Last month a senior official from China’s education ministry addressed more than 100 government colleagues and scholars at a closed-door event to discuss the centenary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist party, which will be officially marked with great fanfare in Beijing on Thursday.
Wang Binglin lectured his audience on controversial subjects, such as the party’s iron grip on history ever since Mao Zedong seized power 72 years ago. In particular, he warned the scholars in attendance to be careful when speaking and writing about the party’s violent land redistribution campaign in the early 1950s that claimed the lives of as many as 2m people.
“Playing up [the attack on landlords] is historical nihilism,” Wang said, referring to the term used by President Xi Jinping to criticise anyone who deviates from the party’s official historical narrative. He also noted that certain information in China’s national archives was likely to be marked as classified and off-limits forever: “Making such information public is of little help for you historians and will also be bad for the party.”
“By studying or writing about this [period], you will be taking the wrong side. That’s why we ban the study and publication of such material. The same applies to Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary,” he added, referring to the Wuhan-based novelist’s account of Covid-19’s emergence in the city last year that pillories government officials for their initial attempts to cover up the outbreak. “You won’t become a good researcher if you don’t follow [the] party.”
The mixture of condescension and confidence implicit in Wang’s remarks — that what is good for the party is good for China — provides a perfect encapsulation of the country under Xi.
Now 68, Xi has already been in power for nine years and, having abolished term limits on the presidency three years ago, is unlikely to formally relinquish the presidency until 2028 or possibly even 2033. The biggest question looming over next year’s 20th party congress is whether Xi, currently the party’s general secretary, will resurrect and assume Mao’s title of party chair.
To his admirers, Xi is the right man at the right time, ready to lead the party and China into a “new era” that will be defined by its emergence as the world’s largest economy, surpassing the US, and also establishing itself as a first-rank military and technological power.
“The party has suffered numerous setbacks,” says David Wang, a Beijing-based scholar, referring to traumas ranging from a famine in the late 1950s and the cultural revolution of 1966-76 — each of which killed tens of millions of people — to the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in June 1989. “But it ended up conquering China and turning the country into a global powerhouse. That is inspiring.”
“I joined the party because there is no other political force that could make China better,” adds Wang, who earned his PhD in the US and joined the party after returning to China a few years ago. “Ordinary people in both the US and China are like mobs who need to be guided. Average Chinese aren’t ready for western-style democracy and need to be led. In the US, everyone can have an opinion and nothing gets done. China should follow a different path.”
Others fret that Xi’s empowerment of the party over the past decade — epitomised by his famous assertion that “north, south, east, west and centre, the party is leader of all” — could hasten its own destruction through a process of top-down ossification that engenders widespread apathy and cynicism among its 92m members.
“Party control permeates every aspect of life,” says Wu Qiang, a former professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and prominent party critic. “There are no different voices inside or outside the party. As a result, there are no checks and balances . . . Small mistakes can develop into huge mistakes and endanger the party.”
The third transformational leader?
Like many of his peers, Xi is a Chinese “princeling” whose father held high party and government positions under both Mao and Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s “reform and opening” programme that transformed the country into an economic powerhouse.
Few of Xi’s critics in China dare to speak openly. But their criticism has a common refrain. They argue that Xi’s accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Mao and Deng — both hardened guerrilla fighters who, respectively, won a political revolution and launched an economic one.
Nonetheless, he regards himself as their equal, modern China’s third “transformational” leader who does not have to follow the same rules that his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, did. In the process, they add, he risks destroying the foundations of China’s economic success over the past 40 years.
Deng too believed in the primacy of the party. He ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests because he feared the party’s grip on power was under threat. But he also promoted and institutionalised policies designed to ensure that the party did not strangle the economy, such as greater autonomy for local and regional officials, a “collective leadership” ethos and the two-term limit on the presidency since abolished by Xi.
“Princelings see Xi Jinping as just one of them — they come from the same class,” says Willy Lam, a China politics expert and lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They have trouble swallowing the fact that this guy who they grew up with is now the second Mao Zedong, has totally negated Deng’s major achievement on orderly succession and revived Mao’s personality cult.”
‘Our autonomy has shrunk’
In a village near Wuhan, a local party secretary told the Financial Times that today’s trend towards ever greater centralisation of power had a clear starting point — the 18th party congress in October 2012, at which Xi was anointed party general secretary. He assumed the presidency in March 2013.
“Top-down decision making is to blame for political indifference,” says the village party secretary, who asked not to be identified. “Our job now is to carry out tasks assigned by higher-level party organisations that rarely listen to average [party] members. While we have good knowledge about what ordinary people are thinking, it is difficult for us to report the situation to our leaders, let alone affect their decision making.
“Before the 18th party congress, villagers had considerable freedom to participate in public affairs,” he adds. “Since President Xi took office, our village’s autonomy has shrunk greatly as the authorities see it as a trigger for social instability.”
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In Beijing, a central government adviser is blunt — and unapologetic — about the changes. “Grassroots democracy,” he says, “creates more problems than it solves”.
Wu, the Tsinghua scholar, disagrees, saying that under Xi Chinese officials have become “two-faced and afraid to voice their true opinion — everyone just repeats party propaganda and the leader’s speeches”.
“Local officials used to have more initiative to innovate, to take risks for economic development,” he adds. “Now they follow higher level officials. Everyone is restrained, so they do nothing. The effect of all this is the same: there is no self-correction mechanism in the system.”
US President Joe Biden’s recent progress in coaxing G7 and Nato allies into a “united front” challenging Beijing has angered Chinese officials, whose confidence in the superiority of their system compared with America’s was emboldened by both Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency and western nations’ failure to protect their populations from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If Nato wants to branch out to the Asia-Pacific region, be our guest,” says Victor Gao, a former translator for Deng and Chinese diplomat. “China has been here for 5,000 years and China will be here for another 5,000 years. China will stand firm regardless of whatever Nato does.”
“Biden says America is back,” Gao adds. “But Trump could be back in four years, right?”
Paul Haenle, a former national security staffer for both George W Bush and Barack Obama and director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, agrees that “uncertainty about the future of US democracy and the potential for a return of Trumpism” will give America’s allies pause about confronting China too openly. But, he adds, increasingly unfavourable “international views of China are unlikely to change until Beijing recognises that its actions, in addition to its diplomacy, are the main contributors to the downturn” in its relations with the US and EU.
The party’s “confidence is turning into hubris”, warns Richard McGregor, author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. “China’s great strength needs to be self-criticism,” he adds. “We don’t see that any more. There is an element of triumph . . . There’s no path beyond Xi Jinping. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. That’s dangerous.”
‘No longer a workers’ party’
The party has for decades billed itself as the only political organisation that serves the Chinese people “wholeheartedly”. To complete their revolutionary mission, the party constitution demands that its members be ready to “sacrifice everything”.
Under Xi, there has been a big push to put this ideology into action. Party members, led by those working for the government and state-owned enterprises, are required to wear lapel pins in the workplace so they can be constantly reminded of their duty — and be identified by others as model workers to whom they can turn for help.
A similar campaign is under way in the countryside, where households are classified — and assigned tasks — depending on whether any family members have joined the party. In Xinshiji, a small village near the manufacturing hub of Yiwu in eastern Zhejiang province, each home has a plate on its front door specifying whether a party member lives there.
Families with party members are supposed to serve as role models in five areas, ranging from adhering to “high ethical standards” to helping to “upgrade the local economy”. In contrast, the only job asked of non-party households is to recycle their rubbish properly. “We count on party members to build a more prosperous village,” says an official in Xinshiji.
The party, however, is struggling to recruit members intent on putting public interest above their own. Dozens of academic studies show Chinese adults, led by young people, pursued party membership mainly for personal gain. According to one survey of 1,885 college-age party members conducted by academics at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, the most cited reason for joining the party was career advancement as a growing number of employers, led by government departments and state firms, now say they prefer to hire party members.
“I had no plan to join the party until all my dream jobs began to require CCP membership,” says Tina Hu, a Beijing-based office worker who is now seeking a government position. Hu applied to become a party member two years ago and is hoping to finish the process “as soon as possible” so she can make her career switch.
In rural areas, owners of small businesses ranging from industrial farms to factories have overtaken farmers as the preferred candidates for party membership. “We expect [new members] to lead the whole village to prosperity,” says the village party secretary near Wuhan. “In return we offer them benefits like better access to loans or government contracts.”
“The party is no longer a workers’ and peasants’ party,” adds McGregor. “It is a managers’ and businessmen’s party.” Of the 2.1m new members the party recruited in 2018, less than 5,700 of them were migrant workers even though such labourers account for more than a third of China’s working-age population.
This tension between a party apparatus that has become increasingly powerful under Xi — but also recognises that it needs capable private sector businesspeople to propel the economic growth that keeps it in power — has been evident in the party’s effort to rein in private-sector tech giants such as Jack Ma’s Alibaba and Ant Group, and Pony Ma’s Tencent.
“Nothing bad will happen to Jack Ma,” says one senior Chinese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has made good contributions to the economy and is still very much respected. He has done a great service to the people and the country. The lesson is just don’t be so high-profile in China.”
Wang, the Beijing scholar and party member, believes that given another “30 or 40 years” the party will finally be able to worry less about what everyone from historians to internet tycoons do and say. “By then,” he says, “I hope that people will have more freedom to choose what they want to believe.”