The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung – director and research fellow, respectively, of the China Institute at SOAS University of London and co-authors of “The Political Thought of Xi Jinping” (Oxford 2024) – is the 392nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain the relevance of political discipline in Xi Jinping Thought and CCP leadership.
With “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” being made the ideological guide for the Communist Party and for every Chinese person, Xi Jinping is seeking to transform China. What he seeks to create can best be summarized as forging one united country, with one single “patriotic” people, guided by one ideology, and governed by one party led by one leader.
Since Xi has made clear that the party leads everything and everyone everywhere, it is essential that the leader is able to impose tight discipline on this Leninist party. Xi sees lax discipline under his two predecessors as responsible for corruption and drift in China’s political system. Hence, the introduction of an anti-corruption cum party rectification operation as one of the first initiatives he took after becoming top leader in 2012. The direction Xi has set is to take China into a digital totalitarian era, for which the capacity of the supreme leader to use the party to lead every aspect of life in China is indispensable.
Examine China’s new social contract under Xi Thought.
After the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, the Communist Party introduced a de facto social contract to restore legitimacy. It offered to raise the quality of living for the people in exchange for their acquiescence to its power monopoly. The new social contract under Xi Thought commits the party to satisfy public demands or expectations on livelihood matters much more effectively on the basis of reinvigorating the Maoist mass line.
The mass line requires the party to engage with the people actively in order to convince them that the party’s policies are in fact their own. We can see the mass line in full swing in Xi’s anti-corruption, anti-poverty, and anti-pollution campaigns, which demonstrate a willingness to go to great lengths to meet higher demands. The new social contract also promises to deliver national pride for China.
In return, Xi expects the people to fully embrace the party’s leadership. This requires them to actively defend regime security and accept more intrusive control. The former manifested in the passage of state security laws and with it, the revival of the Maoist citizen-informant culture for reporting suspected breach of state security. The latter can be seen in the complete ecosystem for mass surveillance that Xi has created, which uses digital technology, such as near-ubiquitous facial recognition enabled CCTV cameras in public spaces, to enable precise control.
Analyze the role of Xi Thought in developing a socialist market economy.
Xi uses the term “socialist market economy” to describe the Chinese economy and to distinguish it from a capitalist economy. In practical terms, it means applying active state steerage, under the direction of the party, to unleash positive synergies between the government and the market, in order to achieve Xi’s three economic goals.
The top goal is to secure economic strength. Xi believes this can be achieved by making China’s independent innovation ability catch up with and, indeed, surpass that of the West. To do so, he has devised an asymmetrical strategy for innovation that aims to secure breakthroughs in industrial sectors that are pivotal to reshaping the future of the world economy and to technological advancement.
The second goal is to increase substantially economic order and security. To create order, he subjects companies and financial institutions to much tighter regulations. To strengthen security, he introduces the “dual circulation strategy” to insulate the domestic economy from external risks.
Achieving “common prosperity,” which aims to increase the size of the middle-income groups, is Xi’s lowest ranked economic goal.
Describe how Xi Thought is a catalyst for building a “common destiny for humankind.”
Xi’s ultimate ambition is to make China great again, encapsulated in the slogan “the China Dream” of national rejuvenation for which every Chinese person is commanded to share. Xi’s “national rejuvenation” amounts to a “re-creation” of the mythical Tianxia (or all under heaven) international order.
In Xi’s conceptualization, which does not match historical records, pax Sinica prevailed when the Tianxia order was in place at the height of China’s power. In this re-construction, Tianxia prevailed when other countries recognized and embraced that China was the most magnificent and benevolent country and thus the most appropriate leader, one that would lead all to share in the common destiny for humankind. Hence, China would not need to use force to make others compliant, and his claim that China has not a single imperialist gene in its national DNA.
Such a thinking underpins Xi’s confidence that the East (or China) is rising while the West is declining, and the launch of his three Global Initiatives, for Development, Security and Civilization. It also explains his focus on the Global South, as he seeks to use their support to “democratize” the U.N. and other existing international organizations, by making them respect their wishes represented by its leader (China) ahead of that of the oppressive West.
Assess the implications of Xi Thought for China, the world, and the United States.
If Xi should achieve his China Dream, he would have changed China, the world, and the place for the United States in it. Domestically, China would have become a totalitarian or near totalitarian system tightly controlled by the Leninist Communist Party and assisted by digital technologies. The single “patriotic” people of China would follow the leader without questions and believe in their country’s destiny as the leader of humanity.
Abroad, China would have projected a model for development, security, and thinking on culture and civilization different from that prevailing under the current liberal international order. It would be a world where totalitarian or authoritarian states would feel fully comfortable and safe while democratic ones must accept the inferiority of their system. In this new international order, the United States would be required to know its place and embrace the leadership of the new superior model of China. But this is based on a linear projection based on Xi Thought.
In reality, Xi’s approach is generating increasing dissent within China, as reflected by the public’s mourning of the passing of former Premier Li Keqiang, and rising concern externally. Xi’s monopoly of power and ideological approach are proving counterproductive to his own ambitions. Xi Thought may not deliver, and it is unlikely to survive Xi or his hold to power.