The populist-nationalist ideological shift that Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking has another inevitable consequence: casting China as a conquering power. Putin showed the way by annexing Crimea. Pictured: Xi (left) delivers a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 9, 2021. (Photo by Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
Political systems based on ideology always face a challenge when they realize that real events have rendered their ideology obsolete.
This could happen at different moments in an ideology-based regime's life.
The Nazi party in Germany realized that soon after sweeping to power and decided to script socialist pretensions out of its discourse and, with the Night of the Long Knives, to promote Hitler's cult of personality as kerygma [proclamation].
In the Soviet Union, the generation of Communist leaders represented by Mikhail Gorbachev tried to return to the Social Democratic roots of their party.
Both attempts ended in failure and the collapse of the ideology-based regimes concerned: Nazi Germany through defeat in war and the USSR with systemic collapse.
The latest ideology-based regime, also born in the last century, to face the challenge is the People's Republic of China under the Communist Party.
Three generations of Communist leaders, starting with that of Hua Kuo-feng and passing by that of Deng Xiao-ping and now Xi Jinping, have faced that challenge and tried to dodge it the best they could. Almost four decades of economic growth, made possible by the adoption of a state-controlled capitalism, made that dodging possible -- until now.
What is happening now is that the current generation of leaders under President Xi is beginning to realize that dodging is no longer possible.
The Chinese economy has become subject to the classical rules of capitalism. This means cyclical boom and busts that do not coincide with the political needs of an ideology-based regime. It also means the emergence of a large middle class that, sooner or later, is bound to question the monopoly of power by a single party even if that party boasts some 80 million members.
The Chinese Communist Party does not have a social-democratic past to dust out as an alternative ideological abode. Nor can it build a new cult of personality around President Xi to rival that of Mao Zedong in his heyday.
The party's current leadership realizes that the classical Marxist discourse, based on class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, won't sound serious when it is the new bourgeoisie that pretends to represent the proletariat. This is why reference to Marx, Engels and Lenin and such terms as Marxism is a rarity in the party's discourse. The latest resolutions from the party Politburo promises a "better promotion of socialism" but clearly point to a shift towards a populist version of nationalism.
This means that the Xi generation is trying to transform the party into the kind of political machine that Vladimir Putin created after the chaotic period that followed the collapse of the USSR. The Soviet Union was always an ideological state, not a nationalist one. Thus Putin's recipe could work only after non-Russian nations had left the empire, allowing Russians to reassert their position as a nation.
The ideological shift that Xi is looking for is expected to come in the next full session of the Communist Party's Central Committee, scheduled for 8-11 November. The annual event brings together over 400 military, political and state-corporation leaders who rule the country. Xi hopes that the session will also endorse his plan for remaining in power for another five, or even 10, more years to complete the ideological shift from Mao's version of Communism (people's democratic dictatorship, as he called it) to a populist-nationalist discourse.
In its efforts to develop a populist-nationalist discourse, the Xi generation has replaced 1949, when the People's Republic was established by Mao Zedong, with 1911, when the first republic was born under Sun Yatsen. It was no accident that at the last party conference giant portraits of Sun Yatsen had replaced those of Mao.
Trying to transform Sun Yatsen into a populist-nationalist icon, however, is no easy task. An American-educated doctor, Sun was a convert to Protestant Christianity and an advocate of Westernization, albeit with a local coloring. His wife Sun Qinling was daughter of one of China's richest men, also converted to Christianity, and a sister of the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader and chief rival of Mao for ruling China. Sun Qinling was named a Vice-President of the People's Republic under Mao, when the Communist Party played the "united front" card by pretending that it shared power with a number of smaller parties. Mao also tried to maintain a semblance of ethnic diversity symbolized by the five stars on his new republic's flag.
Xi's expected shift to a full populist-nationalist discourse could mean shedding such Maoist pretensions and promoting the Han ethnic element, accounting for some 87 per cent of the population, as the ideal version of "the Chinese man" and the dominant nation. Beijing uses various schemes to downgrade other ethnic identities. These include dividing larger ethnic groups into smaller and smaller communities. This is why the official statistics mention 56 different ethnic groups instead of the five broader ones accepted by most scholars.
In some notable cases, Beijing uses repressive measures to downgrade and, in time, eliminate ethnic identities. A notable current case is the plan to "re-educate", that is to say Hanify, the Uighurs of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) in special camps or by transferring their child-bearing women to Han-dominated parts of the country. In the case of Tibet, Hanifcation comes through state control over religious doctrine and institutions, while the card played in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia is mixed marriages and population shifts that look much like ethnic cleansing.
The populist-nationalist ideological shift that Xi is seeking has another inevitable consequence: casting China as a conquering power. Putin showed the way by annexing Crimea, while in India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another populist-nationalist leader, cast the Ajodhya mosque as his war trophy. In the case of China, we have already witnessed a number of similar moves, most notably the ditching of the "one-country two-system" scheme in Hong Kong and Macao and Xi's pledge in the recent party conference to regain control of Taiwan.
The coming Central Committee plenum is likely to establish a clearer "roadmap" for fulfilling that pledge. And that, inevitably, would require an even greater emphasis on Beijing's military build-up which, in turn, could fuel a new arms race with the United States and its allies.
A generation ago, China's conversion to a peculiar form of capitalism was hailed as an element of stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, however, seeking an historic ideological shift, China may be recasting itself as a disturber or "perturbateur", as the French say, of the status quo.
Putin's experience has shown that the disturber enjoys an initial advantage but would soon find out that what is gained in domestic politics could be offset by the cost of adversarial relations with the outside world.
Will the coming plenum take all that into account? We have to wait and see.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.