The CCP’s leader has hailed the country he leads as the sole global champion and staked a claim to being the sole eternal helmsman in the party’s history. All the while, says our guest author Johnny Erling, Xi is steering the People’s Republic into ever-greater isolation.
The leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently surprised his country with a new slogan: "Time and momentum are on our side," (时与势在我们一边) Xi Jinping told a gathering of Central Committee officials and provincial leaders at the Central Party School in Beijing on January 11. With an eye on the CCP’s 100th anniversary on July 1, he said 2021 would turn out to be a symbolic year for the party. Ostensibly looking back, Xi was also very much looking forward – looking to usher in the next stage of the nation's rise: to become the socialist world power before mid-century.
Last year was a watershed for the People's Republic as it overcame the Covid-19 pandemic and became the first major economy to see growth take off again. Xi said in his January speech it was time to compare "China's order" with "chaos in the West." According to the party-state news agency Xinhua and the theoretical journal Hongqi, Xi mocked the hasty judgment about the "end of history" made by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time was on China’s side, Xi said, and so had "put an end to the end of history, collapsed the theory of China's collapse, and led to the failure of the one about the failure of socialism."
For Xi, the resurgence of the Chinese nation is unstoppable and the embodiment of the "momentum of history" – and neither the international "small circle" of the G7 rich industrialized countries nor a "new cold war," sanctions, de-globalization, decoupling or disruption of supply chains will be able to stop it. "Our circle of friends is constantly growing, the balance of history is tilting toward China," Xi was quoted as saying.
But Xi's confidence came to smack of hubris only five months later. U.S. President Joe Biden, other G7 leaders and NATO members in mid-June agreed to confront "systemic challenges to the rules-based world order" as they saw them emanating from China. For the first time, these countries agreed to respond to China together – to its "New Silk Road Initiative (BRI)," its territorial conflicts in the South and East China Seas, its actions in Hong Kong and toward Taiwan, and its domestic human-rights violations.
Xi is facing major international headwinds
Just in time for the CCP’s anniversary, its leader, who had proclaimed his country the champion of the historical moment, is facing major international headwinds. In Beijing, many will be wondering how it could have come to this. Xi must have been aware of the danger. In his January speech, he had urged haste, warning the party elite not to squander advantageous conditions and not to make do with the status quo. He said: "We must not miss this opportunity." (所当乘者势也，不可失者时也)
Xi, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, left open exactly what he meant by that. At the beginning of 2019, he had publicly demanded that reunification with Taiwan be put on China's agenda – the issue could no longer be avoided from one generation to the next. For the past year now, Beijing has increased its military activity in the Taiwan Strait, as if preparing for forced reunification through violence.
Domestically, Xi is looking to the 20th Party Congress in 2022 to reinforce his position as the party's ideological mastermind that shores up his claim to absolute power over the one-party state. He used the 19th Party Congress in 2017 to amend party statutes to codify in his interpretation of China's rise (so-called Xi Jinping Thought) as the guiding ideology "for China's new socialist era." In March 2018, he got the National People's Congress to amend the Chinese constitution accordingly. Legislation passed with Xi in mind has since allowed him to rule without term limits. As a result, his re-election in 2023 – after ten years as president – is assured.
But Xi wants more than that. In publishing a completely revised version of the "Brief History of the Communist Party of China" (中国共产党简史), Xi has since February staked his claim to being the sole helmsman (as only Mao had been, up until then) who would determine China's path to becoming the socialist world power. The new party history devotes a quarter of its 531 pages to the ten years Xi has ruled China and is effusive in praise: Xi "has today brought China closer to the center of the world stage than it has ever been. The nation has never been closer to its own rebirth."
"Wolf Warriors" now set the tone in diplomacy
In November 2014, Xi was already telling the Central Committee's Foreign Affairs Commission that China must "pursue its own distinct Great Power foreign policy." China had to have a say in all international debates and decisions, he declared. Deng's old warnings "hide your strength and bide your time" (韬光养晦) became obsolete, and "Wolf Warriors" now set the tone in diplomacy.
The photos in the illustrated party history speak volumes. Five party leaders appear in chronological order at the start of the book: the state’s founder Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi. But it is the frequency with which they appear throughout the book that indicates their importance today: twelve photos depict Xi, who comes in ahead of Mao (eleven) and Deng (six). A party history education and mobilization campaign was launched in parallel to the book. Designed to get the country in the mood for the party’s 100th anniversary on July 1, only the "Big Three" are worthy of mention: Chairman Mao made China "rise up," the reformer Deng made the country "rich," Xi has the most important role – leading China to its historical destiny and making it "strong." This is meant to justify Xi’s absolute power.
The book’s most glaring revisions of party history are its reinterpretation of the Cultural Revolution and other devastating campaigns of the Mao era, all condensed to only 20 pages. Earlier party-history volumes, published a decade after the CCP had distanced itself from Mao in 1981, devoted separate chapters to condemning as completely unjustifiable aberrations the arbitrary campaigns that had killed tens of millions. "Mao Zedong bears the main responsibility for the Cultural Revolution’s leftist mistakes that were ubiquitous and carried on for a long time," one said.
In the revised edition, Mao's crimes are largely excused. They get played own as aberrations or as well-intentioned experiments that failed during the leader’s "exploration and search" for new ways to drive Chinese socialism forwards.
Xi's distortion of history is not only driven by his attempt to rehabilitate the "party chosen by history" as his power base. It also reflects deep-seated fears that China's system is in constant danger of going under like the Soviet Union did. On January 15, 2013, Xi used one of his first speeches after assuming power to demand a line be drawn under critical historical appraisals and reflections, under diverging takes on Mao’s rule (1949 to 1976) and on the 30 years of reform and opening-up that followed. Xi stressed it was wrong to play one stage of China’s development off against the other – they complemented each other like two halves of a whole.
In dozens of speeches, Xi has since invoked the parallels between the two stages to justify his repressive and ideologized authoritarian rule. In a speech to encourage the study of party history on February 20, 2021, he urged constant vigilance: "At the moment, my country's development is exposed to unforeseen risks and challenges at home and abroad, traditional and non-traditional, in the political, economic, cultural and social fields, as well as in the natural environment. 'Black swans' [disasters that strike wholly unforeseen] and 'gray rhinos' [known longer-term problems whose potential risks are downplayed or ignored] can strike us unexpectedly."
Since March, the Xi personality cult has been rekindled, propaganda used to bolster patriotic and ideological education in schools and society, censorship tightened. The glorification of the CCP on its 100th birthday and the taboo against critical appraisal of the past call into question Beijing's stated ambition of becoming a responsible world power. In January, Xi boasted time and momentum were on China's side. That may prove to have been a premature hope in the face of international headwinds.
Time and situation are on our side, Source: "Red Flag Manuscript" 2021/5 Author: Chen Youyong, http://www.qstheory.cn/dukan/hqwg/2021-03/11/c_1127198200.htm
Speech at the mobilization conference of party history study and education, Source: "Seeking Truth" 2021/07 Author: Xi Jinping, http://www.qstheory.cn/dukan/qs/2021-03/31/c_1127274518.htm
About the author:
Johnny Erling was the Beijing correspondent for the German newspaper “Die Welt” and the Austrian “Der Standard” from 1997 until 2019.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.