China celebrated its much-awaited centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on July 1 with pomp and ceremony. There were images that harked back to the legendary leader, Mao Zedong, who announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1,1949 from the ramparts of the Tiananmen. Chinese President and Party Secretary Xi Jinping wore a Mao suit as he waved to the crowds from the same ramparts.
Xi’s speech on the occasion was notable for several reasons. His remarks on his own role as the “core” of the party leadership were striking. One would normally expect his loyal associates in the party to highlight his role as undisputed leader. Here was the man doing this explicitly himself: “We must uphold the core position of the General Secretary of the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and uphold the central Committee’s authority and its centralised, unified leadership” (emphasis mine).
This reflects acute insecurity even as Xi has accumulated unprecedented power.
We also see the “wolf warrior” aspect of Xi in the following remarks concerning China’s international status as a powerful country: “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will be crushed to death before the Great Wall of steel built with the flesh and blood of over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Subscriber Only Stories
In order to follow his own dictum that China should endeavour to present a “loveable” face to the world, the English translation left out the more gory part of the second sentence and instead used less aggressive language: “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a Great Wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people.” But for the people of China and more importantly its diplomats, this was the sanction from the highest level for “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
A running theme at the centenary celebrations is the “great national rejuvenation”. This is credited entirely to party leadership. This history of success, sanitised of several embarrassing failures such as the great famine of 1959-62 or the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, is projected as a guarantee that the goals of the next centenary, that of the founding of the PRC in 2049, will be met. China will then have been fully “rejuvenated” and become a developed, prosperous and powerful country. Xi’s speech exuded complete confidence in this respect. Does this mean that the reunification of Taiwan with China will also be achieved using force if necessary? Xi’s remarks are ambiguous, though he reaffirmed China’s commitment and resolve to achieve unification.
The Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping was not only responsible for launching far-reaching economic reforms but also for undertaking several significant political reforms. These included an informal retirement age for leaders and the term for the top leader being limited to two to five years. There was renewed stress on collective leadership of the party. Party leadership was decentralised, with local leaders given considerable leeway in experimenting with and implementing innovative economic policies. While the CPC’s overall authority was maintained, it assumed a more supervisory and regulatory role. There was a deliberate distancing of the party from the state and from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), priority being given to expertise and professionalism.
The role of State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) was greatly reduced even as the private sector was allowed to flourish in a competitive market economy. The party supervised but did not directly intervene. All this has been reversed under Xi. The Ministries of the State Council have been superseded by party leading groups headed by Xi himself. Key decisions are taken in these groups with the ministries reduced to implementing agencies. The PLA is more modern and professional than before, but Xi has made it clear that the PLA is first and foremost the party’s army and only secondarily the national army. The SOEs are now being promoted particularly as champions in domains critical for national security. Both in the SOEs and private sector enterprises, party committees must be established. They take part in corporate decision-making. At the 19thParty Congress in 2017, it was stated: “Party, government, military, civilian and academic; east, west, south, north and centre, the party leads everything.” This has become the reality under Xi Jinping.
Why is the absolute leadership of the party, as manifested in himself as the “core”, so important to Xi?
In remarks he has made in inner party deliberations, some of which have now become available, Xi pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party and its lessons for the CPC.
One, he has underlined the need to guard against a Gorbachev-like figure emerging in China, leading to the collapse of the party and the fragmentation of the country. He reportedly told a visiting foreign leader that what keeps him awake at night is the possibility that a Chinese Gorbachev may emerge in the leadership.
Two, the reason why the Soviet Party collapsed was because it lost its ideological moorings and its cadres no longer remained committed to Marxism-Leninism. When a crisis came, there were no committed cadres to prevent the party’s disintegration. And three, the party lost command of the Soviet Army which had been transformed into a national army. When the party was in danger, the army remained on the sidelines.
Xi said that China must avoid such a scenario from ever afflicting the CPC.
This is the backdrop to the revival of the CPC, the stress on ideological education and the need for a leader who exercises untrammelled power.
China’s foreign policy will reflect these political trends in the party and the country. China believes it has evolved a more successful political and economic model and is no longer inhibited from projecting it on the international stage. The China challenge has both a power dimension and an ideological dimension. Xi believes that China is powerful enough to crush opposition to what it considers its core interests. These interests expand with the accumulation of greater power. This has immediate implications for India, the India-China border conflict but also in terms of China’s attempt to establish an Asian order dominated by it. Understanding what drives Xi Jinping’s domestic and external agenda deserves careful study. Only then can one begin to formulate an effective coping strategy.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 8, 2021 under the title ‘Insecurity amid centenary’. The writer, a former foreign secretary, is Senior Fellow, CPR
July 8, 1981, Forty Years Ago: Hooch Tragedy