What Does “Chinese Characteristics” in the Era of the Xi Jinping Regime Mean?
In March 2018, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (hereinafter, “Xi Jinping Thought”) was written into China’s constitution. Judging from the announcement in July 2021 that the curriculum of schools at all levels in China, from elementary school to graduate school, will now include teaching Xi Jinping Thought, this is to become the shared ideological bottom line in Chinese society.
What does “Chinese characteristics in Xi Jinping’s new era” actually mean? While it is uncertain how long the Xi Jinping regime will last, it is commonly reckoned that “new era” in the context of Chinese politics refers to the “Xi Jinping era.” In that case, what sort of “characteristics” have emerged in Chinese politics since the start of the Xi Jinping regime?
Looking at the Xi Jinping regime’s social governance from this point of view, what probably comes to mind immediately is further concentration of power on the Communist Party of China (CPC) and changes in governance methods using science technology. This has been termed “digital Leninism” or a “happy state of surveillance” under a system of social governance in which the state controls a broad range of personal data. In her observation on overall regulation of Chinese society, Kazuko Kojima (2020) pointed out: “Social governance fostered by the Xi Jinping regime is a system managed by a party unified through highly uniform ideology and strict discipline as the ‘core’ of Chinese leadership.” She offered the analysis that the goal is now moving from “defense against the incursion of ‘western’ values” to “providing a ‘governance model with Chinese characteristics’ as an alternative norm.”
That is, it is conceivable that “Chinese characteristics” implies an intent to emphasize the originality of the Chinese governance model. However, the definition of “Chinese characteristics” based on the Xi Jinping regime’s subjective viewpoint is not valid for maintaining that China’s governance system indeed has unique characteristics rooted in its national conditions. For example, while the Chinese government’s social governance does involve mechanisms that are completely different from other countries, as seen in its high-handed response to the coronavirus pandemic, a closer look at the discussion on this subject shows that many elements of this system can actually be understood as distinguishing features of an authoritarian state in comparative politics.
In this connection, General Secretary Xi Jinping stated at the 30th group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee held at the end of May: “China must interpret its practices by its own theories and sublimate its theories with its practices. It must create new concepts, domains, and expressions that integrate China and foreign countries to tell its stories and the spiritual strength behind them more fully and clearly.” He argued for the need to develop “international discourse power that matches China's comprehensive national strength and international status.” How have the many policies formulated to enhance “international discourse power” influenced the construction of China’s narrative? If the Xi Jinping regime is deliberately emphasizing “China’s uniqueness,” it is necessary to look into its intention.
This paper examines the political implications of the theory of “new political party system” put forth by the Xi Jinping regime, which is also linked to the CPC’s united front work to recruit talented non-CPC members to work for the party and is a system theory complementing the concept of “Chinese-style democracy” advocated by the Xi regime. In terms of foreign policy, this is also an antithesis to oppose the “democracy versus autocracy” paradigm advocated by U.S. President Joe Biden. This sense of rivalry against the U.S. was evident during the U.S.-China high-level foreign affairs meeting in Alaska in March 2021. At this meeting, Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, repudiated the “universal values advocated by the United States” and “U.S.-style democracy” and asserted the validity of “common values of humanity” and “Chinese-style democracy.” So, how is China “arming” itself ideologically around the concept of “new political party system”?
What’s New about the “New Political Party System”?
The State Council Information Office released a white paper entitled “China's New Political Party System” (中国新型政党制度) on June 25, 2021. (hereinafter, the “White Paper”). Its preamble defines the “new political party system” as follows:
“The system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a basic element of China’s political framework. A new model grown out of the soil of China, it also learns from other countries and absorbs the fruits of their political achievements.”
The “system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation” here refers to the system of political administration under which eight other Chinese political parties (the so-called democratic parties) and individuals not affiliated to any political parties (non-affiliates) cooperate and consult with the CPC. However, there is nothing new about this system. The CPC has held political consultative conferences with democratic parties, people’s groups, and other organizations even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In December 1989, after the Tiananmen Incident, the “Opinions on Upholding and Improving the System of Multiparty Cooperation and Political Consultation Under the Leadership of the Communist Party of China” formulated by the CPC Central Committee reiterated that this is a political system for ensuring total leadership of the CPC. Subsequently, the “CPC Central Committee’s Opinions on Maintaining and Perfecting the Multiparty Cooperation and Political Consultation System under the Leadership of the CPC” (2005) and a white paper on “China’s Political Party System” (2007) were also issued, so this has long been an established political system.
So, what’s new about this “new system”? As far as I am aware of, the term “new political party system” emerged around 2018. This was preceded by academies of socialism and research institutes on united front theory nationwide taking the lead in publishing numerous studies on “enhancing international discourse power relating to China’s political party system” throughout 2016 and 2017 to build the theoretical foundation of this political system. Actually, soon after the White Paper was released, a number of articles explaining “what’s new” were also published. These writings adopted a common line of reasoning. First, the system of election-based representative democracy adopted by the Western countries was labelled as “old political party system,” and in contrast, China has a system in which parties other than the CPC are also participating political parties. Since China’s political party system enables political participation by the eight democratic parties and the non-affiliates under the CPC’s leadership, it is able to avert two problems with the “old system”: 1) only a small number of people or interest groups are represented; and 2) failure to make decisions or implement them after discussions. It was claimed that this constitutes the superiority of China’s system. At the same time, the White Paper highly acclaimed China’s “new political party system” as a “new model for the world’s political civilization.”
Such commentaries are essentially the CPC’s self-evaluation based on its own subjective view. In reality, there has always been skepticism that China’s political system may become dysfunctional because there is no check and balance mechanism against the CPC’s overwhelming power. That is, the other parties can only consult with the CPC but not oppose it or raise objections. Furthermore, theoretically, since this “new political party system” can be classified as a type of participatory democracy, it cannot necessarily be considered a system unique to China. As to its claim of the system’s superiority, while the authoritarian states are lauded for their speedy policymaking and implementation, particularly in response to the current Covid pandemic, the sustainability of its capability is questionable. It has been already analyzed that democracies are more likely to improve the citizens’ living environment in the mid- and long-term.
Strengthening United Front Work on Non-CPC Intellectuals
The consultation system with non-CPC members under the “new political party system” is called the political consultation system in China. The CPC United Front Work Department has consistently been responsible for building ties with non-CPC individuals and organizations in support of this system. The first Central United Front Work Conference under the Xi Jinping regime was convened in May 2015, which was upgraded from national-level status under the previous administrations, where the “CPC Regulations on United Front Work (Provisional)” (hereinafter, “Old Regulations”) was announced in an attempt to strengthen united front activities. It revised these rules in late 2020, coming up with the “CPC Regulations on United Front Work” (hereinafter, “New Regulations”). While the Old Regulations had 10 chapters with 46 articles, the New Regulations was expanded to 14 chapters comprising 61 articles, adding the following chapters: Chapter 8 United Front Work on Individuals from the New Social Strata, Chapter 10 Overseas United Front Work and Overseas Chinese Affairs Work, Chapter 12 Building the United Front Work Organizations, and Chapter 13 Security and Supervision. Chapter 3, which comes right after Chapter 1 General Provisions and Chapter 2 Organizational Leadership and Responsibilities, deals with “personnel work on democratic parties and non-CPC figures.” The New Regulations states in the beginning that “the system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the CPC is a new socialist political party system with Chinese characteristics; it is China’s basic political system.”
The promulgation of the New Regulations was, no doubt, intended to further concentrate power on the CPC and boost the authority of General Secretary Xi Jinping. According to a circular issued by the CPC Central Committee on Jan. 5, 2021, the New Regulations puts emphasis on “leadership based on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “thorough implementation of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important thinking on the strengthening and improvement of united front work.” It also included an instruction that “all regions and departments must promptly report to the CPC Central Committee significant developments and proposals relating to the implementation of the ‘New Regulations’.” The next day, Renmin Ribao front-paged a commentary entitled “Open Up a New Phase in United Front Work in the New Era,” emphasizing the CPC’s centralized and unified leadership and enhancement of efficiency in united front work organizations. On the same day, the CPC’s United Front Work Department also published a commentary explaining that the new provisions in the New Regulations represent an emphasis on “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important thinking on the strengthening and improvement of united front work” and that “the CPC’s leadership is the most outstanding feature of the united front.”
With the strong focus on strengthening the party’s leadership, it is of great significance that a political campaign targeting intellectuals not affiliated with the CPC (non-CPC intellectuals) in united front activities was launched. On July 29, 2021, Renmin Ribao published an analytical piece entitled “Open Up a New Phase in United Front Activities for Intellectuals Outside the Party.” While this was carried on the general news page (page 12) and was not given prominent coverage, it represented the operational guidance issued directly by the CPC Central United Front Work Department and was promptly reprinted by many media outlets and posted on the Department’s website.
In view of the present situation in which the number of intellectuals who are supposed to be at a bachelor’s degree level has reached 218 million in China, the United Front Work Department noted in this article that intellectuals are “producers and communicators of ideology and culture” and expressed hope that they will “serve as an important pool of talents and think tank for China’s reform and development.” However, “most non-CPC intellectuals are positive-progressive in their ideology and, while generally patriotic, they take a relatively clear stand in terms of ideological diversity, selectivity, and divergence.” Due to these characteristics, the Department indicated its plan to increase opportunities for their participation in the political consultation system after providing them with ideological and political education. It further signified its intention to make full use of non-CPC intellectuals by “instructing them to give full play to their social influence by analyzing and examining issues and devoting themselves to consensus-building activities domestically, as well as disseminating China’s narrative and actively conveying China’s voice internationally, in order to enable the CPC Central Committee to give full play to its power of joint efforts.” In addition, it was noted that “the non-affiliates, particularly the non-CPC intellectuals, are an important component of the system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation led by the CPC, and they constitute a force of political participation in socialism with Chinese characteristics,” so the above policies are part of efforts to implement the “new political party system.”
It is evident from the above that the main purpose of winning over non-CPC intellectuals is to enhance the CPC’s discourse power both at home and overseas. Toward this end, talents are to be selected from universities, scientific research institutes, state-owned enterprises, students who studied/are studying abroad, and members of the new social strata (new media workers, managers of private and foreign companies, and so forth) with the aim of using them to help form domestic and international public opinion in support of the CPC. From an outsider’s point of view, it is very likely that this will result in further concealment of negative information on the CPC Central Committee, rendering it even more unfathomable.
Opinion leaders in China have long played an important role in explaining official policies in line with the CPC’s wishes and serving as the guiding light of the masses. Since the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015, the CPC Central Committee has launched a “great united front campaign” (大統戦) (promoting a broad-ranging powerful united front) with the aim of strengthening efforts to educate, coopt, and recruit various actors. However, prominent entrepreneurs, scholars, and others have also voiced dissenting opinions on some occasions. “Historical narratives are meant to support the political legitimacy of the rulers. While academic study is the pursuit of truth, the presentation of results must give priority to the state’s interests.” For example, this statement by a historian went viral on the SNS last June. His argument that “modern history is politics and opposition to historical nihilism is also politics” reflects not only the reality of scholars and educators under the CPC’s dictatorship, but also their deep anguish. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly important for us to be aware that what we are getting from the opinions and reports originating from China is “controlled information” produced under this structure.
4 International discourse power refers to the level of influence in leading international public opinion. See Naoko Eto, “Chapter 4: The Intrinsic Dilemma in the Xi Jinping Regime’s Public Opinion Policy,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Research Project on Foreign Policy and Security, Fiscal 2016: Developments in the U.S. and China and the U.S.-China Relationship in a Period of Instability in the International Order – China’s Domestic and International Situation and Its Foreign Policy (Japan Institute of International Affairs, March 2016) for a detailed discussion on this term. (in Japanese)
6 In my opinion, for example, the “Opinions on the Promotion of the Building of Philosophy and Social Sciences with Chinese Characteristics” issued in May 2017 was part of a grand foreign policy strategy to put in place the theoretical underpinning to legitimize China’s political uniqueness both at home and in the international community, as well as build a new discourse favorable to China in international public opinion. (Naoko Eto, “The Goal of the Xi Jinping Regime’s ‘Building a Discourse System’ – Will This be a Challenge to Universal Values?” published in “Views on China,” The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, July 25, 2017.[in Japanese])
9 On China’s position at the U.S.-China talks, See Naoko Eto, “What Do ‘Common Values of Humanity’ Mean? – In Search of a Sophisticated Strategic Narrative,” Toua, May 2021, pp. 52-53 (in Japanese).
10 The English version of this white paper is titled “China's Political Party System: Cooperation and Consultation.” The Xi administration domestically emphasizes the “new model,” claiming the newness and superiority of the China’s party system in comparison with the “old-fashioned party system in the West. However, in the English version, the term “new model” is used only twice, and the term “old-fashioned party system” is used only once. It is thought that this is to avoid criticism from Western countries.
12 Tomoaki Ishii, “The Political Process before and after the Tiananmen Square Incident and the Role of Trade Unions,” Asian Studies, Vol. 54 No. 3, pp. 13-15.
13 For example, Guo Daojiu, “Strengthen Research on China’s Political Party Theory and International Discourse Power,” Journal of United Front Science, 2018, No. 1. Guo is a professor at the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University. This was a research paper published under a priority research project in philosophy and social sciences in Tianjin. Another example is “Self-Confidence Based on ‘Harmony’: Strengthen Research on Discourse Power Relating to China’s Political Party Theory – With a Discussion on the Method of Political Party Consultation in China from the Standpoint of Integrating Marxism and Traditional Culture,” United Front Work Department, Dalian Municipal Party Committee, July 18, 2017. (in Chinese)
20 A political campaign targeting workers of private companies was launched in 2020 after a directive called “Opinion on United Front Work in the Private Economy in the New Era” was issued in September.
22 Non-CPC intellectuals have long participated in policymaking in the economic field. For example, a symposium with non-CPC members attended by General Secretary Xi Jinping was held on July 28 and their opinion on the economy in the second half of 2021 was solicited. (“Xi Presides over Symposium for Soliciting Advice on Economic Work,” Xinhuanet, July 30, 2021.）