The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken multiple measures to consolidate his position as “core for life” of the CCP leadership in the run-up to the centenary of the party’s establishment on July 1. Firstly, he has firmed up his status as the most authoritative interpreter of CCP history and hence a new helmsman for shepherding the party down the path initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong (China Brief, November 3, 2020). He has redoubled efforts to clamp down on dissent among intellectuals and even former top cadres while also reining in leading private entrepreneurs whose wealth and influence may detract from the all-embracing powers of the party. Finally, Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that oversees the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has masterminded a housecleaning of the nation’s military and police forces.
Consolidating a Correct Narrative of Party History
A series of official books and journal articles have whitewashed the tyrannical regime of Chairman Mao Zedong and lionized the contributions of Xi, now deemed an equal to Mao in the CCP pantheon. Contrary to former chronicles of party events, the recently published An Abbreviated History of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党简史, Zhongguo Gongchangdang jianshi) made no reference to the iniquities committed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Instead, the First Generation leader was given credit for setting the foundation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and providing ideological enrichment of the nation with “valuable experience, theoretical preparation and material foundation” during the 1949-1976 period. An account of the nine years under Xi Jinping (2012 to 2021), during which the supreme leader fine-tuned “socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era,” took up one-fourth of the book (Radio Free Asia, April 30; CNA.com.tw, April 12).
Senior cadres close to Xi have underscored the imperative of wholeheartedly following the “party core’s” dictums by citing examples of how deviant CCP leaders in the 1930s had tried to split the party by challenging the party central authorities (党中央, dangzhongyang) led by Mao. In an early May article in the theoretical journal Seeking Truth titled “The party’s rise and fall depends on upholding party unity and concentrated and unified [leadership],” the First-ranked Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Zhang Qingli (张庆黎) recalled how factionalism and disunity in the party’s history had dealt a body blow to the CCP. Zhang, a former party secretary of Tibet who is seen as close to President Xi, argued that in 1935, one early party leader, Zhang Guotao (张国焘), used the powerful troops under his command to “blackmail the central authorities and to go down the road of splitting the party and the Red Army.” Another “traitor” pilloried by Zhang Qingli was Wang Ming (王明), a protégé of the Soviet Union-backed Communist International (Comintern). Zhang Qingli wrote that Wang tried to use his position as Moscow’s “plenipotentiary” to “refuse to follow orders from the central leadership and severely disrupted the implementation of the correct views of Comrade Mao Zedong and the party central authorities” (Xuexi.cn, May 8; Qstheory.cn, May 1).
The CCP authorities have also kicked off a nationwide campaign to study party history whose goal, in Xi’s words, is “to establish the correct view about the party’s past events.” The Party’s propaganda department released the latest Xi book, titled, On the History of the Chinese Communist Party (论中国共产党历史, lun zhongguo gongchangdang lishi). Compiling a selection of Xi’s articles and speeches in the past nine years, the book stresses how Xi has made history by mapping out major developmental game plans for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era. One previously unpublished article spotlighted Xi’s late 2012 prescription for “realizing the grandiose dream of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” Of more relevance to Xi’s power play is his insistence on the right of princelings imbued with the correct view of history “to inherit well the red DNA and to pass on the red jiangshan [heaven and earth] from generation to generation” (People’s Daily, April 21; Ming Pao, February 22).
Crackdown on Intellectual Dissent
In the run-up to the centenary of the party’s establishment on July 1 – and a pivotal plenum of the Central Committee slated for October this year – Xi’s inner circle and propagandists are sparing no efforts to bolster the Maoist “one voice chamber” in society. Liberal professors at elite academic units such as the Central Party School and Tsinghua University have been given gag orders. Last month, the courts upheld a 14-year jail term for Internet activist Niu Tengyu (牛腾宇) for publicizing a picture of Xi’s daughter Xi Mingze (习明泽) and Xi’s brother in law Deng Jiagui (邓家贵) (Apple Daily, April 24; Radio French International, April 23). More human rights lawyers have been detained and struck off the official registry for legal practitioners (Radio Free Asia, February 11; VOA Chinese, February 8). Even a casual essay by former premier Wen Jiabao in memory of his mother was removed from official and social media after it first appeared in late April in an obscure news outlet in Macau. Wen wrote that “the China in my heart should be a country that is full of justice and righteousness, where there is respect for people’s hearts, humanitarianism and humaneness (人的本质, ren de benzhi).” He added that China should be “forever filled with the spirit of youth, liberty and struggle [for improvement]” (HK01.com, April 24; BBC Chinese, April 19). Wen, an advocate of selectively adopting “universal norms,” is well-known for being an opponent of the Maoist values that Xi has embraced.
Targeting Private Sector and Military Power
Despite the Xi leadership’s anxiety to maintain a relatively high rate of growth, the supreme leader has cracked down on a number of top performers in the private sector. More party cells have been installed in the upper echelons of world-famous enterprises such as Alibaba, Tencent and Meituan. These giant companies are deemed potential threats to the CCP’s monopoly on power, particularly if they are backed by party factions not favored by Xi (VOA Chinese, December 15, 2020, Wall Street Journal Chinese, December 14, 2020). Last month, Alibaba was fined 18.2 billion RMB ($2.75 billion) for allegedly infringing upon the nation’s anti-monopoly laws. The group’s legendary former chairman Jack Ma disappeared from public view for several weeks (New York Times Chinese, April 12; BBC Chinese, April 10). While the prevalent theory for the company’s comeuppance is a speech given by Ma last October that criticized China’s financial regulatory regime, another reason could be Ma’s connection to the so-called Shanghai Faction once led by ex-president Jiang Zemin. For example, Jiang’s grandson Jiang Zhicheng is said to be a major shareholder of the Ant Group, an Alibaba subsidiary whose IPO late last year was apparently stopped on Xi’s orders (Radio French International, February 18; Ming Pao, February 17).
Wang Xing (王兴), the billionaire Chairman of the internet technology (IT) sales platform Meituan, also ran into trouble after Wang posted a Tang Dynasty poem called “Burning the books and burying the scribes” to the company website on May 6, which described the cruel reign of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC). While the censors did not take immediate action, it was widely perceived by even ordinary Chinese investors that the poem could infuriate Xi, who, like Chairman Mao, is considered a fan of Emperor Qin. A few days after Wang posted the poem, the price of Meituan shares dropped by nearly 10 percent on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (Deutche Welle Chinese, May 12; Radio Free Asia, May 10).
Given the famous Mao adage about “power growing out of the barrel of the gun,” Xi has also taken out corrupt or disloyal cadres in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A March document issued by the PLA Commission for Disciplinary Inspection instructed that all army officers must unquestionably follow the party leadership’s instructions. According to CMC Chairman Xi, soldiers must be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure and absolutely reliable” (China News Service, March 14). In April alone, at least two senior military-related officers were detained for alleged “anti-disciplinary and illegal” activities, including General Song Xue (宋学), the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA Navy and Yin Jiaxu (尹家绪), former Chairman of the mammoth arms manufacturer and trader Norinco (Guancha.cn, April 30; People’s Daily, April 4). In the past two years or so, numerous members of the top brass were arrested for disciplinary infractions. They included the Deputy Commander of the Strategic Support Force General Rao Kaixun (饶开勋); Political Commissar of the Hainan Military District General Ye Qing (叶青); Political Commissar of the Jiangsu Military District General Meng Zhongkang (孟中康); Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces of the Western Theatre Command General Xu Xianghua (徐向华); and the Chairman as well as the General Manager of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., respectively Hu Wenming (胡问鸣) and Sun Bo (孙波) (Finance.sina.cn, May 6; Caixin.com, May 19, 2020; HK01.com, January 1, 2020). The PLA housecleaning has gone hand in hand with a thorough reshuffle of high-level personnel in the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security last year.
In addition to being extolled as a master theoretician of finance and economics, foreign policy, and party construction, Xi is also now recognized as the custodian of the “correct view of party history.” In a recent national conference on “studying and teaching history,” the paramount leader noted that every party member must have “the correct view of party history.” “We must establish a mega-historical outlook (大历史观, da lishi guan),” urged Xi, with the intent to “explore the laws of history, put forward corresponding strategies and policies, and boost the systemization, foresightedness and creativity of our work.” Xi added, “We must further get a grip on the laws and trends of historical development, and seize the historical initiative (历史主动, lishi zhudong) in the development of the party and country’s enterprises” (People’s Daily, April 27). The Beijing-based political scientist Wu Qiang (吴强) told Hong Kong media earlier this year that the CCP will publish a major historical document on July 1. It will “glorify Xi’s position as the [party’s] uppermost decision-maker” to the extent of “deifying Xi” and turning his teachings into a religion (Hong Kong Citizen News, February 21). Yet by refusing to admit the many grave errors made by the party leadership since 1921—and by praising the dubious tenets of Maoism—Xi runs the risk of ignoring the lessons of the past and committing both the party and state to the wrong side of history.
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.