What sort of science fiction does Xi Jinping like? How can China’s weathermen use the president’s political philosophy to improve their forecasts? In what ways can “Xi Thought” help prepare the country for the next big earthquake?
These are the sorts of questions Communist Party cadres are now pondering as they prepare for the next big milestone in the president’s effort to cement his control: Elevating Xi Thought alongside Maoism. The esoteric concept is expected to be written into the five-year development blueprint that will be unveiled after party meetings later this month. Everyone from diplomats to executives to sci-fi writers are under pressure to incorporate the broad, often fuzzy tenets of Xi Thought into their policies.
The project is central to Xi’s effort to quiet opposition and to stay on past 2022, when he’s expected to seek a third five-year term as party chief. Once Xi has his own “-ism,” the theory goes, he’ll be elevated to a political standing on par with Mao Zedong, whose portrait hangs over Tiananmen Square and is printed on the currency. It will also make it all-the-more difficult to question his edicts.
“Its importance lies in prominently raising Xi’s personal profile,” said Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School who specializes in Chinese law and governance. “Every time the command to study it is uttered on TV, and every time is written in a party document, it is a highly visible signal to both party officials and citizens at large as to who is on top, and whose orders actually matter.”
While some key tenets of Mao’s philosophy are included in the iconic “Little Red Book,” Xi Thought is still being shaped and yet to be compiled in one place, although the three-volume “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” — a collection of his speeches, writings, sayings and ideas — contains clues. More than 20 applications of Xi Thought on everything from economic management and military reform to controlling the media and the arts have appeared in state media since 2018, according to Qian Gang, director of University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.
The effort to make Xi Thought a guiding principle for nearly every aspect of Chinese life will loom over a conclave of some 300 top party leaders slated to begin Oct. 26 in Beijing. For the first time, they’ll also draft a longer-term blueprint that runs until 2035, in the latest indication of how long Xi, 67, could lead.
He Lifeng, the chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, wrote in the party-run People’s Daily newspaper last month that Xi’s thinking on the economy was a “powerful weapon to withstand major risks and challenges, and solve major problems.” The leader’s ideas should be should be studied and adopted as guidance when drafting five-year plans, He said.
Companies get in line
That’s forcing companies, agencies and schools to contemplate what Xi-ism means for them. Where Mao Zedong Thought was geared toward adapting Marxist-Leninism to a pre-industrial society, Xi Thought is concerned with maintaining party control more than four decades after China opened to the world and began to experiment with market forces. Almost 400 of some 3,900 listed companies in China paid homage to the Communist Party and its leader in their annual reports this year, the Economist reported.
The push began three years ago, when Xi got the unwieldy “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” written into the party charter and Chinese constitution. Around the same time, he pushed through an amendment scrapping constitutional provisions that would’ve forced him to hand over the presidency in 2023.
During a visit by Xi last week to the southern manufacturing hub of Guangdong, provincial party secretary Li Xi vowed to “raise high the great banner” of Xi’s thinking, making him the latest Politburo member to pledge loyalty in similar terms.
“Xi Thought is a way to cement a hold on power by signaling allegiance to his policy objectives in as many places as possible,” said Martin Chorzempa, research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The hallmark of its impact in the business-economic sphere is an increased role for party committees in companies, a resurgence of state companies in terms of getting access to capital, and tighter controls on especially tech companies to manage content in line with government thinking.”
Xi wants a stronger, more disciplined party to reassert influence it had ceded to the government and private sector after leader Deng Xiaoping began his “reform and opening up” movement in 1978. Xi Thought envisions a China that’s more self-reliant in key areas including technology and food security and is more assertive in securing its place in the world.
The process prioritizes conformity with the leader’s views over immediate results in any given field. Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” a total success in the August issue of the party journal Seeking Truth, even as negative views of China surged after its handling of the coronavirus outbreak and crackdowns on dissent in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
No other leader besides Mao has had his ideology raised to the level of “thought,” which carries a special meaning in Communist Party propaganda. Deng’s reforms are described as “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” while concepts advanced by Xi’s immediate predecessors, Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, don’t even carry their names.
Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford’s China Center, said Xi was seeking “not just a set of ideas, but a way to think about them as a complete package” to shape his ideology. “Language matters: ‘Maoism’ is an idea, ‘Dengism’ is not, even though Deng was an influential leader,” Mitter said.
Criticism of Xi Thought is not an option, as the leader maintains his unprecedented wave of disciplinary investigations against party officials. The country’s top anti-graft body, the National Supervisory Commission, has so far warned 20 central government agencies that they were “not doing enough” to master and implement Xi’s thinking, according to statements posted on the agency’s website.
The China Meteorological Administration was found in August to have some gaps to bridge in applying Xi’s idea of domestic and international situations into their work while the China Earthquake Administration got wrapped for not fully reflecting Xi’s Thought into their disaster prevention work. Writers and producers in the nation’s burgeoning science fiction scene were urged by an official industry association to take Xi Thought on board and transform China into a sci-fi powerhouse.
Ultimately, Xi Thought can be whatever Xi thinks he needs to ensure his own rule.
“It seems quite obvious from all signals, that he wants to serve beyond 10 years, perhaps for 20 years,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies, who has authored numerous books on Chinese politics. “To remain in power for that long, he needs to consolidate his power base.”
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