It’s all about the Party – The 20th Party Congress and why ideology matters for the Chinese Communist Party

It’s all about the Party – The 20th Party Congress and why ideology matters for the Chinese Communist Party

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congresses matter. They are not just an exercise for the Party of going through the motions. On the contrary, they are a carefully choreographed and scripted reflection of the CCP’s political lines and self-understanding. One of the most important documents of a Party Congress is the work report of the general secretary, where he presents the Party’s view on the last five years since the previous congress as well as the goals and challenges ahead. Because they present the main political understandings and interpretations of the Party, such documents from Party Congresses can also present us with important insights on Party ideology.

CCP ideology has been a much-discussed topic among China scholars, particularly in the last ten years since Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the CCP. Both scholars and the media have argued that ideology is becoming more important for the CCP again and that the Party has been re-ideologized. This is particularly interesting because prior to Xi, many scholars assumed that CCP ideology was met with widespread cynicism and therefore largely dead.  

However, when arguing that ideology was dead and has been revived under Xi, it is important to first think about what ideology actually is. Ideology has commonly been understood as rather irrational and connected to highly idealistic socio-political goals. Additionally, if understood as a utopian political belief system, such as communism, then it is likely difficult to find many CCP members in China, let alone ordinary citizens, that hold such a utopian belief. Yet, if ideology is seen not in this common-sense way, but as a way of making sense of the world in a political context and of communicating about it relying on shared meaning, then the picture changes. Ideology turns into something that is highly relevant in politics in general and very important for the Party in particular.

Mythologising the Party

Two important messages regarding Party ideology arise from the 20th Party Congress and Xi Jinping’s work report. The first message is that ideology matters. At the first meeting of the newly elected Politburo, Xi underlined that Party members and cadres, and in particular the Politburo, should “study and implement the spirit of the 20th Party Congress”. The Party has always invested time and effort in studying and spreading Party ideology and particularly in educating its members and cadres in it, for example in Party schools. These efforts have been even accelerated under Xi.

The second important message is that Party ideology is not primarily about communism or any other belief system. It is about the Party. The Party employs different narrative techniques in Party ideology to portray itself as a political force with an outstanding past and historical mission and particular knowledge about the future. It thereby creates a political myth around itself and defines its own greatness and relevance for Party members and cadres as well as for the future of China.

An important narrative strategy in Party ideology that puts the Party at the centre is its approach to history. For example, in his work report, Xi Jinping speaks of the “historic responsibilities” that the Party has for the development of China and the “victories of historic character” that it won throughout its history. In addition to this emphasis on the Party’s historic greatness in his work report, Xi also took the newly elected Politburo Standing Committee on its first study tour following the Congress to the CCP’s old revolutionary base in Yan’an in Northwest China. According to him, it was in Yan’an that “the Party’s Central Committee and veteran revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong, led China’s revolutionary cause from a low point into an upsurge, reached a historical turning point, and transformed the prospects of the country”. In other words, the Party is portrayed as a force of history with outstanding achievements for China as a whole that no other actor could have been able to achieve.

Building on the self-declared historic greatness of the Party, in its ideological narratives, the Party claims an exclusive and outstanding leadership role for itself. As Xi states in his work report, “we make it clear that the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential characteristic of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In other words, a quintessential element of ideology in the understanding of the Party itself is its own leadership role, thereby putting itself at the centre of everything.

In the logic of the Party, this leadership role enshrined in Party ideology is only natural because it alone holds the key to the future. Heike Holbig argues that Party ideology serves to create moving targets that are “always sufficiently far away to justify the CCP’s long-term monopoly on leadership”. As reflected in Xi’s work report, we can see that the Party claims that it alone knows the path to a glorious future and therefore has a claim a monopoly on leadership. In the words of Xi, “during historic processes of profound changes in the world, the Chinese Communist Party has always been at the forefront of an epoch”.

And what about Marxism?

In line with a more traditional understanding of ideology as a utopian political belief system, Xi’s work report to the 20th Congress also contains an entire chapter on Marxism. It is entitled “Exploring a new level of sinification and adaptation of Marxism to the present conditions”, thereby underlining the importance that the Party still attributes to its founding ideology. At the same time, the issue of Marxism is a thorny one for the CCP. Few people, certainly in the Party itself, still believe in Marxist orthodoxy. Additionally, taking the original teachings of Marx seriously poses significant problems for the Party in the context of massive socio-economic disparities in the People’s Republic.

The Party solves these issues by keeping its language related to Marxist ideological concepts very vague and ambiguous. For example, in his work report, Xi argues that “we should take Marxism as the guidance and use its scientific worldview and methodology to solve China’s problems”. Using such vague language ensures that the Party preserves Marxism’s official status as its guiding ideology, but at the same it opens up significant space for interpretation that only the Party itself can fill.

Simultaneously, the Party also tightly connects support for Marxism with support for its own rule. Xi argues that “our support for Marxism must not waver, our support for the leadership role of the CCP must not waver and our support for socialism with Chinese characteristics must not waver either”. In other words, in Xi’s view, supporting Marxism primarily means supporting the Chinese Communist Party.

Is this all new?

Is there anything new to ideology following the 20th Party Congress? The short answer to this is no. The central role of the Party in Party ideology, also with regard to Marxism, has been apparent beforehand. It is not even a new feature particular to Xi Jinping’s rule. On the contrary, the mythologising of the Party and the vague language in ideology are characteristics to be found in the entire period of reform and opening up since the early 1980s. Ideology being all about the Party is not a previously unseen phenomenon. It has been all about the Party for a long time and it still is.

Photo source: Thomas Fanghaenel from Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC 3.0

Carolin Kautz holds a PhD in modern China studies and currently is a freelance lecturer at Goettingen University (Germany).

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