20 April 2024
The Political Thought of Xi Jinping

The Political Thought of Xi Jinping

Under Xi Jinping, China has returned to ideology-based policies and abandoned collective leadership, according to Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung.

Following over three decades of pragmatic, pro-economic growth policies of the Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao administrations, the principal focus of Chinese policy under Xi Jinping has shifted to national security, especially regime security (meaning survival of the regime) and party supremacy. Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung, of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, offer an insightful analysis of this about face in their new book, “The Political Thought of Xi Jinping.”

What has motivated China’s new direction of travel under Xi? When he took over the leadership of China in 2012, Xi saw a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that had lost its way. Corruption was rampant. Different party leaders had built up their own fiefdoms. They were pursuing private interests and were disloyal to the CCP leadership. They had lost ideological conviction and no longer believed in communism. Xi blames not only the West for China’s problems, but also the reform and opening up strategy.

The authors write that the future of the CCP seemed precarious. To address this situation, Xi turned Chinese politics on its head. He secured CCP agreement to end the post-Mao convention that the top leader retires after serving two five-year terms, and inn October 2022, he began his third term as China’s top leader. He is now potentially China’s leader for life, and there is no designated or plausible successor in sight.

“Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” is now the driving force of China’s politics. And Xi’s Thought provides the “navigational chart” of a grand strategy for a “China dream of national rejuvenation,” to be realised by the year 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Xi’s ultimate vision is to make China a “great modern socialist country that is rich, strong, democratic, cultured, harmonious, and beautiful.” Xi’s vision for the CCP is a Leninist machine that has a strong hierarchical line of authority and command structure, which is disciplined and loyal to the central leader. Under Xi, China is led by a strongman, or some would say a dictator, who has abandoned the previous collective leadership of the post-Mao period.

Tsang and Cheung then analyse the key tenets of Xi Thought which is “committed to forging one strong country, one patriotic people, guided by one ideology and led by one party with one leader at the top.” Needless to say, this is a highly ambitious project for China’s complex and diverse society. The first issue addressed is Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Most believed that, like his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi would launch a swift one- to two-year anti-corruption campaign. But the Party has been shocked at the never ending nature of the campaign. In reality, it is an anti-corruption campaign in name, and a party rectification campaign in substance. It seeks to reinvigorate the CCP as a Leninist instrument and establish Xi as the Party’s “core” by purging rivalrous factions, and through the revival of ideological indoctrination and centralisation of the disciplinary regime.

Following the Tiananmen Square incident, China was governed by a social contract whereby Chinese citizens accepted the CCP’s monopoly of political power in return for enjoying the benefits of economic growth. Xi Jinping proposes a new social contract, based on making people proud of China. This means adhering to traditional Chinese values and civilisation, as well as loyalty to the CCP and its supreme leader. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters along with minorities like Uighers and Tibetans must be reeducated to become patriotic Chinese and love the CCP and the leader. It also means integrating Taiwan into the mainland.

According to Xi Thought, the Party must take the lead in transforming society. Xi once said “The Party, the state, the military, the civilians and the education sector – the Party leads everything.” All Party members must study an App on Xi Thought on a daily basis. Xi Thought is now also fully integrated into the education system. Xi wants to develop a “socialist market economy” with a focus on technological innovation. While the previous post-Mao leaders wanted to grow GDP, under Xi China is investing heavily in its technological ecosystem to try to catch up with and surpass Western countries in cutting edge technologies. Private enterprises must serve and be guided by the Party.

Internationally, the objective of Xi Thought is to make China great again. Xi wants China to resume its “rightful place” as the strongest, richest, and most powerful, advanced, civilised, and benevolent state in the world. Xi’s conception of history does not resemble actual history, and he has banned any alternative version of history. Xi would like to transform the American-dominated world order into a “Sinocentric order.” He is doing that by trying to “democratise” the world order by winning support from the Global South to transform the UN and other international organisations from Western to Chinese leadership.

The authors have serious questions about the effectiveness of Xi thought. In a recent webinar, Tsang argued that during the 25 years following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the CCP did not make one single major policy mistake that could potentially destabilise the system. This was an amazing achievement thanks to effective collective leadership during the Deng/Ziang/Hu period, which enlarged the scope for debate at the top echelons of policymaking. Since Xi came to power and consolidated his leadership, he has effectively replaced collective leadership with an echo chamber. China has seen mistake after mistake being made.

The most glaring mistake was the aggressive enforcement of the zero Covid policy, and then the sudden reversal following protests. Tsang is also very critical of the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020 which the rest of the world saw as the end of the “One country, two systems” regime. This was completely avoidable, as the Hong Kong protests had already ended in 2019. Other policy mistakes have led to the trade war with the US, and Europe’s reversal of its previously relaxed relations with China. China’s draconian policy towards the Uighurs in Xinjiang is counterproductive and hugely damaging to China’s image. Thus, Tsang reports that there is a lot of disagreement and dissatisfaction towards Xi within the Party. For the moment he does not see any threat to Xi’s leadership, but if he continues to make major mistakes, these could unleash forces for change.

Recent years have seen a veritable plethora of books, of variable quality, on Xi’s China. And given the black box nature of China’s elite politics, these books have elicited a wide range of critical commentary. For this reader, Steve Tsang’s and Olivia Cheung’s new book, The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, offers a highly plausible and persuasive account of Chinese politics under Xi Jinping, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the current state of Chinese politics.


This book review by John West was first published by the Australian Outlook of the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 21 March 2024.
Tags: china

Social share