Beijing is preparing for a host of major meetings and anniversaries in the months ahead. The first of these will be the annual senior leadership summer retreat at the Beidaihe resort in early August, when current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo members meet with retired cadres—particularly, former affiliates of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (Financial Review, August 19, 2016; SCMP, August 8, 2018). Next in line will be a military parade of unprecedented scale on October 1, when the leadership will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The October 1 parade will be expected to feature state-of-the-art military hardware, such as the Dong Feng 31AG intercontinental ballistic missile, and the J-20 stealth jet fighter. Super-sophisticated vehicles from China’s ambitious space exploration program will also be displayed (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], July 19). Preliminary plans for potentially an even greater celebration—the CCP’s 100th birthday in mid-2022—are already on the drawing boards.
In the midst of such preparations, as well as momentous issues such as the trade talks with the United States, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has called upon members of the Party to embrace the ideals of Party history and Communist practice. In this, the tone that Chairman Xi strikes does not evoke the future: rather, it looks to the past as the 66 year-old princeling underscores the imperative for CCP members to maintain the “original aspirations” (初心, chuxin) of the Party’s earlier history. This term was prominently featured during Xi’s inspection trip to Inner Mongolia in mid-July, in the course of which a common official slogan was “don’t forget your chuxin and firmly remember your mission” (不忘初心, 牢记使命 / bu wang chuxin, laoji shiming) (Xinhua, July 16).
The Party’s “Original Aspirations” as Defined by Xi
Chuxin, one of Xi’s most commonly-used terms, is a reference to the original goals of the CCP. These include serving the people, rediscovering the party’s original and correct political orientations, realizing “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strengthening “party construction.” As Xi stated during his Inner Mongolia trip, “We must firmly bear in mind our chuxin and mission and implement a developmental platform of putting the people as the core [of party work].” While the paramount leader waxed eloquent on “new developmental concepts,” he mainly dwelled on “the job of stabilizing growth, pushing forward restructuring [of the economy], buttressing the standard of living and preventing risks,” and noted that the country’s 70 years of achievement had “fully proven that we are right in going down the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” He further asserted that the “CCP has won the embrace and support of the people because our party has from beginning to end firmly guarded the chuxin and mission of seeking happiness for the Chinese people and aiming at the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” He boasted that if the party’s 90 million members will safeguard their chuxin, and pledge unquestioned loyalty to the leadership, the CCP “will remain impregnable and invincible” (Xinhua, July 16).
In a July article published in the party theoretical journal Seeking Truth, Xi admonished party members to “boost their self-consciousness and firmness in strengthening and pushing forward the political construction of the party” (Qstheory.cn, June 30). Xi has repeatedly cited Mao’s instruction on the fact that “whether it be east, south, west, north or center, the party provides leadership for everything” (People’s Daily, July 15; CPCNews, August 1). While a generation of reformers have advocated learning from the beneficial aspects of the Western model, Xi has insisted on what Mao called “a dialectical-materialist worldview and methodology.” As Xi has warned since taking power in 2012, the party cannot afford to make “subversive mistakes” in political and economic policies. “Subversive errors” are a reference to theories and policies that have betrayed the Maoist chuxin—and which, if adopted, could spell the end of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (China News Service, June 1, 2018; Xinhua, October 8, 2013).
What’s Behind the Revived Calls for Communist Chuxin?
Effusive displays of confidence aside, Xi’s back to basics ethos reflects the fact that the CCP is encountering immense difficulties. On the domestic front, the economy is going through rough patches, and official growth figures for the second quarter of this year (6.2 percent) are the lowest in 27 years. The two potential new growth poles—high technology and consumer spending—are facing tough times. The country’s top information technology companies, for example, are having trouble obtaining core components from the United States and other Western countries. Consumer spending is hitting the doldrums partly because of unprecedented levels of household debt, which is estimated at 52 percent of gross domestic product (HK01.com, July 15; South China Morning Post, March 21).
On a global level, China is locked in what many commentators call a new “Cold War” with the United States—one in which trade disputes, which have caused some multinationals to relocate out of China, are but one facet of the colossal confrontation. The recent anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong have added to leadership concerns that what Xi calls “black swan events”—social incidents morphing into full-scale color revolutions—could appear on the mainland (China Brief, February 20; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], June 13). Xi’s response to China’s current crisis is to return to Maoist chuxin.
However, the calls for professing allegiance to the Party and reinstating its chuxin may be a cynical way for Xi to demand further loyalty to himself. As Xi stated in a Politburo study session in mid-2018, “[I]n upholding party leadership, the most important thing is to safeguard the authority of the party central authorities (中央, zhongyang) and to concentrate and unify leadership [at the top]” (People’s Daily, July 1, 2018). Indeed, the putative “party core for life” has doubled down on the imperative of the zhongyang enjoying the right to “set the tone [for major decisions]” (一锤定音, yizhuidingyin) and to ensure that “[controversies] must be settled by the uppermost authority” (定于一尊, dingyuyizun) (Xinhua, July 15; CCTV, July 5). In other words, Xi has arrogated to himself the position of custodian of the Maoist “one voice chamber.”
Signs of Opposition, and Xi’s Veiled Threats of Renewed Party Purges
However, Xi is far from having a Mao-like grip on authority, as evidenced by the indirect criticisms levied on the “21st century Mao Zedong” from senior CCP members who do not belong to the Xi camp. The “original aspirations” ideological movement could be an effective means by Xi to silence his internal critics. Faced with Trump’s increasingly harsh demands for Chinese trade-related concessions, Xi has assumed the moral high ground by threatening to go back on the road of “self-reliance” (自力更生, ziligengsheng)—and has even issued calls to embark on a “new Long March” of Maoist-style autarky (CNR.cn, May 21; Guangming Daily, April 20).
These latter steps have been widely perceived as Xi protecting his flank against critics who had authored a spate of articles in official media outlets that slammed the alleged penchant of unnamed leaders for cozying up to the Americans. Foremost among these was a June Xinhua commentary titled “Let Capitulationism Be Like a Rat in the Street,” which claimed that the media was replete with comments such as “China is in a disadvantaged position and it is wise to call upon everybody to make a compromise” (Xinhua, June 7). There are similarly hard-line articles in Guangming Daily and other official outlets, which have laid into the Chinese negotiation team’s apparent propensity for striking a deal with Washington (Radio Free Asia, June 12; Guangming Daily, June 6).
When National People’s Congress Chairman and PBSC member Li Zhanshu (栗战书) first coined the slogans yichuidingyin and dingyuyizun in July last year, the expected public protestations of loyalty to Xi—a ritual known as biaotai (表态), or “showing fealty”—failed to take place (China Brief, August 1, 2018). Except during the annual sessions of the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference last March, few PBSC or ordinary Politburo members saluted Xi’s decision-making prowess and other leadership qualities. In relation to the chuxin campaign, after Xi himself asked fellow cadres to support his yichuidingyin and dingyuyizun prerogatives, few among Xi’s protégés joined the biaotai game. This, despite the relatively large number of close Xi associates in the Politburo, including Li Qiang (李强), Chen Min’er (陈敏尔), Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), Li Xi (李希), and Chen Quanguo (陈全国) (respectively the party bosses of Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin, Guangdong and Xinjiang). The exception was Beijing party secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇): in discussing how to implement the chuxin credo in the capital, Cai said party members must “stay absolutely loyal, and use practical actions to safeguard the zhongyang’s authority in yichuidingyin and dingyuyizun” (Beijing Daily, June 22; People’s Daily, June 22). It is noteworthy, however, that Cai seemed to be rendering his full support to the zhongyang in general, rather than to Xi in particular.
Xi has dropped hints that if his loyalty drive is not entirely successful, he might well launch another rectification campaign to rid the CCP of unqualified (or disloyal) members. Six years ago, Xi unleashed a previous purge by calling upon all cadres to “look [themselves] in the mirror, straighten out their attire, take a bath and cure their sickness” (People’s Daily, June 19, 2013; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], May 5, 2013). While laying utmost emphasis on the Maoist chuxin, Xi has praised the infamous party purification movement that the Great Helmsman organized in the CCP’s Yan’an base during the early 1940s. In Xi’s speech marking the 98th birthday of the CCP in early July, Xi indicated that the question of the “four impurities”—a reference to lax standards in thought, politics, organization and work style—in the Party was still serious and must be rectified. “We must boost our combative spirit,” Xi told members who have supposedly failed to measure up to his tough standards. “We must be brave enough to brandish the sword and to engage in struggles so as to resolutely prevent and curb the syndrome of political numbness [as manifested in] not being able to make out the intentions of the enemies, failing to tell right from wrong, and failing to delineate the right path” (Seeking Truth Net, July 15; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], July 2).
In a message redolent of the “politics takes command” credo of the Cultural Revolution, Xi has stated that “political construction is an eternal task of the party.” Unlike the Great Architect of Reform Deng Xiaoping, who posited “economic construction” as a key task of the party, Xi has identified “grasping the correct political orientation” as “the number one issue for the party’s survival and development.” Accordingly, the correct political orientation must be manifested when the party is “planning major strategies, forming major policies, planning important tasks and implementing important work” (People’s Daily, July 17).
As set forth by Xi, this “correct political orientation” must be grounded in the proper chuxin. The ideological themes advocated by Xi—and especially this call for a return to the “original aspirations” of the CCP—hearken back to an idealized vision of the Party’s history. However, in the final analysis, Xi will only be able to win the respect of officials and ordinary people alike if he can come up with innovative ways to solve the country’s problems—and not wallow in the theoretical platitudes of the Maoist past.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019.