Xi Jinping steering China back to its Maoist roots

By Zofia Reych

June 1 marked the the 95th Communist Party Anniversary. Ahead of the ceremony, President Xi Jinping gave a speech that has been described as both a ‘celebration and a warning’.

“A political party’s decline often starts with the loss or lack of idealistic faith,” stated Xi, urging all party members to engage with seminal Marxist texts, or even copy by hand the Chinese Communist Party’s 15,000 character-long constitution. “Organisational cohesion,” as stressed by Xi, is the top priority and will be enforced through disciplinary measures.

Xi Jinping’s Vision

Since seizing power in 2012, Xi Jinping has been known for his efforts to strengthen the position of central government. However, he’s not aiming to achieve this through measures employed by his predecessors.

Deng Xiaoping’s administration, as well as that of his pre-2012 successors, put emphasis on export and a moderate approach to international relations. Deng also moved away from a Maoist model of dictatorial leadership towards more collective rule.

Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s future is different. Economically, he moves away from exports while embracing domestic consumption driven by the coming of age of the new middle class. At the same time, he is well aware that the sluggish economy makes the Chinese people look westwards with ever-growing envy. Paranoid about dangerous influences that could threaten the one-party state, he reaches back to its Maoist roots and fashions himself as a strong leader followed closely by his supporters. Also, in foreign policy, he’s less cautious than his predecessors, preferring to challenge the US’s political dominance in South-East Asia.

The biggest worry of President Xi is now the ghost of an economic crisis. So far, the Communist Party’s theorists have used “performance legitimacy” to dismiss the option of democratic elections. Having pushed prime minister Keqiang aside, Xi Jinping is single-handedly steering the Chinese economy, but as his reforms fail to promote efficiency or lower debt, the president reaches to ideology to shore up his rule.

Amplifying Mao

Marx predicted the inevitability of the people’s revolution. This revolution has already happened in the Middle Kingdom, more than six decades ago, making contemporary China one of the very few functioning Marxist-Leninist states in the world. The ‘liberated’ workers labour for $1.85 per hour (and often much less) to keep iPhones in the hands of their foreign, capitalist colleagues across the world. Somehow, the joke seems to be lost on Chinese officials as they embark on a mission to unite the country through old-style Maoism, as explained in President Xi’s latest speech.

Pundits have long pointed to similarities between Xi Jinping’s rule and the most brutal years after the cultural revolution. Censorship has been tightened, the propaganda amplified and many grassroots opposition movements forcibly suppressed. Furthermore Xi Jinping is not prepared to make any compromises when it comes to foreign policy. As his pursuit of power doesn’t leave him much time to address burning economic issues, international affairs become an important arena to show off his capabilities.

Xi Jinping’s return to Maoist era nationalism possibly means more trouble in the South China Sea basin. Even though this week’s ruling by the Hague Tribunal backed the Philippines and confirmed the illegitimacy of Chinese claims, Chinese officials are likely to disregard the verdict as “null and void”. The South China Sea holds the promise of  massive revenues due to its oil reserves, as well as an important maritime trading route, but control over the area is now more about showing the United States that China’s roar can’t be ignored.

Analysts also suggest that the ruling might prompt Rodrigo Duterte to make a side-deal with Xi Jinping, discrediting international efforts to minimise Chinese influence in the region.

Yet however much the Chinese leader and his Party might want to flex their muscles in Asia, it is not Marxist ideology that will shape the international relations in this part of the world. China’s strong position in the region won’t be built on Marxist slogans and propaganda (especially given that Xi Jinping’s latest economy reforms bring to mind Thatcher rather than Mao), but on private capital. Advancing the “One Belt One Road” strategy remains key for Beijing, especially in the light of the recently finalised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). President Jinping’s recent turn to Marx is designed at strengthening the Communist Party’s position, and his own position within the Party – not at shaping international policy. In that respect, we will learn more not from a presidential speech, but rather from how the looming Beijing-Manila crisis unfolds.