By John Garnaut*
Now I get to go unplugged.
Before doing so however I want to thank you very much for coming today and particularly Paul and Sam for giving me this opportunity. It’s an honour to be here at the creation of what promises to be an important seminar series.
This seminar series is itself an audacious act of social engineering. The idea is that by placing economists and security strategists in the same room we could promote dialogue and maybe even peace between the tribes of Canberra - with the long term aim of integrated policy making.
We’ll see about that.
But in the meantime I’m here as someone who was born into the economics tribe and has been forced to gradually concede ground to the security camp. This retreat has taken place over the course of a decade, one story at a time, as I’ve had to accept that economic openness does not inevitably lead to political openness. Not when you have a political regime that is both capable and committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen.
Politics isn’t everything but there’s no country on earth where it is more omnipresent, with the exception of North Korea. And there is no political system that is as tightly bound to ideology.
In the work I was doing upstairs in this building I went out of my way to remove ideology from my analysis of how China is impacting on Australia and our region. It was simply too alien and too difficult to digest. In order to make sense to time-poor leaders it was easier to “normalise” events, actions and concepts by framing them in more familiar terms.
This approach of “normalising” China also served to sidestep painful normative debates about what China is, where it is going and what it wants. It was a way of avoiding a food fight about who is pro-or-anti China. Taking the “Communist Party” out of “China” was a way of de-activating the autoimmune response that can otherwise kill productive conversation.
This pragmatism has worked pretty well. We’ve taken the China conversation to a new level of sophistication over the past year or so.
But by stripping out ideology we are giving up on building a framework which has explanatory and predictive value.
At some point, given the reach that China has into Australia, we will have to make a serious attempt to read the ideological road map that frames the language, perceptions and decisions of Chinese leaders. If we are ever going to map the Communist Party genome then we need to read the ideological DNA.
So today I’m stepping into the food fight.
I want to make these broad points about the historical foundations of CCP ideology, beyond the fact that it is important:
Communism did not enjoy an immaculate conception in China. Rather, it was grafted onto an existing ideological system - the classical Chinese dynastic system.
China had an unusual veneration for the written word and acceptance of its didactic value.
Marxism-Leninism was interpreted to Mao and his fellow revolutionaries by a crucial intermediary: Joseph Stalin.
Communism - as interpreted by Lenin, Stalin and Mao - is a total ideology. At the risk of being politically insensitive, it is totalitarian.
Xi Jinping has reinvigorated ideology to an extent we have not seen since the Cultural Revolution.
I’ll hold off on the practical contemporary implications of all this until we get to the subsequent discussion.
A Dynastic Cosmology
It was clear from my work as a journalist and writer in New China - to use the party speak - that the formal ideology of communism coexists with an unofficial ideology of old China. The Founding Fathers of the PRC came to power on a promise to repudiate and destroy everything about the dark imperial past, but they never really changed the mental wallpaper.
Mao and his comrades grew up with tales of imperial China. They never stopped reading them. The Dream of Red Mansions, The Three Kingdoms - the Chinese classics are all about the rise and decay of dynasties. This is the metanarrative of Chinese literature and historiography, even today.
Mao in particular was obsessed, as Mao’s one-time secretary Li Rui explained to me. He told me: “He only slept on one third of the bed and the other two thirds of his bed was covered by books, all of which were thread-bound Chinese books, Chinese ancient books. His research was the strategies of emperors. That was how to govern this country. That was what he was most interested in.”
And the Founding Revolutionaries passed these same tales down to their children. The daughter of Mao’s leading propagandist, Hu Qiaomu, told me that her father raised his voice to her only once: when she confessed that she hadn’t finished the Dream of Red Mansions (which by the way runs to a million characters). Hu Qiaomu was furious. He told her Chairman Mao had read the book 25 times.
So this is my first observation about ideology - ideology in the broadest sense, as a coherent system of ideas and ideals: the founding families of the PRC are steeped in the Dynastic System.
Admittedly, communism and feudal imperialism are uneasy bedfellows. But they are not irreconcilable. The formula for dynastic communism was perfected by Chen Yun: their children had to inherit power not because of privilege but because they could be counted upon to be loyal to the revolutionary cause. Or, as he put it: “at least our children will not dig up our graves”.
Xi Jinping has exercised an unwritten aristocratic claim to power which derives from his father’s proximity to the founder of the Red Dynasty: Chairman Mao. He is the compromise representative of all the great founding families. This is the starting point for understanding the worldview of Xi Jinping and his Princeling cohort.
In the view of China’s princelings - or “Revolutionary Successors”, as they prefer to be known - China is still trapped in the cycle which had created and destroyed every dynasty that had gone before. In this tradition, when you lose political power you don’t just lost your job (while keeping your super) as you might in our rather gentrified arrangement. You lose your wealth, you lose your freedom, you probably lose your life and possibly your entire extended family. You are literally erased from history. Winners take all and losers lose everything.
With these stakes, the English idiom “life-and-death-struggle” is far too passive. In the Chinese formulation it is “You-Die, I-Live”. I must kill preemptively in order to live. Xi and his comrades in the red dynasty believe they will go the same way as the Manchus and the Mings the moment they forget.
China’s veneration of the written word
A second point, related to the first, is that China has an extraordinary veneration of the written word. Stories, histories and teachers have great moral authority. Greater than anywhere I can think of with the exception of Tsarist Russia. This may have made Russia and China culturally receptive to propaganda and the ideology transmitted by propaganda. What is more certain is that China was particularly receptive to Soviet ideology because Chinese intellectuals found meaning in Russian literature and texts earlier and more readily than they did with other Western sources. “Russian literature was our guide (daoshi) and friend,” said Lu Xun.
In classical Chinese statecraft there are two tools for gaining and maintaining control over “the mountains and the rivers”: The first is wu (weapons, violence - 武) and the second is wen (language, culture - 文).
Chinese leaders have always believed that power derives from controlling both the physical battlefield and the cultural domain. You can’t sustain physical power without discursive power. Wu and wen go hand-in-hand.
The key to understanding the allure of the Soviet Commintern in Shanghai and Guangzhou in the 1920s is that their (admittedly brilliant) agents told a compelling story. They came with money, guns and organisational technology but their greatest selling point was a narrative which promised a linear escape from the dynastic cycle.
(Actually, according to the Soviet rendering of Marxism, the course of history wasn’t exactly linear. Rather, history was said to move along the trajectory of a corkscrew - shaped by “dialectical” rounds of struggle, destruction and renewal).
Mao’s discursive advantage was Marxist-Leninist ideology. Language was not just a tool of moral judgment. It was an instrument for shaping acceptable behaviour and a weapon for distinguishing enemies and friends. This is the subtext of Mao’s most famous poem, Snow. Communist ideology enabled him to “weaponise” culture in a way his imperial predecessors had never managed.
And it’s important to remember who was the leader of the Communist world during the entire quarter of a century in which Mao rose to absolute power.
The “Great Genius” Comrade Stalin.
Mao knew Marxist Leninist dogma was absolutely crucial to his enterprise but he personally lacked the patience to wade through it. He found a shortcut to ideological proficiency with Joseph Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks, published at the end of Stalin’s Great Terror, in 1938. According to Li Rui, when interviewed by historian Li Huayu, Mao thought he’d found an “encyclopaedia of Marxism” and “acted as if he’d discovered a treasure”.
At the time of Stalin’s death, in March 1953, The Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks had become the third-most printed book in human history. After Stalin’s death - when Stalin was eulogised as “the Great Genius” on the front page of the People’s Daily - the Chinese printers redoubled their efforts. It became the closest thing in China to a religious text.
The Short Course is hard reading but it offers us the same shortcut to understanding Communist ideology as it did for Mao.
Stalin’s problem was different to Lenin’s. Lenin had to win a revolution but Stalin had to sustain it.
Stalin’s great ideological challenge was to explain that they’d won the revolution but the long-promised Utopia of perfect equality had to be postponed. He had to rationalise kicking the utopian destination over the horizon and subordinating that ever-receding objective to the imperative of inner party warfare.
Stalin’s Short Course is a manual for perpetual struggle against a roll call of imagined dastardly enemies who are collaborating with imagined Western agents to restore bourgeois capitalism and liberalism. It is written as a chronicle of victories by Lenin and then Stalin’s “correct line” over an endless succession of ideological villains. It is perhaps instructive that many of the most “vile” internal enemies were said to have cloaked their subversive intentions in the guise of “reform”.
The practical utility of the book is that it prescribes an antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that inevitably corrodes and degrades every dictatorship.
The most original insight in Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks is that the path to socialist utopia will always be obstructed by enemies who want to restore bourgeois capitalism from inside the party. These internal enemies grow more desperate and more dangerous as they grow increasingly imperilled - and as they collaborate with the spies and agents of Western liberalism.
The most important lines in the book:
“As the revolution deepens, class struggle intensifies.”
“The Party becomes strong by purging itself.”
You can imagine how this formulation was revelatory to a ruthless Chinese leader like Mao who had mastered the “You Die, I Live” world into which he had been born - a world in which you choose to either kill or be killed - and who was obsessed with how to prevent the decay which had destroyed every imperial dynasty before.
What Stalin offered Mao was not only a manual for purging his peers but also an explanation of why it was necessary. Purging his rivals was the only way a vanguard party could “purify” itself, remain true to its revolutionary nature and prevent a capitalist restoration.
Purging was the mechanism for the Chinese Communist Party to achieve ever greater “unity” with revolutionary “truth” as interpreted by Mao. It is the mechanism for preventing the process of corruption and putrefaction which inevitably sets in after the founding leaders of each dynasty leave the scene.
Crucially, Mao split with Kruschev because Kruschev split with Stalin and everything he stood for. The Sino-Soviet split was ideological - it was Mao’s claim to ideological leadership over the communist world. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. It was Mao’s claim to being Stalin’s true successor.
We hear a lot about how Xi and his peers blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet state but actually their grievances go much further back. They blame Kruschev. They blame Kruschev for breaking with Stalin. And they vow that they will never do to Mao what Kruschev did to Stalin.
Now, sixty years on, we’re seeing Xi making his claim to be the true Revolutionary Successor of Mao.
Xi’s language of “party purity”; “criticism and self-criticism”; “the mass line”; his obsession with “unity”; his attacks on elements of “hostile Western liberalism”, “constitutionalism” and other variants of ideological “subversion” - this is all Marxism-Leninism as interpreted by Stalin as interpreted by Mao.
This is the language that the Deep Red princelings spoke when they got together and occasionally when I interviewed them and crashed their gatherings in the lead up to the 18th Party Congress.
And this was how Xi spoke after the 18th Party Congress:
‘‘To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels.’’
Today, the utopian destination has to be maintained, however absurd it seems, in order to justify the brutal means of getting there. Xi has inserted a couple of interim goals - for those who lack revolutionary patience - but the underlying Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist logic remains the same.
This is the logic of his ever-deepening purge of peers who keep getting in the way.
The purge of the princeling challenger Bo Xilai; the security chief Zhou Yongkang; the two vice chairs of the PLA Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong; the Youth League fixer Ling Jihua; the potential successor Sun Zhengcai just a fortnight ago.
None of this is personal. It’s dialectical. And inevitable.
It’s pushing and accelerating China’s journey along the inexorable corkscrew-shaped course of history.
“History needs to pushed along its dialectical course,” said Xi, in his speech to mark the party’s 95th birthday in 2015. “History always moves forward and it never waits for all those who hesitate.”
The same logic applies outside the party as within.
“The decadent culture of the capitalist class and feudalistic society must be opposed,” said the authoritative Guangming Daily, expanding on another of Xi’s speeches.
The essence of Maoism and Stalinism is perpetual struggle. This is the antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that has destroyed every previous dynasty, dictatorship and empire. This is why Xi and his Red Successor peers believe that Maoism and Stalinism is still highly relevant today. Not just relevant, but existential.
Xi has set in motion a purification project - a war against the forces of counter-revolution - that has no end point because the notional utopian destination of perfect communism will always be kicked a little further down the road.
There is no policy objective in the sense that a Wall Street banker or Canberran public servant might understand it - as a little more energy market efficiency here, or compression of the Gini coefficient there. Rather, this is how you restore dynastic vigour and vitality. Politics is the ends.
This is what Mao and Stalin understood better than any of their peers. This is what Xi Jinping’s Deep Red Restoration is all about. And why the process of extreme politics will not stop at the 19th Party Congress.
Which brings us to the title of this seminar.
Engineers of the human soul
At my first team bonding session in this building I asked who was the world leader who described artists and authors as “engineers of the human soul”.
Was this word image the creation of Stalin, Mao or someone else?
If you’re thinking Joseph Stalin, then you’re right:
"The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.... And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul".
To me this is one of the great totalitarian metaphors: a machine designed to forge complete unity between state, society and individual.
The totalitarian machine works to a predetermined path. It denies the existence of free will and rejects “abstract” values like “truth”, love and empathy. It repudiates God, submits to no law and seeks nothing less than to remould the human soul.
The quote is from Stalin’s famous speech at the home of the writer Maxim Gorky in preparation for the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in October 1932. This marked the end of Stalin’s Great Famine and Cultural Revolution - the prototype for Mao’s Great Famine and Cultural Revolution - in the lead up to Stalin’s Great Terror.
For Stalin, Lenin and the proto-Leninists of 19th Century Russia, the value of literature and art was purely instrumental. There was no such thing as “art for art’s sake”. In their ideology, poetry has no intrinsic value beyond its purpose of indoctrinating the masses and advancing the cause of revolution.
Or, to use the engineering language of the original Man of Steel - Joseph Stalin - literature and art are nothing more nor less than cogs in the revolutionary machine.
But, if you think the answer is Chairman Mao, then you’re also right. Mao extended Stalin’s metaphor a decade later at his famous Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art delivered in two parts in October 1942, and published (in heavily doctored form) one year later:
“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”
This is when Mao made plain that there is no such thing as truth, love or artistic merit except in so far as these abstract concepts can be pressed into the practical service of politics.
Importantly, with contemporary significance, Mao’s talks on literature and art was his way of introducing the Yan’an Rectification Campaign - the first great systematic purge of the Chinese Communist Party. This was a project of orchestrated peer pressure and torture designed first to purge Mao’s peers and then to instil communist ideology deep within the minds of the hundreds of thousands of idealistic students and intellectuals who had flocked to Yan’an during the anti-Japanese war.
Importantly, the Communist Party never sought to “persuade” so much as “condition”. By creating a fully enclosed system, controlling all incentives and disincentives, and “breaking” individuals physically, socially and psychologically, they found they could condition the human mind in the same way that Pavlov had learned to condition dogs in a Moscow laboratory a few years earlier.
This is when Mao’s men first coined the term “brainwashing” - it’s a literal translation of the Maoist term xinao, literally “washing the brain”. Mao himself preferred Stalin’s metallurgical metaphor. He called it “tempering”:
“If you want to be one with the masses, you must make up your mind to undergo a long and even painful process of tempering.”
Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art vanished and were then resurrected and republished everywhere at the onset of the Cultural Revolution - the most audacious and successful act of social engineering that the world has ever seen.
And, most relevant to all of us today, if you are thinking President Xi Jinping, then you’re also right.
President Xi, or Chairman Xi to use a more direct translation, was speaking at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art, in October 2014. Xi’s Forum on Literature and Art was convened on the 72nd anniversary of the young Chairman Mao’s Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art.
Xi was arguing for a return to the Stalinist-Maoist principle that art and literature should only exist to serve politics. Not politics as we know it - the straightforward exercise of organisational and decision-making power - but the totalitarian project of creating unity of language, knowledge, thought and behaviour in pursuit of a utopian destination.
“Art and literature is the engineering that moulds the human soul; art and literary workers are the engineers of the human soul.”
Like Mao’s version, Xi’s art and literature forum speech was not published until one year later.
Like Mao’s speech, the published version made no acknowledgment that large chunks had been added, deleted and revised - to reflect the political imperatives of the times.
Like Stalin and Mao, Xi’s speech marked a Communist Party rectification campaign which included an all-out effort to elevate the respective leaders to cult status. Nothing in Communist Party choreography happens by accident.
It should be noted here that when Mao was rallying the country in 1942 he did so under the banner of ““patriotism” - because the idea of communism had absolutely no pulling power.
It’s no different today. Xi:
“Among the core values of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the deepest, most basic and most enduring is patriotism. Our modern art and literature needs to take patriotism as its muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture.”
And the old warnings against subversive western liberalism haven’t changed either.
For Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Xi, words are not vehicles of reason and persuasion. They are bullets. Words are weapons for defining, isolating and destroying opponents. And the task of destroying enemies can never end. (This deserves a stand alone discussion of United Front strategy - but I'll leave this for another day).
For Xi, as with Stalin and Mao, there is no endpoint in the perpetual quest for unity and regime preservation.
Xi uses the same ideological template to describe the role of “media workers”. And school teachers. And university scholars. They are all engineers of ideological conformity and cogs in the revolutionary machine.
Among the many things that China’s modern leaders did – including overseeing the greatest burst of market liberalisation and poverty alleviation the world has ever seen – those who won the internal political battles have retained the totalitarian aspiration of engineering the human soul in order to lead them towards the ever-receding and ever-changing utopian destination.
This is not to say that China could not have turned out differently. Elite politics from Mao’s death to the Tiananmen massacres was a genuine contest of ideas.
But ideology won that contest.
Today the PRC is the only ruling communist party that has never split with Stalin, with the partial exception of North Korea. Stalin’s portrait stood alongside Marx, Engels and Lenin in Tiananmen Square - six metres tall - right up to the early 1980s, at which point the portraits were moved indoors.
For a long time we all took comfort in thinking that this ideological aspiration existed only on paper, an object of lip service, while China’s 1.4 billion citizens got on with the job of building families and communities and seeking knowledge and prosperity.
But it has been much more than lip service. Since 1989 the party has been rebuilding itself around what the draft National Security Law calls “ideological security” including defending itself against “negative cultural infiltration”.
Propaganda and security - wen and wu, the book and the sword, the pen and the gun - are once again inseparable. Party leaders must “dare to show their swords’’ to ensure that “politicians run newspapers”, said Xi, at his first National Propaganda Work Conference, on August 9, 2013.
Xi has now pushed ideology to the forefront because it provides a framework for “purifying” and regaining control over the vanguard party and thereby the country.
In Xi’s view, shared by many in his Red Princeling cohort, the cost of straying too far from the Maoist and Stalinist path is dynastic decay and eventually collapse.
Everything Xi Jinping says as leader, and everything I can piece together from his background, tells me that he is deadly serious about this totalising project.
In retrospect we might have anticipated this from the Maoist and Stalinist references that Xi sprinkled through his opening remarks as president, in November 2012.
It was made clearer during Xi Jinping’s first Southern Tour as General Secretary, in December 2012, when he laid a wreath at Deng’s shrine in Shenzhen but inverted Deng’s message. He blamed the collapse of the Soviet Union on nobody being “man enough” to stand up to Gorbachev and this, in turn, was because party members had neglected ideology. This is when he gave his warning that we must not forget Mao, Lenin or Stalin.
In April 2013 the General Office of the Central Committee, run by Xi’s princeling right hand man, Li Zhanshu, sent this now infamous political instruction down to all high level party organisations.
This Document No. 9, “Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere”, set “disseminating thought on the cultural front as the most important political task.” It required cadres to arouse “mass fervour” and wage “intense struggle” against the following “false trends”:
Western constitutional democracy - “an attempt to undermine the current leadership”;
Universal values of human rights - an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of party leadership.
Civil Society - a “political tool” of the “Western anti-China forces” dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation.
Neoliberalism - US-led efforts to “change China’s basic economic system”.
The West’s idea of journalism - attacking the Marxist view of news, attempting to “gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology”.
Historical nihilism - trying to undermine party history, “denying the inevitability” of Chinese socialism.
Questioning Reform and Opening - No more arguing about whether reform needs to go further.
There is no ambiguity in this document. The Western conspiracy to infiltrate, subvert and overthrow the People’s Party is not contingent on what any particular Western country thinks or does. It is an equation, a mathematical identity: the CCP exists and therefore it is under attack. No amount of accommodation and reassurance can ever be enough - it can only ever be a tactic, a ruse.
Without the conspiracy of Western liberalism the CCP loses its reason for existence. There would be no need to maintain a vanguard party. Mr Xi might as well let his party peacefully evolve.
We know this document is authentic because the Chinese journalist who publicised it on the internet, Gao Yu, was arrested and her child was threatened with unimaginable things. The threats to her son led her to make the first Cultural Revolution-style confession of the television era.
In November 2013 Xi appointed himself head of a new Central State Security Commission in part to counter “extremist forces and ideological challenges to culture posed by Western nations”.
Today, however, the Internet is the primary battle domain. It’s all about cyber sovereignty.
The key point about Communist Party ideology - the unbroken thread that runs from Lenin through Stalin, Mao and Xi - is that the party is and always has defined itself as being in perpetual struggle with the “hostile” forces of Western liberalism.
Xi is talking seriously and acting decisively to progress a project of total ideological control wherever it is possible for him to do so. His vision “requires all the Chinese people to be unified with a single will like a strong city wall”, as he told “the broad masses of youth” in his Labor Day speech of May 2015. They need to “temper their characters”, said Xi, using a metaphor favoured by both Stalin and Mao.
There is no ambiguity in Xi’s project. We see in everything he does and - even in a system designed to be opaque and deceptive - we can see it in his words.
Mr Xi did not invent this ideological project but he has hugely reinvigorated it. For the first time since Mao we have a leader who talks and acts like he really means it.
And he is pushing communist ideology at a time when the idea of “communism” is as unattractive as it has been at any time in the past 100 years. All that remains is an ideology of power, dressed up as patriotism, but that doesn’t mean it cannot work.
Already, Xi has shown that the subversive promise of the internet can be inverted. In the space of five years, with the assistance of Big Data science and Artificial Intelligence, he has been bending the Internet from an instrument of democratisation into a tool of omniscient control. The journey to Utopia is still in progress but first we must pass through a cyber-enabled dystopia in order to defeat the forces of counter-revolution.
The audacity of this project is breathtaking. And so too are the implications.
The challenge for us is that Xi’s project of total ideological control does not stop at China’s borders. It is packaged to travel with Chinese students, tourists, migrants and especially money. It flows through the channels of the Chinese language internet, pushes into all the world’s major media and cultural spaces and generally keeps pace with and even anticipates China’s increasingly global interests.
In my opinion, if you’re in the business of intelligence, defence or international relations; or trade, economic policy or market regulation; or arts, higher education or preserving the integrity of our democratic system - in other words, just about any substantial policy question whatsoever - then you will need a working knowledge of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought. And maybe, after the 19th Party Congress, you’ll need “Xi Jinping Thought” too.
John Fitzgerald: Human dignity and its enemies
John Garnaut is a consultant to Australian government and private clients. He was previously Fairfax's China's correspondent (2007-13) and Asia-Pacific Editor (2014-15), Senior Advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Nov 2015 - Sept 2016), and Principal Advisor (International) at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Oct 2016 - Jun 2017). This article is a repost of a speech he gave in 2017 in the Asian Strategic and Economic Seminar Series in Canberra, Australia, and is reposted here with the author's permission.