China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season is a three-part meditation on the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party convened in Beijing in October 2022. In it 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. A chapter in the series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, it is also included in Watching China Watching.
In Part Two, we added to our reflections on the ambience surrounding congresses of the Chinese Communist Party and pursue our discussion of the historical landscape of this era. In so doing we take up our observations about the ‘two centenaries’ and efforts to meld policies and ideas that the Communist Party pursued during the Maoist decades with the post-Mao reform era. In the 2020s, Xi Jinping, a human synecdoche both for China and the Party, is nothing less than ‘the Party’s brain and central nervous system, ultimate arbiter and sounding board’ 黨中央是大腦和中樞，黨中央必須有定於一尊、一錘定音的權威 (see 習近平談新時代黨的組織路線，新華網，2018年7月4日).
As we observed in Part One of this chapter, Xi Jinping is the ‘Great Reconciler’ of Chinese history; Xi and Xi Thought have, on paper at least, resolved all outstanding policy issues in key areas of the nation’s life that have bedeviled the Party for over four decades. The Party’s Third History Resolution, adopted in November 2021, effectively canonised Xi and his historical vision, in the process eliminating from the public realm all other historical, ideological and cultural possibilities for China’s foreseeable future. But it all builds on decades of debate on policy, history and the nature of modernity both within the Party and among members of the Chinese intelligentsia (see, for example, Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold’).
America is well suited to appreciate Xi Jinping’s China and its vaunting ambitions. Despite ongoing debates about cold, chilly and hot wars, the two nation-civilisations are in open competition ideologically, economically, militarily, technologically and geo-politically. For this reason alone, it is understandable that the American info-sphere is obsessed with China’s political silly season just as China will obsess over the one that unfolds in America in 2024. We are all witness to or participants in this danse macabre (see, ‘The State of the Sino-American Pas de Deux in 2021’, China Heritage, 20 February 2021).
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.
In the third part of our consideration of China’s political silly season we discuss the Preliminary Stage of Socialism and the tension within the Xi Jinping era calling for theoretical innovation, ideological leaps and ever-new ideas that can act as milestones in Xi’s onward trajectory as the embodiment of the Chinese Dream.
China Watching is big business. Its artful pursuit can inflate reputations, aid and abet fund-raising and launch careers. And there is scant evidence to suggest that wildly ‘spot-off’ prognostications result in significant reputational damage, let alone shame. Serious analysts and prognosticators are also legion. Some even contribute meaningful insights into a party-state long set on frustrating independent analysis and commentary. A new aperçu, a catchy turn of phrase or a striking formulation might actually gain currency and further bolster reputations. A mirror image of these earnest endeavours unfolds in China itself, although there the stakes are higher. Within the Chinese policy, army and intellectual establishments — the realm of what we term the ‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’ 皮毛知識界 (for more on this, see Part II) — a similar but far more earnest competition is underway. Phalanxes of contenders jostle to come up with a theoretical tagline or formation they hope might catch the ‘Eye of Sauron’. Below, we use two recent examples of ‘memorial literature’ 奏摺文學 to illustrate our argument.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
16 October 2022
China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season:
At the Congress:
- We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again, China Heritage, 31 March 2022
- Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong, China Heritage, 20 September 2021
- Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold, China Heritage, 13 July 2021
- The Pirouette of Time, China Heritage, 28 January 2019
- Kate Wong, The relentless rise of Xi Jinping: From an exiled prince to China’s potentially permanent ruler, ABC News, 16 October 2022
- 任仲平，十年砥礪奮進 繪寫壯美畫卷——寫在黨的二十大勝利召開之際，人民日報，2022年10月14日
- MacroPolo, Selection 2022, The Paulson Institute, Chicago
- Kevin Rudd, The World According to Xi Jinping, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2022
- The Curse of Great Leaders — the Xi Jinping decade and beyond, China Heritage, 20 July 2022
- Interpreting the Xi Dynasty, Geremie R. Barmé in conversation with Susan Shirk, UC San Diego, January 2020
- A People’s Banana Republic, China Heritage, 5 September 2018
- Deathwatch for a Chairman, China Heritage, 17 July 2018
- Who’s on First — China’s Successive Failures, China Heritage, 20 November 2017
- The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017
China’s Highly Consequential
Political Silly Season
Geremie R. Barmé
16 October 2022
Xi Jinping’s Dominion
A Preliminary Stage, Two Centenaries, the Spectre of Collapse & a New Phase of Development
During the inauguration of his New Era, Xi Jinping not only declared himself to be in favour of a reconciliation between the Mao and Deng eras (see Prelude to a Restoration and the first part of Silly Season), he also offered a timetable for the future in the form of the ‘two centenaries’ 兩個一百年. By the time that the Communist Party marked its centenary on 1 July 2021, Xi claimed, China would have eradicated poverty and thereby enacted the basic economic program of the Party itself. By the time that the second centenary came around on 1 October 2049, the ‘China Dream’ of creating a revitalised, modern and militarily mighty socialist nation would have come to fruition.
Originally outlined at the Party’s Fifteenth Congress in 1997, before being formally adopted by Xi Jinping in 2012 the ‘two centenaries’ were hotly contested during the last years of Hu Jintao’s rule in particular because they had been integral to a broad discussion of Party theory and economic planning that dated back to 1979 and the inauguration of the era of Reform and Opening Up.
In a keynote address celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Marshal Ye Jianying 葉劍英 (the key PLA leader involved in the Huairen Tang Coup 懷仁堂事變 against the ‘Gang of Four’ in October 1976) declared that there was an important difference between the preliminary and advanced stages of socialism.
The idea of a ‘preliminary stage of socialism’ 社會主義初級階段 dated back to Mao and 1950s economic policy. In 1956, the Chairman and his colleagues had debated how best to frame China’s economic development following the ‘socialist transformation of the economy’ 社会主义改造 — a Soviet-style makeover that had resulted in the new party-state appropriating all major businesses, industries and commercial activity, along with the radical collectivisation of agriculture and the imposition of a top-down Soviet-style planned economy. Mao confidently declared that in the wake of these progressive changes China had entered a preliminary stage of socialism. In light of the backward state of the country’s industrial base and agricultural practices, this stage of development, Mao said, would last for decades to come as Chinese-style socialism grew to maturity. Within a few years, however, both in response to the Party’s overly optimistic assessment of China’s economic growth and as result of the Party’s competitive obsession to outdo the Soviet Union, Mao peremptorily launched another economic transformation. A Great Leap Forward beyond the preliminary socialism, Mao believed, would enable China to speed through the advanced stage of socialism and onwards towards fully realised communism. Not only would China’s economy outstrip that of the United States and Britain, it would enter the utopian future ahead of its former political mentor, the Soviet Union.
As part of the wide-ranging policy realignment following Mao’s death, Party thinkers returned to the 1950s idea of the preliminary state of socialism and Ye Jianying announced the consequential temporal shift in his 1979 speech. The Party asserted that its new economic reform policies actually had their roots in China’s economic revolution that had been inaugurated in 1956. Following two decades of ‘extreme leftist’ missteps — that is, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — China was, in the late 1970s, back on track. The men behind the radical departure from previous economic practice — theoreticians, Party leaders and academics who collectively created ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ — also forecast that, given the Party’s ambitious economic agenda, China would become a strong modern socialist nation by the middle of the twenty-first century. It would be just in time to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
As we noted in ‘1979, the Year of Significance’, a section in the introduction to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium (see You Should Look Back, 1 February 2022), the renewed quest to build ‘material civilisation’, that is to improve the economic circumstances of the people, was pursued in tandem with ‘constructing spiritual civilisation’, one that re-affirmed the authoritarian policies of the Maoist era and predicted the future of one-party rule. Over the twelve months from December 1978 to December 1979, the Communists made it clear that:
- The need for major economic change would always have to be balanced with Party dominance;
- The opening up to the world was in essence structural and the potential for the growth of social malaise was heeded;
- The draconian policies of the 1950s, including the mass murders of the early 1950s and the betrayal of Chinese industrialists, workers, democrats and academics, remained unassailable;
- The purge of pro-democratic and liberal thought in 1957 was reaffirmed;
- The pre-eminence of the Party and its leaders was further institutionalised;
- The need to attack bourgeois ideas related to democracy, universal suffrage and human rights was codified;
- The dangers of the West remained alarming and the historical mission of the Party as well the superiority of the socialist system were undeniable;
- The urgency of ideological and cultural policies in support of Party primacy and its historical vision dating back to the nineteenth century was recognised; and,
- The promotion of the cult of martyrs and martial heroes was revived.
— from You Should Look Back, 1 February 2022
Over the following decade (1979-1989), many presumed that the Party’s economic reform agenda would squeeze aside the Party’s endeavours to maintain and update its spiritual civilising mission. In recent years it has been obvious how wrong how many were on this count. The theory of the ‘preliminary stage’ was further developed in the 1980s both to justify and amplify the market-oriented reforms of the Chinese economy. At the same time, it was also used by Party stalwarts to frustrate reform-minded leaders like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang who flirted with more fundamental political change.
After a period in abeyance, the ‘preliminary stage’ reappeared in 1997 when Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin declared that the idea was an integral part of ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ and China has been in the ‘preliminary stage’ ever since. The resulting corpus of theory and practice called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, which includes market socialism, was also often referred to as a process of ‘making up for the lost lessons of capitalism’ 補資本主義的課.
For decades the ‘preliminary stage’ theory has provided a theoretical justification for the Party’s economic and ideological somersaults. It also played a crucial role in the country’s nimble response to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For doctrinaire socialists that seismic event flew in the face of the historical materialism, overturning as it did the Marxist dogma regarding the historically ordained and inevitable stages of social development. According to that view, once a society had successfully entered the socialist phase of development it would ineluctably advance towards advanced socialism and then on to communism. That, after seventy years of triumphant socialism, the Soviet Union had disbanded and its Communist Party had relinquished power, was not only a betrayal of the Marxist faith for which Mikhail Gorbachev was personally culpable, it also gave ammunition to the anti-Marxist view that one of the most basic tenets of Party theory was neither scientifically verifiable nor historically accurate (for more on this, see The Pirouette of Time — Introduction to ‘After the Future in China’, China Heritage, 28 January 2019). The Soviet collapse hangs like a spectre over the party-state of Xi Jinping’s China.
[Note: See The Real Man of the Year of the Dog 戊戌男兒, China Heritage, 2 March 2018.]
The timescape of the two centenaries that had been developed during the administrations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao was championed during the first Xi Jinping decade. It is the programmatic application of the theory of the ‘preliminary stage of socialism’. When, in October 2020, Xi Jinping declared that the year 2035 would mark an intermediary moment between the goals of the first centenary of 2021 and the second centenary in 2049 he did so within the framework of the preliminary stage theory. The new fourteen-year period, known as a ‘New Phase of Development’ 新發展階段, was also a not-so-subtle declaration of Xi Jinping’s intention to stay in power, or at least to rule from ‘behind the screen’ (垂簾聽政, in the old locution), until 2035, if not longer.
Since the announcement of the New Phase of Development China, that is the era of Xi Jinping dominion, thinkers, historians and academics have come up with creative ways to fill in the details of this period, what it means and how it might be creatively adapted to the requirements of Xi Jinping’s ongoing tenure as China’s thinker-in-chief.
In September 2022, for example, Qiushi 求是, the Party’s leading theoretical journal published an essay by Qu Qingshan 曲青山, a writer known for churning out ebullient explanations of Xi Thought, in which he rhetorically asked:
‘How then does the New Phase of Development relate to the Preliminary Stage of Socialism?’
Of course, Qu averred, the answer can be found in the words of Xi Jinping himself:
‘Although we are in a new phase, it is still a stage within the preliminary stage of socialism. Having said that, it is a stage that is nonetheless at a higher level than previous stages of the preliminary stage because of everything that we have accumulated over the preceding decades.
Qu cautions readers of Qiushi that the understanding of this ‘stage within a stage’ must not be mired in the past for the subject requires fresh eyes. Otherwise, Qu warned, ‘we will commit the errors of one-sidedness, crude absolutism and mechanistic narrowness.’ 就是說，對這個問題的認識，不能停留在過去，必須認識把握它的新內涵。如果不是這樣看問題，就會犯片面性、絕對化、機械論錯誤。
[Note: These quotations are taken from Qu Qingshan, ‘Towards a More Profound Appreciation of the New Phase of Development’ 曲青山, ‘深刻理解新發展階段’,《求是》2022/17 (1 September 2022).]
On the eve of the Twentieth Party Congress, People’s Daily also addressed the issue of the ‘New Phase of Development’ observing that through the past decade:
General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken a coordinated approach both to domestic and international matters making in the process a series of strategic judgments. In the process, [as Xi Jinping has said] ‘China’s economy has advanced from a stage of high-speed growth to one of high-quality development. The developmental model is undergoing a critical transformation which its development model, optimising the economic structure, and transforming the driving force for growth’. Moreover, ‘the situation both at home and abroad are experiencing profound and complex changes even as China’s development enjoys a period of important strategic opportunities’. [Xi Jinping has also said that] ‘Based on the New Phase of Development, the implementation of a New Development Concept along with the application of a New Development Pattern and by means of the promotion of high-quality development all become tasks to which the whole Party and the whole country must pay close attention, both now and in the future’…
— from 杜海濤 劉志強 吳秋余 歐陽潔, 高質量發展邁出堅實步伐,《 人民日報 》, 2022年10月12日
As we observed in The Pirouette of Time:
Under Xi Jinping the socialist future of the Mao era that was relegated to the past by the launching of the 1978 era of Reform and Openness has in part been restored. The timeline to that future, one that enfolds all previous eras of the Communist Party has (for the moment) been fixed; significant milestones are laid out for 2020, 2025, 2035 and 2049. The party-state’s progress towards achieving its China Dream of wealth, power, socialist democracy and social quiescence will be measured by clocking up particular statistics and reaching targets calibrated by reams of performance indicators.
Advising For & Against
The Chinese language has built up a rich and varied vocabulary for how to advise the throne. 諫 jiàn is an ancient term describing the act of underlings or supplicants offering advice or suggestions to those in power. 諫 jiàn as both an expression and an action remains resonant in and relevant to contemporary Chinese politics. Advisers both within and outside the charmed circles of influence are forever hoping to ‘present advice’ 進諫 jìn jiàn. Influential viziers offer verbal advice, background briefings and guidance in secret, others formulate their ideas in writing. These may be cautionary 規勸 critical 上書 or pointed 諍諫. As we observed earlier (see ‘Advising the Centre’ in Part II of Silly Season), they are for the most part modern-day versions of memorials 奏摺.
Below, after reviewing some of the advice offered to the ruler in the 2010-2012 period of transition, we offer two contrasting works circulated online in the prelude to the Twentieth Party Congress. The first is by a noted economist and the second by an anonymous petitioner. These two works are provocative samples from the Chinese ether.
‘Theoretical Innovation in Economics’ by the noted agriculture economist Wen Tiejun (温铁軍, 1951-) which circulated widely in China during September 2022, was one of the more public attempts by a rogue Party thinker to add lustre to Xi Jinping’s theory of a New Phase of Development.
It was the kind of exposition common in the traditions both of socialist and dynastic China, one in which a writer attempts to catch the eye of the authorities through a provocation accompanied by a useful catch phrase or new formulation. In this case, it is the term ‘People’s Economics’. Nonsensical though Wen’s back-of-the-envelope proposal may appear to be, it both aligns with ideas favoured by Xi Jinping and the kinds of lunar-left historical discussions promoted by the Institute for Chinese Historical Research 中國歷史研究院, a quasi-academic organisation founded in 2019.
[Note: See the rumination by Hu Xijin 胡錫進, a famous pro-patria propagandist, on the work of the comrades at the Institute for Chinese Historical Research.]
Radically revisionist, voluntarist and utopian, Wen’s proposal aligns with the rhetoric of hardline decoupling. It also feeds into ideas that challenge ways in which the theory of ‘the preliminary stage of socialism’ has been pursued. This would have profound real-world ramifications. Wen Tiejun’s revolutionary romanticism cleaves to ideas that date back to the Yan’an era, and even earlier, and it has to do with the unresolved nature of the economic reforms and political stagnation. His nostalgic communalism also recalls such boutique experiments as the Nanjie model 南街 of the 1990s. Other models, such as the narodnik communes and rural experiments of the 1920s and 1930s may offer more useful ideas. Connoisseurs of Neo Confucianism will find of particular interest the concluding paragraphs in which the writer recasts the famous ‘Teaching in Four Sentences’ of Zhang Hengqu 橫渠四句, the eleventh-century Confucian thinker quoted in recent year by people as different as former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and the Odessa-based dissenter Wang Jixian:
Nurture a heart that can embrace both Heaven and Earth;
Devote yourself to the betterment of all;
Inherit the teachings of sages past lost to the present; and,
Contribute thereby to an ever-lasting peace.’
[Note: see Wang Jixian: A Voice from The Other China, but in Odessa, 12 March 2022; and, I’ve Forgotten How to Kneel in Front of You, 21 March 2022.]
Below we offer Wen’s outline of his theory followed by a poetic meditation inspired by his thoughts by Cui Shizhong 崔示忠. This is followed by a trenchant rejection of Wen’s “People’s Economics” by Xiang Songzuo (向松祚, 1965) another academic economist who, like Wen, also works at Renmin University.
Following the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party
Let’s Prepare for a Major Theoretical Innovation in the Field of Economics
Wen Tiejun and Cui Shizhong
We will make major strides in moving beyond our present socialist market economic order to enter an era in which People’s Economics will dominate.
On the eve of the convening of the Twentieth Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party we can expect a major innovative theoretical leap as well as a profound policy realignment in the sphere of unique Chinese-style economics. This will be People’s Economics.
People’s Economics will offer a further demonstration of the laws of socialist economics. From the 1990s, the key debate among Chinese economists revolved around the question of whether China should continue to pursue a planned economy or whether it should predominantly implement a market economy. Over time this was resolved by creating a hybrid model that is described as ‘China’s socialist market economy’.
People’s Economics has four main features: autonomy, localism, comprehensiveness and the fact that it is people-centered. People’s Economics offers an economic order that is essentially patriotic; such an economy will vouchsafe the nation’s sovereignty while allowing for our ongoing autonomous growth.
Chinese economists should focus their research and discussions on People’s Economics.
People’s Economics is a leading global trend that is replacing market economics.
[The poet Cui Shizhong has described the essence of People’s Economics in the following way:]
If the world is to be transformed first it is necessary to inspire the People. To inspire the people one must touch their hearts and to touch their hearts you must pursue a Truth grounded in an understanding of profound moral principles.
People’s Economic science has proven to have mass appeal and it demands a policy responses. People’s heart-minds are aligned with natural forces which are the origin of all things. The awoken people share the same will and desires; they hold dear the original aims of the revolution and their collective dream is to see those aims realised.
Natural forces and popular sentiment align. Once the people are organised they can aim for great things. People’s Economics is the ultimate expression of the wisdom of our great sage-thinkers. For universal peace to reign we must navigate the world on the Aircraft carrier of Good Fortune. The West might have its Noah’s Ark, in the East we have the Carrier of Good Fortune. It will carry the people of the world to the shores of prosperity, awareness, and peace — that is to Communism.
Thereby we can reach the Other Shore [a Buddhist term for salvation or nirvana] and the Way is People’s Economics.
由”社會主義市場經濟”轉入社會主義”人民經濟”的重大跨越。二十大召開在即，中國將迎來重大理論創新和政策轉軌— — 中國範式經濟學：人民經濟學，揭示了社會主義本質規律，20世紀 90年代之後，圍繞中國應該實行計，划經濟還是市場經濟，中國的經濟學界產生了巨大的爭論，最終，中國選擇了社會主義市場經濟。
幸福航母將渡全世界人民到達幸福、 覺悟、 和平的人類理想彼岸——共產主義社會。幸福航母渡彼岸，人民經濟正乾坤。
- 洪灝, 文鐵軍與人民經濟，推特， 2022年9月27日
- 【404文庫】長平講談｜向松祚反駁溫鐵軍, 《中國數字時代》，2022年9月27日
- 溫鐵軍，共同富裕的在地化經濟基礎與微觀發展主體， 《鄉村建設研究》
- 黄春梅，溫鐵軍「人民經濟」成顯學 中國要走回計劃經濟老路？，RFA， 2022年10月4日
- 高鋒, 中共二十大報道：「人民經濟」論引發對二十大後經濟左轉的擔憂， VOA， 2022年10月6日
- 崔士忠, 鷓鴣天·幸福航母, 2022年5月7日
[Note: No mention was made of ‘People’s Economics’ in Xi Jinping’s keynote report to the Twentieth Party Congress on 16 October 2022. Instead, Xi said:
‘High-quality development is the primary task for the comprehensive construction of our modern socialist country. Development remains the Party’s top priority both in governing and rejuvenating China. Without a firm material and technological foundation, it will be impossible to build a powerful modern socialist country in an all-round way. Therefore, it is crucial to completely, accurately and comprehensively implement the New Development Concept, adhere to socialist market economic reforms, adhere to quality opening up to the outside world, and accelerate work on a New Development Pattern with the domestic cycle as the main body and the domestic and international dual cycles reinforcing each other.’
发展是党执政兴国的第一要务。没有坚实的物质技术基础， 就不可能全面建成社会主义现代化强国。必须完整、准确、 全面贯彻新发展理念，坚持社会主义市场经济改革方向， 坚持高水平对外开放，加快构建以国内大循环为主体、 国内国际双循环相互促进的新发展格局。 ]
On Wen Tiejun’s ‘People’s Economics’
27 September 2022
The noted economist Wen Tiejun’s irrational rantings have become so absurd that he’s ended up abandoning common sense and basic logic entirely. In his muddled view we should abandon the Economic Reform and Open Door policies entirely since ‘Big and Publicly-owned’ is best [一大二公, a reference to the Great Leap Forward policies promoted when creating People’s Communes which were seen by Mao as being an ideal economic formation since they were both massive in scale and entirely controlled by the ‘people’s state’]. According to Wen’s logic, foreign businesses should be thrown out of China and joint-ventures cancelled. He would claim that the pursuit of profit in any way does not conform to his People’s Economics. When he advocates ‘economic autonomy’ isn’t that just another way of calling for an economy that is cut off from the outside world? Isn’t that a complete negation of the role of foreign companies and joint ventures?
When Wen Tiejun talks about ‘localism’ he’s actually advancing a view that we should imprison ourselves economically and rely entirely on being self-sufficient. His so-called ‘comprehensiveness’ is actually in favour of making the state-owned enterprise sector even more dominant in China’s economy. His ‘people-orientation’ is just another way of talking about a return to state ownership of the means of production and massive state domination [of a kind that crippled the economy and left the nation destitute in the Mao era].
Our nation experimented with all of that [for over two decades] and we paid a profound and agonising price for it all. It foisted on us an economic model that reduced the majority of Chinese to poverty in a country that was little more than an economic backwater. The Reform and Open Door policies of the last four decades have transformed the country. Wen’s nonsensical People’s Economics is a negation of those policies and he has formulated a series of bizarre and ridiculously new expressions in an attempt to bamboozle people into taking his garbage seriously.
There are numerous economies, both national and regional, that are trade-oriented and open to foreign investment. Being fully integrated with the global economy does not mean abandoning national autonomy or security. To suggest otherwise is absurd. For the past four decades, China’s policies have favored economic integration and foreign investment and, along with modern management practices and the contributions of talented economic thinkers, business people and government officials have made China one of the largest economies in the world, as well as a leader in global development. Has our sovereignty or standing been seriously threatened thereby? Since China has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth the opposite is true.
History has proven time and again that closed economies and nations that shun the world result in economic backwardness and military weakness, not to mention mass poverty. The overall effect of such an approach is the loss both of national strength and the profound depletion of national dignity, things that can end up resulting in systemic collapse. This Wen Tiejun character is a professor [at People’s University — a hotbed of radical boosterism] yet he obviously doesn’t have a clue about such basic historical facts. What crazy logic is inspiring him to spout his garbage?
Wen Tiejun’s proposals reflect a complete ignorance of world history and developmental reality. He is willfully rejecting what China has learned over the course of four decades. Moreover, his proposals constitute a rejection of fundamental national policies that favour China’s ongoing economic transformation. Wen Tiejun’s ‘People’s Economics’ is a sham that, in the name of supporting the People willfully misleads and confuses people. It will be calamitous!
I sincerely hope that Wen Tiejun will recant and find in himself the kind of professional conscience and basic learning that should be required of any academic in his position.
In Defense of Wen Tiejun
Professor Wen Tiejun’s recent advocacy of People’s Economics has sent ripples throughout China. It has also elicited a fusillade of abuse from the representatives of mainstream economists like Xiang Songzuo, Ma Guangyuang and Ren Taoping. In their opinion, Wen Tiejun is a specialist in agricultural policy who has no economic bona fides. They say his ideas are little more than gibberish that reflects his ignorance of modern economic realities. They boastfully claim that their ideas represent the forward march of economic development and they behave as though the economic future of humanity is in their hands. They dismiss the very notion of People’s Economics in the most high-handed manner and declare that People’s Economics is a fundamental negation of the market. They defame Wen Tiejun and even accuse him of pursuing harmful populist ideas that dangerously mislead the people. According to them, Wen is a serious threat and they will only be happy when he has been silenced. Meanwhile, people in the middle and lower echelons of Chinese society welcome People’s Economics. They yearn for a future of shared prosperity!
— from 天眸, 駁《人民經濟何以還魂》, 2022年10月11日
It is easy to deride Wen Tiejun’s revanchist High Maoism and critics like the economist Xiang Songzuo did so in a mood of spirited high dudgeon. The urgency of Xiang’s critique reflects a profound unease among liberal economists in China about the future direction of official policy. Wen’s nod in the direction of ‘shared prosperity’, a policy setting supported by Xi Jinping, reflects a profound issue that lies at the heart of the Party’s rule. Having survived three decades of murderous mismanagement (1953-1978) as well as nearly four decades of prosperous, if uneven, market-led growth, the Party’s model of extractive socialism with Chinese characteristics will have to be recalibrated in response to a raft of realities: the desperate need for greater social equity, the challenges resulting from the depletion of resources, increasingly limited expectations among the young and the working population, decreased market share over time, circumscribed development potential and even managed de-growth. From the time that it came to dominate China’s political scene after 1949, the Party has eliminated the once-flourishing political alternatives of the 1930s and 1940s. Time and again it has also outlawed political debate. What remains is a bifurcated policy landscape of reform vs reaction. Neither approach may be ideally suited to the future since one cleaves to a re-imagined yet still clunky Stalinism and the other promotes a deeply troubled form of consumerism and global capitalism.
In the spirit of celebrating the Twentieth Party Congress, here we offer a few more words from Ren Zhongping’s September 2022 encomium for Xi Jinping:
The banner of his thought guides our onward journey. The righteous path of humankind opens before us. Our grand enterprise has weathered countless storms over the last century as the China Race moves towards its great renaissance. New nourishment is drawn from our ancient spiritual culture. When contemplating the future of humanity as he stands in front of the world map Xi Jinping has proven himself to be a great Marxist politician, thinker and strategist, one who is possessed of superlative theoretical courage, outstanding political wisdom and a profound sense of mission. He has responded to the major pressing issues of the age. He has formulated new ideas, thought and strategic responses with marvellous creativity. He offers us the ideological guidance for us to be able to bring about the Great Renaissance of the China Race. He is our Compass.
What could possibly go wrong?
Time’s Up, Chairman Xi!
‘Were the ruler to make an error, such ministers would remonstrate with him, and if their repeated remonstrances were ignored, they would quit their office.’
— Mencius X.ix 《孟子·萬章下》
trans. Duncan M. Campell
Congresses of the Chinese Communist Party are bullish affairs. They lavish praise on past performance and present enthusiastic visions for the future. During the Xi Jinping decade, Party gatherings have also elicited warnings about troubles ahead and pleas for the monomaniacal leader to quit while they are ahead.
It is exactly sixty years since Mao Zedong was forced aside at the Conference of Seven Thousand Cadres in 1962. His retreat from power, or ‘taking a back seat’ 退居二線 as it was euphemistically put at the time, resulted from his ruinous Great Leap policies. From the moment he stepped back, however, Mao was consumed by revenge and he regained control in 1966 by means of an autogolpe. His successors would spend years leading a recovery from what amounted to two decades of egregious policy disasters. Their failure, or rather refusal, to pursue fundamental systemic reform of party-state authoritarianism, however, eventually enabled the rise of Xi Jinping and his revisionist rule. Xi has been further emboldened by substantive intra-party opposition.
In September 2022, at the same time that Wen Tiejun was promoting his ‘People’s Economics’, an anonymous petition titled ‘An Appeal for You to Resign’ 勸退請願書 circulated online. A call for Xi to leave power gracefully the petition also outlined some of the policy failures that had featured in earlier protests. See, for example:
- Xu Zhiyong 許志永, Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go, ChinaFile, 26 February 2020
- Ren Zhiqiang 任志强, The Naked Clown who would be Emperor 剝光衣服堅持當皇帝的小丑, Matters, 1 April 2020
- Requiem for an Autocrat — Fang Zhou on Xi Jinping’s End of Days, 10 February 2022
From the Eighteenth Party Congress [in November 2012, the former Party General Secretary] Hu Jintao magnanimously ceded all of his positions and handed control over the party-state-army to you holus-bolus. At the time you were moved enough by Mr Hu’s gesture to praise him for his ‘outstanding political virtue’. Well, why can’t you demonstrate a similar political probity this time around?
The whole world has got wind of just what kind of smelly farts had been building up in that paunch of yours the moment you pushed through the revision of the Chinese Constitution [in early 2017, allowing for a state leader to serve more than two consecutive terms in office]. It is an unspoken rule within the Party’s Politburo that leaders should retire before they reach their sixty-eighth year, not to mention the end of their term in power. Since you criticise others for not following guidelines set down by the Party, why don’t you take a good look at yourself? By promoting a cult of personality you are in flagrant breach of the Party Constitution.
You have been quick to criticise people for forming factions and cliques but you have made a practice of appointing your own favourites; you have surrounded yourself with your own gang; and, you have been more than willing to reward shameless sycophants with positions of power. Take a good look at your ‘Zhejiang Army’, your Fujian Faction and your Shaanxi Clique, not to mention the old buddies and classmates who’ve enjoyed favour during your tenure. How many members of this mob of toadies really have the ability to serve the nation meaningfully or really have sufficient talent to be appointed to lofty office?
The ancient classic I Ching says:
‘Disaster attends upon those whose personal virtue does not match their office. If their ambition exceeds their intelligence, if their abilities are meagre and their responsibilities weighty, no good can possibly come of it.’
The ancient philosophers could see far into the future and these lines from I Ching suit you to a T.
So, Chairman Xi, please retire on schedule.
Our land boasts talents aplenty: let someone younger, more talented and energetic lead our nation. Let them realise that ‘grand dream’ about revitalising China that you have been rabbiting on about. Let’s face it, you know full well that you lack the intellectual acumen and moral fibre to lead the country. You got to where you are due to a confluence of circumstances. You are the upshot of political calculations made by [former Party General Secretary] Jiang Zemin and [his powerful offsider] Zeng Qinghong. They thought your intellectual deficiencies meant that you would be relatively pliable. By now they’ve got just what they deserve for underestimating you. However, if you are determined to stick it out no matter what, you too will get your comeuppance. You might hold sway for a time, but in the long run you’ll come to no good end. You might well even court disaster for your family.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
Ancient Oligarchs and Modern Autocrats
In his review of Matthew Simonton’s Classical Greek Oligarchy (Princeton, 2017), Ganesh Sitaraman makes an observation about the ancient oligarchs of Athens that could well apply to the contemporary autocrats in Beijing:
One of the primary threats to oligarchy was that the oligarchs would become divided, and that one from their number would defect, take leadership of the people, and overthrow the oligarchy.
To prevent this occurrence, ancient Greek elites developed institutions and practices to keep themselves united. Among other things, they passed sumptuary laws, preventing extravagant displays of their wealth that might spark jealousy, and they used the secret ballot and consensus building practices to ensure that decisions didn’t lead to greater conflict within their cadre.
… Ruling oligarchies like the mafia are collective and armed.
If oligarchy works because its leaders institutionalize their power through law, media, and political rituals, what is to be done? How can democracy ever gain the upper hand? … political power depends on economic power. This suggests that one solution is creating a more economically equal society.
The problem, of course, is that if the oligarchs are in charge, it isn’t clear why they would pass policies that would reduce their wealth and make society more equal. As long as they can keep the people divided, they have little to fear from the occasional pitchfork or protest.
Studying the oligarchies of the past may well help us appreciate better Xi Jinping’s Era of Discipline. (As well-connected friends have remarked about the rather dour and uncharismatic bureaucrat-in-chief, he might have limited talents but he is stern, demanding of himself and he makes everyone very afraid.)
— from The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017
Gaming It Out
Speculation surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress at the height of China’s 2022 political silly season — August to November 2022 — invariably leads to a period of ‘gaming it out’ following the congress itself. This is the moment when prognosticators, regardless of their pre-Congress predictions, pirouette to share their analytical insights about what had just happened while confabulating scenarios for the next five years of Chinese political life.
All of the key issues are revisited in light of what is revealed as a result of the Congress itself — via formal press briefings, the official communique, Xi Jinping’s report to his comrades, the revised Party Constitution, media data points and editorial commentary. This will be followed by yet another round of fawning effusions from Party leaders, be they in Beijing, in first tier cities or scattered in far flung provinces. With the end of this congress, eyes will be on the next date in the political calendar and new rounds of political speculation, gamesmanship and influence buying will be in full swing.
Outside China, hot, quick and fresh takes will proliferate, media outlets will be clogged with sagacious summaries and olympian overviews. Knowing analyses and pompous declarations will compete with thoughtful dissections as well as phlegmatic pronouncements vying for eyes, hearts and minds.
Itinerant opinionators will hit the road (all expenses paid and speaking-fee inclusive) to share the breathless insights they have gleaned by digesting and aggregating a wide range of views from the punditariat. Academics will take to lecterns (or Zoom calls) to pontificate, and specialists in all fields will bloviate away while think-tankers, journalists, op-ed writers and the full phalanx of analysts strain to prove their post-congress worth. Maybe this time around someone might even be keeping score or will the wags at MacroPolo design an interactive sweepstakes webpage — ‘The China Experts’, say — to complement ‘The Selectorate — Fantasy Football for China Nerds’? The international elucubrations will have marginally more substance than those of somnambulant mainland savants who have no choice but to regurgitate official talking points.
As members of the ‘reality-based community’, the Sino-salesmen bring to mind that famous passage by Ron Suskind who, in 2004, quoted an unnamed senior official in the administration of US President George W. Bush:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
— from Ron Suskind. Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, New York Magazine, 17 October 2004
The Communist Party of Xi Jinping would have us believe that it creates its own reality. It is too early to say whether its imperial ambitions will prove to be any more successful than those of America’s neocons. In terms of competitive hubris, however, they certainly are in the same league.
In the Mytho-Poetic Realm of Xi Jinping
As Part I of China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season featured the opening paragraphs of Ren Zhongping’s essay ‘Seizing the Historical Initiative, Focussing Awesome Power in Forging Ahead’, it seems only fitting for us to conclude our meditation with the closing paragraphs of that tedious 13,000-character encomium. As we observed in the bombast and hyperbole of official panegyrics for Xi in Part I, over-statement underpins what Susan Shirk has identified as Xi’s era of over-reach. The brash Maoist youth has grown old and powerful. Just as this generational cohort, led by Xi Jinping, reaches the apogee of power, so they advance towards senescence. But, behold, Ren Zhongping trumpets:
The effulgent rays of [Xi Jinping] Thought illuminate the path of ceaseless struggle that lies before us. The dazzling torch of [Xi Jinping] Thought lights up the way leading towards our national revitalisation …
Just as our past is a brilliant tapestry, so too is the future that starts tomorrow — one that calls us to ever greater exertions. As the Party General Secretary has emphatically stated:
‘The Twentieth Party Congress that is about to convene is a meeting of crucial importance for the continued pursuit of our socialist cause. It will highlight our aims and policies covering the next five years and more with scientific specificity. It is a meeting that is of crucial importance for the future both of the Party and the State; it is of crucial importance for our Socialist Destiny; it is of crucial importance for the Renaissance of our China Race.’
Emboldened by these words we advance brimming with historical self-confidence as well as with an unwavering historical determination to strive and to achieve. It is through concrete actions that we celebrate the convening of the Twentieth Party Congress and thereby we write ever new chapters in the story of how China is building modern socialism.
— 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)
[Note: For even more from Ren Zhongping on the eve of the Twentieth Congress, see 任仲平，十年砥礪奮進 繪寫壯美畫卷——寫在黨的二十大勝利召開之際，人民日報，2022年10月14日]
This rhetorical paroxysm builds on the hallowed tradition of New China Newspeak. Its histrionic metaphors resonate with the magniloquence of the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution, but it should be remembered that they are also not all that far from the purple Party prose of the Deng-Jiang-Hu eras.
As we have argued from the early days of the Xi Jinping New Era decade, the Chairman of Everything’s rule is not so much a deviation from that of his predecessors, or even necessarily a substantive and radical reversal. Rather it is a continuation of the ways and means by which the Party manages the dialectal contradictions that have festered in the heart of its reformist agenda from the late 1970s (see, for example, Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold, China Heritage, 13 July 2021).
Ren Zhongping’s hyperventilating prose is an expression of ‘revolutionary romanticism’ 革命浪漫主義, a style of agit-prop that, like the syncretic ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ discussed above, interweaves Marxist-Stalinist-Maoism with reform-era ideas that are further married to modern managerialist palaver and Statist Confucian thought. Revolutionary romanticism is the main rhetorical vehicle for the expression of what we call China’s ‘mytho-poetic historical complex’, a behemoth funded by the party-state that delivers its multifaceted message nationwide via a state-funded propaganda, media and educational network policed by activists in Party cells and security organs at every level of the society.
[Note: For more on the China’s mytho-poetic realm in China Heritage, see, for example, Homo Xinensis Ascendant, 16 September 2018.]
The world, or ‘imaginary’, evoked by revolutionary romanticism has been built up over generations. It developed under the stewardship of Mao Zedong, a man who some observed was more poet than politician. Its temporal landscape, or what since 2008 has been called ‘The China Story’, was meticulously developed by Mao and Party thinkers from the 1930s. It offers the Chinese people a coherent narrative, a story with a recognisable beginning, middle and end. It is a story of struggle, resilience and victory. Its framework was developed in Mao’s own speeches and writings the officially promoted five volumes of which were arranged according to historical periods marking out the progress of the Chinese revolution as guided by him. From the 1940s, the arts — film, poetry, fiction, essays, theatre — filled out the story and constantly added lustre to it. The process has continued ever since. To focus exclusively on political speeches, formal occasions in in the life of the Party, and the analysis of Party pronouncements — these structures are the bones of The China Story — often means missing out on the ‘flesh and blood’ vitality of the narrative that evokes and constantly reinforces the imaginary of Chinese revolutionary romanticism. This all-consuming project has long insinuated itself into every aspect of, and heart-mind, in China.
In the 2020s, revolutionary romanticism is reinforced through education, the media, focussed propaganda campaigns, public service announcements, online culture and the arts. As persuasive and invasive as the creations of Disney’s ‘imagineers’ and Hollywood’s dream factory, revolutionary romanticism and China’s mytho-poetic historical complex is integral to the Communist Party’s dreamscape and the hive mind of the People’s Republic of China. For this reason, we have framed ‘China’s Political Silly Season’ with quotations from Ren Zhongping just as we have drawn on the poetry of Mao Zedong, the man who was the beguiling and murderous demiurge of twentieth-century China’s revolutionary romantics.
I began this meditation on the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s 2022 political silly season by recalling the Ninth Party Congress of 1969. Born of a coup and a stage-managed civil war, the ‘Big Nine’ was supposed to mark the personal triumph of Mao Zedong and the unalloyed victory of Mao Zedong Thought. Instead, it was the beginning of the end of Mao’s reign.
‘Changsha’ is one of the Chairman’s most famous poems. Written in 1925, it was not made public until 1957. It is still frequently quoted in official speeches, the Party media and official commentaries, as well as in counter-cultural works that lampoon the party-state. Once emblazoned on walls and billboards throughout the country, ‘Changsha’ remains an expression of the vaunting political ambition and solitary heroic tasks of the revolutionary romantic. Daresay Xi Jinping, like so many members of his generation, knows the poem by heart:
— a ci-lyric written to the tune of Qin yuan chun
Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide in the limpid deep;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this boundless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Directing China’s mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And waves stayed the speeding boats?
— modified official translation
End of Part III
China’s Highly Consequential Political Silly Season:
At the Congress: