Steve Tsang says the Chinese leader is no Maoist, but he sees no place for Deng Xiaoping’s style of political experimentation, either. In Xi’s China, citizens may enjoy freedom as consumers and investors, but not as participants in civil society

In October 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the party enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. At a time when a rapidly modernising China is a leading global player, it is tempting to dismiss this doctrine as anachronistic party-speak from a bygone era. We succumb to this temptation at our peril. 

Five months after the constitutional change, the National People’s Congress abolished presidential term limits, meaning that, barring a political earthquake, Xi – who, at 65, remains healthy and vigorous – could remain president for perhaps another 20 years. His eponymous doctrine will therefore shape China’s development and global engagement for decades to come, and perhaps longer.

In a sense, the inclusion of Xi’s name and thought in the party constitution gave him the same exalted status as the People’s Republic’s founding father, Mao Zedong, as well as the architect of China’s modernisation, Deng Xiaoping – the only other leaders mentioned in the document. This, together with the removal of term limits, has led many to argue that Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.

But, even if true, this does not mean that Xi is attempting to restore Maoist totalitarianism. While Xi has a much more positive view of China’s Maoist past than any other leader since Deng, he is no Maoist.

Instead, Xi’s approach to governance closely resembles that of China’s first president under Mao, Liu Shaoqi, a devoted Leninist who selectively adapted Confucian ideas to build a Sinicised party-state.

For Liu, the party was pivotal; for Mao, by contrast, it was ultimately dispensable, as the Cultural Revolution – of which Liu himself was a casualty – demonstrated.

Unlike Mao, who found chaos exhilarating, Xi shares Liu’s longing for control through the party, which he expects to take the lead and apply Xi Jinping Thought to all policy areas: political, military, civilian and academic.

The contrast with Deng is even sharper. Deng’s reforms were defined by pragmatism and experimentation, aimed at identifying the most effective approach to modernisation. In the 1980s, Deng even briefly considered the radical possibility of separating the party from the state , though he abandoned the idea after the pro-democracy Tiananmen protests in 1989.Nonetheless, Deng and his successors – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – continued to open up China to the West, and remained willing to tolerate the spread, within limits, of some liberal ideas. This is not the case with Xi, whose oft-repeated commitment to deepening reform is muddied by his redefinition of what that should entail.

Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, and regards democratisation, civil society and universal human rights as anathema.

Deepening reform means solidifying control over the party through his anti-corruption campaign, and over the population through means including the use of advanced technologies enabled by artificial intelligence.

Such digital authoritarianism will, Xi hopes, prevent liberal or democratic ideas from taking root and spreading, even as China remains connected to the rest of the world. Chinese citizens may enjoy freedom as consumers and investors, but not as participants in civil society or civic discourse.

Managing this tension between international openness and state control is vital to achieving another key goal of Xi’s doctrine: make China great again. On the one hand, this entails instilling a party-centric nationalism, so that citizens embrace the primacy of the party and of Xi himself.

Those who are slower to meet this expectation may find themselves under surveillance and even sent to so-called re-education camps, like those in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands (or more) Muslim Uygurs are now detained.

On the other hand, making China great again means projecting power and leadership on the world stage. After decades of following Deng’s injunction that China should hide its strength and bide its time, the time, Xi believes, has come.

One way Xi hopes to boost China’s global standing is by ensuring it is pushing the frontiers of technology. To that end, the state is supporting the creation of national champions in cutting-edge sectors, as stipulated in “Made in China 2025”, a strategy which competitors, especially the United States, decry as unfair.

It is no coincidence that the US has been targeting Huawei, which has received as much state support as any company in any country in modern times.

In Xi’s eyes, Canada’s decision to accede to the US’ request to detain Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou amounted to a failure to respect China’s standing and interests, and thus merited retaliation.

China soon detained two Canadians on allegations of activities that “endanger China’s national security”, and in a retrial, imposed thedeath penalty on a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling.

But the goal of Xi Jinping Thought is not to launch a cold war against the West, or to export China’s political model. Rather, Xi wants to shore up the authority of the party-state – and his own brand of authoritarianism – within China, including by shutting out liberal-democratic ideas. The world needs to understand this to engage effectively with an increasingly formidable China.