Given the high-stakes poker that Xi is playing at home, any climbdown with India will be seen as a ‘resounding defeat’ by an increasingly nationalist generation of Chinese who have been fed a steady diet of ideological jingoism.
China will mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on 1 July. Xi Jinping, party’s general secretary and the country’s president, is treating the centenary of the outfit’s establishment in July 1921 as an epochal event — both to showcase China’s rise as a model for the world to follow and to cement his place in the CCP pantheon as next only to founder Mao Zedong.
Xi is aware that China is locked in an ideological struggle with democracies — a battle that US president Joe Biden has termed as ‘existential’ — and needs myth-making to keep party cadres ready for ‘sacrifice’. This is a continuous process, but the centenary celebrations provide a useful reference point.
To promote Communist rule and establish it as intrinsic to national rejuvenation, as well as reinforce (or implant) the ‘red gene’ in generations old and new, Xi is busy revising the history of the Communist Party to disseminate the “correct” narrative and mass-educating Chinese people through a national propaganda campaign of enormous scale. The idea is to help citizens identify with the CCP so that the party’s mission becomes an individual’s mission and a collective mission of the society.
Wall Street Journal reports on the proliferation of Communist Party and pro-Xi propaganda that education ministry is inserting questions on party’s history in college-entrance exams, “to guide students to inherit red genes,” history classes for employees on the party’s achievements are being organized by “private businesses, law firms and even a Shanghai temple dedicated to the Chinese god of wealth… Airlines (are staging) in-flight singalongs and poetry recitals to teach passengers about the party’s past.”
Alongside, Xi is publicly administering loyalty pledges to senior party leaders while cadres of the 90 million strong party are simultaneously being put through an ideological training regimen that includes undertaking tours of ‘red sites’ (party’s most important historical locations) to foster fidelity.
Xi is also working hard towards firming up his position as CCP’s “core leader” and deifying his stature within the party. Sinicizing religion in favour of “socialist core values” is Xi’s old project. That is being built upon. There are reports that the CCP will mark the occasion by publishing a major document that will focus on Xi’s ‘historical status’ and glorify his position as a “deity”.
The Chinese president’s purported aim is to help CCP rule gradually replace the role of religion in society and establish himself as the sole leader worthy of worship to the extent that his leadership resembles a religious experience. If loyalty to the party and its supreme leader can be shifted to the realm of unquestioned faith, Xi’s ‘purges’ to keep the party “pure”) becomes that much easier.
Xi has taken a series of steps to stifle even a whiff of dissent or grumble against the party from anywhere — be it the power corridors of CCP, lower-level cadres, police, military, intellectuals or the civil society.
As Jamestown Foundation senior fellow and veteran journalist from Hong Kong Willy Wo-Lap Lam writes, “Xi has redoubled efforts to clamp down on dissent among intellectuals and even former top cadres while also reining in leading private entrepreneurs whose wealth and influence may detract from the all-embracing powers of the party. Finally, Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that oversees the People’s Liberation Army, has masterminded a housecleaning of the nation’s military and police forces.”
In the run-up to CCP’s centenary celebrations, Xi’s most urgent project has been engineering history and whitewashing the crimes of Mao, whose social engineering project Great Leap Forward in 1957 caused tens of millions of deaths through famine and poverty. Mao is also responsible for the killing of another two to three million people through his 10-year purge (from 1966-76) of “counterrevolutionaries”, a pogrom against imagined political adversaries including elites whom Mao considered to be a threat to his position.
As Ian Johnson writes in Chinafile, “Mao was responsible for about 1.5 million deaths during the Cultural Revolution, another million for the other campaigns, and between 35 million and 45 million for the Great Leap Famine. Taking a middle number for the famine, 40 million, that’s about 42.5 million deaths.”
Mao’s atrocities during his tyrannical rule and the excesses of Cultural Revolution have been documented in chronicle of party events. Not anymore. In February, Xi issued an updated version of An Abbreviated History of the Chinese Communist Party (Zhongguo Gongchangdang jianshi) that airbrushed all atrocities committed by Mao. He was instead credited for “setting the foundation of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and providing ideological enrichment of the nation with “valuable experience, theoretical preparation and material foundation” during the 1949-1976 period,” points out Willy Wo-Lap Lam.
As expected, the new ‘history’, part of a series of books, documents and articles that sanitizes Mao and glorifies his role, also lionizes Xi and confirms his status as the party’s “core”. This is essential to address issues of corruption, factionalism and disloyalty within the party because insubordination against the “core leader” is to go against the party. This is also a natural progression of Xi’s hyper-centralisation of power which he has done by rendering the office of prime minister almost powerless.
As Jude Blanchette and Evan S. Medeiros write in their paper for The Washington Quarterly, former presidents “Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had strong partnerships with their respective premiers (Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao), thus giving the State Council significant authority over setting economic policy. Xi, on the other hand, has sidelined premier Li Keqiang and positioned himself at the center of nearly all key policy discussions. Relatedly, he pushed through one of the biggest political restructurings in China’s modern history at the 2018 National People’s Congress, with the CCP subsuming many of the governing and administrative functions that had previously been the domain of the State Council.”
Xi’s move to confer post-facto sainthood on Mao requires a deeper look because it gives us a glimpse into the paranoic world of China’s paramount leader. Among many victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a state-sponsored hunting down of political adversaries, was Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun.
As Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Drexel write in Wall Street Journal, “Xi’s father, who had previously been demoted from vice premier to deputy manager of a tractor factory, was jailed and beaten. The teenage Xi suffered as well, and his half-sister, Xi Heping, died after persecution by the revolution’s Red Guards.”
It is interesting to note that Xi, who has been personally affected by the crimes committed by Mao, is photoshopping history to confer sainthood on Mao and erasing criticisms of Mao era from party’s history and chronicles. The answer to this conundrum lies in the way Xi perceives history and has sought to internalize the mistakes committed by the Communist leaders in USSR.
In Xi’s mind, Nikita Khrushchev, who in a “secret speech” in 1956 exposed the crimes of the Stalin era, is the architect of Soviet demise, because party’s success in establishing primacy over society and maintaining internal unity and organizational integrity is incumbent on making its paramount leaders appear infallible. Xi is determined not to repeat USSR’s mistakes, and therefore Mao must be deified.
Xi has therefore initiated a program with the help of technology to address “historical nihilism”. If any statements are made or any posts are put up criticizing Communist Party leaders or their policies, cyberspace regulators will ensure these are “cleaned”. There is also a hotline and an online platform “for the public to denounce instances of historical nihilism,” backed by a 2018 law protecting the reputations of heroes and martyrs, reports Wall Street Journal.
The crux of Xi’s consolidation of power and establishment of his writ is ‘infallibility’. The paramount leader must not only be infallible but must be seen to be infallible. China’s great power status cannot be affirmed by a leader who is weak or represents a party that has question marks over its past. This linear projection of Chinese power and infallibility of its supreme leader is an essential project of Xi, and along with great power competition with the US, it naturally has implications for India as well.
Among other things, China’s aggressive rise and triumphalist narrative at home are closely linked to its policy of territorial aggrandizement that has resulted in prolonged bilateral tension with India over the 2,100-mile-long line of actual control. More than a year since the Galwan carnage where 20 Indian soldiers and at least four PLA troops were killed, China remains entrenched at the border in Ladakh with massive mobilization and force posture in violation of all written and verbal agreements. Some defence analysts claim China “remains in firm control of an estimated 600-800 square kilometres of Indian territory.”
In a recent interview with Bloomberg in Qatar on Sino-Indian tension, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said, “there are two big issues there right now. One of course is that the close up deployments still continue, especially in Ladakh. The issue there is whether China will live up to the written commitments which are made about both countries not deploying a large armed force at the border. And the larger issue really, whether we can build this relationship on the basis of mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest.”
Given the high-stakes poker that Xi is playing at home, any climbdown with India will be seen as a ‘resounding defeat’ by an increasingly nationalist generation of Chinese who have been fed a steady diet of ideological jingoism. At least until October when Xi may try to cement his position as general secretary for life and secure more terms as president, any softening of Chinese position vis-à-vis the border with India appears unlikely.