Watch Xi Jinping Slowly Strangle the Dengist Economic Paradigm

Mr. Zhao Ziyang
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Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:  

[New legislation] would also incorporate “advancing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts” through “a Chinese path to modernization,” a development model touted by Xi at the party congress in October.

Earlier drafts had deleted “reform and opening to the outside world” and “taking economic development [经济建设] as the central task” from this section, but they were brought back in the current version. The about-face may have been spurred by a backlash from within the party amid concern that economic legislation could become less of a priority.1


Tsukasa Hadano, “China weighs ’emergency’ fast-track for laws as Taiwan tensions mount,Nikkei Asia, 9 March 2023.

This is important. To grasp the significance of what is happening here, we have to rewind to the 1980s. This is when the phrase “take economic construction as the central task” [以经济建设为中心] was first introduced to the Communist lexicon. Phrases like these are extremely important to Communist Party politics and policy. Governing a party with more than 90 million members presents a dizzying coordination program. One way in which the Center manages this challenge is through the promulgation of slogans—also known by their Chinese term, tifa [提法]. The goal of a slogan is to package leadership priorities, strategic assessments, historical judgments, and policy programs in a phrase small enough to circulate throughout propaganda system. The ideal tifa is vague enough for cadres to easily adapt to their own sphere of responsibility but specific enough unify the work priorities of millions of party cadres and state bureaucrats.  

Historically the role tifa play in governing China has made these slogans a central battleground for political competition. Many slogans do not just signal policy priorities, but loyalty to particular factions or patronage networks. From the outside it can be difficult to discern whether shifting slogans represent the victory of an idea or of a faction.2


See, for example, Joseph Torigian, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), pp. 136-193; a summary of this point can be found in Andrew Batson, “It Only Looks Like Ideology From the Outside,” The Tangled Woof (11 October 2022).

These victories are not necessarily mutually contradictory. The phrase “economic construction is the central task” is an interesting case in point. It was first introduced in Zhao Ziyang’s 1987 political work report to the 13th Congress. The Congress was a watershed in CPC history: during this Congress Deng Xiaoping successfully forced the Long March generation out of the Politburo and Central Committee. 42% of the new Central Committee members were first timers to the body.3 The new slogan was designed both to signal that victory and to shape the work priorities of lower level cadres. The dual nature of the slogan is made clear by its full formulation:


Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 215-220.

The basic line of Communist Party of China in the primary stage of socialism is to lead and unify all ethnic groups and people across the entire country by taking economic construction as the center task, upholding the Four Cardinal Principles, and upholding Reform and Development.

中国共产党在社会主义初级阶段的基本路线是:领导和团结全国各族人民, 以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放。

The “Four Cardinal Principles” refer to set of principles (“keep to the path of socialism, uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship, uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and to uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought“) introduced early in the Deng era to placate party leaders worried that China might embrace “bourgeois liberalization” if the Party moved too quickly or too far from its Maoist roots. Zhao’s formulation of the Party’s basic line endorses these principles—but subordinates them, and the old guard who clung to them, to the imperatives of economic growth.

In the aftermath of the Tienanmen Square Massacre and the disgrace of Zhao Ziyang, the old guard launched a campaign to dethrone the slogan and regain their lost authority. In contrast to Zhao’s “theory of one center and two upholds” they endorsed a “theory of two centers,” arguing that the Party had two central tasks before it: pursuing economic construction and preserving the Four Cardinal Principles. This would elevate the fight against “peaceful evolution” to equal status with economic growth.

For a brief period between 1990 and 1992 the Party was divided internally on this question, with the aging Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun respectively championing the two opposing basic lines. Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” mobilized support for the first slogan; in the months that followed a preference cascade among the leadership led almost all of China’s senior leaders to get behind Deng’s line. The National People’s Congress meeting of 1992 crowned Deng’s victory; the legislators not only endorsed “economic construction as the central task,” but declared it should be enshrined in party documents for at least 100 years.4


ibid., 348.

Jiang Zemin would describe the practical implications of this victory—a victory bound up in his own ascension to power—in these terms:

We have no choice but to make economic construction the central task of the entire Party and the whole country. All other work is subordinated to and serves this task. Only by firmly grasping this principal contradiction and the central task can we observe and control all social contradictions and effectively promote their resolution with clear-sightedness. Development is the absolute principle. The key to the solution of all China’s problems lies in our own development.



Jiang Zemin 江泽民, “Jiang Zemin Zai Zhongguo Gongchandang Dishiwu Ci Quanguo Daibiao Dahui Shang de Baogao 江泽民在中国共产党第十五次全国代表大会上的报告 [Jiang Zemin’s Political Report to the 15th Congress]“, Gonghandangyuan Wang 共产党员网 [Communist Party Members Online], originally delivered 12 September 1997, accessed 11 march 2023.

This has been the basic line of the Communist Party of China in the 21st century. In the thirty years between 1992 and 2022 every single Party Congress endorsed the one center and two upholds; they are placed prominently in every political report given by a General Secretary and every Party Constitution published in those years. “The solution to all of China’s problems lies in development” was the Party’s consensus position—until now. Three decades into what was supposed to be a century of economic construction the basic line is once again up for debate.


Important context for this change is provided by a recent—and in my opinion methodologically brilliant—research article by Howard Wang. 6Wang does not focus on the “economic construction as central task” line but a series of related slogans devised to clarify the relationship between development and security. As Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin declared that the country must “strengthen national defense while focusing on economic development” [国家 在集中力量进行经济建设的同时, 加强国防建设] and “place development as the first priority in the governance and national rejuvenation” [持把发展作为党执 政兴国的第一要务]. Wang further traces how Hu Jintao repeated these same phrases in his various addresses and reports.

Xi Jinping was different. As Wang explains it:

General Secretary Xi advocated for the pivot from ‘development-first’ to the integrated development-security approach in three landmark speeches given in 2014. First, after introducing the overall national security concept at the inaugural meeting of China’s Central National Security Commission, Xi equated the pursuit of economic development with the pursuit of security, asserting that ‘development is the foundation of security, and security is the prerequisite for development’ (发 展是安全的基础, 安全是发展的条件). He reiterated his position the following month in a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, where he asserted that a sustainable Asian security ‘must place equal importance on development and security’ (可持续, 就是要发展和安全并重以实现持久安全). Third, General Secretary Xi’s speech at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs concluded his yearlong campaign by emphasizing that China must ‘take an integrated approach to the two major issues of development and security’ (统筹发展安全两件大事) to realize China’s national rejuvenation. In none of these speeches did General Secretary Xi appeal to Jiang’s legacy or the development-first formulation. Instead, Xi carried a consistent message across each speech: China should abandon its development-first approach and instead adopt an integrated approach giving equal weight to security and development.7


ibid., pp. 5-6.

But here is the catch: Xi’s three speeches did not immediately lead to the adoption of his framing of the development-security question. Xi called: the echo did not follow. The new formula was not adopted outside of the state security system, or when it was, as in certain Plenum communiques released in Xi’s first term, the new slogans were placed in documents that also included old ones. Xi himself retreated to older formulations in several addresses, such as during “the 95th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2016, where Xi proclaimed, ‘development is the Party’s top priority for China’s governance and national rejuvenation, and it holds the key to resolving all of China’s problems’ (发展是党执政兴国的第一要务, 是解决中国所有 问题的关键).”8


ibid., p.6.

Things did not really begin to change until Xi’s second term. There are two plausible explanations for this change: first, after 2017 the PRC faced a much more daunting international environment, as the Belt and Road fell apart, politicians and public opinion in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union took a sharply negative turn against Beijing, and the United States labeled the PRC a strategic competitor and threw itself into a trade war with China. This is Wang’s preferred explanation.

An alternative account might instead pin the change on Xi’s growing power. In contrast to the way power works in most democracies, where the influence of a leader diminishes the more time has passed since election day, in the Chinese party-state leaders accrue greater power the longer they wield it. Each year in charge means one more year to fill the ranks with your men. The 2017 Party Congress tipped the scales of the upper personnel heavily in Xi’s favor: he began his second term with far greater freedom of action than his first.9


See Joseph Fewsmith, Rethinking Chinese Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021) for a capable review of both the nature of power and personnel selection in the Chinese system and Xi Jinping’s mastery of the game.

Either way, the results were the same. Wang traces the slowly growing influence of Xi’s conception of the security-development relationship as leaders and mouthpieces of various bureaucracies began to endorse Xi’s slogans. The 19th Congress’ fifth plenum—which inserted language on “the integration of development and security [统筹发展安全]” into the 14th Five Year Plan—seems to mark the tipping point. Before this moment Xi’s formulations on development and security were useful guidance; afterwards, they have been treated as party orthodoxy.    

Figure 1 from Howard Wang, “Security Is a Prerequisite for Development’: Consensus-Building Toward a New Top Priority in the Chinese Communist Party,Journal of Contemporary China, 7 August 2022, p. 10.

One lesson to draw from Wang’s account is that replacing one set of tifa with another is no overnight task. The struggle over terminology can takes years to unfold, as the proponents of new terms search for forums to float their ideas, identify and isolate personnel who stand in their way, and slowly build support for their sloganeering in one bureaucratic body after another. From this perspective the failed attempt to pass legislation amending the Party’s “central task” is less a definitive defeat than an opening gambit.


A separate tifa shift, this one in the sphere of foreign policy, informs my pessimism. This is the recent fate of the terms “important period of strategic opportunity” [重要战略机遇期] and “peace and development are the theme of the times” [和平与发展是时代主题].

This week Al Arabiya published a column I wrote for them summarizing the origins of these slogans and the significance of their demise. I write:

Deng Xiaoping’s reform program flowed from this sort of historical judgement; to entrench his favored policies, Deng famously declared that “the theme of the times” was no longer war or revolution, but “peace and development.” Deng understood that many elements of Maoist policy—the decision to concentrate industrial development in China’s mountainous hinterlands, diplomatic estrangement from the wider world, revolutionary agitation both at home and abroad—flowed from Mao’s conviction that the Party “had to take the possibility of coming under attack as the starting point of all work.” To reform the socialist economy and open China up to the world, Deng had to reverse Mao’s assessment. A world trending towards peaceful integration was the only world in which China could afford for security policy to take back seat to economic development.

Deng’s verdict on the trajectory of global politics soon solidified into an official slogan. Variations of this slogan were repeated at the podium of every Party Congress between 1987 and 2017. Party leaders trotted out an even more fulsome riff on the peace-and-development theme shortly after China joined the WTO, when Jiang Zemin declared that “for our country the first two decades of the 21st century are a period of important strategic opportunities, which we must seize tightly and which offer bright prospects.”

Like Deng’s statement, Jiang’s formulation was repeated verbatim by two generations of CPC secretaries, PLA generals, and state diplomats. This “period of strategic opportunity” phrasing served as a short-hand for a much broader judgement: Globalization was not only an inevitable historical force, the Party maintained, but a force that would propel China’s emergence as a great power while at the same time tempering opposition to its rise. In this period neither military force nor ideological power would yield great returns; the currency of the “period of strategic opportunity” was simply currency itself….

The most recent political report was the first since 1987 that did not label “peace and development” the theme of the times. The phrase “period of strategic opportunity” was also missing.

Xi replaced the old judgements with a darker assessment of humanity’s historical trajectory. He told his fellow party members that:

“Our country has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising… We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.”

The wording of Xi’s formulation was carefully chosen. He does not endorse the old Maoist view that revolution and war were defining and inevitable features of China’s position in world politics. He does suggest, however, that in this new era the security of Communist rule faces perilous challenges.

In Xi’s thought, the Party faces both hidden risks and open dangers. The threat they pose is serious enough to derail China’s return to greatness. In face of these hazards, the strategy the Communist Party of China used to secure its rule at home and achieve its objectives abroad in the period of opportunity is no longer sufficient. China must prepare itself for an insecure future.10


Tanner Greer, “China’s peaceful slogans are replaced by dark thoughts,” Al Arabiya News, 3 march 2023.

Readers here are encouraged to read the entire piece (the first in a series of four I am writing for Al Arabiya). I advise nerds seeking a deeper cut to read Brock Erdhal and David Gitter’s report on these terms for the Center for Advanced China Research, which examines in greater depth the history of these paired tifa and the exact moment when senior leaders in the Party decided to move away from them.11


Brock Erdhal and Daid Gitter, “China’s Uncertain Times and Fading Opportunities,” CACR Occasional Report (Washington DC: Center for Advanced China Research, 2022).

It is interesting to note that of the five slogans at the center of this discussion—“take economic construction as the central task,” “development is the Party’s top priority for China’s governance and national rejuvenation,” “development is the key to resolving all of China’s problems,” “peace and development are the themes of the times,” and “important period of strategic opportunity”—it is the phrases associated with Deng Xiaoping that have proven most resilient. Xi Jinping was able to change language around “development is the Party’s top priority” and “period of strategic opportunity.” He has not presented a new “theme of the times.” Instead he has had to settle for letting that phrase melt into memory unaltered. He seems to have floated a new “central task” in his most recent Political Report (“From this moment forward, the central task of the Communist Party of China will be to lead and unify all ethnic groups and people across the entire country in a concerted effort to realize the Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization”), but he has not succeeded in knocking the old central task off of its pedestal.12


In Chinese, this is


The “lead and unify all ethnic groups and people across the entire country ” language explicitly echoes the opening of the older phrase on taking economic work as the central task. However, later in the Report Xi goes on to repeat that language verbatim, telling the Party that “We must continue to uphold the path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: Upholding taking economic development as our central task, uphold the Four Cardinal Principles, and uphold reform and opening up [坚持中国特色社会主义道路。坚持以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放].”

Howard Wang notes in his article several plenum communiques and speeches that contain both old phrases and new ones that seek to overthrow them; this could be what is happening here.

See “Xi Jinping: Gaoju Zhongguo Tese Shehuizhuyi Weida Qizhi Wei Quanmian Jianshe Shehuizhuyi Xiandaihua Guojia Er Tuanjie Zhandou — Zai Zhongguo Diershi Ci Quanguo Daibiao Dahui Shang De Baogao 习近平:高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜 为全面建设社会主义现代化国家而团结奋斗——在中国共产党第二十次全国代表大会上的报告,” Xinhua 新华社, 25 October 2022.

But it is still significant that he—or his agents—are trying at all. The Party is ready to declare that development must be balanced with security; it is prepared to state that the international environment no longer presents a period of opportunity for growth and development. The Party is not yet ready to walk back the central tenet of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Yet the fact that a formula once enshrined as the guiding principal for the next century of party life is now being debated suggests that we are moving quickly into a fundamentally new era. Powerful interests are attempting to reorient the Party away from wealth and the marketplace. Chinese leaders no longer have confidence that economic integration and economic development have the same historical power that they once did. In Xi’s new era, the Party must rely on different tools to build the world of their desires.

A final note: After reading Wang’s article I have directed Center for Strategic Translation staff and contractors to translate several pieces related to the “integrated security and development” phrase.  These will be published early in April. If you would like to read these when they are published, I encourage you to follow the CST Substack, which will send these translations directly to your inbox as soon as they are published.


Readers who found this post worth reading may find some of my other writing on the intellectual heritage of Chinese political terms to be of interest:  “Maoist Echoes,” “Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage,” ” “On China’s Enemies Within” are good starting points. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage Substack mailing listfollow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


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China GDP (under Deng) was ~10% of the US. Today, nominally it is 75%. Deng’s clothes don’t fit anymore.

What? China today has 75% of the GDP of the US and 400% of the population. And you think it’s run out of room to grow?

‘🇨🇳General Li Shangfu, who has been under US sanctions since 2018 for military cooperation with Russia, has been appointed Chinese Defense Minister.’ – from multiple Telegram channels, haven’t seen confirmation of this report in the likes of WSJ yet.

Belated thanks for that reply, Vingilótë. Chinese Defense Minister Gen Shangfu came to Moscow and saluted Putin a few weeks ago. India is buying record amounts of Russian crude, much of it to turn around and sell as refined product to Russian oil banning virtue-signaling but toothless EUrocrats. Quasi neutral fence sitter Sultan Erdogan appears to have ‘won’ his re election over the hyped pro-Western opposition, so status quo for Turks selling American taxpayers Kirpis for the Ukrainian Army while being the biggest parallel imports sanctions busters of Boeing and Airbus parts for Russian airlines around. So much for Russian isolation as even the Spectator admits the West thought too much of its own economic weight and indispensability for the Russians:

Now we see Zelensky in Rome with a quite large delegation and meeting the Pope, conveniently coinciding with high level US-China talks in Vienna. Hard to say yet whether there is any US-China quid pro quo being discussed. Combined Ukraine/NATO seem to have a few tricks up their sleeves in terms of air defense after their S300s and BUK stocks were exhausted leading to the Russians glide bombing the crap out of the Ukrainians’ near frontline ammo and fuel stocks. Perhaps NATO’s own organic air defense, considering the Alliance always expected to easily dominate the skies, isn’t an overhyped Raytheon stock boosting hypersonic Khinzal-intercepting fairy tale after all…Taiwan might want to order those AIM 120D ERs with 120km range if they can get any before 2029…

As was said of Otto von Bismarck with the Second Reich and Diocletian with the “Tetrarchy”, perhaps the only person who could make Dengist socialism with Red Chinese characteristics work was Deng.

Stage, my “seven body composition types of bicamerals” provides a far superior analysis of the body composition origins of politics than Ganz’s screed (and he isn’t even on the network). Liberal democracy is not the same as social democracy, and neither of these are the same as socialism (arch SocDem Frank Miller opposed Occupy Wall Street).

Flatbacks (and body compositonal Whites) tend to have single-color ideologies (socialism, liberalism, democracy). I’m not sure where true flatbacks (weak at both lifting and running) tend to gravitate.

As for me, I was by far the top runner in my high school (albeit with a backpack, which I should not advise -smaller ribcages are better, and weight should go in the front), and was probably the most racially (started reading Sailer back in 2014) and fiscally conservative student there -I had very weak shoulders and, outside of public speaking (at which I excelled), no real charisma. Naturally, I was also at the top of the class on AP English Language, though I barely scraped by in Calc AB (last in class, but still got a 5, as did 85% of the class).

Question: Xi Jinping has been quoted (in all the wire services, the wording must be coming from a press release) as calling for an improvement in “population quality” while “keeping up an appropriate birthrate and population size.” What the hell does he mean by “population quality”–just demographic structure? Han ethnicity, or something like that?

It occurs to me that China could solve its population problem by culling its elderly. They could call it the “great rejuvenation of China”!