Chinese Leaders Revive Marxist Orthodoxy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 9

Reformist Hu Yaobang

Two unusual developments in elite Chinese politics have observers wondering if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is moving toward political reform and changes in its policy toward ethnic minorities. On April 15, Premier Wen Jiabao published an article in the People’s Daily—the Party’s mouthpiece—that heaped accolades on the late party chief Hu Yaobang, who was sacked by patriarch Deng Xiaoping in 1987 for failing to deal harshly with free-thinking intellectuals. On top of that, the hard-line “Emperor of Xinjiang,” Wang Lequan, was replaced last weekend as party secretary of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) by Hunan Party boss Zhang Chunxian, who is deemed a moderate. While noteworthy, these portents of possible liberalization, however, have been counter-balanced by potent flare-ups of orthodoxy at the party-ideology level. Senior cadres and theoreticians have been called upon to uphold the mantra of Chinese-style Marxism as the be-all and end-all of politics. Moreover, instead of relying on political reforms to defuse socio-political contradictions, the CCP leadership is devoting unprecedented resources to boosting its security and control apparatus.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s eulogy of Hu has elicited attention in and out of China because the liberal party leader’s death 21 years ago was the immediate cause of student protests that ended in the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown. In his article, Wen saluted Hu’s “superior working style of being totally devoted to the suffering of the masses.” The premier, who worked under Hu from 1985 to 1987, also praised his former boss’s “lofty morality and openness [of character].” The article has led to speculation that the CCP leadership might consider re-introducing reforms associated with Hu—and even reappraising the verdict on the June 4, 1989 massacre. The day the article appeared, some 20,000 Chinese posted comments on, a popular portal. Many hailed the article as a “positive development” in the direction of liberalization (People’s Daily, April 15; Wall Street Journal, April 15).

There is, however, no credible evidence that Wen’s intent is to signal that the CCP is about to inaugurate a cycle of reform. Yang Jisheng, a former Xinhua News Agency editor and biographer of the late Zhao Ziyang—who was ousted after the Tiananmen incident—said the piece could “not be interpreted as a harbinger for the return of reforms” (New York Times, April 15; Hong Kong TVB New, April 15). Moreover, the decision to rehabilitate Hu’s reputation had been made by President Hu Jintao and his Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) colleagues in early 2005. On the late leader’s 90th birthday in November of that year, the CCP held a commemorative meeting at the Great Hall of the People in which Hu posthumously received effusive praise for his contribution to the party and country. Political observers in Beijing say it is probable that Wen’s article is an effort by President Hu to bolster the status of the Communist Youth League (CYL) as the dominant—and perhaps most progressive—faction within the party. Indeed, Hu Yaobang was a founder of the League, and it was owing to his patronage that Hu Jintao became CYL First Party Secretary in 1984. It is understood that in the run-up to the 18th CCP Congress scheduled for 2012, President Hu has been pulling out all the stops to induct more CYL affiliates to the Politburo and PBSC (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] April 21; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] April 16).

The removal of Wang, who has been the No. 1 official in Xinjiang since 1995, has also been taken as a sign that the Hu-Wen leadership might want to turn a new page in Beijing’s policy toward the Uyghurs. At its just-concluded Work Meeting on Xinjiang, the Politburo vowed to “promote harmonious relations among masses of different nationalities and different religions, and to consolidate and develop harmony and stability in Xinjiang society.” Wang’s replacement, former Hunan Party Secretary Zhang, is deemed a pragmatist who may eventually revise some of Wang’s draconian policies against ethnic minorities. These include suppressing Uyghur identity and cracking down hard on Uyghur intellectuals who demand that XAR officials vouchsafe to Uyghurs the degree of autonomy in cultural and religious matters that are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution (Xinhua News Agency April 23; Ming Pao, April 24).
Yet there seems a higher likelihood that the Hu leadership will continue its time-honored iron-fisted approach toward taming the restive autonomous region. The main theme of the Xinjiang Work Meeting is to “uphold national unity and safeguard national security” and to safeguard the party’s proverbial “long reign and perennial stability” in western China. Top priority is being placed on buttressing military and security forces in the SAR. The public security budget for Xinjiang in 2010 was set at 2.89 billion yuan, up 88 percent from last year (People’s Daily, April 24; Ming Pao, March 6; China Daily, January 13). Moreover, the policy of Sinicization—facilitating the migration of more Han Chinese businessmen, technicians and laborers to the XAR—has received a big boost. This past month, on April, the party secretaries and other top officials from cities and provinces including Beijing, Guangdong, Liaoning, Jiangxi and Zhejiang visited Xinjiang under the banner of “assisting Xinjiang in economic [construction], providing Xinjiang with cadres and talents, and helping educate Xinjiang [residents].” A record number of state-run and private businesses from these eastern and central regions are set to move westward this year (China News Service, April 13; Sing Tao Daily News [Hong Kong] April 14).

Far from resurrecting Hu Yaobang’s famously tolerant and seemingly conciliatory policies toward intellectuals and ethnic minorities, the CCP leadership has further relied on its formidable control apparatus to snuff out challenges to its authority. It is significant that Wang’s new posting is as deputy secretary of the CCP Central Commission on Political and Legal Affairs (CCPLA), the country’s highest-level organ on law enforcement and wei-wen, or maintenance of political stability. The powers and establishment of the CCPLA, which has direct control over the police, prosecutor’s offices and the courts, have been augmented the past few years (See China Brief, “CCPLA: Tightening the CCP’s rule over law,” April 2, 2009). Particularly since the July 5, 2009 riots in Xinjiang, which resulted in the death of 197 residents, the CCPLA has vastly strengthened its network of wei-wen units nationwide. The National People’s Congress last March approved outlays worth 514 billion yuan ($75.26 billion) for public-security departments this year, which are almost as big as the People’s Liberation Army budget of 532 billion yuan ($77.89 billion). The regional Chinese media have disclosed that this year’s wei-wen budget for provinces and cities including Liaoning, Guangdong, Beijing, Suzhou had jumped at least 15 percent over that of 2009 (Ming Pao, March 6; Southern Weekend [Guangzhou], March 3; Legal Daily, February 22).

At the same time, cadres responsible for ideology and the media are sparing no efforts to push forward President Hu’s slogans about “Sinicizing and popularizing Marxism” as a means to ensuring socio-political stability and promoting national cohesiveness. At a recent forum on “Promoting Popular Contemporary Chinese Marxism,” Director of the CCP Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan urged cadres to “deeply grasp the laws of Marxist development, and to better arm the entire party—and educate the people—with the theoretical system of Chinese socialism.” “We must take hold of the people through better [use of] the latest fruits of the Sinicization of Marxism,” said Liu, a conservative commissar who is also member of the CCP Politburo (Xinhua News Agency, March 25;, March 29).

Ideologues and propagandists have, since the winter, been waging a campaign that is focused on “distinguishing four boundaries.” In a nutshell, party commissars are demanding that China’s intellectuals, particularly college teachers and students, make clear-cut distinctions between four sets of values. They are Marxism versus anti-Marxism; a mixed economy that is led by Chinese-style public ownership on the one hand, and an economic order that is dominated by either private capital or total state ownership on the other; democracy under socialism with Chinese characteristics versus Western capitalist democracy; and socialist thoughts and culture on the one hand, and feudal and corrupt capitalist ideas and culture on the other (People’s Daily, March 23; Liberation Army Daily, December 22, 2009).  According to ideologue Li Xiaochun, “party members and cadres must buttress their political sensitivity and their ability in political discrimination.” “We must bolster [our] ideological defense line through self-consciously drawing a demarcation between Marxism and anti-Marxism,” he said. Moreover, in a paper on differentiating socialist and capitalist democracy, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Center on Socialist Systems pointed out that Western democracy was no more than “the game of the rich” and “democracy of the pocket book.” The piece concluded that the quintessence of Chinese democracy must remain “democratic people’s dictatorship”—and not Western-style democracy (People’s Daily, April 8;, March 23).

Meanwhile Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who raised eyebrows last year by spearheading a large-scale resuscitation of “red” or Maoist values in his west-China metropolis, has persevered with his campaign to revive policies and norms associated the Great Helmsman (See China Brief, “The CCP’s Disturbing Revival of Maoism,” November 19, 2009). Apart from staging “revolutionary operas” and putting up Mao statues, Bo and company have sought to take better care of disadvantaged sectors in the municipality by building more “social-security apartments” and providing near-universal health care and pension. “Singing the praise of ‘redness’ means supporting what is right,” Bo, a leading member of the so-called Gang of Princelings, said recently. “A city must do a good job of nurturing spiritual civilization.” He added that cadres who are obsessed with GDP rates—but who lack spiritual values—may “go down the road of corruption and degeneration” (China News Service, April 20; Chongqing Daily, March 18).  

With the 18th Party Congress little more than two years away, PBSC members and other senior cadres are preoccupied with sustaining socio-political stability—and paving the way for the elevation of faction affiliates into the new Central Committee and Politburo. These conditions seem to militate against liberalization, which is seen as disruptive and destabilizing. Seen in this perspective, Premier Wen’s eulogy of Hu Yaobang and personnel changes in Xinjiang seem little more than efforts to placate the liberal wing of the party and the intelligentsia. For the foreseeable future, what party ideologues call the “leitmotif of the times” will likely remain, boosting the socialist orthodoxy in conjunction with beefing up the security apparatus.