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Xi Jinping and Ideology

Author: Joseph Torigian

Affiliation: School of International Service, American University (Washington, DC, USA)

Organization/Publisher:  Kissinger Institute on China and the United States/Wilson Center

Date/Place: June 14, 2022/Washington, DC, USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 32



Keywords: China, Ideology, Xi Jinping, Xi Zhongxun, Radicalism, Conviction, Values, Chinese Communist Party, US Rivalry




Acknowledging how scholars differently explain what “ideology” stands for—like whether someone’s political views are cohesive and a tool used to explain, repress, integrate, motivate, or legitimate—the author traces Chinese President Xi Jinping’s evolution as the Chinese Communist Party’s chief. While Xi has advised against a “dogmatic, extremist” approach to policy, the author looks at Xi’s past through his father Xi Zhongxun and why the two-time Chinese president has followed a policy of “caution about taking steps beyond what the situation allows.” Xi’s life and work reveal why he has instead focused on values and motivation. “A loss of confidence in the CCP’s mission,” the author notes, pointing to Xi’s concept, “would mean the loss of the party’s political spirit and the spiritual pillar for CCP members to withstand any test.”


Drawing from many theories and concepts on what constitutes “ideology”, including that “ideas and interests could not be divorced from one another” and “how a leader is exposed to ideas is itself necessarily a political process,” the author argues that “characteristic” of a totalitarian regime is an “elaborate ideology bent on societal transformation and world domination.” He explains that just as there was a “return of ideology” in Soviet studies after the end of the Cold War, in which scholars incorrectly concluded that “ideology was the cornerstone that could elucidate all of Soviet history,” outside observers today have likewise “misjudged the role of ideology in elite (Chinese) politics.” “The political successions in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao Zedong are often explained as triumphs of inner-party democracy, leading to a victory of ‘reformers’ over ‘conservatives’ or ‘radicals’,” the author argues.


However, new evidence shows that the “post-cult-of-personality power struggles were instead shaped by the politics of personal prestige, historical antagonisms, backhanded political maneuvering, and violence.” Referring to official histories of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CCP, the author notes how they tend to “define their past as a series of ‘line struggles’ in which rightists or leftists are defeated.” While many argue that Xi has demonstrated as being leftist, which contradicts his father’s commitment of having “never committed a mistake of being leftist,” the author quotes a former CCP official who asserts: “He is his father’s son; he was born into the family of the most proreform faction; according to the inheritance of CCP and Chinese history, he cannot betray the faction that includes his father…He is the egg laid by his father, the egg of reform…[Xi Zhongxun] was not a typical reformer; he was the greatest reformer; if you use color to categorize, and the reformists were blue, then he was deep blue.”


Xi’s launch of special economic zones demonstrates his being “reformist” while he has insisted on “more institutionalization within the party and protection for different opinions.” At a time when China is condemned by all for its persecuting ethnic Uyghurs in northwestern Xinjiang province, the author however notes that Xi has often “revealed a ‘softer’ side with regard to Beijing’s policies toward ethnic minorities.” “The broader context in which Xi lived helps us see both the power and limitations of ideology as an explanation in specific ways,” the author says. Within the party, the author reveals how the CCP has molded into a more disciplined one where deputies demonstrate Leninist characteristics who “usually care more about discipline and party stability than pushing for their own policies.” Power within the party, the author argues, flows from top to bottom. “Mobilizing a ‘faction’ with any ideological cohesion is taboo.” Thus, the author insists, party discipline has “restrained policy inclinations Xi might have held” as “the party’s interests come first.”


The author finds almost no evidence that would suggest that Xi spoke, criticized or acted against any party campaign that went “too far”, as “significant levels of violence, persecution, and wrongful verdicts” have been committed under his responsibility, which policies he didn’t criticize “ until he had a clear sense of which way the wind was blowing.”  Instead of “always” pushing for “particularly aggressive policies,” Xi has instead “worked hard to address mistakes once they were identified.” The author disagrees that Xi has completely “escaped the party’s ‘leftist mistakes’.” In his academic probe, the author finds an interesting behavior among the CCP cadre: many conflicting approaches in the same individual. It reveals that it is highly unlikely that a CCP member will hold the same position on two different issues, and one would make a poor prediction for “how they might react in other situations.” Despite sharing the same ideological inclinations, the CCP members have to address “concrete challenges of any particular goal.” The study finds that the CCP leaders pursue “multiple goals simultaneously, and such objectives may conflict with one another.”


During his time as a foot soldier in the CCP, Xi has likewise “had to manage an extraordinary set of different challenges.” Pointing to conflicting approaches in Xi, the author identifies that while he has supported the Special Economic Zones in one province, Xi has yet “opposed the household responsibility system, which gave more rights to peasants and was an even more important step in China’s economic restructuring.” This behavior displays “a wide variety of approaches that together do not fit well on a ‘rightist-leftist’ spectrum.” The author also draws attention to Xi’s different approaches to settling challenges in Xinjiang during the 1980s and his tougher behavior with Catholics.


With age, Xi has also reformed himself and urged reforms in the party’s policies. The author suggests that the violence which has erupted in Muslim regions of China was largely due to the CCP policies—Xi acknowledged it and advocated reforms. Xi had to correct himself about why common Chinese were rushing to then British-colonized Hong Kong. When he was told economic stress was the issue, “He gradually came to understand that the problem was indeed economic and that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) needed to provide more concrete benefits to convince peasants to stay,” the author says about Xi’s time in Guangdong province which borders the semi-autonomous Hong Kong region. From his review of the Chinese president’s articles and speeches, the author believes Xi has avoided “extremes.” Despite his insistence on professing socialist characteristics of the Chinese economy, Xi has regularly “identified both the benefits and challenges brought by marketization of the Chinese economy.” 


After examining the press of the 1980s, the author explains Xi’s modus operandi, that he “has always displayed a belief in the importance of ideals and motivation.” “Here, you don’t hear everyone shouting reform, but reform is everywhere,” the local publication China Youth wrote, describing Xi as a “man without sharp elbows whose main focus was practicality and results, not reform for reform’s sake.” “ He is a reformer who does not wear western-style clothes, and he forges ahead without acting aggressively. While persuading people to accept the historical necessity of reform, he can still leisurely have a drink of alcohol. This is a reformer who makes progress with a smile on his face,” the publication added. The author concludes that Xi has been “walking both a sort of middle path and new path.” Xi, however, warns against “money worship, hedonism, ultra-individualism, and historical nihilism.”


By: Riyaz ul Khaliq, CIGA Non-resident Research Associate



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