Over a quiet stretch in Beijing, I was able to read Xi Jinping’s first volume as president of China. As one would expect, it is a series of selected statement on key issues, called The Governance of China (Tan zheguolizheng), published in 2014.

It is, I must admit, an extraordinary read. To begin with, it carries on the venerable Marxist tradition in which state leaders are also thinkers, whose thoughts appear in writing. Think of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping. Chairman Xi clearly thinks and writes in a similar vein. So the genre is alive and well! Further, it is distinctly Chinese. Xi has a fondness for Chinese sayings and proverbs, peppering his speeches and writings with many a traditional saying, but also many a communist saying, for the two now form part of a long tradition of Chinese wisdom.

Main Themes

At a general level, it soon becomes clear that nothing is hidden as far as the goals of the communist party are concerned. China seeks stability and global peace, and continues an independent foreign policy that enhances such a situation. Internally, the main theme running through the volume concerns the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream.

The first goal is 2021, the centenary of the foundation of the communist party, by which time China will be a moderately prosperous society in all respects. This is now widely seen as the transition to the second stage of socialism. The second goal is 2049, the centenary of the founding of the people’s republic. By that point, the goal is to have achieved a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious. By this time, socialism will have matured in a Chinese situation, or to put it in Confucian terms, this entails a fully realised xiaokang.

All of this is wrapped up in the term ‘Chinese Dream’, the many dimensions of which are explained the book. It may include the elimination of poverty (for which extensive measures have been enhanced), the success of the current rectification program, ecological civilisation, and so on. A tall order perhaps, and the road is neither straight nor smooth, but Xi Jinping is making sure he drives it forward as much as he is able. All of this is predicated on the ‘great furnace’ of the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang), which he sees very much in terms of another revolution – one of ‘socialist modernisation’. So crucial is this process that the main position is that the current problems facing China are due to an inadequate realisation of the reform and opening up, which is itself unending. A new version of permanent revolution, if you will.

Much more can be written, but I will focus on an initial collection of gems that caught my eye. They appear in no necessary order.

Scholars

The first comes from a talk with scholars, where Xi invokes a number of figures well-known in Chinese culture. One is Sun Jing, of Han times (206 BCE – 220 CE), who loved reading so much that he tied his hair to a roof beam so he wouldn’t nod off while reading. Another is Kuang Heng, also of Han Dynasty times, who could not afford candles. So he bored a hole in the wall to make use of the neighbour’s candlelight. And another is Che Yin of Eastern Jin times (317-420 CE), who could not afford an oil lamp, so he caught fireflies, put them in a bag of thin white cloth so as to study by the light. And Sun Kang of the Southern Dynasties (420-586 CE), who read by the reflected light from snow on winter nights. These stories are of course used to encourage students, albeit perhaps not to go to such extremes. I must admit that while this type of learning culture produces some of the best students in the world, I often find myself giving a mini-lecture on the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Ecological Civilisation

On ecological civilisation, Xi points out simply that the total population of the well-off countries is 1 billion. China’s population is 1.3 billion (and is anticipated to peak at 1.45 billion). If all of these people too become well-off in the way to which the others have become accustomed, consuming vast amounts of resources and energy, all of the existing resources in the world would not be enough. The conclusion: the old path is a dead end.

One Country, Two Systems

The definition of ‘one country, two systems’. This is a model for realising Chinese unification and dealing with the issues relating to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Under this model, the mainland keeps practicing socialism, while Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan retain their capitalist ways of life for a long time while enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This of course means that the Chinese Dream in its own way is applicable to these places as well. It is worth noting that the DPRK (North Korea) has consistently held this approach for achieving Korean reunification.

Peace

Apart from the obvious point that peace is absolutely necessary for the achievement of the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream (even though some countries do their best to disrupt the process), Xi invokes a large number of sayings out of the Chinese tradition of 5,000 years to show that peace is deeply embedded in the culture. These include: ‘a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish’; ‘replace weapons of war with gifts of jade and silk’. But the most telling point for me is that although China was for long one of the most powerful countries in the world, it never engaged in colonialism and aggression. Once again, it one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Beer and Tea

On a comparable note, Xi often invokes the proverb that the ocean is so large because it accepts all rivers. On each invocation, he gives it a slightly different interpretation, such as the need to be aware of the different histories and cultures of each place in determining the best political system. But I am interested here in the anecdote of beer and tea. He writes: ‘the Chinese people love tea, and Belgians love beer. To me, the moderate tea drinker and the passionate beer lover represent two ways of understanding life and knowing the world, and I find them equally rewarding. When good friends get together, they may want to drink to their heart’s content to show their friendship. They may also choose to sit down quietly and drink tea while chatting about their lives. In China we value our ideal of “harmony without uniformity”’ (p. 310).

Faith in Marxism

The importance of faith in Marxism. This is a recurring theme, especially when dealing with the near-crisis of legitimacy when he took over the leadership. The most extensive, pervasive and long-lasting anti-corruption campaign has been the result, explicitly evoking the Yan’an Rectification Campaign of 1942-45. Xi has much to say on this matter, but I focus on the question of ideals and convictions. Two points, the first dealing with the People’s Liberation Army and the second with Party officials.

For the army, faithfulness to Marxism and the leadership of the CPC is paramount, so that the PLA is in lock-step with the party. Indeed, ‘we will apply political convictions as a measure when reviewing and appointing officers to ensure that our weaponry is always in the hands of those who are reliable and loyal to the Party’ (p. 238).

For Party officials: ‘To be firm in their ideals and convictions is the supreme criterion for good officials. No matter how competent an official is, he cannot be regarded as the sort of good official that we need if he is not firm in his ideals and convictions, does not believe in Marxism or socialism with Chinese characteristics, is unqualified politically, and cannot weather political storms. Only those who are firm in their ideals and convictions will adopt an unequivocal approach towards major issues of principle, build “diamond-hard bodies” to withstand any corruption, remain dauntless when facing political storms, firmly resist all kinds of temptations, and act in a reliable and trustworthy manner at any critical moment’ (p. 463). This is pure Mao, if not the model of a communist.

Xi Jinping as a Marxist

Stray items to begin with, but in case there are any doubters, Xi is a convinced Marxist and has instituted a large number of programs to ensure that all Party members know well what Marxism is and what it entails. Further work by me will focus on the nature of the socialist state (plenty of material), and what is meant by Xi’s sincere position that China is a socialist country, with socialist modernisation and a socialist market economy, in which the ‘visible hand’ is strong and determinative.

Throughout it all, Xi Jinping comes through as a gentle but firm man, which is of course what one would expect for such an edition. Yet, he is perhaps tougher than many expected when he first became president, or ‘chairman’ (zhuxi), but the effect has been to gain the appreciation of many who roundly condemned the leadership of the CPC not so many years ago. The fact that he has already stared down Trump only adds to his esteem. At the same time, his resolute emphasis on stability and security (anquan) touches a deep chord in Chinese culture.

This is but the first volume of Xi Jinping’s thoughts. Much has been written and said since it was published in 2014, so I anticipate more volumes. In this respect, the tradition of actual writings and sustained thoughts by an avowed lifelong student carries on a communist tradition since Lenin. The fact that he also leads the most powerful socialist state in human history increases my fascination.

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