‘Thought’, ‘theory’ and ‘ism’ have different statuses in China’s ideological hierarchy—it has been Mao Zedong’s ‘thought’ and now Xi Jinping’s ‘thought’ (Deng Xiaoping had a ‘theory’)
‘My chains, new gold watch, made in China…’
Thus goes a dreadlocked 24-year-old rapping sensation by the name of Masiwei in China. Presumably, Masiwei’s lyrics must be making China’s revolutionaries turn in their graves, at the revolution come undone. This was the underlying theme at the recently concluded Nineteenth Party Congress where the Chinese President Xi Jinping took stock of China’s changed times and charted the roadmap ahead. In a marathon 3.5-hour speech, littered with many a yawn from his elderly predecessor who shared the dais with him, Xi plodded on, distilling his wisdom into and as ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Simply understood—like Masiwei’s ‘Made in China’ gold watch—Xi’s ‘thought’ was a reaffirmation of made-in-China socialism for the new times with the Party in command, including over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
While called out as ‘new’, it is largely recycled from the past. ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is a Chinese old hat, as is the evocative sigh of the ‘new era’. The new, if any, could be that there is a time-line to this: China to be an innovative power by 2035 and ‘comprehensive’ global power by 2050. Generally speaking, in real life and rhetoric, facelifts and rehashed makeovers work well—but for the occasional botched job. “The Chinese nation now stands tall and firm in the East,” as Xi says, indicating China’s readiness to play a bigger role. Sinologist David Shambaugh succinctly summarised China’s ‘wow’ factor for us: China has “the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, the world’s second largest military budget and largest standing armed forces, a manned space program, an aircraft carrier, the world’s largest museum, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, the world’s largest national expressway network, and the world’s best high speed rail.”
In recent past, though, China has always needed an ideological nanny. China’s transition blues have long been eased by ideological lullaby—ideology provides ‘theoretical guidance’—anchor, framework, reference point and rationalisation, and has been the norm in post-reform China. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Deng Xiaoping was king cum kingmaker, Deng’s nod to out-of-the-box formulations such as ‘primary stage of socialism’ and ‘socialist market economy’ (paring socialism with market) culminated in ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ enshrined into the Party constitution at the Fourteenth Party Congress (1992). After Deng’s death in 1997, this was elevated as ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ at the Fifteenth Party Congress (1997). Deng’s theoretical formulations provided the needed ideological succour for China’s break with Mao Zedong.
This continued. Five years after, Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin rationalised the dramatic post-reform social landscape through the formulation ‘Three Represents’ opening the Party membership to China’s ‘new strata’ such as the entrepreneurs, professionals and technical personnel. Jiang’s formulation was added in at the Sixteenth Party Congress (2002). Subsequently, Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao (2002-12) formulated ‘Scientific Development’ which ‘put people first’ in development, which was enshrined in the Seventeenth Party Congress (2007). These ideological planks have been necessary. China has no monarchy, democracy or, technically speaking, even religion in the socialist era. This has meant that the Chinese have coped in a different way—grand theorists such as Mao have become Godlike and divine, filling the gap. For example, Mao has incarnated as a good luck token, as lowbrow and highbrow memorabilia. Mao hangs as a good luck token from the taxi mirror wishing you a ‘happy and safe journey’ or even better, ‘long life’. Mao’s ancestral home has had a new lease of life as a socialist temple with Mao’s favourite dish of braised pork belly much sought after.
Yet there is deep irony there. While Mao made revolution divine, the jury on him is out there. Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng placed the number of people who died between 1959 and 1961 as 36 million. This is relevant as Xi’s ‘thought’ is seen as Xi’s attempt to become another ‘Mao’. This is because the Party constitution endorses Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Three Represents and Scientific Development. Xi’s ‘Thought’ has been added, which makes it six. Though this addition may come across as simplistic, there may be some hidden meaning. Sinologist Manoranjan Mohanty has long explained that, in China, ‘ism’ (zhuyi) is reserved for the founding fathers, Marx and Lenin; for Mao, it was ‘thought’ (sixiang) and for Deng, ‘theory’ (lilun). With Xi’s ‘thought’, Xi has catapulted alongside Mao (‘Mao Zedong thought’). China’s reformer par-excellence Deng stands a rung lower in ideological hierarchy with ‘theory’. As for Xi’s immediate predecessors, Jiang and Hu, they find no glorious mention in the Party constitution.
Xi ‘helicoptering’ into the sacrosanct Mao territory is controversial. Sinologist Shan Wei opines, “Xi does not have the charisma of Mao or Deng. The latter two did not need institutional titles to wield their power.” Unlike Mao or Deng, Xi has amassed a great deal of institutional titles, emerged as the ‘core’ of the Party, and is at the forefront of a blistering anti-corruption campaign that has annihilated 1.34 million Party personnel. The post-reform barometer of success, despite Tiananmen (1989), is Deng. His name was included in the Party constitution by his devotees, after his death. But Xi has done the needful himself. In the post-Mao period, Deng wanted to prevent the rise of ‘mini Maos’ by political institutionalisation—where collective leadership would undermine concentration of power. There is substantial concentration of power in Xi—this could work well or may go wrong—that nobody knows yet.
For all Mao’s charisma and achievements, there came a point when power became Mao’s beast. In retrospect, Mao’s ‘thought’ offers a fractured and sanguine legacy, an inspiration and a warning. Xi has joined the ranks of Mao, or so it seems. Xi is slated to step down in 2022, ahead of the time-line he set for China to become a ‘comprehensive’ global leader. Belling of the cat has to be done by successors, but they have not yet emerged on the scene, unlike in the past. Finally, a dose of Dengist wisdom which seems relevant (after all, it has been famously said that Deng was old, but not old school). Deng’s mantra became ‘theory’ after he died—a sign that his legacy outlived him. But in Xi’s case, it is the reverse: Xi’s ‘thought’ precedes his legacy—i.e. it is still a promise—making good is where his legacy will really be tested. This reminds us of leaders who build statues of themselves in their own lifetimes versus those who leave it, as Deng reminded us, to the ‘wisdom of the future generation’.
Writer is Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal