The Debate

Does Xi Jinping Thought Really Matter?

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The Debate

Does Xi Jinping Thought Really Matter?

The move to codify Xi Jinping thought may not be as important as analysts have been suggesting.

Does Xi Jinping Thought Really Matter?
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

U.S. President Donald Trump recently remarked on Air Force One that “Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.” These remarks accord with an emerging consensus regarding the Chinese president. Since the end of October’s 19th Party Congress, analysts and pundits have compared Xi Jinping’s power to that of China’s founder, Mao. This is because since 1949, only Mao Zedong has secured his personal ideology in constitutional doctrine while in power. Xi’s move is highly indicative of a growing consolidation of power within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and will serve as an ideological underpinning of China’s policies into the future.

In China, political power istypically consolidated into loosely defined ideologies as opposed to specific statutes and principles. These ideologies are tied to specific leaders and act as guides for policy that will define that leader’s legacy. For Xi, the the specific category of ideology added to constitutional doctrine – a  Thought – is highly significant in and of itself. Yet its ultimate ability to reflect Xi’s power rests on how he is able to translate Xi Jinping Thought into policy.

The Chinese Constitution, Xi Jinping, and the Fathers of Modern China

For Xi Jinping, the process of making his way into the constitution entailed over 2,000 Party delegates approving a change to include his name, ideology, and a handful of policy initiatives into the text itself. The constitution now introduces “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as a guide for party action alongside “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” China’s previous leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are also included in the party constitution through the ratification of their legacy theories, the “Theory of Three Represents” and the “Scientific Outlook on Development,” respectively.

After Deng Xiaoping’s monumental economic reform in the 1980s called “reform and opening up,” his successors coined similar ideology-cum-policies to drive reform in economic, technological, and sometimes ideological spheres. Jiang (general secretary from 1989 to 2002) introduced the “Theory of Three Represents,” which focused on economic and cultural reforms and was ratified into the Party Constitution in 2002. Hu (general secretary 2002-2012) secured his legacy theory, a set of principles aimed at reforming economic development called “Scientific Outlook on Development” in the Party Constitution in 2012.

However, the addition of Xi’s name and theory to the constitution is significant because it solidifies Xi’s historical prestige in relation to his predecessors. Hu and Jiang’s theories were added after they each left office and neither theory is specifically linked to the leaders’ names. Symbolically, this divorces the theories from the leaders’ personal legacies. Moreover, Jiang and Hu’s theories are categorized as ideologically subordinate to Xi Jinping Thought. Hu Jintao, Jiang Zeming, and even Deng Xiaoping’s legacies are labeled as “theory” whereas Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping’s are presented as “thoughts.” This linguistic distinction is symbolic in and of itself: within party doctrine, “theory” or zhuyi is often translated as “-ism” and tends to describe a specific set of principles. In contrast, the term “thought”  (sixiang), as it is used in the context of Mao Zedong Thought and Xi Jinping Thought, is used to refer to an all-encompassing ideology. Multiple theories could be housed under a Thought, but not the other way around. In other words, within constitutional doctrine, a Thought incorporates a body of related ideas into a shared worldview whereas a Theory reflects a mandate relevant to a specific era or relative state of thinking. Because of this distinction, Xi’s “thought” is both symbolically and linguistically elevated above Hu and Jiang’s theories and solidified as a broad, fundamental doctrine in the Constitution for policy to follow.

Symbolically, for Xi’s name and thought to be placed in the same constitutional stratum as Mao Zedong undermines the legacies of Hu and Jiang. This means that, as far as the Communist Party under Xi is concerned, there are three eras of modern Chinese history: Mao’s creation, Deng’s economic reforms, and Xi’s strengthening. Recently, the phrase “Mao made China stand up, Deng made it rich, and Xi made it strong” has begun to circulate widely around the Chinese web, reflecting a Party-supported framework that benchmarks three out of the five modern Chinese leaders as defining historical eras.

But despite strong symbolic connotations,  Xi Jinping Thought does not demand a specific set of policies or reforms. As is characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party, the ideology itself is ambiguous enough to serve as an umbrella term that will guide, but not dictate, policy based on Xi’s views and goals for China. This is important because by cementing his own personal vision as the ultimate guidepost for China’s future, Xi has become the highest ideological, moral, and political authority of the party. This sharply concentrates the power that he has been consolidating in recent years. Moreover, it lends itself to the body of skepticism over whether Xi Jinping will step down after the end of his term, which is traditionally capped at 10 years. Xi broke from norms by neglecting to  appoint a successor at the 19th Party Congress. So whereas Xi Jinping Thought is the guiding principle of the party, there will likely not be a higher political authority than Xi himself.

Xi’s Policy Priorities and Trajectories

While the policy content of Xi Jinping Thought is somewhat ambiguous, there are some indications of Xi’s policy priorities embedded within the Constitution adopted by the 19th Party Congress. The Belt and Road Initiativeanti-corruption campaign, and military reform were all added to the Constitution. These inclusions are separate from Xi Jinping Thought, but remain major tenets of the party’s future, and form the basis for Xi’s ultimate political legacy. While these initiatives may appear disjointed, they are consistent with Xi’s goal of “strengthening” China at home and abroad. Combating corruption guards against economic disruptions that could challenge the Communist Party’s grip on power. Modernizing the military and investing in infrastructure across Asia facilitates China’s ability to project this power. Notably, as an outward-looking policy, the Belt and Road Initiative positions itself to define Xi Jinping as the Chinese leader who strengthened China as both a domestic and global power.

Yet, to compare Xi to Mao and Deng is to compare him to two Chinese leaders who qualitatively altered the structure of the country — Mao as the political founder and Deng as the economic reformer. Xi Jinping Thought has yet to make such qualitative changes to the structure of China’s governance and national character. How Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era will translate into policy equivalent to Mao’s historical prestige will ultimately be more important than its constitutional symbolism.

For now, China watchers should avoid putting Xi on a historical pedestal. Instead, analysts should wait to see whether and how these slogans are translated into concrete policy initiatives. Any initiatives that seek to qualitatively alter the structure of China in a similar capacity as Mao and Deng would ultimately be stronger indications of a “New Era” than the symbolic nature of Xi Jinping Thought itself.

Zoe Jordan is a researcher at the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program and student at NYU Shanghai where she focuses on Chinese language, history, and media culture.