Held in the glare of international media attention, partly because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been severely buffeted by the incident involving the over-ambitious former politburo member and ‘princeling’ Bo Xilai, the 18th Party Congress belied hopes in certain quarters that the new leadership would favour greater economic and political reform. Instead, it opted for a strong dose of ideology and party orthodoxy.
The theme for the congress became apparent a day before the congress opened in Beijing on November 8, when party spokesman Cai Mingzhao asserted that “inner-party democracy” would be promoted but that “the leading position of the CCP in China is a decision made by history and the people”. This sentiment was echoed by the banner wrapped around the walls of the room in the Great Hall of the People: ‘Hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, use Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development as our guidelines!’
Hu Jintao’s 30,000-character, 12-part, Work Report to the congress, an important political document, had a strong undercurrent of Marxist and Maoist ideology. It included references to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought, twice mentioned the ‘Four Cardinal Principles’ — a phrase coined by Deng Xiaoping but usurped by the ‘Leftists’ — and spoke of strengthening “core socialist values”. He used the phrase associated with Mao Zedong of “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend” and spoke of continuing to adapt Marxism to China’s conditions. Hinting at the Maoist practice of using ‘model’ communists to symbolise the spirit of selflessness, there was a reference to a former symbol, Lei Feng.
The report did mention reform 86 times and called for doubling the GDP by 2021 from 2010 levels. While it said that ‘economic entities under all forms of ownership have equal access to factors of production in accordance with law’…‘and are protected as equals’, the emphasis was noticeably on ‘common prosperity’ and economic policies that benefit peasants and rural folk. Emphasising gradual reform it cautioned that ‘in economic structural reform how to strike a balance between the role of the government and that of the market….’ must be examined.
The report also discussed other issues. It took note of popular discontent, devoted an entire section of the 12-part report each to ‘social management’, the euphemism for domestic security. Xi Jinping’s first speech as party general secretary to a ‘collective study session’ of the politburo on November 17, was also high in ideological content. Xi Jinping, incidentally, has a doctorate in Marxist Philosophy. His speech emphasised the need to “uphold and develop socialism”, “uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics as the focus, priority…” and “make sure the 18th CCP National Congress guidelines become a powerful ideological weapon”. He asserted that “the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the latest achievement in applying Marxism in China. In contemporary China, to uphold the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is to truly uphold Marxism”. Xi Jinping clarified that the CCP will be the sole ruling party in China for a long time. Declaring that the CCP’s task is to “make the Chinese people rich, build a strong and prosperous country and rejuvenate the great Chinese nation”, Xi Jinping averred “our party will always be a strong leadership core in the historical course of upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics”. He listed “combating corruption” and “preventing degeneration” as priority tasks.
This theme of the party’s ideological control was present when Xi Jinping spoke to an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on November 16. He stressed the need for taking “ideological and political building as the top priority in army building” to ensure the party’s “firm grip over the troops ideologically, politically and organizationally”. He reiterated the importance of “the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces”. Xi Jinping also categorically established the criteria for promotions in the PLA. He declared that “the military must promote and appoint cadres based on their political performance and guarantee that ‘guns’ are always controlled by reliable people with loyalty to the Party.” He pledged to enhance the anti-corruption effort and called on senior military officers to take the lead in obeying rules and regulations for self-discipline. A circular issued soon thereafter on December 4 detailed stringent guidelines restricting the hospitality and entertainment offered to senior PLA officers visiting subordinate formations.
Since taking over the country’s top jobs in November, Xi Jinping has not at all been reticent in citing Mao’s quotations and excerpts from his poems. On January 5, he implicitly praised Mao Zedong’s contributions when reiterated the “party’s determination to adhere to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and stressed that the issue “matters for the success or failure of the cause of the future of the Chinese Communist Party. The party must unswervingly adhere to the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Significantly, he asked the people “not to negate what came before 1978”, adding that “China’s cause to develop socialism can be divided into two stages by the watershed decision of starting the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s”. He said that while “socialism with Chinese characteristics took shape after the country adopted reform and opening-up”, however, “it was also based on the socialist system established since 1949 and the following 20-plus years of socialist construction.”
Whether this stress on ideology helps revive the flagging legitimacy of the CCP remains to be seen, but meanwhile the 18th Party Congress has effectively sent out clear messages: continuity, re-assertion of traditional orthodox values and discipline and retention of focus on domestic issues including gradual economic reforms leading to ‘common prosperity’. These also imply that domestic security will receive greater attention of the party general secretary.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the
Cabinet Secretariat,Government of India