Xi's goal is to shore up the authority of the party-state within his country, including by ensuring Chinese are not exposed to liberal-democratic ideas, and not to launch a new cold war with the West

Xi's goal is to shore up the authority of the party-state within his country, including by ensuring Chinese are not exposed to liberal-democratic ideas, and not to launch a new cold war with the West

By Steve Tsang*

In October 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the CPC enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era.”

At a time when a rapidly modernising China is a leading global player, it is tempting to dismiss this doctrine as anachronistic “party-speak” from a bygone age. We succumb to that temptation at our peril.

Five months after the constitutional change, the National People’s Congress abolished the presidential term limit, meaning that, barring a political earthquake, Xi – who, at age 65, remains healthy and vigorous – could remain president for perhaps another 20 years. His eponymous doctrine will therefore shape China’s development and global engagement for decades to come, and perhaps longer.

In a sense, the inclusion of Xi’s name and thought in the CPC constitution delivered to him the exalted status of the People’s Republic’s founding father, Mao Zedong, as well as the architect of China’s modernisation, Deng Xiaoping – the only two other leaders mentioned in the document. That, together with the removal of term limits, has led many to argue that Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.

But, even if true, this does not mean that Xi is attempting to restore Maoist totalitarianism. While Xi has a much more positive view of China’s Maoist past than any other leader since Deng, he is no Maoist.

Instead, Xi’s approach to governance closely resembles that of China’s first president under Mao, Liu Shaoqi, a devoted Leninist who selectively adapted Confucian ideas to build a Sinicised party-state. For Liu, the party was pivotal; for Mao, by contrast, it was ultimately dispensable, as the Cultural Revolution – of which Liu himself was a casualty – demonstrated. Unlike Mao, who found chaos exhilarating, Xi shares Liu’s longing to exercise control through the CPC, which he expects to take the lead – and apply Xi Jinping Thought – in all policy areas: political, military, civilian, and academic.

The contrast with Deng is even sharper. Deng’s reforms were defined by pragmatism and experimentation, aimed at identifying the most effective approach to modernisation. In the 1980s, Deng even briefly considered the radical possibility of separating the CPC from the state, though he abandoned the idea after the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Nonetheless, Deng and his successors – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – continued to open China to the West, and remained willing to tolerate the spread, within limits, of some liberal ideas. This is not the case with Xi, whose repeated commitment to deepening reform is muddied by his redefinition of what that should entail.

Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, and regards democratisation, civil society, and universal human rights as anathema. Deepening reform means solidifying control over the CPC, via his “anti-corruption campaign,” and over the population, including through the use of advanced technologies enabled by artificial intelligence. Such digital authoritarianism will, Xi hopes, prevent liberal or democratic ideas from taking root and spreading, even as China remains connected to the rest of the world. Chinese citizens may enjoy freedom as consumers and investors, but not as participants in civil society or civic discourse.

Managing this tension between international openness and state control is vital for Xi to achieve another key goal of his doctrine: to “make China great again.” On the one hand, this entails instilling a Party-centric nationalism, so that citizens embrace the primacy of the CPC and of Xi himself. Those who are slower to meet this expectation may find themselves under surveillance and even sent to so-called re-education camps, like those in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands (or more) Muslim Uighurs are now detained.

On the other hand, making China great again means projecting power and leadership on the world stage. After decades of adhering to Deng’s injunction that China should “hide its strength and bide its time,” the country’s moment, Xi believes, has come.

One way Xi hopes to boost China’s global standing is by ensuring that it is on the frontier of technology. To that end, the state is offering its full support to national champions in cutting-edge sectors, as stipulated in the government’s Made in China 2025 strategy, which competitors, especially the United States, decry as unfair. It is no coincidence that the US has been targeting Huawei, which has received as much state support as any company in any country in modern times.

Canada’s decision to heed America’s request to detain Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou for alleged fraud and violations of US sanctions against Iran amounted, in Xi’s eyes, to a failure to respect China’s standing and interests, and thus merited retaliation. China soon detained two Canadians on allegations of “engaging in activities that endanger [China’s] national security,” and resentenced a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling, imposing the death penalty.

The goal of Xi Jinping Thought is not to launch a cold war with the West, or to export China’s political model. Rather, Xi wants to shore up the authority of the party-state – and his own brand of authoritarianism – within China, including by ensuring that Chinese are not exposed to liberal-democratic ideas. Understanding this is vital to enable the world to engage effectively with an increasingly formidable China.

Steve Tsang is Director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, published here with permission.

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An increasing formidable China is an understatement Steve. In my mind it was China almost single-handedly which saved the capitalist world from itself 10 years ago, especially down here in Australasia. A lot of the new money China invested in itself found its way to our shores & boosted our housing markets (among others) immensely. When you look at the fact that barely 6% of Chinese have passports & then look around you even here in NZ, you begin to understand that it is going to be hard if not impossible to stop the dragon from its wicked ways. Xi firmly believes his version of power is the stronger in the long term. As Putin said "Love is temporary but fear lasts forever." And Xi believes that as well. You know, I hope I'm wrong, but in my recent times, my more cynicistic thoughts help keep my unrealistic expectations in check

A good and persuasive article.

"".... Chinese are not exposed to liberal-democratic ideas"". President Xi will have difficulty doing that with so many Chinese learning English, reading the Bible, investing abroad and as tourists. Of course if these Chinese tourists see western countries as riddled with crime and corruption, with fine words but bad actions and with considerable inequality and limited social mobility then the same tourists will return to China, think themselves lucky and praise their president.

There is also the low birth rate and women choosing not to have children, or have fewer and start on them later. The govt is trying to coerce breeding age women to get to it. I wonder what they will do if they don't?
On from that I imagine those who do have kids in the future will most likely rely more on breastfeeding as have western women. I see infant formula becoming less in demand.

While the authority bans the CCTV news anchors from using English terms when reporting news (eg. they cannot say "App", instead they must say"A.P.P"), middle class families are doing all they can to ensure their kids are fluent in English and exposed to the culture. Recently, we had a friend visiting us from Shanghai, her 5yo son speaks fluent American English. This friend and her husband spends $40k pa to send the lil one to an international school taught by American teachers in Shanghai. You can imagine he will be under huge American influence when he grows up, just like many other kids on China. Having said that, the state media is very good at exaggerating negative things occurring in the West (exactly same as what the western media does to China). More people tend to believe that imperialism , colonism, racisms and sinophobia is still in the core of the West, and the western democracy is not trustworthy.

If as the title says ""Xi's goal is to shore up the authority of the party-state within his country"" then birth rate will influence him only if it helps the party retain power. On that basis more kids mean more state expenditure on education, infrastructure and fighting pollution in exchange for a possibly modest improvement in productivity. Why not go for the Japanese solution - reducing population with increasing GDP per Capita? Note he doesn't have the superannuation costs that NZ is committed to. If population was the simple way to dominate the world then the UK wouldn't have had an empire, India would be wealthier than China and everyone would be scared of Africa. Managing a decling busiess is difficult but it can be done.

What I gleaned from the concern about falling birth rate is that it will curtail growth (yay in my books) and could upset the natives who might revolt against him. He is banking on consumerism to keep their particular ponzi going but people tire of that as they mature.

You have a point but I think China is already the no1 exporter of manufactured goods and so can't get better. The population will be more interested in wealth per capita than total wealth. They managed to start their economic growth by the one child policy - while other countries were running hard to just keep up with their population. Without pensions old age is less of an economic factor. Of course I could be way wrong and if so will apologise in 2050.

Nope they are already concerned about it. I would hazard a guess and say that women not doing the traditional thing are exactly what Xi is talking about as not wanting, he would see that as more westernization and it would not be acceptable. This on top of the one child policy will mean a rapidly falling population

Must be a major concern, with the aging population and the race for China to get rich before it gets old. Added to that now, the trend of companies moving their manufacturing out of China as costs (and wage expectations) rise.

An alternative view is that tightening control is a defensive action. Xi knows the transition from the old high growth mercantilist export model to a more sustainable economic model is a difficult one. Few Asian countries have managed to escape the middle income trap and the challenge for China is enormous. As in really, really big. The country has 60 odd million doing reasonably okay and 1.24 odd billion doing rather less well.

The other factor is that failure to keep the people happy is more personally dangerous in a totalitarian state as the rulers get slaughtered, either by their rivals or by the angry populace, not just booted out of office and given an overpaid tax free job at the United Nations. Hence the "anti corruption" purge to take out the main rivals.

I have the impression that losing favour with whoever controls China is usually less violent tham other authoritarian states. They execute the low classes but not the upper classes; they have too many personal connections so they are sent to 'learn from the peasants'. Were the 'gang of four' executed?

That reminds me of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, describing the 'torturable class':

'Did you torture him?'

Captain Segura laughed. 'No. He doesn't belong to the torturable class.'

'I didn't know there were class-distinctions in torture.'

'Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.'

'There's torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher's laboratory they were torturing … ?'

'One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.'

'Who does?'

'The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.'

'You always win, don't you? That's an interesting theory of yours.'

'One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don't recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people.'

Perhaps not as dramatic as in North Korea where Kim's controlling uncle was personally despatched with an Anti Aircraft gun. Xi was extremely thorough


It seems to me that faced with increased population by longevity or birth and seeking higher consumption from finite resources that outcomes short to medium term are limited for our squabbling world.
1. War - direct or by proxy - reduces population but consumes more resources and may move from proxy to involving the initiators.
2. Natural physical disaster or epidemic (natural or intentional) - outside of human control once initiated. Climate change etc.
3. Tighter behaviour control by a mixture of persuasion or coercion including novel use of artificial intelligence and maybe even food sources -1984, Soylent Green, etc.
We seem to be moving inexorably towards 3 hoping 1 will be avoided despite the parallels with the 30’s and avoiding thinking or planning for 2.

Jethro: If you are young then you could add:

4. discovery of how to stop or even reverse aging. Then it gets very interesting especially if the solution is very expensive (President Xi for eternity!).

Might fortunately avoid the need to become the world's second necrocracy.

Peak oil, and indeed peak many materials we rely on. your 1) In the 1930s and WW2 the USA was the world's biggest oil producer. Today? yes with shale, could it support a WW3? no I dont think so. Can you fight to get control and then extract a resource? maybe, certainly the US's move on Iran and Venezuela smack of that.

3) I had huge arguments with the Green voters / supporters over population control and then they voted in an MP and co-leader with 6. They dont want to know and neither does any other political party of consequence even TOP.

Anybody re-read Goerge Orwell's 1984 recently? This depiction of Xi and China is frighteningly similar. The question is how will it flow into the rest of the world. I wonder if Trump for one would like to take a leaf out of his book?

Yeah try comparing 1984 to Trump instead, now that is really scary.

So Putin, Trump and Xi, 3 parts of the world in effect....what was 1984's world broken into? 2 or 3?

Big question is how to stop it? I note in this Stuff report that China have implemented another population control measure. Frankly this stuff is scary. You can virtually guarantee they will try to roll this out into the world and there will be many a politician or official who would love to put it in place.