Xi Jinping Thought and The End of (Chinese) History

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 6

Xi Jinping greets delegates to the National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13 (source: Xinhuanet)

Soon after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama posited the idea of “the end of history.” In the eyes of Fukuyama and several other Western experts, the evaporation of the influence of the Marxist ideas once propagated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) provided conclusive evidence that history, defined as humanity’s perennial search for the best model of governance, has reached its conclusion with the liberal model of free elections, laissez-faire economics and the rule of law offering the optimal system. [1]

The latest revision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Constitution enshrines “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (hereafter Xi Jinping Thought) as the perpetual guiding light of the party and state (Xinhua, October 22, 2022). In many ways, this constitutes a CCP declaration that China has resolved its millennium-long search for the correct modernization path to achieve national power and prosperity. As a result, Xi’s credo is framed as a fitting end to the quest for Chinese enlightenment, underway since the era of the Guangxu Emperor during the Qing Dynasty in the 1890s. In this official account, Xi Jinping Thought is deemed the culmination of history. According to the 2021 Resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century, Xi Jinping Thought constitutes “a new breakthrough in the Sinicization of Marxism” (Xinhuanet, November 16, 2021).“ It is the quintessence of the times, which has incorporated [the key progress] of contemporary Chinese Marxism and 21st Century Marxism as well as [traditional] Chinese culture and the Chinese spirit,” said the party document (Shandong Evening Post, February 3, 2022).

A New Orthodoxy Prevails

As the commentators of the CCP Construction Net (党建网) wrote in hagiographical fashion during the 20th Party Congress last October, “Xi Jinping Thought reflects profound historical perspectives and broad feelings about heaven and earth.” The piece claims that “Xi Jinping Thought is the result of deep thinking about the development trends of China and the world as well as the future of mankind.” Moreover, it also states that Xi Jinping Thought has addressed the epochal question, “What is the state of the world? And what should we do?” (CCP Construction Net, October 13, 2022). A recent Xinhua commentary asserted that the Xi leadership has not only eliminated poverty in the country and brought to fruition a relatively well-off society, but has also laid down foundations for the “Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation.” Xi Jinping Thought has pointed to “new starting points, new directions, and [has led China] to march toward new goals of struggle,” the commentary declares (Xinhuanet, March 5).

The Xi leadership recently brokered a partial reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in early March —and the supreme leader recently discussed a “lasting peaceful solution” to the Russia-Ukraine war with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Moscow (People’s Daily, March 22; PRC Foreign Ministry [FMPRC], March 10). Meanwhile, Beijing has also touted Xi Jinping Thought to a global audience as the manifestation of “the Chinese way to modernization.” A key theme emphasized by Xi is that each country must forge its own distinct modernization path. In his mid-March speech at the summit between the CCP and dozens of political parties in developing nations, Xi said that “the journey of over 100 years that the CCP has traversed to unite and lead the Chinese people in pursuing national rejuvenation is also an exploration of a path towards modernization.” “Thanks to the unremitting efforts of generation after generation, China has found its own path to modernization,” he added (FMPRC, March 16). Little doubt exists in the mind of Xi—and like-minded cadres and intellectuals—that so-called “Chinese-style modernization” is underpinned by Xi Jinping Thought.

Xi will likely remain CCP General Secretary until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032—and could stay on as China’s top leader as long as his health permits. He is not likely to allow party ideologues to alter Xi Jinping Thought. This is despite the fact that Xi once laid out the possibility that Chinese socialism could take a further leap forward into the realms of communism. “It is wrong to think that communism is xuwupiaomiao [“far-fetched and unrealistic],” Xi said in 2015 (Sohu.com, April 4, 2019; China Daily, October 12, 2015). Yet, as neither Marx, Engels nor Lenin spelled out the details of the utopian project of communism, it is unlikely that Xi would make concrete recommendations as to how Xi Jinping Thought might venture further into this ethereal territory.

More importantly, the General Secretary has stopped discussing how Xi Jinping Thought could be improved, or at least better adapted, to address China’s pressing and constantly evolving socio-economic problems. Xi has urged cadres and CCP members alike to retain total faith in the “path, theory, system and culture” of Chinese socialism, which actually means Xi’s version of socialism (Chinese Foreign Ministry, October 28, 2022). The “leader for life” has highlighted the need for CCP cadres and ideologues to improve in terms of the “self-cleansing, self-perfection, self-revolution and self-elevation” (我净化、自我完善、自我革新、自我提高) of dogma (People’s Daily, December 30, 2022). In an internal speech warning against “subversive errors,” Xi claimed that even if a new theory or policy promised excellent results for the country, it could not be adopted if it adulterated the supremacy of the CCP, including his overriding authority (People’s Daily, December 19, 2019). As Xi puts it, his answer to the famous question posed by historian Huang Peiyan in the 1930s —how could ever China rise above the law of “dynastic cycles”—is merely through the CCP’s knack for “self-improvement” and “self-revolution” (Gov.cn, June 29, 2022).

A “One-Voice Chamber”

Whether “the end of (Chinese) history” can be preserved, however, depends on the regime’s ability to put an end to politics. Politics involves competition for power—and give and take—among rival parties or interest groups, or, in the case of the CCP, Machiavellian maneuvering by ambitious leaders to elbow aside opponents. Dr. Sun Yat-sen gave the most-cited definition of politics in the modern era when he defined it as zhongren zhishi (众人之事, “the affairs of the people” (Aisixiang.com, December 12, 2011). Sun’s definition presupposes at least a modicum of popular political participation. Politics in the sense of right of the distribution of economic and other interests in the polity presupposes some tension, if not also contention, between the ruling elite on the one hand and other major interest groups among the middle class or “lower classes” on the other. At the 20th Party Congress and the just-ended National People’s Congress, however, Xi and his Xi Jinping faction essentially monopolized all positions in the CCP’s top-level decision-making bodies, the Central Committee, the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the State Council. Xi has ousted all members of opposition factions within the CCP while simultaneously imposing tight control over civil-society groupings such as liberal intellectuals, human rights lawyers, as well as Christians and Buddhists. One is reminded that at the height of dictator Mao Zedong’s power, the entire country was reduced to a “one-voice chamber” (Radio French International, March 11; Radio Free Asia, March 6).

A top initiative of the “institutional reforms” passed at the NPC earlier this month was to increase the power of the central CCP apparatus at the expense of government bureaucracies (China Brief, March 6). In early March, Xi took additional steps to enhance the party’s stranglehold on power by expanding the powers of the Director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Cai Qi, who is also a PBSC member. Cai was concurrently appointed Head of the Xi Jinping Office. Not since the Cultural Revolution, has a PBSC member served as Director of the CCP General Office, which is considered the nerve center of the entire party leadership as it vets reports sent to PBSC members, in particular General Secretary Xi, by both central-level party and government officials, as well as local-level cadres. As is the case with an exceptionally large number of Politburo and PBSC members, Cai was an underling of Xi’s when the latter served as party secretary of the coastal Zhejiang Province (Radio Free Asia, March 20; United Daily News, March 20).

The “leader for life’s” relentless centralization of power begs the question of whether “politics,” as they are generally understood, still exist in China. Moreover, Xi requires total control of the ideological, propaganda, united front and police departments in order to muffle doubts raised by liberal intellectuals and other non-establishment elements as to whether Xi Jinping Thought is the final and best result of the century-long search by Chinese statesmen and men of letters for the most appropriate, effective and democratic system to run China.

The Persistence of Politics…and History

If history is any guide, although the phenomenon of “the end of politics”—meaning an all-powerful supremo stifling all dissent—has taken place many times over the centuries, such periods of mind-numbing and destructive authoritarianism have never lasted too long. The first Emperor Qin Shihuang (259–210 BC), who initially united China and imposed draconian laws to cement his unchallenged authority, ruled for only 11 years (Chinese-future.org, June 19, 2022). Despite Xi’s undisputed control over the party, as well as the AI-assisted military and surveillance apparatuses, there has been an upsurge of demonstrations by disgruntled citizens since the middle of last year (China Brief, November 28, 2022; July 18, 2022). Drivers of popular dissatisfaction have included frustration with Xi’s “zero-COVID” strategy, local banks forbidding depositors from withdrawing funds and sharp cuts to government benefits for retirees. As the country endures economic rough patches, including declining exports and disappointing consumer spending growth that extends to the purchase of newly built apartments in the key property sector, politics is tipped to return in a big way as the struggle between the ruling party-state apparatus and the millions of Chinese who have suffered much-reduced living standards in the past three years intensifies. And should the supreme leader be forced by political realities to make radical changes to Xi Jinping Thought, the notion that China has reached “the end of history” might also give way.

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 in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six 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 2020.


[1] See Francis Fukuyama, “More Proof That This Really Is the End of History,The Atlantic, October 17, 2022; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, The Free Press, 1992).