How Xi’s China came to resemble Tsarist Russia

The very first line of the Chinese Communist party’s constitution declares it is “the vanguard of the Chinese working class”. The document mentions “revolution” eight times, while the accompanying constitution for the People’s Republic declares it a “socialist state . . . led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants”.

But according to its own statistics and the IMF, China is one of the most unequal places on earth, with far worse inequality than most capitalist societies. Today, barely 35 per cent of the party’s 92m members are classed as blue-collar workers or peasants — less than the proportion categorised as bureaucrats, managers or professionals.

In reality, the last ruling Communist party of a major country has morphed into a conservative reactionary party bent on preserving the power of state capitalist elites and advancing a distinctly 19th century form of ethno-nationalist imperialism.

None of this will be allowed to spoil the festivities as the CCP celebrates the centennial of its founding next month. All authoritarian systems bend historical facts to fit political imperatives but the founding of the CCP stands out for its malleability. Even the date has been revised. The same applies to the role of the great dictator Mao Zedong — a minor provincial attendee at the time but now the central figure in the CCP creation story.

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To question the accuracy of this is to commit the crime of “historical nihilism” — an actual crime as of earlier this year, when Beijing introduced jail sentences for anyone who “insults, slanders or infringes upon” the memory of national heroes. 

In simple terms, the century of the CCP can be divided into four distinct epochs. The first three are the revolutionary period in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the brutal Maoist era following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the economic and political liberalisation under Deng Xiaoping and his successors.

Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader since the death of Mao in 1976 who was not handpicked by Deng and he has consciously set out to define a fourth era in party rule. This involves a dramatic expansion of China’s military, a far more assertive stance globally and total suppression of dissent. Economically, he has laid out a state-dominated vision of self-reliance that one former World Bank official describes as a “wartime” economic plan.

The most accurate political comparison is probably with Russia in the 19th century, under Tsar Nicholas I or Alexander III. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was inserted into the constitution in 2017 and has been endlessly lionised ever since. Although party officials struggle to clearly define this new ideology, it describes a deeply conservative policy that closely resembles the “orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” — also known as “faith, tsar and fatherland” — dogma of Nicholas I.

Instead of the Russian Orthodox Church, Xi emphasises a pseudo-religious mix of Sinicized Marxism, Confucianism and Maoism. The other two pillars of CCP rule today — autocracy and ethno-nationalism — are virtually identical to those of Nicholas I, although the mass incarceration and re-education of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities is more ambitious than anything the tsars ever attempted in peacetime.

For today’s CCP, the collapse of the Soviet Union holds the same feverish place in the imagination as the French revolution did for the Romanovs. This fear of collapse, disintegration and popular revolt is perhaps the most powerful force behind the Communist party’s sharp authoritarian turn over the past decade.

Along with this renewed repression, Xi has abolished one of the great secrets of the party’s success and longevity. Deng Xiaoping is rightly given credit in the west for his economic liberalisation — for his pragmatic belief that, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is (socialist) white or (capitalist) black, as long as it catches rats”. But equally important was his attempt to solve the age-old succession and renewal problems of authoritarian systems.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Deng banned personality cults and introduced collective leadership, mechanisms for intraparty democracy, term limits on top leaders and a process for the peaceful transfer of power between generations of cadres.

Xi has reversed all these innovations. In doing so, he may well extend his own rule but he is likely to have shortened the life of the party.

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