Resolving History: Will The CCP Unite Mao and Deng?

Chairman Mao Zedong once remarked that “The sixth plenum determines the fate of China.” Indeed, the sixth plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Central Committee (CC) will determine the course of Chinese politics over the next five years and beyond.

If March’s National People’s Congress set China’s economic agenda with the 14th Five-Year Plan, then the sixth plenum, taking place from November 8-11, kicks off China’s quinquennial political cycle that ends in the fall of 2022. At that point, roughly 60% of the CC members are expected to have turned over, and a new crop of top leaders will be revealed.

In other words, this plenum, which takes place in the CCP’s centenary year, may be the closest thing to a 2022 campaign launch for General Secretary Xi Jinping to forge his political legacy. And a key plank of his campaign will be rendering a historical resolution for only the third time in the CCP’s 100-year history.

The Importance of Historical Resolutions

Plenary sessions have always carried political weight, but the sixth plenum tends to be even “more political” than the typical session:

  • In 1938 Mao used it to inaugurate “Chinese Marxism Philosophy,” a term that is still fundamental to the CCP’s lexicon.
  • In 1958, the 8th CC used it to rationalize and boast the achievements of the Great Leap Forward.
  • In 2016, Xi used it to secure the title of “core leader,” further reinforcing his power to shape the CCP’s leadership.

Even so, this sixth plenum can perhaps be considered a cut above the rest. That’s because Party history has always been central to politics, and rendering a judgement on history has been a rare feat, accomplished by only Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

Indeed, Mao’s first historical resolution in 1945 eliminated the leftist ideology of Wang Ming, his political opponent at the time, to affirm his central position. Similarly, the second resolution under Deng in 1981 was a renunciation of the Cultural Revolution to move past the radical politics of Mao’s latter years. It paved the way for more than four decades of the “reform and opening” era.

Implications of Xi’s Sixth Plenum

Thus, the mere act of delivering a historical resolution puts Xi into the same league as Mao and Deng. But unlike previous resolutions, Xi will likely use the occasion to evince a forward-looking vision rather than reconciling past mistakes and vanquishing political opponents.

For one, he does not need to deal with the past in order to pivot to the future—he has already presented an ambitious 2035 agenda that seeks to make China the world’s biggest economy. Moreover, he appears to have little overt opposition. To the extent that he does, it may be the critiques of his deviation from Deng’s reform and opening path.

Xi’s cognizance of this critique can be seen in his repeated emphasis on the “two cannot denies,” which basically means that he sees continuity between the Mao and Deng eras.

What Xi will aim to resolve, then, is that there are more than two paths to achieving what has always been the CCP’s goal: restoring China’s position in the world.

He will likely make the case that even as he takes his own signature path, it is nonetheless perfectly aligned with the CCP’s goal. One way to demonstrate this continuity is through the pursuit of “common prosperity,” a term that has been subject to various interpretations.

But politically, the term can serve as a convenient bridge that links Mao to Deng to Xi. It was first coined by Mao in 1955 and was given new meaning under Deng (even Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao referenced the term occasionally). It would not be a surprise, then, if Xi’s historical resolution fuses the two ideas of common prosperity—Mao’s emphasis on the decisive role of state ownership with Deng’s idea to let some people get rich first—as an ultimate goal of the CCP. In fact, there have already been hints that Xi is pushing for a synthesis.

In short, he will use common prosperity to cover both this left and right flanks and immunize himself against future criticism of his agenda. By reinforcing continuity with, rather than departure from, either Mao or Deng, he seeks to procure an even stronger mandate to carry out the “Two Centenaries” vision.

That vision will be tied directly to the CCP’s hard-won stripes to be the rightful steward of China’s future—a political narrative of struggle and progress that the new historical resolution will reinforce and perpetuate. It will emphasize both the CCP’s century of leadership and how Xi’s tenure fittingly carries that torch.

With history resolved, Xi will then likely turn to resolving the “new principal contradiction”—the key decision made at the 19th CCP Congress in 2017. For Xi, who doesn’t have founding father status or military credentials like Mao and Deng, he is likely to stake his legacy on that contradiction.

That is, only by resolving this contradiction can China become a legitimate superpower by 2035, and that would in turn make Xi one of the most consequential Chinese leaders of the 21st century.

Ruihan Huang is a research associate at MacroPolo. You can find his work on elite politics, regulatory risk, policymaking, and other topics here.

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