Soviet Union’s fall still haunts China’s Communist Party

Wang Xiangwei | Updated at 09:13pm on April 09, 2019

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Chinese people, including red guards, next to a huge poster showing Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in January 1967 during the Cultural Revolution. — Agence France-Presse

The release of a six-year-old speech by the Chinese president – where Xi warns of the long struggle ahead between socialism and capitalism is being circulated as the People’s Republic reaches its 70th anniversary – is significant for both its timing and its content.

US president Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for president Xi Jinping’s autocratic style and for how he changed the Chinese constitution so he could rule as long he likes.
So he should also envy the fact that, while his White House leaks like a sieve, Xi’s Zhongnanhai headquarters are totally leakproof because of the Communist Party’s propensity for secretive politics.
Chinese leaders’ speeches to their inner circles, particularly those on sensitive issues, are always guarded with the utmost secrecy.
While the official media may be allowed to paraphrase and report certain parts of those speeches for propaganda purposes, the original texts of the speeches may be kept secret for years before they are made public.
Still, when they are, they make interesting reading as they shed light on the inner thoughts of the leaders.
Such was the case on Monday with the publication of lengthy excerpts —6,000 words in total —from a speech Xi gave in January 2013, less than two months after he became party chief and two months before he was confirmed as the state president.
Though innocuously titled ‘A few issues on upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and made public six years later, those excerpts published on the party’s leading flagship theoretical journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth), are still significant and relevant today, because of their timing and content.
On January 5 six years ago, Xi gave that speech to about 300 newly appointed members of the party’s Central Committee with the rest of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee — the country’s highest governing council — present at the auditorium of the Central Party School.
That was probably the first time Xi had revealed his intentions in detail to China’s political elites at a time people at home and abroad were trying to ascertain his thoughts on how he would lead the country forward.
According to the excerpts, Xi struck a forceful but frank tone in laying out his vision for the party and the country and warning of the dangers ahead.
Citing Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Xi said socialism would triumph over capitalism but cited Deng Xiaoping as saying that it would be a long historical process, which would probably take several dozens of generations.
He warned that the collapse of the Soviet Union served as a painful lesson for the party. The underlying reason for the collapse was that the Soviet Communist Party had lost its ideological controls, he said.
Citing Deng, Xi made a robust defence of Mao Zedong although he also admitted the party had made big mistakes like the Cultural Revolution, which brought the economy to the verge of collapse.
However, he said the party’s decision to pursue reform and opening up in 1978 had ensured the country would achieve stability and prosperity without copying the Western system and had proved wrong those naysayers who predicted China’s collapse.
For the first time, he floated a new narrative to bolster the legitimacy of the party by arguing that one could not use the period following reform and opening up to negate the period before it, nor vice versa.
Even more interestingly, he recognised that western developed countries would maintain long-term economic, technological, and military advantages and China must be fully prepared for the two systems — socialism in its primary stage and a more advanced capitalism — to cooperate and struggle for a long time to come.
As China must learn and borrow from capitalism, it must face the reality that people would compare the strong points of Western developed countries with the shortcomings of China’s socialist development and be critical, Xi said.
Bear in mind that Xi gave this speech soon after he came to power and before he launched an unprecedented anti-graft campaign to consolidate his power, which made him the most powerful leader since Mao.
As with previous leadership changes, when Xi first assumed the mantle there were people on the right of the political spectrum at home and abroad who hoped he would be more liberal minded and politically progressive.
Xi’s speech put paid to any such thoughts and set the foundation for what has happened in the past six years.
Still, as official media commented last week, the release of his speech was ‘very unusual’, not least because a speech of this nature is usually kept from the public.
According to a weblog of the People’s Daily, Xi’s speech was previously circulated only among party officials with county level ranking and above.
The timing of the release is also significant as several politically sensitive anniversaries are coming up.
June marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and the subsequent bloody government crackdown. Efforts to mark the occasion will again focus the international spotlight on China’s political system and spur calls for political reform.
In October, China will hold elaborate ceremonies to mark the 70 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. While China has lots to celebrate — its economic strength and its lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, for example – Chinese leaders will be reminded of the enormous domestic challenges ahead in the face of strong blowback from the United States and its western allies against China’s more assertive stance.
China’s economy may be the world’s second largest already and Xi has undertaken comprehensive and forceful steps to strengthen the party’s control at all levels of society, but its leaders are still smarting from the collapse of the then 69-year-old Soviet Union in 1991.
The release of Xi’s six-year-old speech is aimed at sending a clear message on where he stands on these thorny political issues.

South China Morning Post, April 6. Wang Xiangwei is a former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper.