‘Self-Revolution’ Suggests Stronger CCDI Mandate

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 2

Xi Jinping discusses “carrying out self-revolution to the end.” (Source: CCTV)

Executive Summary

  • Xi Jinping addressed the perennial dilemma of corruption within the CCP, pronouncing “victory” in a decade of anti-corruption efforts but simultaneously warning that the situation remains “grim and complex.”
  • In the short term, anti-corruption crackdowns are expected to continue, with Xi targeting sectors with concentrated power, capital-intensive industries, and resource-rich areas. The military, particularly the Strategic Support Force, might face increased scrutiny.
  • The third plenary session of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the twentieth party congress took place on January 8, emphasizing “courage in [performing] self-revolution” as a distinctive character and advantage of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 


The third plenary session of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the twentieth party congress took place on January 8. A report on the meeting in the People’s Daily begins by extolling “courage in [performing] self-revolution (勇于自我革命)” as “the most distinctive character and greatest advantage of our Party (我们党最鲜明的品格和最大优势)” (People’s Daily, January 8). “Self-revolution (自我革命)” is an arresting piece of Chinese Marxist terminology identifying a spiritually puritanical self-discipline which must perpetually underpin the conduct of all cadres. Resuscitated from the Mao era, the phrase has been in regular use by General Secretary Xi Jinping. But its frequency has increased dramatically in the last two years, perhaps due to deepening corruption scandals within the party. The genealogy of “self-revolution” in CCP discourse and the language with which it is often collocated is indicative of Xi’s current concerns for the organization that he leads, and gestures to those areas that are likely to be purged in the near future.

Self-Revolution To Solve Corruption

Xi Jinping’s speech at the annual CCDI plenum pithily distilled the perennial dilemma that corruption presents for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). XI started out by lauding a “decade of relentless and vigorous anti-corruption efforts (经过 … 十年坚持不懈的强力反腐),” in which “an overwhelming victory (压倒性胜利)” has been achieved. However, this message is tempered within the same sentence with the warning that “the situation continues to remain grim and complex (但形势依然严峻复杂)” (People’s Daily, January 8). This should come as no surprise, following corruption scandals last year that led to the removal of Minister of Defense Li Shangfu (李尚福) and Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦刚), in addition to various senior military officials (China Brief, November 10, 2023). The magnitude of the problem is underscored in even the official numbers reported by Li Xi (李希) at the plenary session. For the first nine months of 2023, CCDI filed cases against 54 central-level cadres, 2,480 department- or bureau-level cadres, and 20,000 county- and division-level cadres. The Party has taken action against total of 113,000 people since the 20th Party Congress in October 2022 (People’s Daily, January 8). Ten years on from the arrest of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), which is seen as a high watermark of Xi’s antigraft campaign, matters do not seem to have improved, despite increased powers arrogated to the CCDI (China Brief, February 4, 2015).

A proposed solution is the unveiling of a new addition to the pantheon of Xi’s ideological innovations, “Xi Jinping Thought on Self-Revolution” (Xinhua, January 10). This “thought” was subsequently diligently studied at a dedicated session for a Party Group of the State Council, attended by Li Qiang (李强) and Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), and discussed by Wang Huning at the Central Committee’s theory study group (People’s Daily, January 11). The substance of the thought is contained in “grasping nine issues.” These include standard tasks—such as loyalty to the Party’s central leadership, leading the great social revolution, and rectifying discipline and combating corruption—interspersed with more obviously meaningful statements that engage more directly with the Party’s problems and its attempts to fix them (People’s Daily, January 8).

“Solving the unique problems of a big Party as the main direction (以解决大党独有难题为主攻方向)” is one such issue. Xi alluded to this problem at last year’s CCDI plenum (Aisixiang, January 4). An explanation comes from Zhao Jianying (赵剑英), president and editor of the China Social Science Press in an essay on the topic of self-revolution. He writes that while Western governing parties are disciplined by competition from other parties (what Zhao calls “external regulation (他律)”), the CCP must “focus on ‘self-discipline (自律),’ recognize its own shortcomings, supervise itself, and develop itself” (Aisixiang, December 9, 2022). Such observations hint at the very real issues caused by the lack of external constraints on the CCP. Put simply, corruption is a pathology of the system; a feature and not a bug. Framed in this way, the problem becomes an existential one, and indeed the Party speak of it as such. Zhao’s essay argues that “self-revolution has become an important category in the CCP’s theory of party-building,” and frets that “if our Party does not govern itself strictly and realize self-revolution, it will become corrupted and deteriorate, shake the foundation of its rule, and even move towards self-extermination.” Xi has echoed this framing, citing “self-revolution” in July 2016 on a speech celebrating the Party’s 95th anniversary and connecting it to the durability of the CCP.

The Party’s Historical Denialism

Party history helps to articulate the centrality of “self-revolution” (and the eradication of corruption) to the functioning of the Party. A 2021 academic article, which refers to the concept as “an important magic weapon (重要法宝)” notes that in each historical era within the last century (which the author divided into revolution, construction, and reform), the CCP has “always attached great importance to self-revolution and placed it in a prominent position concerning the success or failure of the regime (中国共产党总能高度重视党的自我革命并将其置于关乎政权兴衰成败的突出位置)” (Chongqing University Journal, 2021). Its origins date to 1945, when the writer and educator Huang Yanpei (黄炎培) had a conversation with Mao in a cave dwelling in Yan’an. During the discussion, which centered on dynastic changes and the cycles of history, he raised the famous “Huang Yanpei’s question.” Huang cites a verse from the Zuo Zhuan [1] and asks, can the CCP escape the cyclical nature to history? Mao provides the “two answers (两个答案)” to this question. As explained in an essay by a member of the editorial board of Qiushi, the Party’s main theory journal, these two answers relate to two different perspectives—an internal one and an external one. The first answer is “supervision by the people;” the second is “self-revolution.” Quoting Xi, the author writes that “as long as there are no problems with the Marxist ruling party, there can be no major problems in a socialist country” (Aisixiang, June 22, 2023). It is clear that self-revolution has long been considered fundamental to the Party’s ability to reinvent itself and endure.

“Breaking free from historical cycle of rise and fall as the strategic goal” is now a constituent part of Xi’s new Thought. The idea that the party can escape historical processes to achieve a kind of perpetual and stable progress is one that, to external observers, may appear to have escaped reason too. Nevertheless, it is logically consistent with the paradigm of historical materialism within which the CCP functions. Problems could arise, however, when the party’s creed, which characterizes “self-revolution” as essential for “purity (纯洁性),” veers too far towards privileging “red” over “expert” in lieu of more effective political reforms. From looking at CCP rhetoric, however, this does seem to be the current trend. “Self-revolution” has gained traction in recent years. A brief survey of media articles or essays that focus on the term suggests that it has received a lot more attention since late 2021. This could be in part due to an article by former CCDI head Zhao Leji (赵乐际) on “Leading a Great Social Revolution with a Great Self-revolution,” which argued that “Resolutely punishing corruption is a clear manifestation of self-revolution” (Renminwang, November 18, 2021). But stronger emphasis on this topic from the Party’s discipline organ indicates that corruption is no less widespread than a decade ago, and may be getting worse.

 Looking Ahead

In the short-term, anti-corruption crackdowns will continue across a range of sectors. Xi’s speech specifically targeted those with concentrated power, those that are capital-intensive, and those that are resource-rich, such as “finance, state-owned enterprises, energy, medicine and infrastructure projects” (People’s Daily, January 8). Xi did not touch on the military in his remarks, but given recent scandals within the PLA, ongoing investigations there could increase in scope. One potential target could be the Strategic Support Force. The PLASSF, established in 2015 as part of Xi’s overhaul of the military, is responsible for space warfare, among other things. This is a domain which has grown in importance under Xi and is the kind of technologically advanced sector that Xi has prioritized (China Brief, November 22, 2023). PLASSF also coordinates with the Rocket Force (PLARF), which has been plagued by corruption in recent times.

Looking further ahead, any success of “self-revolution” does not appear likely to benefit China’s drive for national rejuvenation. It also remains to be seen whether it can provide an answer to the Huang Yuanpei question. If so, it could lead to a CCP-style ‘end of history.’ More likely by far, however, would be an end to the history of the CCP. For now, the more important question concerns understanding how the CCDI will incorporate this new ideological construction into its work, and how its new regulations will manifest across the Party and throughout the party-state.


[1] “其兴也勃焉其亡也忽焉,” which roughly translates to “The rise [of those who take responsibility] will prosperous, while the fall [of those who blame others] will be swift. The quote comes contrasts the founding rulers of dynasties with those who oversaw their dynasties’ collapse. (Zuo Zhuan, 11th Year of Duke Zhuang, 2.2).