07/15/2021 – China’s Populist-Nationalist Empire

Posted on Jul 15, 2021

source: https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2021/08/02/chinas-populist-nationalist-empire/#slide-1

By JIANLI YANG

July 15, 2021 2:08 PM

Xi Jinping gives a speech in Beijing on July 1, 2021, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CCP. (Li Xueren/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Xi Jinping has established himself as a pillar of the state

One person declares to another: “For a hundred years, I’ve loved you with all my heart.” He then pledges: “I’m ready to love you even more for another hundred years.” Anyone who has experienced love knows that this is an exciting yet overused promise.

This was the pledge made on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to the people of China by General Secretary Xi Jinping at the centennial celebration of the party’s founding on July 1, 1921.

However, many witnesses to the century-long history of the CCP, especially to the history of its rule since it founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, are still alive. People will never forget the Land Reform Movement, the Campaign to Suppress Counter­revo­lutionaries, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the People’s Commune, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Family Planning, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the occupation of Tibet, Xinjiang concentration camps, the suppression of Hong Kong . . . Nearly 100 million people have died under — and as a consequence of — the CCP’s rule, not to mention the incalculable damage to property, the destruction of culture and religion, and the poisoning of people’s hearts.

Of course, this is not love; it is more akin to rape. The story of a rapist turning into a “lover” is an upsetting one. A man’s emotions are often complicated, and the collective (dis)affections of the people toward their despotic ruler are even more complex, especially when they have no choice but to live with it. Feelings are not unidimensional: “Love” and “hate” are always intertwined. Moreover, it is the “rapist” who controls all the resources. Cunning and chameleonic, the rapist expresses his love over and over. At the centennial celebration of the CCP’s founding, it appeared that the CCP had succeeded in becoming the people’s “lover” yet again. Is this true?

Since assuming power in 2012, Xi Jinping has worked hard to achieve a grand goal: the establishment of a “four-in-one” empire that consists of Xi, the CCP, the Chinese people, and the state itself. At the centennial celebration, Xi, clad in a Mao suit as he stood in front of a huge portrait of Mao Zedong, gave a speech the main purpose of which was to announce the achievement of this goal. Aside from Xi Jinping, Mao Zedong was the only CCP leader who attained the same “four in-one” goal in the early years of the People’s Republic of China.

Although one branch of the “four-in-one empire” is the CCP itself, and the empire’s vast state machinery is run by a huge party organization with 95 million members, the empire’s ideological basis is not Marxism but rather populism and nationalism. Although Xi’s speech contained a passage about Marxism, it was just a fleeting reference, and he emphasized that the “Sinification of Marxism must continue.” This is a typical expression of populism and nationalism. The so-called “initial aspiration” of the CCP that Xi Jinping has taken pains to cite over the past several years is not the realization of communism, but rather to “seek happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chi­nese nation.”

The CCP’s ideological shift from communism to populism and nationalism fully demonstrates the party’s adaptability and pragmatism. This is one of the main reasons why the CCP not only has survived for a hundred years but can still subdue the people and look at the rest of the world with a sense of smug superiority.

The shift did not begin with Xi Jinping. It was first promoted by Deng Xiaoping, who returned to power after the Cultural Revolution following the failure of Mao’s communist experiment. In reality, “rich” (populism) and “strong” (nationalism) — slogans from the end of the Qing Dynasty, and two ideals that the Chinese people have vehemently harbored and pursued — have now become policies of the CCP’s rule, the crux of which is to narrow the gap in wealth and overall national strength between China and Western developed countries. From Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang to Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, each CCP leader has declared strength, prosperity, and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to be the governing objectives. The difference is that they have adopted different attitudes towards the West (especially the United States) based on the relative strength of China at the time when they were in power.

In his speech at the centennial celebration, Xi Jinping declared:

The country [state] is the people, and the people are the country [state]. Fighting for and guarding the country [state] is the heart of the people. The foundation of the Chinese Communist Party lies in the people, the blood lies in the people, and the strength lies in the people. The Chinese Communist Party has always represented the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people. It has no special interests of its own, and has never represented the interests of any interest group, any powerful group, or any privileged class. Any attempt to separate and antagonize the Chinese Communist Party from the Chinese people will never succeed! More than 95 million Chinese Communists do not agree! More than 1.4 billion Chi­nese people do not agree!

In other words, he declared that the CCP is tied to the populist sentiment of all the people. At the same time, Xi, on behalf of the Chinese people subjugated under and identified with his regime, made a nationalist oath to the world: “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us. Anyone who wishes to do so will certainly be battered and bloodied in collision with the Great Steel Wall built by the blood and flesh of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people!”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping on a screen during an event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China at the Memorial of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, China, June 4, 2021.

Aly Song/Reuters

The basis of the legitimacy of this four-in-one empire is not popular opinion or people’s choice, nor is it the purported universal truth of Marxism. Rather, the Chinese Communist Party is built on what one can describe as “performance legitimacy”: The CCP purports to have freed the Chinese people from a century of humiliation, created a socialist state, and achieved the miracle of rapid economic growth. According to Xi, under the CCP’s leadership, “the Chinese nation has ushered in a great leap from standing up and getting rich to becoming strong; the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has become an irreversible part of history!” As for how the Chi­nese nation’s “standing up, getting rich, and becoming strong” relates to communist ideals, Xi Jinping apparently couldn’t be bothered to explain. The four-in-one empire will continue to rely upon “performance legitimacy” as well as appeals to populism and nationalism.

The reason why Xi Jinping has be­come one “branch” of the four-in-one empire is that he has combined Chinese populism and nationalism under a façade of communist ideology. In this narrative, he has implemented populist domestic policies with greater courage and determination than his predecessors; to bolster the CCP’s performance legitimacy, he has been tough in fighting corruption; under his leadership, China has achieved its first centennial goal, of comprehensively eradicating poverty and achieving a well-off society; China’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic were successful; and so on.

Xi Jinping has been even more aggressive as a nationalist than as a populist. In present-day China, the term “nationalism” (mínzúzhǔyì) is divided into domestic and foreign contexts. Within China, the nationalism of the Chinese Communist Party is “Han chauvinism” (i.e., Han-centric nationalism), which entails the oppression and elimination of non-Han ethnic minorities, or at least cultural genocide against them.

Under Xi Jinping’s rule, manifestations of externally directed nationalism include broader participation in multilateralism, increasingly active “economic diplomacy,” coercive territorial claims, flexing of international political influence, and a greater emphasis on projecting military power. The target of all these things is primarily the United States. The CCP is attempting to weaken the U.S.-led international order both within East Asia and globally by weakening the support base of the U.S. and strengthening forms of control that support a Chinese alternative.

Xi describes the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as the “Chinese dream.” At the 19th National Congress of the CCP, in 2017, Xi clearly depicted his vision of the Chinese dream: By the middle of the 21st century, he claimed, China will lead the world in overall national strength and international influence. Furthermore, China was building a world-class military; actively participating in global governance; facilitating a new type of international relations; and building a “community with a shared future for mankind.” According to the CCP, Mao Zedong enabled China to “stand up,” Deng Xiaoping made China rich, and Xi Jinping made China strong.

The CCP has established a party-state system in which “party” and “state” are synonymous and interchangeable. Every version of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China has been a “party-state” constitution. However, between the implementation of the Reform and Opening Up policy in 1978 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, under the leadership of Hu Yaobang and later Zhao Ziyang, China’s party-state system witnessed a modest degree of separation between the party and the state (government). After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, party and state gradually coalesced. This process accelerated after Xi Jinping took office. On January 7, 2016, at the CCP Politburo Standing Committee meeting, Xi reaffirmed the political principles of Mao Zedong’s four-in-one empire: “Party, government, army, society and education, east and west, south, north and center, the party leads all.” As a result, the role and the status of the CCP were greatly strengthened. Today, party and state are inseparable in China, and their unification has once again become a distinctive feature of Chinese politics.

One important reason that Xi Jinping could accomplish this without much difficulty is that no CCP leader since Mao Zedong has completely repudiated Mao politically. Communism still reigns supreme within China’s official ideological discourse system. All of this provides a legitimate foundation and space for Xi Jinping’s political regression. The instrumental use of Maoist and orthodox communist ideology has provided a convenient way to manipulate politics for the post-Mao CCP and has given the CCP increased flexibility and adaptability. Since Deng Xiaoping, CCP leaders have demonstrated differences in their degrees of political en­lightenment, but each has understood that he cannot dethrone the orthodox ideologies of Maoism and communism from their shrine-like pedestal, because doing so could threaten the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which, in turn, could threaten the security of its rule.

Ensuring the security of the party’s rule is the most important policy goal for every CCP leader. The sole purpose of the CCP’s adaptability and pragmatism is to ensure its security as the ruling party. Populism and nationalism also revolve around this principle; there is no room for carelessness. This is what Xi Jinping refers to as “bottom-line thinking.”

China’s four-in-one empire is held together firmly through political coercion. This “alliance” is not the result of people’s “free love.” The fragility of its legitimacy has always been a lingering worry for Xi Jinping, which is why he has mobilized vast economic, social, and technological resources to build a state machine of suppression and control. Xi uses this machine to suppress people’s civil freedoms and to monitor the masses. Just like Mao, Xi constantly needs to eliminate his enemies from the “people.” Anyone who could potentially endanger the structural stability of the four-in-one empire will be eliminated and exterminated by the CCP’s totalitarian machine, “battered and bloodied” even if they are foreign forces.

Xi Jinping has spared no effort in holding lavish celebrations for the Chi­nese Communist Party’s centennial, in which he rewrote the history of the CCP, established a rationale for the party’s permanent rule, portrayed himself as the founder of this four-in-one empire, and gained legitimacy to lead China indefinitely.

To give readers an image of the nature of this four-in-one empire, I liken it to a dragon. The dragon’s head is Xi Jinping; the dragon’s heart is the core goal of ruling security; the dragon’s wings are populism and nationalism; and the dragon’s giant claws are performance legitimacy and despotic totalitarianism.

In order to maintain the vitality and stability of this four-in-one empire, Xi Jinping is almost certain to do the following things in the near future:

(1) Xi will not completely abandon China’s market economy and opening-up policies, because he needs to continue a high rate of economic growth to maintain performance legitimacy, meet people’s growing wealth requirements, and cover up the country’s numerous societal conflicts.

(2) Xi will intermittently control capital and suppress private entrepreneurs to meet populist demands for equality. This policy goal is often in conflict with No. 1.

(3) Xi will continue to fight corruption and allow CCP officials to maintain their original aspirations, or at least maintain the people’s illusion that “the CCP is not motivated by self-interest and cares only about the welfare of the people.”

(4) Xi will continue to use anti-corruption as a tool to maintain political loyalty within the CCP. The greater one’s power, the more dramatic the emergence of one’s political enemies and the ensuing struggles. In politics, disturbances are unavoidable, and a political disturbance can quickly escalate into a political crisis.

(5) In order to sustain a high degree of nationalist sentiment among the people, Xi will need to portray himself as being aggressive overseas. He will continue to depict the United States as China’s enemy and will use every available means to catch up with and surpass the U.S. in global influence and comprehensive national power. He will also maintain geopolitical tensions between mainland China and Taiwan.

(6) Xi will maintain a high degree of political pressure; adhere to the “bottom-line thinking” of ruling security; leave no room for anyone, whether inside or outside the CCP, to build up or become a viable opposition force; and continue the country’s deplorable human-rights record.

Items (5) and (6) will continue to cause international isolation for China and will make it difficult to achieve the goals of enjoying sustained high economic growth and becoming a powerful country.

Except for an incident like Xi Jinping’s death, the fate of this four-in-one empire will largely depend on whether Xi can resolve conflicts — how he balances the conflicting policy goals, how adaptable and pragmatic he is, and the degree to which the people of China and the international community allow him and his party to get away with it — when the above-mentioned policy objectives interfere with each other. It has nothing to do with the CCP’s pledge to the Chinese people that it “has loved for a hundred years and will love for another hundred years.”

This article appears as “Four in One” in the August 2, 2021, print edition of National Review.

JIANLI YANG is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.