In recent days, major Party news outlets, including the People’s Daily and Seeking Truth, have published articles referring to a new political programme, which seem to outline the political programme of the Xi leadership. It also introduces an important new political term: the “Eight Musts” (bage bixu 八个必须). These are:
We must persist in the dominant role of the people; we must persist in liberating and developing social productive forces; we must persist in moving reform and opening-up forward; we must persist in safeguarding social fairness and justice; we must persist in marching the path of common prosperity; we must persist in stimulating social harmony; we must persist in peaceful development; and we must persist in the leadership of the Party.
The grouping of these Eight Musts has, in turn, been added to the Four Cardinal Principles put forward by Deng Xiaoping, creating Five Cardinal Principles (wuge jiben 五个基本) for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This is one of the Party’s core watchwords and political concepts, and any alteration to it signals that the alteration is considered by the Party to be of profound significance. Hence, this announcement should be taken very seriously. Leaving aside the obvious remark that persisting in the leadership of the Party was already one of the Four Cardinal Principles and therefore is now included twice, what can we deduce at this early stage from the propaganda language surrounding this initiative?
No fundamental reform – throwbacks to Deng and Mao
Basically, these documents confirm the Party’s intention to maintain the current political structure, strengthen and improve it. This should come as no surprise, as this basically has been the line that has been taken since 1979. In other words, anyone expecting breakthroughs in areas that the Party has identified as crucial for its hold on power, including media (as demonstrated by the Southern Weekend kerfuffle), the Internet, relations with the Army, and the Leninist political structure. What is striking, however, is that the legitimation of all Eight Musts is based on quotes from Mao and Deng. Jiang Zemin is completely absent from the articles, while Hu Jintao is only mentioned once in the People’s Daily. More generally, these articles clearly aim to reconnect pre-’79 China with the reform period. In my view, this is an effort to take over some of the success garnered by the nostalgic Bo line, and to hark back to a more egalitarian age, when the Party was less beset by the well-known illnesses of corruption, privilege and abuse that plague it today. The People’s Daily also clearly mentions that a greater role must be given to the “mastering spirit” of the people, to ensure that they are more in charge of their own affairs. This is an affirmation of democracy, but in the Chinese sense: democratic centralism in politics, but possibly a new emphasis on private entrepreneurialism and a shift away from the attention lavished on large SOEs during the previous decade.
More emphasis on fairness and social justice
The main thrust of the Eight Musts lies in reducing inequality, a continuing stress on economic reform and social harmony. It is a well-known fact that China’s inequality rate is approaching potentially destabilizing levels, and that Hu Jintao’s harmonious society policy has failed in reducing these social tensions. While Xi seems to maintain the idea of harmony, he adds “common prosperity” (gongtong fuyu 共同富裕), which is defined as sharing the fruits of reform better and more fairly. As in Hu Jintao’s case, however, this must come down to the promulgation and implementation of concrete measures, and it remains to be seen whether the new leadership can be more successful than the previous teem in breaking the vested interests and corruption which caused the current wealth gap.
International assertiveness and the proposal of “Chinese model”
In both articles, the trend of China becoming more provocative in its language and posture continues. Seeking Truth flatly states that:
if China crawls along by slavishly imitating the Western development model, there will be basically no possibility of gaining development opportunities in a world that is monopolized more every day. The history of China in recent times indicates that the path of Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the basic, only and correct path for China to kill off the encirclement by strong Western countries and obtaining development and progress. If China is able to march a successful development path outside of the West, China’s exploration will not only be a contribution to China’s becoming a strong country and a rich people itself, but will be a contribution to the absolute majority of developing countries worldwide.
Furthermore, China is becoming more assertive about the integrity of its political structure, calling for self-confidence in the path, theory and system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. In the past, China often downplayed the fact that it had a model that other countries could or should follow. Now, the “China Model” is touted as a means of breaking post-colonial Western hegemony. Seeking Truth states:
Socialism with Chinese characteristics has become a development model that has a complete form, distinguished achievements, and thrives in vitality, its incessant deepening and development, its contribution to the welfare of the Chinese people, and its contribution to world peace and development have a brilliant future.
As always in Chinese politics, the proof of the pudding will be in real measures and their implementation in months and years to come. We must also remember that, like Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping is the Secretary General of a political organization that is fragmented and, in spite of its top-down nature, often ineffective in ensuring the outcomes it promises or strives to achieve. And if the ham-fisted handling of the Southern Weekend incident or the recent Beijing pollution crisis are anything to go by, he will not have much time to practice on the job.