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How Xi Jinping used ‘revolution’ instead of ‘nationalism’ to take control of China

The Chinese Communist Party of pre-Xi Jinping era was riddled with factionalism. Then Xi took over as CPC's General Secretary in 2012 and changed the system.

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Ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party of China, the two impulses of ideology: nationalism and revolution have shaped the politics of the country. While the nationalistic worldview refers to the acute desire to restore the glory of China, the revolutionary worldview refers to allegiance to the core beliefs of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, with Chinese adaptations. And every leader from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and, lately, Xi Jinping has sought to play both depending on the need and situation.

China under Mao witnessed a strong imprint of both nationalistic and revolutionary impulses. But the commitment to the latter led to the development of a personality cult around Mao and strong anti-market sentiments. The repercussions of these two developments became apparent during the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-59), Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The post-Mao era, however, witnessed a turn away from its revolutionary identity towards a reformist one, while still retaining the nationalistic character. Deng, after assuming party leadership in 1980, put in place two safeguards—i.e., the principle of collective leadership,3 and a two-term limit on the presidency.4 The twin aims were to arrest any potential dictatorial tendencies and avoid a repeat of the social and economic disaster of that era. Deng also introduced market reforms which he regarded as necessary for party’s survival. This shift continued under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’s reign as well.

While the party occasionally continued to refer to its pre-1949 contributions, its reformist identity remained the mainstay of its legitimacy. The partial dilution of the party’s revolutionary identity during this period could be attributed to three factors: to curb dictatorial tendencies, overcome the aversion to economic reforms, and find other sources of legitimacy for the party.

However, since the ascendance of Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the CPC in 2012, the revolutionary impulse has regained its place alongside nationalism in the official Party narrative.

This change could be attributed to the undermining of the institution of the GS of the party, in the pre-Xi Jinping era—an unintended consequence of Deng’s incremental political and economic reforms, notwithstanding the political stability and economic growth it ushered in.

The decade of the 1980s saw two successive general secretaries of the CPC, Hu Yaobang (1980-87) and Zhao Ziyang (1987-89) being sacked owing to factional politics that thrived under the guise of the principle of collective responsibility.

Xi Jinping’s immediate predecessor and former General Secretary Hu Jintao also saw his authority challenged during his reign (2002-2012). His accession marked the emergence of two dominant factions—the Jiang-led “Shanghai Faction” and the Hu-led “Youth League faction”—that agreed to a power-sharing arrangement to avoid succession battles.

However, the system was not without its drawbacks as it resulted in a power dynamic that enabled the outgoing General Secretary to appoint the members of the incoming Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). It disallowed the newly appointed General Secretary the prerogative to choose his PSC, thereby restricting his powers and independence. Consequently, in the nine-member PSC constituted in 2002 under Hu’s leadership, at least five belonged to the Jiang-led Shanghai faction. Moreover, Jiang did not step down from the post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) until 2004. Hu also found his economic policies challenged by Bo Xilai and Chen Liangyu.

It is in light of this authority crisis at the office of the General Secretary that Xi sought refuge in revolutionary ideology, using it to strengthen party discipline and restore the authority of the General Secretary.

Xi Jinping, who served as Vice President of the PRC and Vice Chairman of the CMC during Hu’s second term (2008-2012), was witness to the repeated undermining of the apex leadership including the office of GS. The abolition of the two-term limit on the presidency, and the reiteration of unified leadership as opposed to collective leadership, and the dismantling of factional politics to create a faction of his own, suggests that Xi recognised that the incremental reforms had severely restricted the exercise of power by the General Secretary. Even though Xi’s rise could be partly attributed to his association with the Shanghai faction, his actions suggested that he was determined to bring an end to the bi-factional power-sharing arrangement. There seems to be a definite assessment that factional politics played a substantial role in the unfolding of two major political crises in the history of the CPC-ruled PRC—the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 and the Bo Xilai incident in 2012. Furthermore, factionalism thrived under the guise of collective responsibility, which in turn led to a weakened leadership and loosening of authority at the top.

In Xi’s assessment, the institutional weakness of the office of General Secretary and lack of discipline within the party in the period predating his accession could wreck the party from within and compromise its overall leadership. The possibility of continued and unhindered disregard of the position of General Secretary during his leadership, perhaps explains Xi’s recourse to revolutionary ideals.

The Xi Jinping Thought that has emerged as the guiding ideology to lead China down the path of national rejuvenation exemplifies the ideology-authority relationship. It is touted as the ideological succession and a ‘great leap’ in the process of ‘Sinicization of Marxist ideology’ so as to suit local Chinese requirements. Its propagation assumes immense significance towards securing Xi’s central position and unquestionable authority within the party. It does so by making the accomplishment of the China dream contingent upon adherence to the original aspirations. Xi Jinping Thought, while explaining the essence of the original mission, i.e., a concentrated embodiment of the party’s nature, purpose, beliefs, and goals that in turn refers to the welfare of the Chinese people—equates it with inheriting the ‘red gene’ and carrying forward the ‘revolutionary spirit’ as losing commitment to the original aspiration would change party’s “nature and colour, and lose the people and its future.”

Xi has strengthened the role of General Secretary in the appointment process to the central leadership bodies such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), Central Committee, State Council, and the central legislative bodies. In contrast to the voting process adopted at the two preceding Party Congress in 2007 and 2012 for the appointment to these leadership bodies, Xi has replaced it with a system of individual interviews and investigations along with consultations with former and current party leaders at various levels—provincial, central, and military—to deliberate upon the candidates and finalise the appointments to the 19th Central leading bodies.

Xi has also promulgated two very specific principles that have reaffirmed that the only legal and legitimate faction in the party to which allegiance is acceptable and mandated is the ‘central committee’ loyal to Xi Jinping.

The message thus being forced by Xi is that espousing the revolutionary ideals, inculcating, and carrying forward the red gene requires commitment and adherence to the original aspiration; and that the ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is key to giving expression to the original aspiration. Having established the primacy of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, Xi and the party reiterate a three-step argument. One, the ‘leadership of the party’ is the defining feature of Chinese Socialism. Two, the centralised and unified leadership of the Central Committee is the highest principle of ‘party leadership’. Three, Xi Jinping is the core of the Central Committee. And lastly, resolutely upholding the position of Xi Jinping as the core of the party’s Central Committee is the common political responsibility of all. The successive directions are meant for specific constituencies. The first is meant for the people, the second for the party officials, and the third for the Central Committee members. The fourth is for all to adhere.

Amit Kumar is a Research Intern with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. He is pursuing his MA in Diplomacy, Law and Business at the O.P. Jindal Global University. He tweets @am_i_t_kumar.

This article is an edited excerpt from the author’s paper ‘Understanding the Rejuvenation of China’s Revolutionary Impulse’ first published by the Observer Research Foundation. Read the full paper here.

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