How is this for a timely intervention: last year I was asked to write a piece on the socialist imagination. So I decided to write ‘Xi Jinping’s China: Keeping the Socialist Imagination Alive’. It is based on a careful analysis of ‘The Governance of China’, containing his main writings up to 2014. More is on the way, into which I plan to delve. But now we find calls from the leaders of the CPC itself to study Xi Jinping’s speeches and texts. For example, Liu Yunshan has urged:

Chief officials and leading cadres should take the lead in studying Xi’s speeches and mastering Marxist standpoints to raise political awareness and improve governing ability … He said that the speeches contain the essence of Marxism, the wisdom rooted in traditional Chinese culture and the Party’s innovation and creative thoughts since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012.

This includes CPC leadership in philosophy and social sciences, as an earlier report indicates (see also here):

Noting that Marxism will remain the guiding theory in philosophy and social sciences in China, it called for more efforts in pushing for the sinicization, modernization and popularization of Marxism, and developing a Marxism that fits into the 21st century and contemporary China.

Not a bad time to be involved in China.

It’s all happening in Beijing this week, with the major Belt and Road Forum drawing representatives from 130 countries – and the expected levels of security. If there was any doubt about Chinese global leadership, then it is probably time to lay such doubt to rest. Apart from all the usual commentary, what fascinates me is that this massive project – some call it the project of the century and some the most ambitious project in human history – is being spearheaded by nothing less than the Communist Party of China and its chairman. The full video of Xi Jinping’s speech can be found here.

Not that long ago, there was much debate in China about its direction. That debate had passed, with Xi’s China Dream and its concrete manifestation – in part – with the Belt and Road. It is also part of the internal aim of moving to a ‘xiaokang’ society – a moderately peaceful, prosperous, harmonious and strong society by 2021-49 – or what is known is these parts as the second stage of socialism.

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.

I am working my way through Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China, enjoying especially a piece from 2013 called ‘Hard Work Makes Dreams Come True’. One of a number of statements on the Chinese Dream (which actually means at a minimum the second stage of socialism, or xiaokang as it is called hereabouts), it addresses workers as the backbone of the party and the country. Here we find many good old communist themes – as with the book as a whole – such as the role of the working class, model workers and so forth.

The theme of hard work continues today in Xi Jinping’s statements, most recently in his new year’s address for 2017, where he called on all to ‘roll up your sleeves and get to work’ – sparking lines in pop songs, memes and images.

A host of good information about the ‘two sessions’ this year: the National People’s Congress and the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (modelled on and modified from the Soviet Union’s two levels of government). The main site is here, with plenty of links for those interested. Apart from noting that both houses are elected (see also here) and that the president is also elected by the NPC, I am particularly drawn to the following:

  1. The increased focus on the reduction of poverty in China. Thus far, some 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty, which is described by Tom Zwart, of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights Research, as one of the greatest human rights achievements of all time. This of course is part of the Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right of economic wellbeing looms large.
  2. Closely related is Xi Jinping’s focus on poverty reduction, drawing from none other than his experience in an impoverished village during the Cultural Revolution.
  3. Xi Jinping also made a specific call on intellectuals to redouble their efforts to contribute to China’s wellbeing. Of note is the following, close to my heart: 

    “The whole society should care for and respect intellectuals and cultivate a favorable environment that honors knowledge and intellectuals, Xi said, adding that authorities must fully trust intellectuals and seek their advice on key work and policies.

    Xi hoped the intellectuals can consciously take the lead in practicing socialist core values and stick to the principle of putting the interests of the nation and the people before everything else.”

If you are interested in further reading, I recommend highly Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China. It contains statements and speeches up to 2014. I have been gathering more material since then, but I expect that another volume will be published soon. Apart from the clear indications of China’s direction, it also continues the extraordinary communist tradition where leaders are also thinkers and writers.

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What an amazing week.

Between Tuesday and Friday, 17 and 20 January, the world shifted. On Tuesday, Xi Jinping addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, while on Friday Donald Trump became president of the United States.

Their two speeches said it all: in one, putting people first, focusing on economic wellbeing for all, stressing the need for international cooperation, dealing with major problems collectively, and the need for a recalibration of global governance; in the other, putting the USA first, focusing on economic wellbeing only for the USA (and stuff the rest), stressing the need for twisting arms so that the USA comes out on top, dealing only with US problems, and the desperate and vain assertion of US global control.

To be sure, many commentators have interpreted Xi Jinping’s speech as a defence of ‘free trade’ and ‘globalisation’. But if you read closely, you will pick up the Marxist emphases on economic wellbeing (which is a core element in a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights), economic inequality as a source of unrest, unleashing the forces of production, the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and the need always to focus on what benefits the common people.

In some respects, the week just past was a significant moment in the shift of global power that began 10 years ago with the Atlantic financial crisis. Comrades in China point out that it should be seen as an outcome of almost four decades of the reform and opening up policy in China.

And all this takes place as Xi Jinping is preparing China for the shift to the second stage of socialism.

 

Something is definitely afoot here in China. A few years ago I gained the distinct sense that China was at a crossroads. Many possible paths were open, which people discussed endlessly. Such times are both dangerous and potentially creative. Now there is a greater sense of purpose and the path seems to be clarifying. More later, but let me note a few points here.

First, the anti-corruption campaign has been invoking Mao’s directives for cadres and leaders to live simple lives, without seeking personal gain. Yesterday, the government adopted a revised version of the guidelines against bureaucracy and extravagance. These include travelling ‘without pomp’, education and management of staff, guidelines on vacations, and so on. They are based on the core values of loyalty, honesty and frugality. The purpose: ‘To forge an iron, one must be strong oneself‘. In other words, a main focus of the campaign is to build a strong, united party, for the sake of a major move forward.

Second, in a direct echo of Mao’s famous lecture at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, Chairman Xi called on artists and writers to create great works of art, both distinctly original and beating with the heart of the people. This follows his earlier statement to let philosophy and the social sciences flourish, and guidelines for journalists in promoting public life and socialism with Chinese characteristics. I personally prefer these two statements:

Promoting socialist core values should be fundamental to artists and writers, who should firmly resort to Chinese people’s thoughts, emotions and aesthetics to create works catering to the times, featuring notable Chinese elements.

Literary and artistic work should be people-focused, and artists and writers should serve the people and socialism.

This of course directly invokes Mao’s directive that literature and art should serve the people.

I must admit that I find all of this quite exciting, a great time to be involved in China.