one country, but for a new sense of a global China, which he intends to develop over the long term.
Meanwhile, the shape of Xi’s China at home is becoming ever clearer. The limited liberalism of the Jiang and Hu eras, where some dissent was allowed online and universities could debate democracy and constitutional change, even if discreetly, has largely disappeared. China’s fledgling civil society, tackling issues from climate change to Aids treatment, has been absorbed and neutralised by the state. So far, however, the ability to provide growing living standards along with a genuine pride felt in China’s rising global status seems to have kept the middle class broadly satisfied.
But there are problems to come. A confrontation with the US is still unlikely, but it would devastate China’s economy as well as lives globally. Climate change and water shortages still bedevil China’s urbanisation, a reality that may lie behind the sudden, late agreement at Cop26 between Washington and Beijing to cooperate on these issues. The demographic fallout from the one-child policy means that China will have a society older and more in need of healthcare from the 2030s. Xi’s position looks unassailable now, but even all-powerful leaders cannot countermand the drying of the deserts or the decision of families in tiny flats not to have babies.