China’s Political Spectrum under Xi Jinping

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China’s Political Spectrum under Xi Jinping

China’s president has been positioning himself with respect to competing political ideologies.

China’s Political Spectrum under Xi Jinping
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

When, in November 2012, Xi Jinping took up his position as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), his political ideas and positioning inside the Party remained largely a mystery. The CCP is a huge bureaucratic machine mainly devoted to its own survival, within which various interests and priorities unceasingly compete at every level. The personal convictions of supreme leaders are at best diffuse and changing, and none of them can lastingly avoid going through the system of decision by consensus. For this reason it is somewhat futile to try to identify perennial political factions.

Nonetheless, to canalize personal conflicts and court intrigues, the regime uses two kinds of tools. First, it constantly produces new institutions and more or less stable rules. And second, by building up clientelistic ties, it tries to ensure the support of certain groups inside and outside the Party that participate in political debates in the media and more largely in the Sinophone public sphere. Eighteen months after Xi’s ascension, news of a formal investigation of Zhou Yongkang wraps up the president’s first political cycle of power consolidation. That makes it a good time to attempt to sketch out the contours of the political synthesis represented by Xi Jinping, based on the public debates and institutional innovations that have been announced during the first third of his first term.

As political positions continue to shift after the 18th Congress (at which time I presented a six-force model), the spectrum can be grossly divided into four main families: advocates of the “China Model,” who dominate within the Party and the army, among “princelings” (children of former leaders) and State administrations; the “left,” which is made up of both nostalgics of the Mao era (the old left) and academics, often trained in Western universities, critical of capitalism and proponents of a strong state (the New Left); social democrats, usually academics and former inner-Party reformers who, reaching old age, can speak out more freely (the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu is a case in point); and the liberals, overrepresented among the “metropolitan” (semi-private) media, lawyers, and more largely the urban population and private economy.

Since coming to power, Xi Jinping has, implicitly or explicitly, positioned himself with respect to these four groups. The idea of the “China model,” which gained currency in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, reflects a growing indifference among Chinese elites to Western political systems and economic liberalization, and their renewed interest in a “Chinese path” to development, underpinned by State intervention. This mix of populist nationalism and statist authoritarianism continues to form the core of the ideas expressed by Xi Jinping who, already in 2009, mocked “well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than to lecture us.” Upon taking up his position, Xi immediately coined a new name for this ideological composite: “the China dream,” a dream of “wealth and power” (fuqiang), heralding the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation,” a phrase first coined by Jiang Zemin and regularly used by Hu Jintao. By visiting the National Museum of China shortly afterwards, where he inspected the exhibition on 20th century history, precisely titled “The Road to Renaissance,” Xi endorsed this nationalist program, as also attested by his unilateral decisions in the area of foreign policy. However, whereas at the end of Hu Jintao’s mandate Chinese exceptionalism and authoritarianism were often legitimated by Confucian rhetoric (the “harmonious society”), under Xi neo-traditionalists seem to have been absorbed within the general discourse on the China dream.


Fig. 1: The political spectrum under Xi

The second group Xi Jinping must cater to is the left. The Bo Xilai affair, although successfully contained on the institutional level (Bo was officially condemned for corruption), provoked a political reconfiguration: the convergence of the old and new left represents a revived political force. While we may never know whether Xi holds personal beliefs in Mao’s theories, he has shown willingness to cater to the new and old left with several symbolic announcements since he took power. Already in 2011, before the fall of Bo Xilai, in a speech for the 90th anniversary of CCP foundation, Xi formulated the idea that the 30 years of Maoism and the 30 years of reforms were of equal importance or value. This idea found its classic formulation in his theory of the “two irrefutables” in January 2013. For Xi, the accomplishments of Maoism cannot be refuted in the name of reform, just as the accomplishments of reform cannot be refuted in the name of Maosim, a position which represents a slight but significant departure from the Party Resolution of 1981, which condemned certain grave errors committed by Mao.

The institutional reforms undertaken by Xi, with the creation of three new “Leading Small Groups” (LSG’s) – the LSG on the deepening of reforms, the National Security Commission and the LSG on Internet Security – directly reporting to the Central Committee and chaired by Xi, counteract efforts to separate the Party from the State in policy areas. Party ideology has again become a preferred tool of control: ideology, rather than law, was used to justify the anti-corruption campaign, as highlighted by the verbal attacks on “flies and tigers.” Even as the Bo Xilai trial was under preparation, cadres were called upon in April 2013 to “look at themselves in a mirror” 照镜子 (conform to Party discipline), “adjust their clothes” 正衣冠 (be frugal), “wash up” 洗洗澡 (practice self-criticism), and “cure their illness” 治治病 (in prison), all expressions taken from Mao’s rhetoric, as explained by the official exegesis of a speech Xi gave in June. Self-criticism sessions were organized on a grand scale in the summer of 2013. Without institutions allowing legal or democratic control, the anti-corruption campaign appears mainly as a pretext for settling factional scores with the former head of the security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang.

These activities were all part of Xi Jinping’s revival of the “mass line” as a Maoist alternative to democracy, according to which the Party grounds its legitimacy among the masses. Admittedly, this use of ideology is not new: in Mao’s Invisible Hand Patricia Thornton, recalling Zhao Ziyang’s revival of the notion of “mass line” in the 1980s, points out that “Mao-era methods of mobilization” can be used for different ends. Perhaps Xi may still use this concept to further greater representativeness within the Party. However, the “mass line” remains connected with the “spiraling movement” by which the Party selects certain social artifacts, refines them into theory, and re-disseminates them among the “people.” As Shi Tianjian writes in a passage Thornton quotes, mass participation is shaped by the “elimination of the organizational bases for people to articulate their interests collectively, ‘forced departicipation’ of previously participatory groups, and political education.” In this sense it is a conceptual antidote to the growth of civil society.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping has not completely forgotten the internal reformers or social democrats: committed to ideals of social equality, they criticize the Party from the inside, without calling for a full reform of the political system. The measures unveiled during the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee meeting in October 2013 gave some satisfaction to this group: the scrapping of the Reeducation through Labor system, an adjustment of the one-child policy, and a possible improvement of the residence permit (hukou) system, allowing for better social protection, which received a fuller announcement at the July 2014 Politburo meeting. The announced state-owned enterprise reforms, which were supposed to raise the importance of the market in the economy, appear for the moment to be a tool in the factional score-settling rather than a political priority. Finally, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen democracy movement – which the reformers would like to see rehabilitated – was marked with a strong wave of repression.

Finally, while the liberals briefly entertained the idea that they could use Xi’s mention of “constitutional rule” 依宪治国 in a speech delivered in late 2012, as attested by the publication of the “Consensual Proposals to advance reforms” signed by a long list of prominent intellectuals, repression followed shortly thereafter, in the form of severe sentences for independent lawyers and members of the New Citizen movement. Xu Zhiyong, who advocated the publication of leaders’ assets and hukou reform was sentenced to four years of prison as a result of his attempt at building a political organization. New Left intellectuals launched ongoing attacks on liberal concepts on the theoretical level. In May 2013, Yang Xiaoqing extolled “people’s democracy” 人民民主 over “constitutionalism” 宪政 followed by Hu Angang’s vigorous defence of “the people’s society” 人民社会 against “civil society” 公民社会 in July 2013. Hu Angang uses mainly three arguments – cultural exceptionalism, the inherent selfishness of capitalist societies resting on “private interests”, as opposed to the unique ability of the Chinese government’s mass line to improve livelihood (minsheng 民生) – to construct a binary opposition between citizens (shimin 市民 or gongmin 公民) and “the people” (renmin 人民). As Rogier Creemers notes, Yang Xiaoqing’s arguments similarly highlight the superiority of socialist governance over constitutional governance, demonstrating a continued adhesion to the theoretical framework of the Mao era enshrined in notions like “the people” and “the masses.”

Hu’s article was followed at the end of the month by a longer piece authored by another scholar associated with the New Left, Wang Shaoguang, who denounces “civil society” as an “unclear concept” peddled by neo-liberals, associated with four myths: homogeny (masking actual class conflicts in society), purity (non-profit organizations are often power instruments in the hands of the social elite), independence (they are in fact controlled by big capital) and separation from the state (which is in fact not desirable). “People’s society,” by contrast, is a time-honored notion that demonstrates, for Wang, that the “people” are an organic whole rather than a collection of individuals, a “political community within a state led by the working masses.” Finally, the list of “Seven don’t-mentions” (qi bu jiang) listed in the internal “Document no. 9” singles out a list of topics banned from public discussion: constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, market liberalism, media independence, criticizing errors in the history of the Party (“historical nihilism”), and questioning the policy of opening up and reforms and the socialist nature of the regime. This list effectively silenced liberal voices.

In conclusion, two points deserve to be mentioned. After a period of weakening of supreme power under Hu Jintao, during which the various bureaucracies (xitong) represented at the top of the state shared the benefits among themselves, Xi has reasserted the pyramid structure of power, under the authority of the Party and its ideology. This initiative no doubt stems from an authentic feeling of crisis among the new generation of Party elite who fear that their hold on power may be threatened by slowing economic growth, as well as the weakening of authority under Hu. The anti-corruption campaign can indeed provide the opportunity to weaken the grip of the state on the Chinese economy, but it remains subordinated to a political campaign logic rather than a legal logic, and feeds into the reinforcement of Party authority. However, this reassertion does not fundamentally call into question institutional benchmarks like the principle of collective decision at the top. The confirmation of an investigation against Zhou Yongkang, given the length of time before it was officially announced, seems to have met with very strong resistance within the Party, and – uncharacteristically – contained only a mention of Zhou’s suspected breach of Party discipline (no mention of breach of State laws). Many commentators have highlighted that the anti-corruption campaign has mainly targeted “self-made” Party cadres, largely sparing the “Second Red generation.”

By calling into question an unwritten trade-off inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping, Xi is taking risks that could still lead to a political crisis at the top. Since the 1980s, top leaders have accepted age-based retirement and collective leadership in exchange for future immunity: if the latter is withdrawn, the former might become problematic. In the area of political ideas, Xi Jinping has coined a new style and given a new form to nationalist rhetoric rather than renewing the Party’s thinking. The anti-liberal crackdown, while couched in new rhetoric, has been ongoing since 2008 under Hu Jintao. Nevertheless, the new synthesis between the old and new left, with the latter’s statism reinforcing the nationalism of the China dream, has undeniably provided new arguments to enemies of economic liberalization and advocates of social control under Xi Jinping.

Sebastian Veg is a Research Professor (Directeur d’Études) at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science, Paris, currently on secondment as Director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, Hong Kong. His interests are in twentieth century Chinese literature, political debates, and intellectual history.