Notwithstanding the considerable pressure he has been under domestically and from foreign countries since he began his second term at the 19th party Congress in October 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping has stayed undeterred. The US-China trade war and Covid-19 pandemic, which have seen anti-China sentiment soar globally, appreciably enhanced the pressure. In keeping with his character, however, Xi Jinping has not yielded ground to either domestic opponents or pressure from the United States.
On the contrary, he has ensured more vigorous implementation of his 16-character dictum: “The Government, the Military, Society and Schools, North, South, East and West — the Party leads them all!” This slogan was incorporated in China’s constitution in October 2017.
Xi Jinping has expanded controls and surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), imposed more stringent security policies which mandate the growing use of facial recognition technology, and is continuing with the rollout of the ubiquitous social credit management system, all of which have angered Chinese citizens who view these as intrusive invasions of their privacy. Ignoring foreign protests, he has persisted with his aggressive foreign policy and progressively tightened Beijing’s grip on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and kept Taiwan under sustained pressure.
There is widespread domestic dissatisfaction in China, particularly among students, academics, intellectuals and the privileged group of ‘princelings’ who have their own powerful networks of influence. In addition, the US-China trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic have severely impacted the economy, contributing to a sharp rise in unemployment and an uptick in prices and cost of living.
The growth of anti-China sentiment also potentially poses a problem for China’s economic revival. Chinese economists point out that until the US and Europe come out of the Covid pandemic and their economies recover, China’s businesses and industries will not receive orders, workers will not get wages and the US and EU markets will be closed. Thereafter, too, as countries seek to diversify sources of supply, China is unlikely to regain former levels of trade. These factors pose a serious threat to domestic stability.
The Trump Administration’s actions on the trade front have hurt Xi Jinping’s flagship projects. China’s hi-technology industry and ambitious Made in China-2025 plan for catching up with the world’s most advanced technologically developed nations by 2025 has been set back by at least 5-10 years. China’s two technology ‘champions’, Huawei and ZTE, have been crippled, revealing to the Chinese leadership the vulnerabilities in their technology sector. This could impact the effort to modernise and ‘intelligentise’ the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The ambitious strategic geo-economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been similarly impacted by the turbulence. All three are among the areas where Xi Jinping has focused personal attention.
Particularly disconcerting to Xi Jinping would have been the US efforts to target the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and weaken the ideological resolve of its members. Keeping in view the international environment and domestic political imperatives, Xi has in the past few months redoubled efforts to refresh the commitment of party members to communist ideology.
A number of new, major ideological education campaigns, accompanied by an official media publicity blitz, have been launched across China. The campaigns are designed to inculcate Marxist theory and “Xi Jinping thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era” in the people and the army, with special focus on the academia and youth, who are considered more susceptible to ‘liberal western thought’. The scope of the campaigns has been enlarged to include students in an attempt to ensure the CCP’s monopoly on power in China over the long term does not diminish.
China’s schools especially came into focus in early July 2020 when the CCP launched a new ideological campaign requiring party members and college and school students to study the ‘Four Histories’. The ‘Four Histories’ are “the history of the CCP, the history of new China, the history of the reform and opening up, and the history of socialist development”. In other words, it is the history of the Chinese Communist Party!
Cadres were given the ‘key task’ of promoting the contents in college classrooms and universities. Teachers warned students that their knowledge of the ‘Four Histories’ would be tested at the start of the new semester. Many universities incorporated the campaign’s study materials in their course work so that the students could learn and preach its message to people outside the campus.
Discussing the ‘Four Histories’ campaign in the China Education Daily (August 13), Lu Yanqin, Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of Zhejiang Jiaxing University, described the ‘red gene’ as the ‘life code of the Chinese Communists’ and stressed its importance for “realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” More recently, the China Education Daily (September 17) proposed that thinking of children needs to be ‘guided’ from the preschool stage. Interestingly, Lu Yanqin quoted Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping in his article, but omitted mention of any other Chinese leader!
The campaigns have an additional important advantage. They embed the ‘Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in the minds of 1.5 billion Chinese people paving the way for Xi Jinping being placed on a par with Mao! Xi Jinping will not permit any hint of weakness at this stage. Any move by the incoming Biden Administration — which has suggested talks with China, albeit restricted to subjects like trade and climate change — will, therefore, be interpreted by all echelons of the Chinese Communist Party as validation of the tough, assertive policies followed by Xi Jinping so far.
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