In October, the 19th national China Communist Party (CCP) congress took place in Beijing. China’s president, Xi Jinping, used the propaganda event to push his distinct brand of CCP rhetoric, which sounded vacuously futuristic and echoed the party’s nationalistic and imperially ambitious past.
To achieve the “Chinese Dream” would be “no walk in the park”, he declared, it would require “more than drum beating and gong clanging to get there” (Xi Jinping, cited in Phillips, 2017).
The CCP announced power in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. This came after a civil war with the main political rival and party-in-power, Chinese Nationalist Party or Guomindang (led by Chiang Kai-shek). At that moment, the CCP had popular support because of its more consistent and passionate anti-Japanese position (China’s main imperialist threat) and its promise to alleviate pervasive poverty and hardship and end exploitation by landlords. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan while proclaiming its intention to return at a future point to retake mainland China, whilst the CCP claimed sovereignty over Taiwan. The present-day geopolitics of this region continue to the shaped by historical tensions between China and US-backed Taiwan and Japan; moreover, Chinese nationalism has both "enemies" close in mind.
Under Mao, the CCP dragged China’s population through various traumas. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Hundred Flowers Campaign was followed by the Anti-Rightist Movement, which purged critics of the state that were first encouraged to speak out, and the Great Leap Forward — a campaign to launch China as an industrial equal to the West that resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Mao’s initiative in 1966 of the Cultural Revolution was intended to reassert his authority and reflected a fanatical cult of personality (particularly amongst the youth cadre) to eliminate both internal and external critics of the Party, so-called bourgeois elements. China descended into a decade of chaos, destruction, loss of life, and widespread human rights abuses. The Cultural Revolution came to a close in 1976, the year of Mao’s death.
Post Mao, China entered a new period under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, known as opening and reform. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution a spontaneous grassroots space opened up in Beijing for the public airing its emotional trauma and the social and political questioning of the Party, known as the Democracy Wall Movement. This was generally seen to be tolerated by a “new era” Party, but that was a mistake. Deng Xiaoping’s new era of openness and reform meant a pragmatic approach to the economy: a recognition that China’s economic development would come from moving away from a closed economy and plugging into the global economy. Deng’s vision did not include political openness.
The Democracy Wall Movement, which begin in 1978, was shut down in 1979. The balancing act presented by Deng’s CCP then is one that continues: the State opens China’s doors to global capital and acts as the guardian at the door to protect the populous from foreign bad elements.
An earlier example of this is the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983. The growing desire amongst the students and workers of China’s cities for political change amidst its economic opening and reform proliferated into the extraordinary grassroots democracy movement of 1989 Tiananmen Square.
The image of a courageous student attempting to block a line of tanks moving in to crush this movement is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, and a reminder of what so-called “Chinese socialism” actually is – a gross betrayal of its namesake.
Xi Jinping announced the beginning a “new era” at the 19th national CCP congress, promising to transform China into a “mighty force” and to rid the Party of corruption (cited in Phillips, 2017); in earlier times, both Mao and Deng pushed the same discourse, seeking economic and imperialist power alongside tight political control.
Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Elizabeth Economy, sums up Xi’s vision well: “Xi Jinping sits on top of the Communist world, the Communist party sits on top of China, and China sits on top of the world” (cited in Phillips, 2017).
Xi’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” never had a grassroots democratic basis, nor did it ever have a parliamentary basis: this was and remains an authoritarian state.
Still today, Chinese political dissidents navigate a precarious existence – amid an insidious second Cultural Revolution — in which the Party can quite simply, as some of my personal contacts in China put it, “make disappear”.
Phillips, Tom (2017) “Xi Jinping heralds ‘new era’ of Chinese power at Communist party congress”. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/18/xi-jinping-speech-new-era-chinese-power-party-congress?CMP=share_btn_tw