The Game for the Red Throne

Alessandro Ponzetto | January 27th, 2022

The vast majority of observers see Xi strengthening his grip on power, with very few opting for the alternatives. This is actually surprising, because what Xi is trying to do is far from being certain.

For example, this is a poll from Merics’ forecast for 2022.

Before explaining why, it is important to go back to Mao, and truly understand why the CCP worked the way it did until Xi.

The single most crucial event when it comes to the CCP inner workings is the Cultural Revolution, started in 1966 and ended a decade later with Mao’s death. It started following the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the Sino-Soviet split, two events of great importance. The objectives were the following:

  • To replace his designated successors with leaders more faithful to his current thinking;
  • To rectify the Chinese Communist Party;
  • To provide China’s youths with a revolutionary experience;
  • To achieve some specific policy changes so as to make the educational, health care, and cultural systems less elitist.

The enforcers of this Revolution were the Red Guards, mostly urban youths who were indoctrinated and became zealous. Many families, including Xi’s, paid a heavy price: his sister died of suicide, his father was humiliated and arrested while he was disgraced, including having been condemned to forced labour for a time.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping (who was also purged) returned, leading to the eventual demise of every Maoist and, most importantly, the 3rd Plenum. That doctrinal work was, in essence, the epitaph on Maoist doctrine and was in its own right as monumental as the Secret Speech, which was the Stalinist analogue.

Fast forward to today and what has Xi been doing ahead of the Congress?

  • To replace his designated successors with leaders more faithful to his current thinking: While he has not designated a successor, at least not formally, he has been very busy when it comes to designate leaders faithful to his current. Yesterday’s pieces from Jamestone cited Xi’s efforts with the PLA, but those are simply a part (although an important one). As stated yesterday, this is an insurance policy because of the PLA’s very nature. As an army, it is loyal first and foremost to the CCP, which is exemplified by the Tiananmen Square Massacre (as tanks literally drove in front of the Forbidden City and fired at students, whose only crime was asking for reforms). With several unprecedented rounds of promotions, Xi has taken this a step further by ensuring the loyalty to him personally. Same goes for key positions within the CCP, like Xinjiang’s Party Chief
  • To rectify the Chinese Communist Party: soon after becoming President in 2012, Xi started his famous anti-corruption campaign, targeting several high-profile members (like Bo Xilai, whose protégé was recently ousted). This was reaffirmed by Xi, as he stressed ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption a bit more than a week ago (and conveniently prior to purging Bo Xilai’s protégé)
  • To provide China’s youths with a revolutionary experience: Xi ticks this box with ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, which is compulsory in education from primary school all the way to university. The closest analogue, albeit not exact, is Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, published in 1964
  • To achieve some specific policy changes so as to make the educational, health care, and cultural systems less elitist: to be fair, Xi decided not to reinvent the wheel and straight up took a page from Mao’s book with ‘Common Prosperity’

Unlike Mao, however, Xi may find much tougher opposition. Citing once again Jamestone’s piece, he has again quite an assortment of key figures:

  • Shanghai Faction, lead by former leader Jiang Zeming and Zeng Qinghong, another heavy weight from that period (he retired in 2008)
  • Communist Youth League, lead by former President Hu Jintao
  • The Red Nobility, offsprings of the CCP founders (like Xi himself)

The most concerning prospect for Xi is to have these groups pool together and bring the unexpected, paraphrasing the second most-responded option by Merics. While difficult to estimate, it would hardly be classified as unexpected: if Xi were to win the Congress, he would have to deal with the opposing factions by ushering in a Cultural Revolution 2.0. Some of them are old enough to have witnessed the death of the original and it would be indeed unexpected for them not to take a stand.