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Dancing in Shackles: On Xi Jinping and the 18th Party Congress

November 30, 2012

Human Rights in China (HRIC): Please share your thoughts and comments with us on the 18th Party Congress, now that it has concluded.

Gao Wenqian: With more than half a year of tortuous twists and turns before the 18th Party Congress, now that it is over, everyone is probably breathing a sigh of relief. Human Rights in China’s political commentary series—“The 18th Party Congress Watch”—can also come to a close.  How to assess the 18th Party Congress is an enormous question. China currently has a party-state political system, with the Communist Party of China entrenched above all of society and holding a monopoly over everything. The outcome of the 18th Party Congress not only has bearing on the direction China will take in the future, but will also have great impact on the world as a whole.

I study the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC), so where would I position the 18th Party Congress? I think that, from the perspective of CPC history, the 18th Party Congress will have an extremely negative place in history—one could compare it to the Ninth Party Congress during the Cultural Revolution era. This is because at this important historical juncture, those in power once again missed a historic opportunity. Just as the leaders chose to move against the tide of history during the Ninth Party Congress, our leaders are trying to stabilize the existing structures within the Party. This will cause even greater complications for the future transformation of Chinese society. I believe that this will become increasingly clear in the time to come.

In the beginning, the Bo Xilai-Wang Lijun incident gave party leaders a chance to turn over a new leaf and change course. The Bo-Wang Incident dealt a big blow to party politics. The legitimacy of the CPC regime was seriously called into question by the people. The senior ranks of the Party fell into disarray, anxiety, and uncertainty. The 18th Party Congress re-stabilized the CPC, if only temporarily. Two key points showed that. First, the intergenerational transfer of power was accomplished during a fierce power struggle among factions with the party. The new members of Politburo Standing Committee are mediocre and conservative, selected not for their accomplishment or ability but for the sake of maintaining equilibrium among party factions. The most typical figure is Liu Yunshan (刘云山), who just finished his 10-year term as head of the Central Propaganda Department of the CPC. The department is a palace of hell, and Liu Yunshan has been, for many years, the biggest hit man responsible for blocking the Internet and cracking down on the press, intellectuals, and publishing industry. With him joining the Politburo Standing Committee in charge of ideology, do you think people can still have any sort of hope for the future after the 18th Party Congress?

Second, regarding political direction, the 18th Party Congress declared that the Party will not follow ”the old path or the evil path”—but will take the so-called path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is in fact a rejection of political reform, blocking off the reform path. It is also a refusal to repudiate Mao Zedong Thought, a posture of obstinate nonrepentance, a resolve to not make any changes, and an insistence on the status quo. As a result, different social circles have expressed disappointment after the 18th Party Congress. This is very natural.

HRIC: Do you think there is potential for any real reform after the 18th Party Congress?

Gao Wenqian: I think it is highly unlikely. First of all, Hu Jintao’s political report to the 18th Party Congress mentions “not taking the old path or the evil path,” which clearly indicates maintaining the status quo. This sets the tone for forthcoming policy of the CPC. Of course, whether it happens or not, political reform is a necessity for the transformation of Chinese society. It is not just up to those in power. So, can you in fact reject political reform just because Hu Jintao says so? Take the example of Mao Zedong (毛泽东), a formidable man who at the very end of his life racked his brain to preserve the Cultural Revolution. But once he died, his wife was immediately arrested, and the case of the Cultural Revolution overturned. Political reform in itself is a question of historical tide and the will of the people.

Not taking the old path or the evil path as Hu Jintao said is actually a dead end. I believe that the senior CPC leadership is well aware of this. Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, ought to know this even more clearly in his heart. Even if Xi Jinping wants to only secure his own position and maintain the status quo, he still must reach out and make certain adjustments to ease social conflicts and win popular will. So, my view is that there will be no great changes after the 18th Party Congress, but, instead, there might be small, partial adjustments and minor repairs.

The second point that I would like to emphasize is that, although the CPC National Congress is very important—according to the Party Constitution, the Congress is the highest authority within the Party—we need not put too much emphasis on it. This is because in the history of the CPC, all significant turning points have occurred not during the Party Congress but between congresses, during the Central Committee Plenary Sessions or Politburo extended meetings. For example, the Zunyi Conference of 1935, which established Mao’s leadership, was an emergency extended meeting of the Politburo. Then, in May 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution during an extended meeting of the Politburo. And it was during the Second Plenary Session of the Ninth Party Congress held in Lushan in 1970 that Lin Biao fell out of favor with Mao, which led to the collapse of the Ninth Party Congress. After that, breaking up the Gang of Four repudiated the 10th Party Congress. Finally, the launch of the Reform and Opening Up era at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Party Congress repudiated the political direction articulated in the 11th Party Congress. So, one need not be too pessimistic about China’s future, as the situation is always mightier than the man. If Xi Jinping is unable solve the current problems facing China, then he will have no choice but to make changes.

HRIC: What are the challenges Xi Jinping is facing?

Gao Wenqian: It should be said that Xi Jinping has some tough days ahead. The first thing he faces is the mess that Hu Jintao has left him—one could say it is a tough situation both domestically and externally. Additionally, he is faced with a fairly bad political environment. Above him are his two mothers-in-law: Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao. And inside the CPC ancestral hall there are two shrines—for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping—which he has to make offerings to. You can say he is stuck. Metaphorically speaking, Xi Jinping has to dance in shackles. In particular, Hu Jintao’s “not taking the old path or evil path” declaration at the 18th Party Congress was tantamount to putting Xi in a political straitjacket, confining the administration of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang within a circle. The environment for governance for Xi and Li in the future will be very poor. They are faced not just with the tough situation domestically and externally, but are also bound hand and foot [by Hu’s declaration].

Xi Jinping has succeeded Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao’s greatest political legacy is stability maintenance with an iron fist. Hu was hijacked by the influential elite and has done nothing in his decade in power except for being a “captain of continuation.” What he did was use coercive stability maintenance measures to suppress the problems facing the country rather than really solving them. This pushed China’s various conflicts toward the critical breaking point, but, at the same time, also forced into existence China’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo. Now, beacon fire is raging across the land and the situation is perilous. Hu’s approach has been criticized as “playing pass the parcel with a time bomb.” That bomb has finally been passed on without having exploded to Hu, but it will become Xi Jinping’s heavy political baggage.

I noticed that recently in a team meeting at the 18th Party Congress, Xi Jinping raised the issue of what path the CPC will take and what banner to wave. This is of course an echo of Hu Jintao’s “old path… evil path” message. But in Xi’s words there was a slipknot that leaves room for interpretation. I say this because no one is clear about the exact meaning of “old path” or “evil path,” much like that of “socialism.” Just like back then, when Deng Xiaoping could not clearly articulate what socialism was, I believe that Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are also unclear about the meaning of the “old path” or “evil path.” If  China continues to adhere to the dogma of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and rejects universal values, and stays outside of global trends—what could this be if it is not being closed off and ossifying, or taking the old path? With respect to the continued revolution in Mao’s later years, what was Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy if not a case of taking the “evil path”?

As for the strategy that Xi Jinping will adopt after taking office, I believe that he has little leeway. Xi Jinping’s family background, experience, and status have given him a dual personality. That is to say that there are two Xi Jinpings. One is the Xi Jinping who suffered during his childhood, experienced social injustice at an early age, and carries in him the blood of his father, the celebrated Party liberal, Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋). The other is Xi Jinping the successor of the red land of the CPC, who must try to preserve the rule of the Party over China. These two personalities mean that he will pursue a balancing act, do his utmost to avoid disputes within the party, and maintain the delicate balance between the Dengists on the right and the Maoists on the left. He will adopt the strategies of rolling up the Party banner without destroying it, and signaling left while turning right, but, at the same time, also continuing down Deng Xiaoping’s path. He will try to make some rectifications and set about resolving certain social conflicts, appropriately working to improve people’s livelihood, so as to alleviate popular discontent.

Time is running out for the CPC. Xi Jinping will not be able to act like an emperor in peace time for a decade as Jiang Zemin did, nor does he have the historical conditions to spend ten years as a “captain of continuation” like Hu Jintao. Awaiting Xi Jinping is a very grim situation in the coming decade. My view is that if he, faced with so many social issues, does not dare to touch the influential elite and only makes minor repairs rather than implementing fundamental changes, then China’s social conflicts will increasingly sharpen. Eventually and inevitably, this will lead to large-scale street protests. At that time, Xi Jinping’s decisions will determine not only his fate but also the fate of China’s future. In other words, when faced with large-scale street protests, will he crack down on them? When and if this situation develops, Xi Jinping will end up in one of three possible scenarios. In the event of large-scale protests, if he decides in the end to yield, to move with the tide of history and start political reforms, then he will become a second Chiang Ching-kuo. If chooses to crack down and succeeds, he will become a second Deng Xiaoping, who, as they say, killed 200,000 to keep the country stable for 20 years. But if he fails in cracking down, or if the soldiers turn their guns in the opposite direction, then he may become the next Nicolae Ceauşescu. History has not given Xi Jinping much time.

Gao Wenqian高文谦)is the Senior Policy Advisor and Editor-in-Chief of Chinese Publications at Human Rights in China. A former researcher at the Communist Party of China’s Central Research Office for Documentation, he immigrated to the United States in 1993. He is the author of Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary