The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
During the communist era in East Germany, the ruling elite adopted a song with the uncompromising line Die Partei, die Partei, die hat immer recht (“The Party, the Party, which is always right”). Today’s Chinese Communist Party is not quite so blunt. A resolution on China’s history issued by the CCP in November strikes a more nuanced note: “The Party is great not because it never makes mistakes, but because it always owns up to its errors, actively engages in criticism and self-criticism, and has the courage to confront problems and reform itself.”
The Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century is only the third statement of its kind. The CCP issued similar documents in 1945 and 1981 under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, respectively, intended to forge an official narrative of the party’s past—and define its orientation and trajectory in the present. Leaders within the party debate at length about the draft, which CCP researchers must revise repeatedly before it emerges as an official proclamation. The verdicts of these resolutions are regarded as definitive and reappear widely, including in media articles, school textbooks, and speeches by lower-level officials.
This resolution is one of the most significant—and revealing—documents that the CCP has issued in years. First, it suggests that although Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping dominates the political landscape, it is his position as leader of the party, rather than his personal charisma, that gives him legitimacy; no individual is bigger than the party. The resolution also shows how China is groping toward a new ideological synthesis, trying and struggling to combine Marxism, Confucian thought, and the legacy of modern history. And the resolution makes explicit the CCP’s aim to extend its influence around the world.
This document is no doubt part of Xi’s bid to place himself in the pantheon of the CCP’s most revered leaders. But it is revealing of much more than Xi’s personal ambitions. The 2021 resolution underlines the abiding role of ideology in China’s understanding of itself and its global purpose. In its selective representation of the past, the document suggests a greater impatience with dissent of any kind and seeks to stake the party line in the arguments taking place within the inner circles in Beijing. But even a document as authoritative as this one contains contradictions, pointing to uncertainties and anxieties within the CCP’s thinking. Declarative statements of strength often hope to veil fears of weakness.
The November resolution seeks to mark a turning point, looking back over the past century of the party’s existence and laying the groundwork for the current prevailing ideological framework, known in official terminology as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” It cements Xi’s status as a supreme leader of world-historical importance, mentioning his full name 23 times, compared with 18 mentions of Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
But far exceeding either of these names is the repeated mention of the party itself, referred to over 650 times in the original Chinese document. Unlike in Russia, for instance, where political structures are essentially built around the figure of President Vladimir Putin, in China, as the resolution shows, politics revolve around the party. Putin wrestles with a kind of historical ambiguity; he has at once inherited and broken away from the legacy of the Soviet Union, a balancing act that proved tricky in 2017 when Russian authorities had to figure out how to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Xi, by contrast, appears in the resolution as the standard-bearer of the CCP, the clear inheritor of a continuous historical trajectory set in motion by the party’s rise to power. Xi dominates China’s political landscape, but he has chosen to expand the role of the party—as opposed to the mechanisms of the state—over the past decade, in a reversal of the trend seen in the first decade of this century when the development of the state took precedence over the expansion of the party apparatus. Even the most dominant leader in decades must acknowledge the extent to which his own power depends on the CCP’s honeycomb-like pervasiveness across China. Tellingly, the resolution labels the Cultural Revolution “catastrophic”—the Mao-backed movement in the 1960s and 1970s was the last major attempt to overhaul and smash the party’s structures.
The resolution cements Xi’s status as a supreme leader of world-historical importance.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Xi simply fades into the background of the march of the party’s history. He stands apart even from stalwart figures such as Mao. The resolution offers criticism of Mao for two vast undertakings of his rule, the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. “Comrade Mao Zedong’s theoretical and practical errors concerning class struggle in a socialist society became increasingly serious,” the resolution states, “and the Central Committee failed to rectify these mistakes in good time.” Xi, by contrast, is portrayed purely as a rectifier of mistakes committed by others, cleaning up the mismanagement and corruption of purged party leaders such as Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang.
The resolution comes at the end of a decade when the bounds of political discussion have narrowed considerably in China. Before Xi came to power in 2013, intellectuals and think tanks engaged in a range of debates about the role of civil society in China; the media would to some extent feel free to criticize authorities; and political reforms suggested a more pluralist politics as well as a relatively positive view toward many aspects of cooperation with the West. Under Xi, public discourse has grown more constricted and liberalizing reforms have dried up. But the resolution nevertheless offers signs of ongoing, unresolved debates.
For instance, historians will find revealing statements about the past that reflect the party’s more hard-line turn under Xi. The resolution claims that “the rectification movement—a Party-wide Marxist ideological education movement—was launched in 1942 and yielded tremendous results.” This is a telling description. The rectification movement, which took place largely in the CCP’s northwestern base area during the war against Japan between 1942 and 1944, used psychological tactics and sometimes physical violence to mold party members into adherence to Mao’s rule. Praise for the coercive tactics of that era suggests approval of similar ones in the present, as well as a reluctance to brook any deviation from party orthodoxy. The resolution condemns Chen Duxiu, a founder of the party who was expelled in 1929 and became a Trotskyist, for “rightism” and Wang Ming, an early communist leader who was shuffled out of power and eventually went into exile in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, for “leftism.” Neither figure is much discussed in either China or the West today. Yet in 2021, the resolution still took time to name and shame them, implying that ideological deviance might lead to permanent ignominy. Some other figures, however, sit in limbo. The document condemns the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989 as a “severe political disturbance,” but Zhao Ziyang, the party general secretary who was purged after the massacre, remains unnamed, neither rehabilitated nor condemned, suggesting that CCP leaders have yet to agree to a definitive judgment on him.
An ostensible focus on history belies the resolution’s concern with the present and future. In a piece earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, I described the directions of Chinese policy today in terms of the “ACGT model,” a mingling of authoritarianism, consumerism, global ambition, and technological innovation to create a unique political model. The resolution refers to all four of those factors. It praises the party’s success in making China “a country of innovators and a global leader in science and technology.” It also suggests that China can successfully craft a society that is both consumerist and socialist, one that can “protect the rights and interests of workers and consumers.” It is hard to imagine the two previous iterations of the resolution in 1945 and 1981 specifying “consumers” as a separate category from “workers.” In 2021, the party feels obliged to acknowledge the aspirational desire of Chinese citizens for a middle-class lifestyle.
At the same time, the resolution warns against the encroachment of liberal ideals. “We must remain on guard against the erosive influence of Western trends of political thought,” the text notes, “including the so-called constitutionalism, alternation of power between political parties, and separation of powers.” Instead, “we must confine power to an institutional cage and ensure that powers are properly defined, standardized, constrained, and subject to oversight in accordance with discipline and the law.” This, once again, is a declaration of the centrality of the party (the “cage”), a vision not of one-man rule under Xi but of an all-powerful political apparatus. It should be noted that not all “Western” thought is beyond the pale: both Karl Marx and the German anti-liberal legal theorist Carl Schmitt are widely praised in Chinese policy circles today, the former explicitly in the resolution and the latter by implication.
This resolution, in a striking shift from the inward-looking nature of its 1981 predecessor, is unabashedly global in its ambition: “We have accelerated work to strengthen our international communication capacity, with the goal of telling well China’s stories and the Party’s stories, making China’s voice heard, and promoting exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations.” For years, China’s self-presentation at home has differed markedly from its presentation abroad. At home, the Marxist history of the party has continued to feature centrally. In its overseas messaging, however, Beijing has broadly denied the importance of ideology, a view encouraged by Western partners who wanted to believe that ideology was out in China and pragmatism was in—to the benefit of doing business in the country. The new resolution makes much more explicit what was there all along: the party has always been a Marxist party. According to the CCP, the 2008 financial crisis made its vision of the world only more urgent:
Our continued success in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times has enabled Marxism to take on a fresh face in the eyes of the world, and significantly shifted the worldwide historical evolution of and contest between the two different ideologies and social systems of socialism and capitalism in a way that favors socialism.
The new emphasis on Marxism does not mean a return to the ideology of class conflict prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, it signals a more explicit articulation by Chinese leaders of a worldview shaped by Marxist ideas of “struggle,” “contradiction,” and historical inevitability, in which the competition between China and the United States holds a prime position, along with the need to wrestle with domestic tensions between economic growth and environmentally friendly development.
Yet the resolution is ambiguous on one major question regarding Chinese global ambitions: Is China’s rise a peculiar, idiosyncratic phenomenon or does Beijing offer a model to which other countries can aspire? At one point, it argues that “the Party has led the people in pioneering a uniquely Chinese [my italics] path to modernization, creating a new model for human advancement.” But it then suggests that “the Party has promoted the development of a human community with a shared future, and offered Chinese wisdom, Chinese solutions, and Chinese strength for addressing major issues facing humanity.” The language of the resolution draws on terms with a distinctly traditional, Confucian feel (for instance, “When the path is just, the common good will reign over all under Heaven”). Such references have a dual purpose: they appeal to a domestic audience with culturally resonant Confucian terms while using language that sounds broadly consensual and nonthreatening to the outside world. Both of these tactics are in sharp contrast to the anti-traditional ideology of the Cultural Revolution, which sought to smash “old culture” and signal that China was a would-be revolutionary disrupter on the global stage. Still, there persists the sense that this is an ideological work in progress: one long sentence defines all the things that a vaguely defined Chinese thinking does not reflect (including “mechanical” Marxism or “foreign models”), without being explicit about just what Chinese thinking actually is.
China’s identity is also defined negatively in terms of the threat from the outside world. The resolution’s drafters invoke the familiar notion of a China long under siege from foreign adversaries. The experience of Chinese history, and particularly the period of weakness between the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century and World War II, prompted a stark overall thought from the party’s theorists: “Constant concessions will only invite more bullying and humiliation.” Yet the party would do well to think how that claim reads to the outside world. For so many countries concerned by a rising, bristling Chinese power, that sentence could easily be turned around on China itself.
Back in the 1940s, as the communist revolution was moving toward success, cadres within the CCP wrote diaries and took part in sessions that turned “self-criticism” into “self-awareness.” By becoming aware of their own faults (including sins such as “petit-bourgeois subjectivism”), they were supposed to emerge as psychologically secure new socialist women and men. Despite its avowed commitment to “self-criticism,” the party will not likely encourage such self-reflection in the coming decade. What the resolution suggests instead is the party’s desire to forge a nationalist identity that seems very different from that expressed by Mao in the 1940s. This reinvented identity does not reject the premodern past in favor of a rationalist present. As articulated in the resolution, it embraces an anti-liberal imperative, combining selected elements of Confucianism and Marxism and framing China in opposition to the so-called liberal international order that prevailed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet the CCP’s insistence on repressing alternative readings of its history suggest that, however unspoken, a deep insecurity persists about the future success of the party’s project.