China Power

Engagement With China Worked After All

Recent Features

China Power | Politics | East Asia

Engagement With China Worked After All

China’s sharp swing to the left under Xi surprised many. But rather than a new normal, his generation may be the last gasp of old-school Maoism in the country.

Engagement With China Worked After All
Credit: Flickr/ United Nations

Upon assuming power in late 2012, Xi Jinping engineered a massive recentralization of power in his own hand and wholesale return to the communist orthodoxy. He assaulted Western liberal ideals such as democracy, the rule of law, human rights, separation of power, checks and balances and their underpinning of “universal values,” vowing China would never reform its political system. Instead, he promoted the “four confidences,” namely, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is self-confident in the road it has chosen, its guiding ideology, its political system, and Chinese culture. Subsequently, the Xi regime has tightened media controls, intensified ideological indoctrination, and resurrected many Maoist traditions such as “mass line,” criticism and self-criticism, the use of role models, class struggle, anti-peaceful evolution, the party leadership in all areas and affairs of the country, and so on.

The massive left turn took everybody by surprise. The draconian measures associated with it have triggered a backlash from liberal democracies that threatens China with a new cold war. How should we interpret Xi’s sharp left turn? The real-world conditions in China do not warrant such an abrupt turn. It is by choice rather than by necessity. This article argues that the left turn is a generational phenomenon associated with the formative experiences of Xi’s generation. The preceding decades have seen the country evolving decisively away from the communist grand tradition and because of this the conservative turn lacks broad-based support in society and hence long-term sustaining power.

In an electoral democracy, the age of candidates contending for public offices hardly matters. What matters is whether their personality and message connect well with voters. The American electorate has voted into the White House youthful leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama; it has also installed in office much older candidates such as Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In the last two general elections, the candidate who connected best with many young, college-educated voters was 79-year-old Bernie Sanders. Modern society is generally youth-centered due to the fast-paced changes in all areas; it emphasizes the renewal of knowledge more than accumulation of experience, and innovations more than traditions. It hence favors young people and marginalizes older folks.

The situation in China, however, is the opposite. In the absence of electoral democracy, Chinese top leaders tend to rise in age cohorts, successively working their way up the career ladder one step at a time. It is fairly predictable that, by the time they reach the top at the Politburo Standing Committee, Chinese leaders are in their 60s or even early 70s, at least two or three generations removed from the youngest adult population.

Xi’s generation of “sent-down youths” was battle-hardened in the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, which also disrupted their formal education. During their socialization, communist slogans, jargons, scattered ideas, and fragmented theories were the only game in town. Maoism framed their mind and furnished their vocabulary, a legacy they carry to this day. Xi’s childhood hero was Jiao Yulu, party chief of Lankao county in Henan province, who worked until his death from lung cancer. Since becoming the top leader, Xi has travelled to Lankao county several times to pay homage to Jiao. Xi’s narrow exposure in his formative years has instilled in him Maoism as second nature, which constrains his political horizon.

Xi and other political elites from his generation, unlike their peers in other walks of life, tend to regard their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution as both character-building and part of the qualification for their advancement in politics. This is not entirely idle talk – Xi’s commitment to the eradication of poverty reflects the seven years of hardship he underwent with the peasants in northern Shaanxi in the early 1970s. Boosted by their pedigree and China’s meteoric rise, Xi’s leadership is more confident. Their confidence and incomplete education make them bolder, brasher, and less predictable, as is evident in Xi’s drastic recentralization of power and assertive foreign policy.

Xi has a strong sense of historical mission to carry on the cause of his father’s generation. Rebuilding the Communist Party through an anti-corruption campaign, and reviving the ideological faith and discipline have topped Xi’s political agenda to date. Xi has brought back not only Maoist practices but also Maoist vocabulary. His characterization of his mission as a “great struggle, great project, great cause and great dream” and his “ideological and political party-building” are straight from the Maoist revolutionary legacy. The emphasis on class struggle from the Mao era had also instilled in his generation an exaggerated sense of the enemy; they see conspiracies everywhere and tend to approach their job as combatting real or imagined threats. As a princeling, he also absorbed the ethos of the revolutionary generation from his parents.

More importantly, the absence of electoral pressure and the hierarchical power structure conspire to open up a broad avenue for their cumulative past experiences to shape the policy direction and political course of the party-state. This creates a situation in which Chinese society is increasingly youth-centered as in other modern countries while Chinese politics evolves around an older generation of leaders charting the course for the nation. Due to the rapid changes and fundamental transformation that China has undertaken in the past four decades, the formative experiences, values, worldview and approach of the older leaders may well be out of alignment with the real-world situation, but unlike politicians in a democracy, they are in a position to impose and enforce their views on the country. In other words, the generation factor looms much larger in Chinese politics than in a liberal democracy. It exerts its influence through the following channels among others:

The first is the seniority-based pecking order in a strictly hierarchical power structure. The nomenclature system, in which all important positions are appointed from above, is the institutional foundation of the pecking order; it creates an upward dependence of almost everyone in the system upon their superiors. The power hierarchy manifests itself in every operational detail of the political system, from the seating of officials at a meeting to the group formation of cadres in public appearances to the way they address each other, as well as numerous other norms and tacit rules. This pattern is greatly reinforced by Xi Jinping’s massive recentralization of power in his own hand, with his incessant demands for absolute loyalty and obedience and his insistence that other Politburo Standing Committee members to regularly report to him on their work. The result is reduced counterweight to his power and increased freedom for him to push for his own vision, preferences, and ambitions, and to express his inner self as developed in his youth. In general, the higher an official moves up the ladder, the greater would be the power and freedom he enjoys in pushing for his personal ambition.

Thus, the system is structured for self-perpetuation. As the power structure works to the advantage of senior leaders, there are little incentives within the system to change it. The political structure is super-stable, almost fire-proof to disruptive reform initiatives from below. The party-state’s control of the vast establishments of propaganda, ideological indoctrination, and physical coercion also allows it to indulge the illusive belief that it can reshape the society in its image. As Xi relives his youthful ideals, he has brought a “blast from the past” to reform-era China.

Second, as successive generations of cadres arise in age groups, each cohort shares similar formative experiences such that members understand each other better than perhaps with other cohorts. Each cohort also tends to form a relatively self-contained speech or even a policy community with familiar jargons, idioms, values, worldviews, and commitment that reflect its shared history. In theory, the top cohort is the farthest removed from the youthful population at the bottom. These generational gaps shape political changes in a gradual but steady fashion, because changes at the ground level would eventually reach the top through successive generations of rising cadres. The future by definition is in the hands of the younger generations, who are at the forefront of socioeconomic changes. They have an innate tendency to resist old-fashioned teachings of their elders, even if they have to pay lip service to these teachings. Junior cadres in China tend to faithfully abide by the Dengist strategy of “maintaining a low profile and biding time” (taoguang yanghui), a time-honored survival strategy in the Chinese officialdom. As a result, there is a lack of genuine policy debate and passivity is the dominant form of resistance in the political system.

What can we expect from the post-Xi Jinping generations who spent their formative years in the reform era? It is difficult to say when the “post-Xi” era would begin because of the removal of the term limits in 2018, but there is no doubt that the composition and characteristics of political elite are shaped by the Communist Party’s recruitment and promotion policies. Despite the fact that, under Xi Jinping, loyalty, political and ideological criteria are once again emphasized as Mao did in the Cultural Revolution, the CCP will continue to need highly skilled people to fulfil its dream of national rejuvenation. The post-Xi era would see China increasingly competing at the top level in all areas with the most advanced capitalist democracies under the conditions of globalization.

The Chinese political elite would operate in a different environment that may require different types of skill and expertise, as the fourth industrialization beckons a networked and decentralized economic and social structure that has political ramifications. The hierarchical model that the CCP feels most at home operating with may be affected in a serious way. Future cadres may be, by necessity, more independently thinking. The rise of entrepreneurial technocrats who embrace the professional ethos and resist ideological dogma will not be a surprise. For the rigid hierarchy that Xi Jinping reinforces may put China at a disadvantage and the post-Xi leaders may have to dismantle the excesses of Xi’s legacy. The new leaders may search for better ways to accommodate diversity both within and outside the CCP. The party-state may have to decentralize again, cultivate different talents, and build alternative institutions.

The top leadership today consists of cadres who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in conditions unimaginable for generations that had come of age in the reform era. Their material provisions, education and family background, value orientation, exposure to the outside world, career trajectories, and the focal points of their respective lives are essentially incomparable – they do not speak the same language. The younger generations are more adaptive to the rapid socioeconomic changes. The experiences and skills of the older generations accumulated from the Mao era are essentially of no use in the new era. Yet, in politics, the older generation is calling the shots.

Historically, ideological indoctrination and information control have achieved only a superficial conformity, as is testified by the sudden collapse of the Eastern Bloc. It is even more superfluous in a decentralized setting and increasing social pluralism. Furthermore, orthodox Marxism and Maoism have played absolutely no positive role in China’s market-driven developmental success in the reform and opening era. They may well have undermined it.

Yet Xi seems oblivious to the fact that, more than any time in the PRC’s history, the ideological and value differences today are rooted in the diverging material interests in society. His efforts at homogenizing people’s thinking, mainly by beefing up the indoctrination machinery and stifling voices of dissent, reflect an entrapment of the Maoist past instead of adaptation to today’s realities. The Marxism Xi is relishing now has not gone beyond the “standard answers” to what was taught in the incessant political study sessions during the Cultural Revolution. As vestige of the past, it is crude and largely irrelevant to the everyday life of the general population.

At the level of the general population, the one-child generation and the millennials live and grow up in a brand new environment. This is a generation of “little emperors” indulging in capitalist consumerism and constantly pursuing the latest lifestyle fads. They want to be seen as “cool” instead of “red.” They are also the internet generation who control vast amount of information at their fingertips and are exposed to all kinds of ideas. According to researchers and observers, this is a generation characterized not only by words like “selfish,” “self-centered,” “spoiled,” “rebellious,” “anti-traditional,” “irresponsible,” and so on, but also by “strong self-confidence, diverse interests, and strong need for self-improvements” and “more tolerant to differences, including differences in values and lifestyles.” They constitute the milieu that whoever comes to power will have to work with. It is against this milieu that many of Xi’s efforts at restoring orthodox are likely to be futile. Most importantly, perhaps, the force of this social milieu inevitably infiltrates the ruling Communist Party via diversified party membership. Some of them may eventually reach the future top leadership.

China’s future direction is therefore far from set in stone. Treating China as a rising communist threat, as the West is increasingly doing, may lock it onto a path toward that destiny in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may lead to a new Cold War, prematurely and unnecessarily. However powerful the party-state is and however hard it attempts to shape socioeconomic changes, it will not be able to turn the tide. A “peaceful evolution” may be inevitable, even if it is not in the exact shape the West hope. The biggest threat to this scenario, however, is the inability of liberal democracies to resolve the pressing governance problems of their own. This inability will turn off future Chinese leaders and vindicate the continued embrace of the old orthodoxy by default. After all, the current system serves their personal interests well.