The role of ideology in Xi Jinping’s China
There is an increasing sense around the world that under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China has doubled down on ideology. This is seen as a distinct turn away from the pragmatism that Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up had engendered.
The argument goes that emerging from the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Deng reoriented the Party’s mission away from class warfare and revolution towards economic prosperity. In this quest, he restructured the Party’s organisational system and redefined its relationship with the state, capital and society, loosening controls.
Policies through the decades of reform and opening up, for many, had implied that China had begun transitioning to a post-ideological society, where ideological discourse provided a rhetorical connection to communism and socialism but lacked substance.
This is the trend that has seemingly regressed or been rectified, depending on one’s viewpoint, with the emergence of Xi Jinping Thought as China’s guiding ideology after the 19th Party Congress in 2017.
The pillars of China’s ideological project
There are, of course, fundamental changes that are taking place in China under Xi Jinping.
For instance, there is indeed greater discussion about inheriting red genes, the vitality of socialism and the superiority of the socialist system, and the goal of common prosperity. These are certainly also impacting policies with regard to the Party organisation, the role of private capital, approach to economic reform and social security policies.
However, the argument that there is a return of ideology is epistemologically on shaky ground. Such an assessment, in fact, is a fundamental misinterpretation of the political evolution of the Chinese Party-state system. In part, this misinterpretation has been the product of the manner in which observers have approached the concept of ideology, and in part, it is a product of misreading the essential impulses that shape the Party’s ideology.
First, in common parlance, ideology has come to be associated with a certain sense of dogmatism and rigidity linked to socioeconomic beliefs, historical traditions or political predilections. In this sense, it has been viewed as something that is specifically antithetical to rationality. Such a definition, unfortunately, clouds the assessments of the role of ideology in Chinese politics.
Instead, what’s much more helpful is a more value-neutral definition of ideology as a set of frameworks and assumptions that shape one’s worldview and guide actions towards a desired end state. Simply put, ideology is a prism through which one understands not just how the world is but also what it ought to be. In this sense, being ideologically motivated, one’s task is to shape the world from what it is to what it ought to be. Such a framework is far more helpful in understanding the ideological evolution of the Communist Party of China.
Second, within this framework, one must locate the two essential impulses that lie at the heart of the ideology of the Communist Party of China — revolution and nationalism. In a year that the Party has been celebrating its centenary, it is important to recall that it was born amid the churn of the nationalistic movements that engulfed China in the decade from 1910 to 1920. Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic, these impulses of nationalism and revolution have coexisted — sometimes in harmony, sometimes extremely uneasily and sometimes in clear conflict. And depending on a number of factors, such as the strength and priorities of individual leaders, the Party’s internal structure and balance, the external environment, and domestic socio-economic developments, these impulses have influenced policy outcomes.
The revolutionary impulse in Party ideology can be understood as a deep-rooted desire to reform society towards an ideal, albeit abstract end state. The path towards this “ultimate goal” of communism is illuminated by Marxist theory. In Party literature, Marxism is described as the scientific truth that reveals certain immutable laws guiding the development and progress of history and human society. In Party canon, Marxism-Leninism enjoys the highest position, with the thoughts and theories of other leaders being Sinicized derivatives that are products of their theoretical explorations and practical exploration.
Mao Zedong Thought
Prior to the reforms of 1978, Mao Zedong Thought occupied an unparalleled position, after having assumed primacy in 1945.
Mao, after the founding of the People’s Republic, was increasingly of the view that China could leapfrog towards its ultimate goal through a process of continuous revolution while pursuing rapid and mass industrialisation along with collectivisation. Despite the evident failure of policies such as the Great Leap Forward, the primacy of Mao Zedong Thought sustained.
The challenge for the so-called reformers through the latter years of Mao’s rule, therefore, was that because Mao Zedong Thought occupied the commanding heights as the source of knowledge and truth, it also informed practice. This was antithetical to Mao’s own earlier proclamations of practice being “the primary and basic standpoint in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge”.
This attitude led to cadres adopting a “dogmatic attitude towards the sayings of Comrade Mao Zedong” and regarding “whatever he said as the immutable truth which must be mechanically applied everywhere”. It was these failings that lay at the heart of the “Left errors” that Deng sought to address as part of a historic 1981 resolution.
Yet, given how deeply Mao Zedong Thought informed the daily lives of cadres and the masses at large, its collapse had led to what was termed as the “three crises,” i.e, a spiritual, cultural and crisis of faith.
In criticising Mao’s later failures, consequently, Deng also relied on the theoretical tools that had been developed by Mao. This drew a link that was critical to demonstrate political continuity, which was essential to maintain internal cohesion and Party rule. Deng’s 1979 emphasis on the inviolability of the Four Cardinal Principles had already underlined that he viewed maintaining the Party’s Leninist structure and its continued rule as the bottom line.
However, he also did appreciate the need to address the pathologies of the Party-state system that had inhibited economic modernisation. To him, this was fundamental to the Party’s mission and its legitimacy.
Where Deng Xiaoping persisted, where he departed
For Deng, one of the key failures of the Party in the Mao era had been its inability to make a “strategic shift” in understanding the principal contradiction facing Chinese society.
Deng argued that while China had achieved “socialist transformation,” it was still in the “preliminary” stage as a socialist society. This implied that the core task ahead was not to leapfrog towards communist utopia or to promote revolution abroad. Rather it was to work toward “socialist modernization” of the country, which was a prerequisite to achieve the goal of communism.
In other words, while Deng did do away with ideas of global and continuous revolution, he wasn’t saying that revolution was immaterial to him; rather, for him, the road to revolution required China to first accumulate wealth and power. In order to achieve this, moving away from class struggle, he redefined the principal contradiction as that “between the growing material and cultural needs of the people and the backwardness of social production.” Resolving this required “immense expansion of the productive forces”.
In doing so, instead of entirely repudiating Mao or his thought, Deng drew from Mao. He condensed Mao’s ideas into three essential components — seeking truth from facts, maintaining the mass line, and pursuing independence and self reliance.
The first of these three was critical. In essence, what Deng was doing was underscoring the centrality of empiricism as the source of knowledge and truth. This created greater space for experimentation — or as Deng argued, one needed to cross the river while feeling the stones.
This structure that Deng cobbled together was encapsulated in the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Under this rubric, he initiated reforms that sought to professionalise the Party-state bureaucracy, distinguish between the roles of the Party and State, loosen economic controls, attract foreign investment and talent, and establish norms for leadership succession and rules constraining exercise of power.
Loosening control, however, did not mean diluting the Party’s political leadership in China. This was evident in the case of Peking University professor Guo Luoji in 1982, as it was in the removal of Hu Yaobang as General Secretary and the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The impulse of nationalism
The third of three components into which Deng distilled Mao’s thought — independence and self reliance — is also directly linked to the impulse of nationalism that drives the Communist Party. This impulse is coloured by historical trends that pre-date the founding of the Party.
This history is not just limited to the so-called Century of Humiliation, the self-strengthening movement, the quest for wealth and power or the New Culture and May 4th movements. In fact, it harks back to deeper civilisational roots. Party literature tells us that its birth was a product of and for the purpose of “the great struggle against feudal rule and foreign aggression”.
The early history of the Party, however, is much more complex. As Tony Saich explains in From Rebel to Ruler, a majestic study of the Party’s rise to power, nationalism, anarchism and revolutionary currents weighed heavily on the minds of the Party’s founders and early members. Later years saw intense debates among Party elites about the nature of engagement with the Guomindang, which centered around whether national revolution had to be prioritised over building the labour movement.
Nationalism would eventually emerge as a key plank as the Party evolved through the New Democratic Revolution, particularly after the Japanese invasion. For instance, in On New Democracy, written in 1940, Mao acknowledged the “revolutionary quality” of China’s national bourgeoisie, which along with the workers, peasants, and petty bourgeoisie formed the united front of the Chinese revolution. By the time the People’s Republic was established, as Julia Lovell notes in her study of Maoism’s global history, Mao, “steeped in an older Middle Kingdom mentality,” sought not only leadership of the global revolution but also desired to reassert China’s claims to occupy the centre of the world.
A more recent example of this civilisational inheritance being asserted by the Party is evident official documents characterising of Xiaokang — the goal of achieving a moderately prosperous society — as “a long-cherished dream of the Chinese nation” that traces its history to the Confucian classics such as the Book of Songs and Book of Rites.
Under Deng, the nationalistic imprint was evident as a driver of economic reform. In March 1978, speaking at the Opening Ceremony of the National Conference on Science, Deng argued that the development of a “modern, powerful socialist state” was the key to “effectively consolidate the socialist system and cope with foreign aggression and subversion.”
Manoj Kewalramani is the chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution, and author of Smokeless Wars: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance
This is the first of a special four-part series on China’s past and present; the first two parts will focus on history while the third and fourth will focus on Xi Jinping’s doctrine and its policy implications
The views expressed are personal