by Victoria Jones & Caroline Sutton
The major China news story today pertains to a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, with the latest development involving a letter penned by Uyghur, Hong Kong, and Tibetan activists calling on athletes to join the protest. This political setback for China is the latest amid a projected slowing of economic growth for the country next year and a wider trend of accumulating pressure from the international community on several fronts, including new Western military alliances and stronger engagement with Taiwan. But Xi Jinping has offered no indication of capitulating. Instead, he has doubled down as he continues to search for other forms of legitimacy besides the classic CCP argument that it rules because it is competent.
Just last month, the Chinese Communist Party passed a so-called “historical resolution,” cementing Xi Jinping’s status in political history at the sixth plenary session, one of China’s most important political meetings. The document, a summary of the party’s 100-year history, addresses its key achievements and future direction. It is only the third of its kind since the founding of the party; the first was passed by Mao Zedong in 1945, and the second by Deng Xiaoping in 1981.
Symbolically, the move is significant as it enshrines Xi in CCP mythology in an official way, alongside two of the party’s most important leaders throughout history, including the founding father of the People’s Republic of China himself. Xi’s resolution suggests a cohesive national and historical narrative in which he is the latest hero, following Mao and Deng, to carry the torch forward in the CCP’s journey to glory. His new historic status will make it challenging for elite critics to stand against him. Indeed, only being named as CCP Chairman, a title that was discarded after Mao’s death to symbolize the end of one-man rule, would further signify Xi’s status as a historic ruler.
The document speaks of “Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party’s Centennial Struggle.” The resolution places the current moment and Xi’s accomplishments in the context of China’s long history, especially the last one hundred years prior to the PRC’s founding, commonly known as the nation’s century of humiliation. The language is absolute, and insists that “the era of the Chinese nation being slaughtered and bullied is gone forever.”
Xi’s historical resolution echoes Mao’s and Deng’s in terms of both content and motivation. As CCP critic Chang Ping notes, all three resolutions were crafted at the end of internal party struggles in order to serve the victor and stabilize his dictatorial rule going forward. The first two resolutions do focus more on the CCP’s “mistakes,” while the third resolution is dedicated to summarizing CCP achievements. However, it is difficult to argue that the first two resolutions are more modest about their respective leaders, because they focused on blaming others for dark periods under CCP rule. In Mao’s 1945 resolution, others were criticized for not “adhering scientifically to Mao Zedong thought.” In Deng’s 1981 and again in Xi’s resolution, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing are blamed for most of the devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.
Most English-language commentary has suggested that Xi’s resolution is an attempt to minimize Deng, but in fact the statement discusses how Xi’s leadership has actually built on Deng’s achievements. Deng was not interested in political reform, and although his administrative reforms imposed term limits, Deng continued to hold great informal power after stepping down from official leadership positions. Rather than contaminate Deng’s rule-based legacy, Xi is simply ruling in a way that suits his own moment in history.
Indeed, the point of Deng’s and Mao’s historical resolutions was to glorify their rule and the CCP’s primacy within China. While Xi downplayed other leaders in order to extol himself, the purpose behind his resolution was astoundingly similar to those that came previously.
It is notable that the new resolution mentions Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory but only mentions Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Deng’s choices for paramount leader in the 1990s and 2000s, in passing. The document continues to refer to the Three Represents, Jiang’s theory for the role of the CCP, but does not attach Jiang’s name to it in the same way as Mao and Deng. With this in mind, the fact that the text speaks of “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” takes on a special significance, as Xi’s name is consistently tied to the philosophy throughout the summary, nearly half of which is devoted to discussing Xi’s successes.
This discrepancy may be due to the fact that Mao and Deng are cemented in history as idols, whereas Hu and Jiang remain alive, as do Jiang’s loyalists. Jiang is also associated with a period of decentralization in the party, and it appears that Xi seeks a return to a rule more defined by the kind of cult of personality that was seen during Mao’s time. Therefore, it is likely the language is meant to send a message to Jiang and Hu—and their followers in the CCP—of Xi’s unique superiority and status in the party’s history.
Many outside of China view the CCP as homogenous and ideological, but in reality, elite politics are diverse, and competing factional interests are prioritized over static ideology. In recent history, there has been a “populist coalition”—represented by Hu and made up of those who rose to power through the Chinese Communist Youth League—and an “elite coalition” of the children of veteran revolutionaries or of high-ranking officials. When Xi was chosen Hu’s successor in 2007, he was seen as a compromise between these factions, as he had been born a princeling but toiled in the countryside and rose through the CCP ranks after his father was purged. But it is likely that the era of “one party, two factions” has receded and the next decade will return to the “all-powerful strongman” model of the Deng and Mao eras.
The summary actually refers to “Xi Jinping Thought” as “contemporary Chinese Marxism and Marxism in the twenty-first century” itself, and it speaks of “a new leap” in the “Sinicization of Marxism,” language that echoes Mao’s Great Leap Forward, again emphasizing Xi’s elevation to a status similar to that of Mao.
Consistently equating Xi with the Chinese Communist Party itself preemptively stifles any potential criticism, disagreement, or challenging of Xi, as to do so would also be to criticize, disagree with, or challenge the CCP. This phenomenon is not unique to Xi alone as a CCP leader but is just one more example of what the resolution offers Xi in terms of the narrative he has built and continues to build for his image.
In terms of Xi’s duties and objectives for the future, the document discusses how to build a long-term ruling Marxist political party, repeatedly making mention of the phrase “long-term” and using forward-looking language in regard to Xi. Such diction choice essentially provides Xi with further formal bolstering of permission for power with no end in sight, which aligns with his recent abolition of presidential term limits in 2018.
The primary significance of the passing of this resolution lies in its symbolic meaning regarding the consolidation of Xi’s power. It has been abundantly clear that Xi views himself as occupying the same status as the foremost leaders of the CCP across history. This document serves to formalize that sentiment.
In recent years, Xi has exercised power on par with that of Mao and Deng through his plans for the “Chinese Dream” and “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” as well as his practical decisions and his strategic outlook for the future, including China’s growing expansionist tendencies and relentless crackdown on internal dissent and so-called separatist threats in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The passage of the resolution sets the stage for Xi to seek his third term as president next year and to pursue the second of two goals which he set out upon his rise to power in 2012: to transform China into a “great modern socialist country,” planning to “build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049. These goals evolved from the priorities of Mao and Deng; for example, in 1979 Deng proposed the idea of a “moderately prosperous society”. Xi also has called for a campaign for “common prosperity” to reduce inequality and the wealth gap in China, a campaign that is broad but already hit corporations with large amounts of foreign investment hard. Time will tell what exactly this—and Xi’s other plans—will entail, but the new resolution confirms what many already suspected: Xi controls the CCP and its agenda for the foreseeable future, with no obvious end on the horizon.
Victoria Jones is the chief editor of INTERZINE.
Caroline Sutton writes on on political communication, technology, and public diplomacy. She currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a graduate of the MSc Program in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics.