Xi, Orwell and the language of Chinese politics

This piece originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

The 19th Party Congress closed earlier this week with the announcement that ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ would be enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charter. This eponymous ideological contribution is the first since ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was posthumously written into the charter in 1997, and the only ‘Thought’ since ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ was introduced as the CCP’s guiding ideology in 1945.

Even before this announcement, commentators were drawing comparisons between Xi and Mao. Australian scholar Geremie Barmé calls Xi the ‘Chairman of Everything’. Since early last year, such allusions have become popular, especially following Xi’s designation as the Party’s ‘Core Leader’ in March. Xi’s anti-corruption drive, which some argue is being used to consolidate his personal power by purging rivals, is also reminiscent of Mao’s campaigns.

An official state media release suggests that the Party charter will not shorten Xi’s contribution to the more pithy ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the same vein as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, but maintain its full, somewhat awkward title. This is a small but significant detail.

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Opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the CCP. Photo by Voice of America (Wikimedia Commons, 2017).

George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’ that ‘political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. In political language, Orwell said, ‘one almost never finds a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech’. This is especially true of the CCP’s carefully cultivated and scripted political language.

All political movements and institutions face decisions of continuity and change. The CCP leadership understands that at certain times it must change, or at least be seen to be doing so, in order to continue to rule. Evolution rather than revolution has been a bastion of China’s political life since Deng Xiaoping took the helm. The CCP’s political language is instrumental – it enables those in power to take ownership of certain ideas in order to increase their potency, and justify the Party’s continuity and change. Thus, each generation of leaders espouses a ‘new’ ideology, which is in fact simply an extension of and improvement upon their predecessors’.

For all Party leaders since Deng Xiaoping, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been the guiding light.

The term was introduced by Deng Xiaoping in his opening address to the 12th Party Congress in 1982. Deng explained that China’s modernisation depended on adapting some ideas about political institutions from other countries and marrying them to existing concepts in China, rather than slavishly imitating them. This primarily meant implementing aspects of a capitalist market economy while maintaining the CCP’s unchallenged political authority. In short, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was devised to create the appearance of capitalism’s ideological compatibility with socialism.

This was complete anathema to the revolutionary roots of Mao’s CCP, and one reason behind the growth of a vocal minority in China who are inspired by and seek the reinstallation of Maoist political and economic ideology. Broadly speaking, neo-Maoists believe China’s economic reforms have led to the degradation or even the complete abandonment of the Communist and socialist path Mao espoused: looking after collective rather than individual interests.

Despite the trope, often used by the government, that China has ‘lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty’ since Deng’s reform and opening up program, neo-Maoists contend that not everyone has benefited from China’s economic development. They point to the increasing gap between rich and poor and urban and rural, as well as the lack of rights afforded to migrant workers. The growth of the private sector, they argue, has tarnished the Party’s mission, which has become increasingly characterised by greed and decadence rather than commitment to create the egalitarian and utopian society promised by its founding fathers. For new Maoists, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is not socialism at all.

Xi’s ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, then, does not represent a Maoist mission – it is the latest expression of the CCP’s post-Mao purpose.

In 2012, the work report presented by then-President Hu Jintao at the 18th Party Congress stated that the most significant project of the previous decade had been ‘bravely promoting the implementation of basic theoretical innovation’, and putting forward ‘new thinking, new views and new arguments closely connected to the support and development of socialism with Chinese characteristics‘.

The theme of the 17th party congress (2007) led by Hu, was ‘hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive for new victories in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects’. For the 16th Party Congress (2002), presented by Jiang Zemin, it was ‘fight to make a new breakthrough in socialism with Chinese characteristics‘. Of Jiang’s 15th Congress work report (1997), then-Shanghai Party Secretary Huang Ju wrote in the People’s Daily that ‘it was a declaration by the Central Party, with Comrade Jiang Zemin at the core, to guide the entire Party, military and people into a new era and leap into the new century‘. An editorial claimed that Jiang Zemin’s planned overhaul of state-owned enterprises would ‘make China’s updated socialist concepts enter a new era of enlightenment’.

Similarly, the ‘China Dream’ – another catchphrase with which Xi is closely associated – is not the first expression of the Party’s ambition for the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. References to the rejuvenation in Party media go as far back as 1981. In his political report delivered at the 13th Party Congress of 1987, Zhao Ziyang referred to the political project of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. A People’s Daily report in 2002 heralded the ‘spiritual power to realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

Xi is not fostering a cult of personality, but a cult of the Party. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is not his, but the Party’s. He continues the tradition of his predecessors’ contributions to the CCP’s theoretical canon, all of which were intended to emphasise the Party’s relevance and modernity. Xi’s thought for a ‘new era’ is intended to justify the Party’s Leninist-capitalist hybridity in the context of new challenges, both domestic and international. With debate about China’s place in the world (and US President Donald Trump’s incompetence disturbingly apparent), Xi’s ambitious global Belt and Road program underway, and the growing complexity of the North Korean nuclear issue and South China Sea disputes, the CCP believes a new type of leader, whose name is worthy of immortalisation in its charter, is required to generate and maintain popular support and give the Party, and by extension the country, the global prestige and authority to which it feels entitled.

Xi may be adept at using the CCP’s political language to his advantage. But he does so not with fresh, vivid or home-made turns of speech, but under the guidance of the Party apparatus. This may be a ‘new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics’, but it is not the first, nor will it be the last.

Note: Unless referenced, all translations from Chinese sources are the author’s. References to People’s Daily reports, unless otherwise indicated, were accessed via the newspaper’s archives.

19th Party Congress: Comments

On 18 October the Chinese Communist Party began its weeklong, quinquennial Party Congress.

My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in SBS News.

But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader’s signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.

“If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi’s legacy and call his legitimacy into question,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of China and the New Maoists.

Sun Zhengcai under investigation: Comments

On 24 July China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection officially announced that former Chongqing Party Chief Sun Zhengcai has been placed under investigation for ‘serious discipline violation’.

My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in the Daily Mail.

Sun, who had kept a low profile, had even been touted as Xi’s potential successor, said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of “China and the New Maoists”.

“His downfall signals a growing sense of insecurity among Xi and his followers,” van Nieuwenhuizen told AFP.

While the exact reasons for his fall are unknown, “we do know however that Sun had been promoted as a protege of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao,” she said.

“Xi could therefore consider Sun a threat to his own agenda and political ambitions; other proteges of Hu have also previously been held back from seeking higher positions under Xi.”

Curing Mao fever

This piece originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

For China, 2016 is a year of anniversaries. It’s been 95 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and 40 years since the death of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.

More than ever, the CCP is fighting for control over its historical narrative. This struggle is perhaps manifested most acutely in the treatment of Mao; the CCP continues to walk a tightrope of being unable to refute Mao’s legacy (given Mao’s role in legitimising the CCP), yet wanting to prevent the resurrection of his cult of personality status.

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Photo by Stephan Rebernik (Flickr, 2009)

As long as the CCP continues to conveniently distort the truth about the extent of destruction enacted at the hands of Mao and silence scholarly inquiry, it risks giving ultra-nationalists license to monopolise the interpretation of Communist China’s history and glorify Mao’s legacy, including the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This would ultimately threaten the CCP’s current mandate of maintaining social stability and developing a so-called ‘moderately prosperous society’.

Despite wishing to act as the final arbiter of its history, the CCP has never completely clarified what constitutes ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ interpretations of Mao’s legacy. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ remains enshrined in China’s constitution. The famous 1981 Resolution on Party Historical Issues, released five years after Mao’s death, states that he ‘made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution”, but, if we judge his activities as a whole… his merits are primary and his errors secondary’.

Speaking in December 2013 to mark Mao’s 120th birthday, President Xi Jinping remarked that simply ‘because leaders made mistakes, one cannot use these mistakes to completely negate their legacies, wipe out historical successes, and descend into the quagmire of historical nihilism’.

Over the past few years, several neo-Maoist websites have attracted strong followings. The most popular of these,Utopia, is home to daily commentary from public figures extolling the virtues of Mao Zedong Thought.

In April 2015, Bi Fujian, TV personality and former host of CCTV’s annual Chinese New Year Gala, was secretly filmed mocking Mao in a sarcastic rendition of a Cultural Revolution-era song at a private dinner function. He was subsequently shamed and sacked for ‘serious violation of political discipline’.

On 2 May, a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was staged in the iconic Great Hall of the People, where Chinese leaders deliver important addresses, political meetings are held, and foreign dignitaries are hosted as guests of the state. The concert featured a selection of 30 ‘red’ songs performed by girl group 56 Flowers. The songs included ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’, an ode to the power of Mao Zedong Thought, and were set against a backdrop of propagandistic imagery and slogans from the era.

Following public outrage at the celebration of the Cultural Revolution’s ‘ten years of turmoil’, the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre issued a statement claiming its management was duped by an organisation fraudulently using the name of a CCP propaganda office to stage the performance. However, state media in fact actively promoted the concert in advance. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the performance to go ahead (especially at such a significant venue at such a politically sensitive time) without the express approval of relevant CCP organs.

This struggle over history extends beyond China’s shores and directly affects overseas Chinese communities, many of whom experienced the devastation of Mao’s policies first hand. In response to planned Mao tribute concerts at the Sydney and Melbourne Town Halls, almost 3000 people signed an online petition to stop it from going ahead. At a small media event held by the concert’s organisers on 25 May, several angry members of the Australian Chinese community turned up in protest. The performances have since been cancelled, with the City of Sydney citing ‘concerns regarding the potential for civil disturbance’.

While Xi has warned against society’s descent into ‘the quagmire of historical nihilism’, the CCP should perhaps be more concerned about extricating itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism. Extensive measures are taken to silence advocates of democratic reform, but conservative voices could potentially become China’s most destabilising force. The CCP is currently ill-equipped to address this possibility.

Publication of China and the New Maoists

Yesterday, my first book, China and the New Maoists was published by UK-based Zed Books.

The book was co-authored with Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. book cover

The book explores Mao Zedong’s enduring symbolic and political importance, and the impact of Maoist ideas in popular online and social media. It also examines the state’s efforts to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy, even as it attempts to control and sanitise his influence.

Stanford University’s Andrew G. Walder described China and the New Maoists as

… a lucid and absorbing account of the Party’s fumbling attempts, in the authors’ words, to ‘extricate itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism.’

Julia Lovell, literary translator and lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, called the book

[a]n extraordinarily concise, informative and insightful account of the legacies of Mao Zedong for contemporary China… They have written an essential guide to one of the key political, cultural, social and economic conundrums of China today.

China and the New Maoists is available for purchase online and in bookstores.