Xi May Be the CCP Core, But Will Govern With Enduring Core Ideas

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the intensity of rumor mongering correlates strongly with proximity to a political transition in China. The one-week countdown to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, which begins October 18, is no exception. The impending leadership change has spawned the usual collection of rumors, educated guesses, and darts thrown in the dark about the outcome. Some theories are plausible, others are outlandish.

The latest speculation and debate du jour is whether Xi Jinping, the CCP General Secretary, will be able to enshrine his ideological contribution in the Party’s constitution. If Xi does, he will have succeeded in getting the CCP’s imprimatur on these ideological provisions earlier than his predecessors did. That speculation could end soon after the 7th plenum of the 18th Party Congress, which kicked off today. It is the final meeting before the new 19th Congress commences next week and will be a bellwether in determining if Xi gets his ideological preferences into CCP documents.

Whether it takes the form of “four comprehensives”—a typical example of numerically-infused Chinese political neologisms—or something even more obscure, the conclusion of the 7th plenum should provide an indication of what particular formulation becomes a central feature of CCP ideology. Whatever the outcome, it will be widely read as either yet another telling sign of Xi’s unshakable political strength or another piece of evidence to support those who believe he is not nearly as strong as presumed.

But the fixation on Xi’s ideological contribution seems to miss something more fundamental. For my part, I suspect that, Xi, like all Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping, will still be bound by certain core ideas of how the Party-state behaves and functions. Even if some elements of “Xi Thought” creep into the CCP’s official documents and consciousness, the General Secretary will still govern based on a broader set of ideas.

These general precepts shape Chinese politics—and also the leadership’s approach to economic and political development. Boiling down to their essence, these precepts offer us context and rules of thumb to sort through how the CCP might behave in reality. And they provide a useful guide for thinking about how the CCP might respond to certain contingencies and policy conditions, irrespective of the personal views or ideological stripe of the General Secretary.

Borrowing from the CCP’s preference for numerology, I’ll call these “CCP Thoughts” the Four Avoids and Three Imitates:

  • Avoid the Soviet Union’s political sclerosis and collapse.
  • Avoid India’s raucous and unbridled democracy.
  • Avoid Japan’s economic bust and subsequent stagnation.
  • Avoid Latin American-style urbanization and shock therapy.

At the same time:

  • Imitate American economic dynamism and military might.
  • Imitate elements of the European social welfare state.
  • Imitate Singapore’s competent authoritarian governance.

In other words, borrow a bit from here and there, avoid any model that could destabilize CCP rule, and localize the elements of learned experience through the CCP’s ideological filters.

Schooled in Marxist determinism, CCP cadres have assiduously studied a vast number of historical cases of economic and political development. In particular, the Soviet Union’s political decline has commanded immense attention within the CCP since 1991 for obvious reasons of preserving regime longevity. But these other cases of economic growth and modes of governance, and their associated challenges, have also been deeply examined and dissected throughout the Party-state’s vast network of policy and research think tanks. Beijing ends up adding a pinch of this and generous helpings of that to its approaches to development, including from strategic competitors like the United States. But the one fixed ingredient in this mish mash of a “development recipe” is a gradualist approach to reforms.

This is why, for example, the CCP has rejected the kind of shock therapy that certain Latin American economies once embraced. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman may have been an advisor to the Chinese government at one point, but its top leaders were never so enthusiastic about absorbing his free market gospel wholesale. In fact, Friedman’s ideas were digested within a context where they mixed with numerous other economists and intellectuals, as Julian Gewirtz of Oxford University notes in his book Unlikely Partners.

But if Chinese leaders and the CCP never intended to fully embrace Western ideas and principles, they were also pragmatic enough to adopt best practices for economic development. These ideas have been accepted and utilized but always filtered through the sieve of “Chinese characteristics”—a sieve that includes Marxist tenets and Leninist organizational principles too.

The “Four Avoids and Three Imitates,” then, are what I believe to be some of the key conclusions that the CCP has distilled from a diverse array of historical cases. They can serve as a broad prism through which to view the Party-state’s policies. And of course, from the CCP’s own vantage point, these general precepts, or lessons, provide a rationale for the actions it takes in its own interest and for self-preservation.

What might this mean for next week? I’d bet that Xi emerges with a strengthened hand and with a noticeable imprint on CCP ideology. But the Four Avoids and Three Imitates will still heavily inform his actual policies—much as they are likely to guide his successor’s.