Readers of the flagship journal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Qiushi (“seeking truth”), received a special treat this week: a prominent article by President Xi Jinping himself, snappily titled, “The Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party Is the Most Essential Characteristic of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics.” Xinhua and People’s Daily—the state news service and the CCP newspaper—as well as the evening news led with the piece.
The article contained no new material but instead 18 separate quotations stitched together from Xi’s works over the last few years. Each centers on one repetitive idea: Party leadership is everything.
“The party is the core of leadership.” “It must be clearly understood that the greatest national feature of China is the leadership of the Communist Party.” “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the common choice of all Chinese people, including democratic parties, organizations, nationalities, strata, and people from all walks of life.” The phrase “East, West, North, South, and at the Center, the party leads everything” is repeated—with slight variation—five times.
As the Chinese legal expert Carl Minzner points out, the editor’s note made the purpose of the piece clear: reasserting the total power of Xi himself. The note uses the clunky term “two upholds” to mean simultaneously supporting the party’s total control and Xi’s total control over the party. In Minzner’s translation: “The content & requirements of ‘two upholds’ are clear: upholding Xi Jinping’s core role, with the focus of that being Xi Jinping & no one else; upholding Central Party leadership, with the focus being Party Central & no other organization.” Xi is the “ultimate arbiter,” a term repeatedly used in the note, of everything.
The timing and emphasis of Xi’s article suggest two things. The first is that not everyone in the CCP has been happy with Xi’s one-man rule, hence the need for him to reassert it with symbolic force. This reassertion, and its repetition throughout state media, indicates that his power within the party nevertheless remains nearly absolute. Any mutterings among discontented members of the elite or retired party leaders—often an influential force themselves—about Xi’s failures in response to the coronavirus, botched international diplomacy, or rising tensions with the United States are taking place behind closed doors.
The utter dominance of the party is not a new idea. Since Xi came to power, the CCP’s total control over Chinese life has been emphasized constantly in propaganda, media, and the classroom. Party members and state employees have had to slog their way through Xi Jinping Thought, from introductory classes to a compulsory app. They certainly had to endure Jiang Zemin Thought and Hu Jintao Thought as well—but not at this level of frequency or forced devotion.
The article’s format is particularly familiar. It follows the same formula as Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, the 1964 compilation that defined the lead-in to the Cultural Revolution, as the autocrat sought to reestablish his power following the mass starvation and political violence of the Great Leap Forward. Xi often deliberately echoes Mao, and the article is another piece of a familiar personality cult.
But there’s one big difference between Mao’s words and Xi’s. Mao could write, especially when it came to pithy aphorisms. Even English speakers can quote Mao—whether it’s “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” or “A revolution is not a dinner party.” His offhand speech was full of classical imagery often misinterpreted by foreigners, such as the time he referred to himself as a “monk with an umbrella.” That caused the Western reporter and CCP stooge Edgar Snow to describe Mao’s humbleness, but the actual meaning of the idiom is that “neither law nor heaven binds me.” Mao was also a half-decent poet: Older Chinese can quote him by memory and not just because of the forced repetition in their youth.
Xi’s writing, in contrast, is dull. Despite the occasional felicity of sign-makers with catchy slogans, Chinese political language has long been degraded by the repetition of political clichés and worn-out thoughts. When I worked in Chinese state media, it was common practice for editors to fill in missing space in pieces written by Chinese officials or academics with a few of the favorite phrases of the moment, whether it was “sparing no effort” to “perfect the system” or blaming the United States for being up to its “old tricks,” “distorting facts,” and “creating trouble.” Since the purpose of the articles was to bolster their careers by sticking to the right political line, the authors never complained.
But Xi’s writing has a particular tedium to it, a thudding repetition of banalities that comes with a lifetime of being a party man. Imagine being stuck in an elevator with a business executive whose reading consists entirely of airport magazines and company reports. Here’s Xi on innovation: “China should seek momentum from reform and opening up; unleash to the maximum the whole society’s power for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity; and keep improving the country’s competitiveness in a world that’s undergoing profound changes.”
It takes a lot of scraping to discover any thought behind this kind of prose and a true sycophant to praise it without being forced. In the 2018 compilation Xi Jinping: Wit and Vision, for example, the compiler’s desperation strains through every page. The record for endurance may be Xi’s three-and-a-half-hour speech in 2018 at the 19th Party Congress, the kind you can inflict only on an audience of officials who know they might be purged if they fall asleep.
But Xi’s vision, with its narrowness and tedium, also has none of Mao’s embrace of chaos for his own purposes. While Mao’s attempt to reassert control over the party depended on bloody chaos and mass violence against his enemies, Xi’s depends on vigorous adherence to the party line. The vision laid out by his words is that of a smoothly functioning, clearly led system in which nothing deviates from CCP control—and thus Xi’s control. It’s a company man’s vision, not the Maoist picture of development that comes from the churn of constant revolution.
The monotony doesn’t stop Xi’s reassertion of one-man rule from being dangerous, both for China and for the rest of the world. Xi’s vision of total party rule includes the silencing of any opposing thought, ethnicity, workers, regional freedoms, or faith, not just within China but worldwide. Officials whose first priority for personal survival is compliance with the leader’s vision don’t make great decisions. Xi’s words are frighteningly boring—emphasis on the frightening.