New Times,
New Thinking.

The future of Xi Jinping Thought

The Chinese leader’s political doctrine seeks nothing less than to remake the world order.

By Katie Stallard

If Xi Jinping had followed the example of his immediate predecessors, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Nineteenth Congress in October 2017 should have marked the halfway point of his time in power. After completing his first five-year term as general secretary, he would have elevated his preferred successor and signalled the beginning of an orderly transition to the next leader in 2022.

This is not what happened. Not only was there no designated heir, but the conclave voted unanimously to enshrine Xi’s political ideology, Xi Jinping Thought, in the party’s constitution, an honour previously reserved for Mao Zedong. (Deng Xiaoping was posthumously credited with developing a “Theory”.) It was the clearest indication yet of Xi’s increasing dominance within the party and his determination to rule China indefinitely. In March 2018, the country’s legislature removed the term limits on the presidency, the only constitutional bar to Xi remaining in power for life.

In the six years since, references to Xi Jinping Thought – or as it is formally known, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era – have become ubiquitous in Chinese officialdom, along with paeans to Xi’s essential role as the “core” of the CCP. Dozens of research centres dedicated to the study of the leader’s thinking have been established across China, with party members and civil servants required to log long hours on a mobile phone app that tracks their knowledge of his pronouncements. But does Xi Jinping Thought amount to more than a vanity project designed to inflate his importance and enforce official fealty?

In The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung, both scholars at Soas University of London, argue that while the doctrine does not yet constitute a fully developed state ideology, there is no doubt this is what Xi intends. Xi views his own role in Chinese history as comparable to Chairman Mao, they believe, and he is setting out a clear vision of his plans for the country in the years ahead, and a new world order with China firmly established in the leading role.

“In the language of the digital era, Xi has largely kept the hardware of the CCP system in place,” write Tsang and Cheung. “He has replaced or substantially upgraded the operating system, however.” In this analogy, Mao introduced the first-generation “operating system” (OS) after founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was then replaced by OS 2.0 under Deng Xiaoping during the era of reform and opening that began in 1978. Not content, as Deng’s successors were, merely to make further modifications, Xi has implemented a new, third-generation OS, which combines elements of Mao’s original ideology with his aspiration, write Tsang and Cheung, to “change the party, the country, and the people”. The aim is to usher in a new era – his own.

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Xi’s agenda can be divided into two broad components – domestic politics and foreign policy – under the banner of the “China Dream of national rejuvenation”. At home, this means implementing a vision of “oneness” for China, with “one country, one people, one ideology, one party, and one leader”. As Xi views it, there is only one acceptable way to be a patriotic Chinese citizen, with every individual required to submit themselves to “the greater good of China as interpreted by the party”.

To achieve the requisite state of homogeneity, Xi has dusted off elements of old Maoist work practices, such as “mass line” campaigns, which require CCP officials to be seen to engage with the wider population as they formulate new policies, and to mobilise popular support. Although, unlike Mao, Xi is wary of igniting a movement that might spill out onto the streets, preferring to adopt a more cautious approach that makes use of the party’s enormous bureaucracy. In practice, this means holding study sessions for cadres and meetings with local residents, along with extensive propaganda campaigns to generate support for his latest priorities. He also understands the importance of being seen to respond to popular concerns, including pollution, corruption and poverty, all of which have been the subject of high-profile campaigns during his first decade in power. While he has effectively ended the principle of collective leadership that constrained his predecessors, alienating senior figures within the party elite, he claims to be ruling on behalf of the masses, just as Mao once did.

[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]

This does not mean that Xi is interested in genuine democratic participation. Xi has stressed the necessity of CCP rule and sought to reinvigorate the party’s Leninist roots, with an emphasis on control, ruthless internal discipline, silencing dissent and dominating all aspects of the state machinery of power. As he declared at the Nineteenth Congress in 2017: “The party, the state, the military, the civilians, and the education sector; east, west, south, north, and centre – the party leads everything.” He has also ordered a concerted push on patriotic education, including in Hong Kong, to inculcate his desired version of history, which stresses the need for strong central leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the party, a process he calls, “arming the brain”.

This vision of “oneness” bodes ill for the future of China’s ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang who have already been subjected to a brutal campaign of forced assimilation that amounts to genocide, according to the House of Commons and the US State Department. “The reality is that under the guidance of Xi Thought,” Tsang and Cheung conclude, “whatever is deemed as standing in the way of the effort to forge a common national identity and a common national loyalty will be ‘harmonised’ or crushed in the process.”

On foreign policy, Xi aspires to “make China great again”. This means, Tsang and Cheung write, “making China second to none in terms of its ‘comprehensive national strength’”, and for it to be “universally recognised as the world’s ‘first power’ on its own terms”. Only then will China have realised the dream of national rejuvenation and reclaimed its rightful place in the world. Xi has set a deadline to achieve this: 2049.

This has major implications for Taiwan. Xi has long made clear that “reunification” with the self-ruling democracy – although the CCP has never governed the territory – is central to this vision of national rejuvenation and he has refused to rule out the use of force. He has also said that the question of Taiwan’s future status must not be passed down from “generation to generation”, suggesting that a reckoning cannot be indefinitely postponed. Tsang and Cheung warn that these threats should be taken seriously. “Taiwan occupies the central position in Xi’s strategic thinking,” they explain, “as its ‘recovery’ will require either deterring or defeating the United States, the accomplishment of which will substantially alter the global balance of power and establish China’s standing as a global superpower.”

Unlike Deng, who advocated that China hide its strength and bide its time, Xi seems to revel in flaunting the country’s growing military power and global influence. He has openly admired the ancient tianxia – “all under heaven” – system that imagined imperial China as the centre of the world and once defined its relations with neighbouring powers. In practice, this meant China (at least during periods of centralised dynastic rule) asserting its authority over surrounding states through the threat or use of force.

But Xi prefers a mythologised understanding of the concept in which it brought peace and stability to the region through collective reverence for Chinese civilisation. He does not want merely to supplant the US as the latest global hegemon within a semblance of the current world order, Tsang and Cheung say, but to incorporate elements of this past approach to fundamentally remake that order “into a better one, which just needs to become Sino-centric”. The US will be welcome to participate in this new Pax Sinica (“Chinese peace”), as long as it acknowledges China’s central role.

Xi Jinping Thought is a work in progress. Despite the name, he is also not its sole author, with Wang Huning – a university professor-turned-ideologue who now serves alongside Xi on the party’s top decision-making body – helping to shape and develop the emerging doctrine. But perhaps the most important lesson to take from this nascent ideology is how it envisages Xi’s own place in China’s future as the sole, indispensable leader who can defend the country against its enemies and deliver on the promise of the “China Dream”.

Far from re-examining his approach amid a slowing economy, looming property market crisis and increasingly antagonistic relations with China’s neighbours, Xi Jinping appears convinced that he alone can solve the country’s problems, and he jealously guards that authority. Having established his political doctrine as a guiding principle of the CCP and carefully consolidated his authority during his first decade in power, it is difficult to see how he could now be removed short of a dramatic rupture within the party or a debilitating health crisis. Regardless of the formal role he holds in the future, Xi is making clear that he intends to dominate Chinese politics for years, perhaps decades to come.

The Political Thought of Xi Jinping
Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung
Oxford University Press, 272pp, £22.99

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[See also: The end of panda diplomacy]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars