Xi Jinping may now no longer, at least in the Chinese state media, be referred to by the overly familiar “Uncle Xi” (Xi Dada) label. He has been upgraded to “Commander in Chief,” as from late last month. Even so, in a sense all of these labels — and the copious commentary they inspire — are a big distraction. Away from all the titles and various superficial paraphernalia of leadership China now has, the real story is what Xi’s relationship with the Party he leads might be, and how he sees that relationship four years into his time as China’s contemporary paramount leader (about the only title that does capture the complexity and ambiguity of his position).
We do know that Xi has spent huge resources and expended political capital on internal Party matters – on trying to iron out its ill discipline through the extended anti-corruption struggle, on unifying and nailing down its current ideology (the four comprehensives, from last year) and in trying to devote effort and time to “party building.” His first words when emerging as Party leader in November were about how the Party needed to reconnect with the people, closing the gap between those ruled and those doing the ruling. It seems remarkable that he could have made such forceful and unambiguous statements so early without a large measure of support among former and current members of the elite. One possibility is that some of them mistook his words for rhetoric, rather than a declaration of real intent, but some, perhaps the majority, must have agreed with what he said.
Xi Jinping’s relationship with the Party is crucial. But it is not a straightforward one. The Party is no longer the partially guerrilla fighting force led by largely rural figures with a living memory of fighting for its survival as it was under Mao. It has undergone almost four decades of its own parallel reform and transformation since 1978. Its 88 million members are more like citizens of a state within a state than ever before. They are better educated, more professional, and often sound more like executives of a major corporation than a Marxist force with roots deep in revolutionary struggle and class war. This gives the misleading impression that today’s Party members have wholly turned their back on all the things that were done and believed in by Party leaders, and membership, before 1978 and the start of the great social and economic transformation.
Xi’s political personality, his ambition, and the context in which he is best understood, are all inextricably mixed up and linked with the Party, and with its own sense of mission. Seeing him outside of this framework, and not understanding his relationship with the extraordinary political organization he leads, is a mistake. Not that this is easy. The Communist Party of China is an anomaly, which sometimes looks like a thing from another era. How can it truly be in charge of perhaps the greatest single effort to forge modernity in a developing country — perhaps in any country — the world has ever seen?
There is a bedrock of principle that the Party clearly does honor from its history, despite the vast changes noted above. This is something that it holds in common with Communist Parties generally. The fundamentals of this faith were powerfully spelt out in Arthur Koestler’s great classic from 1940, Darkness at Noon. The elderly cadre Rubashov, freshly felled from power and reflecting in jail before his execution, tells one of his interrogators that “the Party can never make a mistake. You and I can make a mistake,” he goes on, “Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I.” In words eerily reminiscent of those used by current leaders in China today, he states that “the Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal… He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong to the Party’s ranks.” Even in Mao’s era, and right down to today, that stands as a remarkably accurate, and concise, statement of unchanging belief.
For Commander in Chief Xi, and his fellow leaders, History still has an irrevocable flow, and there are still revolutionary ideas that need to be served by the Party. The principle idea, it is true, is no longer the delivery of Maoist Utopia through class struggle. But it is achieving a great, powerful, rich modern country, one which has been restored to its central position in the world. That is a revolutionary idea because for much of the last century and a half it has been seen as impossible, or something which will happen decades, or even centuries into the future. It is also revolutionary, because it is an idea which will subvert the current international order, led by liberal democracies with the United States in the forefront. Finally, it is revolutionary because no other one party Marxist state has ever achieved anything like this, sustainably at least. The USSR’s moment of primacy was short lived. Xi’s China, of course, wants to be different.
It is clear that the current leaders of China do regard the revolutionary historic goal for which the Party is the key means of achievement as within grasp. They also know how easily these things can falter, tumble, and disappear. Through anti-corruption, media management, and tough social restraint, the world outside sees repression and shades of Mao. But the message within is different: that these measures are all unfortunate but necessary parts of the delivery of the great goal. Disciplined cadres, dissidents, and others are no doubt at this very moment having the logic of this harshness spelt out to them. The Party, for the good of the country, has no other choice, they are being told. It is not about the Party’s power, or Xi’s power – but about the final deliverance of a just rectification for China, and for its renaissance as a great, modern, powerful country.
But there is one huge snag, to revert to Koestler’s extraordinary book, which Xi in particular needs to bear in mind as this process marches forward: “For his own kind there was no textbook; everything had to be worked out.” There is a reason why some things have never happened or been tried before; because they end up being impossible. That is the huge political gamble at the heart of the Xi leadership: in the end, is what he and the people around him are trying to do really possible?