Xi Evokes “New Left” Vision of China’s Future

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1

Chinese President Xi Jinping honored the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth on December 26, using the occasion to speak at length about the significance of the founder of the People’s Republic in Chinese and Party history (Xinhua, December 26). The speech was generally laudatory but made brief references to his “mistakes”: launching the Cultural Revolution and, in a possible reference to the Great Leap Forward, “simply copying Leninist theory and imitating the experience of Russia’s October Revolution, causing grave harm to the Chinese Revolution.” However, Xi quoted Deng Xiaoping’s verdict on the legacy of Mao to argue that his failures came second to his achievements: uniting the Chinese nation and achieving its independence, solving “difficult problems about the relationship of the Party and the people,” and establishing the “basic socialist system.”

The speech is Xi’s most detailed effort yet to explain the legacy of Mao, and it demonstrates two important aspects of his vision for China: first, that his alternating evocations of Mao and Deng do not represent vacillation, but an effort to reconcile the “two undeniables” of Chinese politics. As Xi put it in the speech, deploying a slogan: “Without Reform and Opening, there could be no China today; if we abandon this path, China can have no tomorrow” (for more on the speech, see “Xi invokes Mao’s image to boost his own authority” in this issue of China Brief).

Second, the speech—and, even more, its explication in the Party’s ideological journals—suggest strongly that Xi’s vision of China’s future has been shaped by the group of academics known as the “New Left.” The group is associated with nostalgia for Mao and especially with Bo Xilai’s experiments in Chongqing—making the resurgence of the Ne Left’s ideas after Bo’s downfall all the more interesting. In attempting to understand his plans for China’s future, his borrowings from Mao should be read not as ersatz efforts to justify policy, but as belonging to an established discussion about the future of China’s social and political systems.

The New Left—a controversial name rejected by many of the academics to whom it is applied—emerged in the 1990s as a criticism of unfettered capitalism, and emerged as a major player in the Hu Jintao-era debates about the idea of a “China model.” Essays such as Wang Hui’s (Tsinghua) “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity” expressed reservations about the dislocations of rapid economic change, while Pan Wei’s (Peking University) “Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China” examined Hong Kong and Shanghai to envision a future without Western-style democracy (Tianya, Issue 5, 1997; Journal of Contemporary China, Volume 12, Issue 34, 2003).

While the movement contains a great deal of ideological diversity—including some adherents sympathetic to forms of representative democracy—it is generally defined by an effort to challenge the account of the Reform and Opening Era as one of salvation from failed policies. Rather, they argue, the legacies of Mao and Deng are complementary: where Mao provided equality and a strong, “spiritual” version of Chinese identify, Deng and his successors created a powerful economic base at the cost of social and spiritual dislocation. They deploy Marxist dialectics to argue for a reconciliation, describing Mao and Deng as a thesis and antithesis in need of synthesis. In a particularly ambitious version of this story, Wang Shaoguang’s 2010 article on “Socialism 3.0,” the author observes that Mao’s rule and the period of Reform and Opening initiated by Deng had each lasted for 30 years—inviting China’s leaders to declare a new era uniting the two (for more on this, see “Socialism 3.0 in China,” The Diplomat, April 25, 2011; original article republished in English in China 3.0, European Council on Foreign Relations 2012).

While this school of thought was closely associated with Bo Xilai’s policies in Chongqing—Wang proposed them as a model for the next stage of socialism in China, while the distinguished New Left academic Cui Zhiyuan joined Bo’s government as an official—the careers of its proponents do not seem to have been adversely affected by his downfall, in contrast to the recent firings of liberal intellectuals associated with Charter 08, such as Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang (South China Morning Post, October 20).

Explanations of Xi’s speech in Party ideological journals, and of his earlier mentions of the “two undeniables,” reflect this account of Party history. A November 8 article in People’s Daily, signed by the CCP Central Committee Party History Research Department, provided a guide to help readers “Correctly Deal With Both Historical Periods Before and After Reform and Opening,” a theme that has been heavily emphasized in the last weeks as journals such as Qiushi (Seeking Truth) and Hongqi (Red Flag) have published articles on Xi’s speech, covering the historical appraisal of Mao, a “30-year Vision for China’s future” (an interview with Pan Wei), and “The China Road and the Chinese Communist Party” (Qiushi, December 9, 2013; January 1).

Xi’s New Year’s address to the nation likewise played upon themes drawn from New Left literature, with the title “Making a More Just and Equal Society” (Xinhua, December 31, 2013).

The ideas of the New Left are visible not only in Xi’s rhetoric but in his political efforts—his emphasis on national confidence and the unique historical circumstances of the “China Dream” and his combining economic reform with Maoist rectification. Looking at Pan Wei’s 2003 article may even help to understand the conundrum of the rise of “rule of law” rhetoric coming at the same time as a crackdown on advocacy of “constitutional government.”

If Xi is using New Left theory as a political guide, the current ideological crackdown is unlikely to be lessened, and indeed we may expect to see greater efforts at mass participation. Democratic political reform and large-scale privatization of state-owned industries will likely remain off the table. However, a certain set of long-promised reforms, targeting social inequality, corruption, and the privileges enjoyed by the Communist elite and state businesses, may play a central role in Xi’s plans for the future.