My ‘first Party congress’, that is the first national congress of the Chinese Communist Party of which I was aware and to which I paid attention, was the Ninth Congress held in April 1969. I was fifteen years old and because I regularly received reams of news and propaganda material from Beijing in the mail — Peking Review, China Reconstructs and China Pictorial — there was no way of avoiding the ‘Big Ninth’, 九大 jiǔ dà.
There was the official press communique declaring that the 1,512 delegates, many of whom were workers-peasants-soldiers who had come to the fore in the Cultural Revolution, were ‘imbued with soaring enthusiasm and strong fighting will’. The meeting was hailed as being ‘a congress full of vitality, of unity and of victory’, one that would ‘have a far-reaching influence in the history of our Party’. (By the end of the next decade, the Party had declared that the congress was ‘ideologically, politically and organisationally erroneous’.)
I also marvelled at airbrushed photos of the leaders, I pored over the various reports and tried to process the breathless praise for the genius of Mao, the wisdom of the Party and the worthiness of the People. It all left me both baffled and amused. Five years later, I was studying at Maoist universities with classmates who were former Red Guards. Questions about the congress and the subsequent fate of Marshal Lin Biao, Chairman Mao’s close comrade-in-arms and handpicked successor who was anointed at the Big Ninth, elicited nonsensical responses and well-rehearsed lines, although one of my interlocutors did wryly point out that the opening session of the 1969 congress was April Fool’s Day. (For more on the Big Ninth, see The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017.)
Later, in the years after Mao’s death, the coup that toppled his faction in the Party and that led to the re-emergence of leaders purged during the Cultural Revolution, I met scores of people whose lives had been upended, often tragically, by the events that led to the Ninth Congress and the political machinations that followed in its wake. I came to appreciate that the stilted, formulaic and absurd rhetoric of the Communist Party actually gave expression to a politics that was deadly serious.
Reflecting on the first years of Xi Jinping’s rule in December 2016, I quoted Tacitus:
Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
‘They made a wilderness and they call it peace.’
Or, as Lord Byron poetically recast these words in Bride of Abydos:
Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.
The internal logic of the Xi Jinping era would have resulted ineluctably in a new ‘Silent China’ regardless. The media and intellectual diversity of the preceding years has been suffocated, however, Other China still flourishes in a myriad of ways, sometimes in some unexpected and brash form at other times opaque and sotto voce. Grand statements and open challenges are limited to a few quixotic figures, a few of which we have chronicled in China Heritage, but it is in ‘the politics of the proximate’ 附近 fùjìn — the individual’s social circle, among private groups, within online clusters, community gatherings, unofficial collectives — that diversity manifests itself and thrives at every opportunity. While China watchers vie to make sense of the ‘black box’ 黑匣子 hēi xiázi of that country’s politics, Partry leaders have made a ‘black box’ of society, one that they can only partially understand and frequently misinterpret.
In this three-part mediation on the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, we recall the accession of Xi Jinping in 2012 and comment on the ‘terraforming’ impact that Xi and Xi Thought have had on China over the subsequent decade.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
6 October 2022
China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season:
At the Congress:
The Xi Jinping Decade and Party Congress Watching:
- Wu Guoguang 吳國光, China’s Party Congress: Power, Legitimacy, and Institutional Manipulation, Cambridge University Press, 2015
- Li Yuan 袁莉, ‘20th Party Congress Special’ in ‘Who Gets It’ 不明白播客 —— 20大特輯, a Chinese-language podcast with interview transcripts. See: Episode 16, Xu Chenggang on hopes for China’s economy; Episode 17, Jin Dongyan on Zero-Covid; Episode 18, Victor Shih on Party power struggles; and, Episode 19, Jiang Xue and Zhang Jieping on the media
- China Prospects Seminar 二十大後中國前景研討會: Rong Wei (chair), ‘The Political Line of the Twentieth Party Congress and Evaluating the State of China Today’ 榮偉主持, ‘中共二十大的路線及當下中國形勢的判斷’, 24 September 2022; and, Deng Yuwen (chair), ‘Analysing Xi Jinping’s Rule — from Authoritarianism to Totalitarianism’ 鄧聿文主持, ‘習近平執政分析——從威權主義到極權主義’, 25 September 2022, broadcast on YouTube by Ming Jing TV 明鏡電視
- Radio Free Asia Special Report: Ten Years of Xi Jinping (in Standard Chinese)，【習近平這十年】特別報道，《亞洲自由電台》，2022年10月3日起
- Susan L. Shirk, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise, Oxford University Press, 2022
- MacroPolo, The Selectorate — Fantasy Football for China Nerds, The Paulson Institute, Chicago
- MERICS, 20th National Congress of the CCP, September-October 2022
- 21st Century China Center, ed., The Party Remakes China: What to Watch for After the 20th Party Congress, UC San Diego, September 2022
- The Economist, The Prince podcast, September 2022
Recommended Sites & Online Platforms:
- China Digital Times, for CDT’s Chinese site, see here
- China Media Project
- Sinocism, by Bill Bishop
- The China Project
- Tracking People’s Daily
- What’s on Weibo
- Slow Chinese 每周漫聞
- Mercator Institute for China Studies
- Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington
- ChinaPower, CSIS
- Domestic Politics, Center for China Analysis, Asia Society, New York
- Watching China Watching (China Heritage, January 2018-)
- China Watching in the Xi Jinping Era of Blindness and Deafness, China Heritage, 28 September 2022
- Geremie R. Barmé, A People’s Banana Republic, China Heritage, 5 September 2018
- Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong, China Heritage, 20 September 2021
- Geremie R. Barmé in conversation with Susan Shirk, Interpreting the Xi Dynasty, UC San Diego, January 2020
- Xu Zhangrun Archive (China Heritage, August 2018-)
- Lee Yee 李怡, et al, Deathwatch for a Chairman, China Heritage, 17 July 2018
- Lee Yee, What’s New About Such Thinking?, China Heritage, 5 November 2017
- Lee Yee, Who’s on First — China’s Successive Failures, China Heritage, 20 November 2017
- The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017
- Shared Destiny — China Story Yearbook 2014
- Civilising China — China Story Yearbook 2013
- Red Rising, Red Eclipse — China Story Yearbook 2012
— a Preamble
To some the title of this chapter — ‘China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season’ — may appear somewhat frivolous. However, it attempts to encapsulate in a few words what I have long thought of as the ‘golden mean’ in dealing with the politics of China’s People’s Republic. We acknowledge the deadly serious nature of the Chinese system, one that bristles with ‘socialist Chinese characteristics’ while maintaining hybrid Stalinist and quasi-imperial traditions. All the talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ that is accompanied by grandiose and elaborately choreographed rituals are an orientalist topsy-turvy version of Western political behaviour refracted through Stalin-era Russia. Today, China shares the rituals of its political culture with a rump socialist bloc that includes Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. In the spirit of friends past and present, as well as in a mood suffused with the irony laden ennui of Beijing — a city variously victimised, enriched and amused by political intrigue since 1421, when Zhu Di 朱棣, who usurped the Ming throne and ruled as the Yongle Emperor, designated his former power base as the imperial capital — we lampoon the Party’s earnest folderol.
The tension and oscillation between the elaborate and byzantine processes of the Party and the extraordinary amount of formal verbiage involved in them, combined with the ad hoc and capricious nature of actual party rule can neatly be reflected in the ancient expression 文武之道，一張一弛 wén wǔ zhī dào, yī zhāng yī chí: the true way of governance is a melding of the civilian (or the more moderate and relaxed style of King Wen) and the military (harsh and intemperate ways of King Wu); thus tension and relaxation are imbricated. Readers will be familiar with the cycle of ‘relaxation and repression’ 放收 that characterised the pre-Xi Jinping era. Over the Reform-era decades during which the party-state vacillated over how to best achieve both its political and its economic goals, periods of relative ideological relaxation saw the growth of a nascent civilian culture. These alternated with phases of heightened political anxiety during which shrill propaganda and (often covert) cultural purges reined in social efflorescence.
In the Xi Jinping decade, although there has been scant let up in the steady drumbeat of control, the Politburo has pursued an ‘artificial dialectic’ (see, ‘Xi Jinping’s China & Stalin’s Artificial Dialectic’, China Heritage, 10 June 2021). The Party’s ‘Third History Resolution’, adopted in November 2021, is explicit about correcting the failures of the past to make sure that both ideology and the economy are ‘grasped firmly with both hands’ 两手抓、两手硬 (see the Resolution: 四、開創中國特色社會主義新時代:（七）在文化建設上), even as a measure of unruly diversity struggles in tireless resistance. Thus, the old pattern of the punctilious and the cavalier goes on and it behooves those who want to appreciate, and understand, this particular dialectic to treat the issue both with all due seriousness and with judicious contempt.
Apart from personal proclivities and the nurturing environment of 1960s’ Sydney, my comportment in regard to Chinese Communist politics is for the most part informed by some four decades of friendships, conversations and collaborations with Chinese writers, thinkers, journalists, academics and comrades-in-the-street. Over the years I have absorbed our shared nous into a personal approach and style. I have been engaged with the Chinese world (which I often refer to as the ‘Chinese multiverse’) for over half a century. Through my translation efforts over a forty-five year period I have delved into cultural works and political posturing, grand theory and quotidian discourse, the underbelly of Chinese worlds as well as the over-culture of a shape-shifting party-state.
Today, China watching is a big business, but I have only ever been an interested and sympathetic observer, although there have been periods (during my fifteen years as a Chinese essayist, for example, or during my ten years as a film-maker) in which I have veered towards being a ‘participant-observer’. I am wary of prognostications; my income does not rely on my online witterings; my academic career is now but a lingering memory; my reputation is of concern only to myself and my fealty is offered solely to those whom I deem to be worthy. Although I enjoy some of the analyses of contemporary China, be it in Chinese, English, French or Japanese, I put little store in it. If nothing else, my five decades have educated me in caution. For years (from 1979, to be precise) I’ve often wondered whether anyone was keeping a scorecard that matched all of the pompous, opinionated, self-assured bloviation of people both in- and outside China regarding what has, is and will happen in China with the accuracy of their predictions? My own efforts have, for the most part, been devoted to understanding a little of what has actually happened. ‘That which is yet to come’ 未來 wèilái, or the future, remains a foreign country.
‘Where should we look for guidance? How can we discern the dividing lines?
‘There are no exact directions. There are probably no directions at all. The only things that I am able to recommend at this moment are: a sense of humour; an ability to see the ridiculous and the absurd dimensions of things; an ability to laugh about others as well as about ourselves; a sense of irony; and, of everything that invites parody in this world. In other words: rising above things, or looking at them from a distance; sensibility to the hidden presence of all the more dangerous types of conceit in others, as well as in ourselves; good cheer; an unostentatious certainty of the meaning of things; gratitude for the gift of life and courage to assume responsibility for it; and, a vigilant mind.’
— Václav Havel, Upon receiving the Open Society Prize, 24 June 1999
The expression ‘silly season’ — a period during which frivolous news and commentary flourishes — was first recorded in 1861, a fortuitous coincidence since in Qing China that was the year of the Xinyou Coup 辛酉政變 Xīnyǒu zhèngbiàn, a political upheaval that ushered in political, economic, military and cultural transformations that continue to unfold to this day. The ‘restoration’ 中興 zhōng xīng engineered by Prince Gong, a prominent member of the imperial house, and the Dowager Empress Cixi would revitalise the flagging fortunes of the Qing dynasty by means of a comprehensive strategy that would clean up a corrupt bureaucracy and overhaul the army. This was combined with an aggressive policy of industrialisation, modernised communications, reconfigured relations with foreign nations, managed trade and educational reform. The post-Mao Reform era of China is heir to that earlier history. What I call the decade-long ‘Xi Jinping Restoration’ is the latest phase in a process that remains open-ended and endlessly controversial. It is the contested continuation rather than the end of history.
China’s Highly Consequential
Political Silly Season
Geremie R. Barmé
1 October 2022
‘Ignition! Launch! We have lift off!’
So starts the latest paean to the genius of Xi Jinping, people’s leader, helmsman and chairman of everything. This is the lead to ‘Seizing the Historical Initiative, Focussing Awesome Power in Forging Ahead’, a 13,000-character-long essay article published by People’s Daily on 29 September 2022 under the byline ‘Ren Zhongping’ 任仲平 — a widely recognised homophone for 人民日報重要評論, or ‘People’s Daily keynote commentary’.
It is only one of a plethora of panegyrics in the all-of-party propaganda assault launched against the Chinese population during the lead up to the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, convening in Beijing on 16 October. A few translated passages from Ren Zhongping’s deathless prose will suffice as a ‘taster’ for glut of full-throated 24/7 hype inundating China today:
‘Ignition! Launch! We have lift off!
‘These words sent our most recent satellite off on its mission to explore the vast oceans of space. A similar determination fills our breasts, surging over the majestic mountains and rivers of China. In the ten years since the Eighteenth Party Congress [in November 2012, when Xi Jinping was appointed as the Party’s General Secretary], we have focussed superhuman levels of energy in our pursuits… . Each brilliantly transformative act has been undertaken to remake our world; every major event that we have witnessed has shaken the very earth to form an inspiring new musical movement that adds to a grand symphony of epoch-making change. In their variegated ways these have all opened broad new vistas that are aiding our forward march through history itself. …
‘A historical era is essentially a history of ideas. As the Vehicle of History moves relentlessly forward we must ask: How has it been possible for an ancient people with a five-thousand-year-old civilization like the Chinese to continue their journey to achieve a renaissance? How is it that social ideals developed over a period of five centuries radiate now with such a renewed brilliance? How is a world that is faced with the kinds of momentous changes unparalleled for a century now able to find a true path forward?
‘The answer to each of these question is provided by the profound historical insights of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Xi Thought heralds the future. It is a resounding song of triumph that beckons us forward.”
— from 任仲平，‘掌握歷史主動 凝聚奮進偉力’，《人民日報》，9月29日2022年 (my translation)
Similar hosannas have filled the Chinese media for months. From June 2022, for example, the Party’s Publicity Department has used a series of press conferences and media releases to review in mind-numbing detail the momentous achievements of Xi Jinping and his New Era. (See 中國這十年•系列主題新間發佈.)
The OTT propaganda, the hyperbolic word salads, the swathes of red festooning all official media outlets, propaganda posters enjoining the populace to ‘Joyously Hail the Twentieth Party Congress’, the poetry competitions, song and music extravaganzas, TV specials and earnest talking heads reviewing the past while following a carefully orchestrated script to talk about the future usher in China’s once-in-a-decade political silly season of political transition.
We have previously noted that in Official China time is measured according to a calendar of congresses, plenums, work meetings, study sessions and ad hoc gatherings of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as in the pro forma meetings of the quasi-ruling legislature called the National People’s Congress, supported by the impotent members of the National People’s Political Consultative Congress.
Although the life of the Communist Party has been far more measured than in the Maoist heyday of mass movements, nonetheless, sudden purges, ideological lurches — both to the left and to the right — as well as the unexplained disappearance of prominent party-state, as well as army, leaders, have for the past four decades remained a feature of the largest and, except for North Korea, most secretive ruling class in modern global politics. Everyday life might go on despite the in camera workings of the party-state, but the weal and bane of the nation and its population to a great extent depend on the machinations of a cabal of unelected leaders who live and work totally sequestered from the people over whom they rule.
For observers and students of China alike, be they in the People’s Republic or elsewhere, the gathering of the Communist Party oligarchs every five years is an occasion of great moment. Previously, all but ignored by the international media, such events now attract spectacular attention because of China’s global heft. They also provide analysts, talking heads, online influencers, wags and just about everyone else with an opportunity to engage in vacuous pontification and flights of fancy. The voluble outpourings both of Official China and of unofficial commentators that attempt in their various ways to make sense and demystify the party’s conclaves are, nonetheless, important. As Harry Rigby, a historian and expert on Soviet Russia, noted decades ago, the ritualistic party congress is an opportunity for observers to take stock of the biorhythms of the party-state:
‘[A] party congress … is a carefully contrived political event serving primarily two symbolic functions … that of giving force and authority to the leadership’s current policy orientations, and that of a legitimacy ritual. Of course the essence of a political symbol or ritual is that it displays or acts out a familiar pattern. It derives its force by repetition. But by the same token any departure from the familiar will make a special impact, sometimes out of all proportion to its intrinsic significance. Important signals may be given at a congress, as in the celebration of a church liturgy, through the contrived interplay between established patterns and selective innovations.’
— quoted in The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017
A theme of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is variation within repetition. For that reason we revisit our previous comments and draw on some observations by others here.
Coups & Rumours & Rumours of Coups
And so it is as the Party prepares for its high-church ritual. China watchers both in- and outside the People’s Republic engage in feverish speculation. Learned prognosticators publish profiles of the key bureaucratic actors, as well as score cards and interactive diagrams on the players conjecturing who’ll be up and who’ll be down in the party leadership stakes. This time around, colourful rumors of an anti-Xi Jinping coup added to the feeding frenzy. For ten days in September 2022, a story circulated claiming that a Party elder — the centenarian Song Ping 宋平 — had plotted against Xi while he was attending a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand. Xi’s absence from the final banquet in Uzbekistan fueled speculation that he had rushed back to Beijing only to be placed under house arrest. Meanwhile, confident gossips declared, the details of new policies were being negotiated by anti-Xi actors and the outcome of the negotiations would be announced at the upcoming party congress.
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
— from Rumour — a Pipe Blown by Surmises, Jealousies, Conjectures,China Heritage, 7 June 2019
Political rumours 政治謠言 have featured during various crucial periods in the life of the People’s Republic. Given the Party’s control over the media and the secretive nature of its political processes, gossip and rumours have long been the stuff of informal comment on the issues of the day, and the means by which alternative accounts of Party rule circulate. For example, after the founding of the People’s Republic, when Mao called on intellectuals and others to help the Party ‘rectify its work style’ in light of criticisms of Party rule in the Eastern Bloc in 1956, many took advantage of the invitation to speak out against the secretive privileges and power of Party cadres. They were clamorously silenced and their repression has distorted public life in China ever since.
In 1966, when Red Guard rebels were first allowed to attack the Party, they identified privilege, corruption, and abuse of power as one of the greatest enemies to the revolution. During the unfolding civil war engineered by Mao it was word of mouth and big-character posters that were the common medium employed by individuals and groups to speculate about the leaders and to denounce their enemies.
Around the time of Lin Biao’s fall in 1971, there was a campaign against political hearsay involving Jiang Qing and her famous interviews with Roxane Witke. Following Deng Xiaoping’s ouster in April 1976, the ‘strange talk and odd speculation’ 奇談怪論 of July to September of the previous year — when Deng was trying to push through educational reforms — were denounced by the official media. Another period of political speculation followed shortly thereafter at the time of the Xidan Democracy Wall in 1978-1979; again, in 1988-1989, in the months prior to 4 June 1989, rumours and speculation were rife.
Political gossip and official attempts to silence it have been the hallmarks of Chinese life for over six decades.
In the lead up to Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, during the purge of Bo Xilai, rumours again were a feature of the nation’s life. So much so that, on 16 April that year, People’s Daily denied talk of a coup or that military vehicles had been deployed in the capital (See 人民日報:「軍車進京」之類謠言損害國家形象, 16 April 2012). In the days that followed, a series of denials and articles decrying the malign influence of rumour-mongering were published both in the national and local media (張賀, 人民日報: 要認清網絡謠言的社會危害, 16 April 2012).
— from ‘Deathwatch for a Chairman’, China Heritage, 17 July 2018
As Feng Chongyi has noted, as Xi Jinping further consolidated power, the Party issued an ‘Opinion Regarding Strengthening and Improving Party Construction in Central Party-State Organs’ (March 2019) which directly targeted the highest echelons of the Party with a warning that, henceforth, they:
- are forbidden from circulating any views or opinions that contravene the Party’s Theory, Political Line, Directions or Policies;
- are forbidden from engaging in any and all inappropriate discussion of Party Central;
- are forbidden from formulating or in any way disseminating political rumours or opinions that question or tarnish the image of the Party or State;
- are forbidden from forming any kind of faction or lobby; and,
- are forbidden from engaging in duplicitous behaviour or acting in an underhand, two-faced manner.
In May 2022, Party Central issued a new ruling that was aimed at ‘enhancing political awareness among retired Party cadres’ (see 關於加強新時代離退休幹部黨的建設工作的意見). It included a requirement of Party organds to ‘re-assert political leadership among retirees so as to make sure that they remain obedient and subservient to the Party’ 強化政治引領，確保離退休幹部黨員繼續聽黨話、跟黨走. The renewed warning to the Party only served to fuel speculation about dissatisfaction with Xi’s tenure. Even thought China’s internet invigilators run an online ‘rumour-debunking platform’ 闢謠平台 pì yáo píngtái, aimed at dispelling gossip, including talk tales about the Party’s history, the truth-starved are just as likely to take the earnest denials as an official confirmation of even the wildest stories. Of course, the supreme irony is that China’s party-state media industry is nothing less than a state-sanctioned rumour mill one which, on balance, probably churns out as much fictitious material as it does reality-based reporting. It is also an industry with a portentous global reach.
In September 2022, the rumours of a coup originated outside China, but they found a hungry audience inside the People’s Republic itself. With political participation strictly controlled, the workings of power totally occluded, a media that is so circumscribed as to be little more than a servile mouthpiece for the party-state and civil society but a phantasm, the only relatively safe form of politics enjoyed by the average citizens is that of surreptitious rumour-mongering and gossip. In the past this was known as 小道消息 xiǎo dào xiāo xi — news conveyed via byways rather than the highways of the official media. Little wonder then that during the Xi decade a constant official refrain was 不造謠, 不信謠, 不傳謠 ‘don’t fabricate, believe or disseminate rumours’. In China in 2022, even as political speculation and conspiracy theories spread at wi-fi speeds on digital superhighways the old saying remained true: 耳聽為虛，眼見為實 ěr tīng wéi xū, yǎn jiàn wéi shí, ‘seeing is believing’.
Rumors are the power of the powerless, a form of self-defense, an act of rejection and a kind of theatre. They befuddle, they mislead, they may be purposeful or utterly aimless. They offer momentary diversion and entertainment. Rumours are evanescent and impuissant middle-fingers raised up behind the backs of the power holders.
If my ‘first congress’ was the Big Ninth in April 1969, my ‘first coup’ was in October 1976. Our foreign students’ class at Liaoning University was working at a People’s Commune in Jin County outside Dalian as part of our ‘open door schooling’ in the countryside when we heard the reports from Radio Australia about a coup in Beijing. We were locked in our barracks by our political commissars as they were worried we would spread dangerous political rumours among the poor-and-lower-middle peasants with whom we were picking apples (for export to the Soviet Revisionists for hard currency). As military jets flew overhead we listened to ominous reports on Central People’s Daily urging unity and warning against plots. I later learned some of the details of the coup at Huairentang 懷仁堂政變, the pavilion at the Zhongnanhai Party headquarters where members of Mao’s faction were detained on the orders of military and state security leaders. This had followed on from the purge of acting Premier Deng Xiaoping in April earlier that year.
Later, I would learn about the anti-Mao coup of 1962 that brought President Liu Shaoqi to power and Mao’s counter-coup of 1966 which saw the Chairman reinstated and the president overthrown. Then there was Lin Biao’s failed coup of September 1971 as a result of which Mao was able to rid himself of another ill-fated successor. In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, a man who had suffered from being ousted from power three times, staged a coup against Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. As we noted earlier, in 2012 rumours about an anti-Xi Jinping coup abounded, as they have ever since, and as they will well into the future. At least until either a coup or biological attrition resolves the matter.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall
Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Days of louche speculation about an anti-Xi coup was quashed on 27 September 2022 when the General Secretary appeared at the Beijing Exhibition Hall with his fellow party-state leaders in train. They had gathered to review ‘A New Era of Excellence’ 奮進新時代, a lavish exhibition about the decade of peerless achievements under Xi Jinping’s tutelage. Of course, it was given to Xi to make yet another speech about himself. ‘Since the Eighteenth Party Congress’, he declared:
‘the Center has led the Party and all Chinese peoples to successfully vanquish numerous entrenched problems and to achieve many successes that have a long-term significance. In the process we have confronted and faced down various challenges in fields of endeavor as disparate as politics, the economy, the ideological sphere and the natural environment. The party-state’s enterprise can rightly claim to have scored historical victories at the same time as implementing crucial policy adjustments in response to ever-changing circumstances. These efforts have enhanced our political system, improved our material circumstances and can rightly inspire ever greater enthusiasm for our grand mission aimed at revitalising the Chinese nation.
‘It is essential for us to make a concerted effort to inform people about the significance of the strategic choices that we have made, the pragmatic responses to changing circumstances, the important breakthroughs that we have made, as well as the paradigmatic outcomes of our policies. We must be confident about promoting the epoch-making significance of what we have achieved during these years of unprecedented change in the context of our Party’s history, the history of New China, the Reform-era as well as in the context of the evolution of world socialism and the development of our Chinese Race. By so doing, we better equip ourselves to inspire historical self-belief within our Party and among all Chinese. This in turn will strengthen our resolve to aim higher and achieve ever greater successes in our collective struggle. We will thereby be able to write new chapters in the story of how we have built comprehensive modern socialism in our nation and achieved new victories for socialism with Chinese characteristics.’
— from 習近平在參觀「奮進新時代」主題成就展時強調 踔厲奮發勇毅前行團結奮鬥 奪取中國特色社會主義新勝利，2022年9月27日 (my translation)
The report on Xi Jinping at the ‘A New Era of Excellence’ exhibition starts at minute 1:40
Xi Jinping’s End of History
In January 2013, shortly after coming to power, Xi Jinping suggested under his leadership the Party would accomplish the seemingly impossible by reconciling what are known as the ‘two thirty-year periods’. That is, the three decades from 1949 to 1978 during which Maoist central planning and political radicalism held sway and the thirty years from 1979 to 2008 during which the party-state pursued substantive economic reform and social transformation under Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
During his decade in power, Xi has indeed moved to embrace both eras of Party rule since 1979. A lukewarm approach to further substantive economic reforms, support for state-owned enterprises, curtailing of the entrepreneurial economy not to mention hardline retrenchment in the areas of social, educational and media policy have lazily been described as ‘Maoist’. It is widely remarked that Xi has pursued nothing less than a ‘Cultural Revolution 2.0’. Crude caricatures not withstanding, Xi Jinping’s vision as the Communist Party’s Great Reconciler was expounded at length in the ‘Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century’ adopted by the Party in November 2021. The shorthand language of that document may have been convoluted and gnomic but it makes a grand claim: that Xi Jinping and Xi Thought have essentially resolved all outstanding policy issues in key areas of the nation’s life that had bedeviled the Party for forty years. The Resolution effectively canonised Xi and through it and the ‘red noise’ of hyperbolic propaganda surrounding it, his pivotal role has been so exaggerated as to effectively occlude all other historical, ideological and cultural possibilities for the foreseeable future.
For both his critics and his supporters, Xi Jinping has reigned as China’s ‘Architect of Comprehensive Acceleration’ 總加速師. It is a sobriquet modelled on ‘Grand Designer of Reform and Modernisation’ 改革開放和現代化建設總設計師, an unofficial title bestowed upon Deng Xiaoping. For his detractors, Xi the Accelerator has put the nation into reverse gear by dramatically speeding up China’s retreat from the reform era. They also argue that Xi’s outsized ambitions combined with maladroit policy implementation could well precipitate the failure, if not the collapse of the party-state. For his supporters, however, Xi Jinping has accelerated the country’s historic march towards regional power, military might, technological superiority and global standing.
[Note: For some of Xi Jinping’s other unofficial titles, see Xi the Exterminator & the Perfection of Covid Wisdom, China Heritage, 1 September 2022.]
Today, Beijing prepares to welcome delegates of the Party’s nearly one hundred million strong membership to act as a ‘political selectorate’ which, guided by pro forma Party doctrine, behind-the-scenes factional players, canny lobbyists and venerable elders will determine a new leadership lineup. Those who retain or attain power in October 2022 will in turn determine the make up of the State Council, China’s formal government, to be announced in March 2023.
In the meantime, China Experts of all stripes busily advertise their wares across the print and electronic media. As Simon Leys observed about China watching decades ago, the true talent of many political soothsayers is an expertise at being experts. Despite the abiding difficulty of deducing the inner workings of Chinese politics, new generations of insightful reporters and analysts have flourished nonetheless (for our recommendations see the list at the beginning of this chapter).
So far during the present silly season of Chinese political speculation, a personal favourite is ‘The Selectorate — Fantasy Football for China Nerds’. Created by MacroPolo, the in-house think tank of the Paulson Institute, punters are offered a
‘… chance to build the dream team that will run China for the next five years. The race to the top of Chinese politics may be shrouded in mystery, but we’ve curated a bench of 42 candidates to help you out.
‘You can compete with other players or just show your results of the starting lineup—the Politburo Standing Committee. Once the game closes on October 15, our own forecast will be revealed shortly thereafter.
‘The winner(s) with the most accurate lineup will be announced (there may be prizes).
‘The clock is ticking…ready, get set, and play!’
End of Part I
China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season:
At the Congress: