While we wait for the final denouement of this month’s Party Congress here in Beijing, what is striking to me is not that Xi is making history, but that his ideas are set to fundamentally alter the historical narrative of Modern China according to the CCP.
Author Damien Ma offered this quick take on Xi Jinping and the 新时代 or ‘New Age.’
Xi’s ascension into the pantheon also makes it likely, as US-based China watcher Bill Bishop has suggested, that regardless of what titles Xi does or does not have post-2022, his power is near absolute so long as he is alive. His ideas now carry the weight of Party Orthodoxy. Challenging Xi is akin to challenging core doctrine.
(By the way, if you’re not following what Damien is doing on his MacroPolo site or have yet to sign up for the premium version of Bill Bishop’s Sinocism Newsletter, you are missing some of the best analysis of China’s political and economic trends.)
But apart from whatever the enshrinement of Xi’s “New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (新时代中国特色社会主义思想) means for Chinese politics in the short-and long-term, it also signals a historiographic shift and a departure in the Party’s own understanding of Chinese history, as well as its own place in that narrative.
In the years after the death of Chairman Mao — particularly the difficult period following the Tiananmen demonstrations — Party theoreticians looked for a way to embed the Party in the broader context of China’s history. The Party would still represent a unique and inevitable force for China’s modernization and liberation, but it would also be a cultural steward, both defender and heir to China’s long history, a history which itself would be deployed as a narrative counterpoint to China’s development and modernization even as the Party mined China’s past for elements useful in the alchemy of national identity in an increasingly globalized world.
Marx — and Mao, at least publicly — had little use for China’s not-so-distant past. Yet Marxism and Maoism were losing their mojo. A new narrative was needed. A narrative of not only revolution, but of rejuvenation.
One of Xi Jinping’s first acts as the Party’s new leader in 2012 was to take the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee on a field trip 500 meters across Tiananmen Square to the recently renovated National Museum and the museum’s flagship exhibit: “The Road to Rejuvenation” (复兴之路).
As Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times Sunday Review earlier this month:
Two weeks after taking China’s top office in November 2012, Xi Jinping took part in what seemed like a throwaway photo op. He took his top lieutenants to the newly renovated National Museum of China, a vast hall stuffed with relics of China’s glorious past: terra-cotta soldiers from Xi’an, glazed statues from the Tang dynasty and rare bronzes from the distant Shang dynasty.
But Mr. Xi chose as his backdrop a darker exhibition: “The Road of Rejuvenation.” It tells the story of how China was laid low by foreign countries in the 19th and 20th centuries but is now on the path back to glory. There, in front of images of China’s subjugation, Mr. Xi announced that his dream was to complete this sacred task. This soon became the “China Dream” and has shaped his rule ever since.
This narrative of rejuvenation is a story understood best if one imagines hearing it delivered by a fire-and-brimstone evangelical. Not a preacher of any particular pure faith, but an evangelist of an inevitable path of development: one which begins in deepest antiquity and rolls, inexorably, to the moment when China under the leadership of the Communist Party realizes Xi’s Chinese Dream of how to be a strong, powerful, independent nation which is both fully modern and fully Chinese.
It begins in a glorious and ancient — if partially invented — past. The oldest continuous civilization. 5,000 years of rich culture, of unity and continuity, defining an exceptional community of people. Then there was a fall from grace beginning in 1842 with the Opium Wars. It was a fall brought about by the violent and ravenous actions of aggressive foreign powers and traitorous collaborators from within.
It was a fall which led to a Century of Humiliation. For 100 years after, China was groping in the dark, a nation calling out for redemption: Who could save China?
Many were called, few were chosen. Men with names like Sun Yat-sen, Hong Xiuquan, Zeng Guofan, Song Jiaoren, Li Dazhao and others. All tried, none truly succeeded.
Sun Yat-sen led a revolution which toppled the imperial system, but it was — according to this narrative — a revolution left unfinished. Imperialism and inequality, chaos and corruption still plagued the nation. And then, even as China entered its darkest hour under the occupation of the Japanese Imperial Army, a true savior emerged. In 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the rostrum at Tiananmen along with many of the first generations of Party leaders and proclaimed that the Chinese people had stood up. One Man and One Party. The only force which could truly redeem China.
In the narrative that emerged in the Post-Mao era, the Party’s legitimacy rested not only upon revolutionary credentials, but also the Party’s role as the saviors of Chinese civilization (never mind the Party’s role in the destruction of that legacy during the early years of the PRC). The Party presented itself as a bulwark against a lurking foreign menace, guardians against subversive elements looking to pull the Chinese people back out of the light. And even though Deng Xiaoping’s ideas on how to save China differed from those of Mao, the measuring stick remained China’s fall and humiliation. China would develop. It needed to catch up. It needed to modernize.
This was a narrative about redemption and regeneration.
The previous administration, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, may have likely felt that the story ended with them. With the Olympic Games. With the WTO. How naïve they — and we — were.
Xi’s ideas about a “New Age” clearly has him presiding over the final stage of this passion play. He’s said that it is time for China to take center stage in the world, and to make a greater contribution to humankind. The “New Age” then is not about China catching up or achieving modernity. The dream is achieving modernity on China’s terms, laying claim to what it means to be modern, ripping global standards from the grasp of Anglo-Europeans who have for 200 years defined what it meant to be civilized, to be modern, to be developed. This is why Xi feels that the “China Model” can be a model for other countries to follow. He’s not talking about Portugal but about Angola. Not the UK, but Malaysia. Not the United States, but perhaps Peru.
Whether that’s a good thing or not — and as a globalist-liberal-humanist, I tend to think “not” — the Developed West ignores the power of Xi’s message for those listening in China, and even those beyond China’s borders, at its own peril.