Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity

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François Bougon’s book, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping is excellent. It is accessible to those who have but a cursory interest in China, yet does a better job of describing the actual motives and ideology of Xi Jinping than the vast majority of writing about the man in more wonkish publications. It is my new go-to recommendation for those who want to understand the priorities of the Communist Party of China.

My full review of the book should be coming out in a separate publication in a few weeks time.  This post should be considered more of a place-holder for public reference. One of the best aspects of Bougan’s book is the way he contextualizes Xi within the broader currents of contemporary Chinese society. Each chapter juxtaposes Xi’s words with the thoughts of prominent Chinese intellectuals, trends in popular culture, or broader campaigns by the Communist Party of China that parallel Xi’s personal obsessions. The two lengthy excerpts that I quote below are examples of this. Each deals with the communist elite’s conviction that they are engaged in an ideological struggle for survival with the West. Neither of these incidents have been treated especially well in the English before. This post thus serves as a public reference for these events that you can link to when you need to explain them quickly to others.

The first passage deals with the film In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:

In 2013, all over the country, Party members were invited to private viewings of a curious film. Not one of those big ‘Hollywood’ productions the Party had become keen on, such as The Founding of the Republic, which was released in 2009 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, featuring a cast of over 100 famous actors. Instead, this was a three-hour didactic documentary entitled In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Shot in early 2012, the film was devised by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the Research Centre for World Socialism of the Academy of Social Sciences. 

The film crew had travelled to Russia to interview witnesses, who happened mostly to be former Soviet Communist Party members. Oddly enough, they were all desperately nostalgic for the USSR’s lost greatness. In the film, a voice-over recites a ponderous political analysis tinged with a hint of paranoia, characteristic of authoritarian regimes. The original sin, it explains, can be traced back to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 25 February 1956, during which Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ before 1,430 delegates. This was when the seeds of disaster had been sown. The Soviets had started to burn down their idols: Stalin, but also Lenin, which opened the floodgates to a questioning of Marxist faith. Gorbachev, father of the 1980s reforms, and his ‘accomplices’— Alexander Yakovlev, Edward Shevardnadze, and Boris Yeltsin— were all ‘children of the Twentieth Congress’. In a nutshell, they were traitors. When they came to power, their objective had been to bring down socialism and communism. Under the influence of Western powers, who were counting on them, they had implemented their destructive policies: the introduction of a multi-party system, the authorisation of NGOs, the liberalisation of the media, the abandonment of control over means of production, the privatisation of public industries, and severing the link between the Party and the army. 

The documentary specifically demonises Gorbachev and accuses him of selling himself to the Americans. Weak in his decision-making, ideologically hesitant, he had driven his country to ruin through a wave of privatisations. The wealth of a huge majority of the people had been collected by a handful of oligarchs from the old Party bureaucracy. It was the beginning of the reign of violence and of the mafia. The final blow came with the former USSR falling victim to separatist movements. Twenty years after the fall of the motherland of socialism, the outcome of glasnost and perestroika was not just negative— it was downright criminal.  

The film ends with the usual elements of propaganda: not all is lost for communism, since China has taken up the baton. Gennady Zyuganov, leader since 1993 of what’s left of the Russian Communist Party, drives this point home in his interview with the Beijing film crew: In the space of thirty years, China has achieved formidable results. I hope you will not forget the reasons for the collapse of the USSR and the lessons of the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: only by [learning these lessons] can the Chinese people build their own country. The documentary ends with images of the Kremlin set to The Internationale. The voiceover gives some closing recommendations to Party members: never renounce socialism and Marxism; never give in to the influence of ‘hostile forces’ who wish to ‘Westernise’ the country and ‘sow the seeds of separatism’. Beware above all of ‘the manoeuvres of Western powers’, of their ‘financial and ideological manipulations’, of their use of NGOs, of ‘their will to incite chaos by promoting governance from the streets’. 

With this film, the tone was set from the first year of Xi’s mandate: the West was the enemy and Gorbachev had been its puppet. Xi, on the other hand, would be a herald of Chinese Marxism-Leninism. [1]

The second involves a 2014 crackdown on the Academy of Social Sciences:

In 2014, the Academy of Social Sciences—the Beijing-based national research body employing thousands of researchers—was issued a warning following an inspection by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Invited to a study session on the ideas of Xi Jinping, the inspector found that the Academy had ‘ideological problems’ and had been ‘infiltrated by foreign forces’. The message was received, loud and clear; measures have since been taken. In 2015 and 2016, the Academy published no fewer than four critical works on ‘historical nihilism’, ‘neoliberalism’, the ‘theory of universal values’, and the ‘concept of Western constitutional democracy’. The last three shared the same preface; here are a few excerpts to gauge the country’s mood: 

  • Facing a new situation wherein our cultural ideology is undergoing a process of exchange, blending, and confrontation, the paramount task facing the frontlines of philosophical social science is not only to persist in upholding Marxism as our guiding ideology, but to engage in meaningful critiques of ‘universal values’, the concept of ‘constitutional democracy’, neoliberalism, historical nihilism, democratic socialism, and other mistaken ideologies from this position. We must place unfailing faith in the path of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, matched with an equal degree of faith in our theories, and faith in our systems. 

The Academy followed the roadmap outlined in Document 9 to the letter. An entitled form of Marxism is expressed here, eager to lambast its opponents: Westerners used their universal values to impose their law all over the world—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen—but 

  • What is clear is that what the system of Western capitalist values brought to these countries was not the ‘gospel’ or ‘salvation’” but instead unmitigated unrest and disaster. The cruel lesson learned by these countries and regions demonstrates that there is no such thing as eternal values which can be universally applied to all societies, all countries, and all peoples. 

On the contrary, the preface continues, there is discernibly 

  • an ideological trap, aimed at our nation, with the goal of destroying the status of Marxism and replacing it with the ideology of the Western bourgeoisie. … Our nation is a socialist nation with a specific history and unique realities. What system or methods are appropriate for our nation should be decided by the national circumstances of our nation. Simply copying the political system or political methods of another country would be pointless, and might even have dire consequences for the future of our nation. China is a socialist nation and a developing superpower. We must make use of the beneficial aspects of foreign political civilisations, but never at the cost of abandoning the fundamental political system of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

This passage could have been written, word for word, years before: it is pure, hard ideology. On an economic level, the United States’ sub-prime crisis of 2008, which led to the global financial crisis, is described here as ‘the complete bankruptcy of neoliberalism’: 

  • It demonstrates that contemporary capitalism has not fundamentally solved the inherent contradiction which exists between socialised and private production. Periodic economic crises are an unavoidable product of this fundamental contradiction of capitalism. It is precisely because socialist market economics employs a different model, wherein the means of production are held communally, that economic crises are not only avoidable, but also predictable. [2]

I encourage you to purchase the book (the kindle edition is only $10!) and see how Bougan connects these incidents to the thought of Xi Jinping. Bougan understands what too many China analysts downplay (or even worse, outright ignore). The concerns Xi Jinping and his clique have about the ideological integrity of the Chinese socialist system and the threat Western values and institutions pose to them are not comic curiosities. They are the foundation for China’s relationship with the United States. We cannot get China policy right if we do not take the fears of these men seriously.

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] François Bougon. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping.  Translated by Actes Sud (London: Hurst and Co., 2018), pp. 39-42.

[2] Ibid., 168-170.

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Excellent article and I eagerly await your further review. My take on it thus far is that western ideology particularly as implemented in its military ventures has unfortunately given enough credence to some of the 'Western imperialist' views held by Xi and consorts such that simple dialogue and/or mere understanding will not cover the ground, reform is necessary. This is a belief increasingly held by Western populace itself, I believe such that is not necessarily completely unattainable.

This is not to say that regardless of whether the West makes such a move, our values are worth protecting and are currently completely at odds with Chinese longer term strategies that I fear a Thucydides trap to be on the horizon.