Beijing Observation: Xi Jinping the Man, by Gao Yu

A speech lifts the smog over the man.  


Gao Yu (高瑜) is an independent journalist and columnist based in Beijing. She used to work for China News Agency (中新社), and later was the deputy editor-in-chief of Economics Weekly (《经济学周报》, 1982-1989). She was twice imprisoned for her participation in the 1989 democratic movement. Drawing on her access to exclusive sources, she writes among other things about Beijing’s inner political circles, and her work is influential. The Chinese original is here.

Soon after the New Year passed, thick smog shrouded much of the eastern and central China for days on end and struck terror into  people. “Ducking into the dark brownish smog,” a netizen penned on Weibo, “I was suffocated all of a sudden. I couldn’t breathe, so I headed to the hospital.”

Politically, Beijing has been shrouded in smog too, catching heightened attention inside and outside China. Last Thursday (Jan. 17), in a public lecture titled “China in Transition” at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar predicted that the likelihood of CCP reforming from within was very small, and reform would probably only be triggered by external, large-scale and eruptive events. (While I can’t seem to find a link to his lecture, readers may read this piece to find a similar assessment by the Professor – Yaxue)

As if to clear up the political smog, Xi Jinping’s “new southern tour speech,” made in early December, began its circulation last week in the party. To my surprise, Xi’s speech reads like a perfect confirmation to MacFarquhar’s prediction. The new leadership’s “honeymoon” is hardly over, but it has already become clear that the Party and the people don’t share the same “China Dream,” as the Southern Weekend incident has abundantly indicated.

The most striking part of Xi Jinping’s “new southern tour speech” is his revisiting the topic of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He said, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels.”

“Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military?” Xi continued, “because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the party was disarmed. A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the instruments to exert power. Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called ‘neutrality.’ Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party in a blithe statement. A big Party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

“Nobody was man enough”! How vividly this captures Xi Jinping’s anxiety over the fall of the Soviet Communist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union!

In his inauguration speech on September 19, 2004, when he succeeded Jiang Zemin to become the Chairman of the Central Military Committee, Hu Jintao also railed against Gorbachev as “the chief culprit of Eastern Europe’s transformation and a traitor of socialism.” “Because of the openness and pluralism he championed,” Hu said, “Gorbachev caused confusion among the Soviet Communist Party and the people of the Soviet Union. The Party and the Union fell apart under the impact of ‘westernization’ and ‘bourgeois liberalism’ that he implemented.”

At the time, Hu Jintao’s speech was distributed to every party member as a document of the party’s Central Committee, and many people found it unbelievable that Hu had said that, for, like the anti-fascist victory of World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had already been recognized as one of the greatest legacies of the 20th century.

I believe Xi Jinping’s new southern tour speech will shock many party members, let alone outside observers and the public in general. As the son of one of Communist China’s founding generals, Xi’s speech reflects a lot of his mindset and highlights his political ambition. On the one hand, he wants to maintain the life of the CCP regime; on the other, he wants to revamp the house in the hope of restoring the kind of authority and legitimacy Mao Zedong enjoyed at the beginning of the communist China. Such are the guiding principles, and the destination, of his “road to renewal.”

MacFarquhar was very insightful when he pointed out that the vested interests were so entrenched in the party’s corrupt system, and Xi Jinping doesn’t want to become China’s Gorbachev by taking risk to reform, for it could trigger upheavals and lead to the fall of the regime.

Xi Jinping didn’t mention “political reform” in the new southern tour speech. In fact, he has not made any reference to it since after the 18th Party’s Congress. Instead, in his southern tour speech, he laid out his ideological bedrocks: “Only socialism can save China. Only (economic) reform and opening-up can develop China, develop socialism, and develop Marxism.”

Right now, the Chinese government is the wealthiest government in the world, and that’s the source of the “three confidences” (“confidence in direction, confidence in theoretic foundation, and confidence in system”) that Xi Jinping recently voiced. In his first stop of the southern tour, Xi paid respect to Deng Xiaoping, “the general designer of China’s reform and opening-up,” but also the creator of China’s crony capitalism over the last three decades. What Deng Xiaoping established in his southern tour speech 21 years ago is a lame-legged reform path, and it has been the underlying cause of rampant corruption and mounting social crises.

But it doesn’t look like Xi Jinping wants to acknowledge this. Not yet anyway. He said, “Our reform has always been a thorough reform. I don’t agree with the idea that China’s reform has been falling behind in some regard. It might be quicker or slower in some ways and at some points, but all in all, there is no such thing that China has changed in this way but not in that way. The key is what to reform and what not to reform. There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter in how long a time passes. And it cannot be characterized as failure to reform.”

So, what are the things that cannot be changed? Xi Jinping said, “Some people define reform as changes towards the universal values of the west, the western political system, or it will not constitute “real” reform. This is a stealthy tampering of the concept and a misunderstanding of our reform. Of course we must uphold the banner of reform, but our reform is reform that keeps us moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. We will walk neither the closed and rigid old path, nor the evil path of changing the flag.”

In his lecture, MacFarquhar said that, because of corruption from top to bottom, the CCP has lost the kind of authority and legitimacy it had in the early years of Mao’s new China; while Deng Xiaoping’s focus on mere economic reform after the Cultural Revolution has led to the absence of an ideology that can unite the people and the Party.

How to deal with the Party’s debilitating illness, and how to rouse the party members’ will to reform? Xi Jinping said, “We must see clearly our place in history, see clearly the realistic goals as well as the long-term vision to which we are devoted. We are still in the early stage of socialism, and we must do whatever we can to realize the goals of the current stage. But if we lose sight of our vision as communists, we will lose our direction and succumb to utilitarianism and pragmatism. To uphold our ideals and beliefs, we must uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thoughts, Deng Xiaoping theory, the important contribution of the “three represents”, and the Scientific Outlook on Development. The great renewal of the Chinese nation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese nation over the last couple of hundred years. The ‘China dream’ is an ideal. But of course, as communists, we should have a higher ideal, and that is, communism.”

With the new southern tour speech, Xi Jinping clearly intended to give the CCP ideology a renewed status.

During the southern tour, Xi Jinping told everyone an old story that was related in an article titled The Taste of Faith in People’s Daily on November 27, 2012. In 1920, as Chen Wangdao (陈望道) translated the Manifesto of the Communist Party, his mother once served him glutinous rice dumplings and a small dip of brown sugar. “Is the brown sugar enough?” she called out from outside, checking on him. “Sweet enough! Sweet enough!” Chen answered. Then when his mother cleaned up the dishes, she found that he dipped not the brown sugar but the ink. “That was the taste of faith! That is the power of faith!” The article exclaimed.

Let’s just believe it’s a true story. Does the party still have such translators? I’m afraid, listening to the story, the party members would be thinking about Yi Junqing (衣俊卿), the recently dismissed chief of the party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau.  The rumor has it that the “three confidences,” which have been written into the official report of the 18th Party’s Congress, were the invention of Yi Junqing through a billion-yuan project called the “Project of Theoretical Research and the Construction of Marxism.” I heard that people who had tried to protect him cited this particular accomplishment, but I wonder how are the party members going to relish the “taste of faith” next to that 120,000-word exposé of pornography, money and power?

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33 Responses to Beijing Observation: Xi Jinping the Man, by Gao Yu

  1. Hua Qiao says:

    There is not a cohesive political thought within the CCP these days aside from how to stay in power. Marxist thought is only selectively used to justify continued abuse of human rights and maintenance of absolute power.

    That a leader of any major country today can openly speak about ensuring that his party maintain power over the military in order to avert a popular insurrection is quite extraordinary. Can you imagine obama or david cameron going under the mike and saying “it’s important that the army report to me in order to avert the possibility of a rebellion from the liberalizing of open discussion of political ideas as was the case with Glasnost.

    It symbolizes both the arrogance and the insecurity of China’s leaders.

  2. Marxism itself will prove to be the most inflammable material in contemporary China. What is dismissed as western value system includes rights and entitlements which have been secured through centuries of people’s struggle the world over. Marxism incorporates those values, and any selective use of Marxism to justify authoritarian hegemony will not save the Party from its destabilizing content.

    • ralph a. thaxton, jr. says:

      You are very wise.

      Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr.

    • geoff cox says:

      I find it fascinating that while China struggles for reform (liberalisation) the West, particularly the US, is definitely going in the other direction. I wonder if the Wests’ slide toward Totalitarianism and the steady but sure loss of ‘freedoms’, will impact on the deep desire for reform in China.

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  4. Not very surprising, holding on to power. “The great renewal of the Chinese nation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese nation over the last couple of hundred years. The ‘China dream’ is an ideal. But of course, as communists, we should have a higher ideal, and that is, communism.” Very nice. Imagine there’s no country, I wonder if you can. Nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man. Brotherhood/ sisterhood, in life versions. Look up “state”, “country” etc in old PR China dictionaries. China will have to disappear eventually, just like every other country, on the path to Communism. Of course. Good luck!

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  6. gregorylent says:

    xi jinping may be rather skilled in traditional chinese thought, daoism, buddhism, art of war, etc .. all seven of the traditional chinese skills, according to my more learned chinese friends, and they see him as a great boon to the future of china, and a change from the recent leadership.

    a key to xi might well be found in traditional chinese philosophies, if such is the case.

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  8. Chris H says:

    So far Xi Jinping is coming off very hawkish and now conservative and puritanical in an empty and mean-spirited Communist fashion. Extremely disappointing, but not surprising considering the history of the Communist Party of China which first began talking of democracy almost a century ago! The leadership in China is losing touch with its people and reality. Let’s hope that some great crisis can rock them back toward approaching humanity, putting aside useless speeches and belligerence to all things foreign and to making sustainable progress a top priority. Emperor Xi’s rule will make or break the Communist dynasty. From where I’m sitting in Beijing, it looks as though the new leadership’s policies will only exacerbate long-term negative trends in terms of social instability, rampant corruption, and ever worsening environmental degradation. Perhaps his wrongheaded approach will accelerate the downward spiral of the party’s fortunes and plant the seeds for China’s eventual future progress.

  9. Obviously, the only thing the Party cares about IS “the Party”. The CCP doesn’t care about Chinese people nor the country they occupy.

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  26. Bankotsu says:

    Cao are you chinese?

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