Nearly two years into his tenure as China’s leader, President Xi Jinping has yet to expound on a clear notion of what the Communist Party should stand for as a whole or what direction the country should take. In the absence of a forward-thinking vision, Xi has instead often gazed backwards, into the periods of Chinese history the party once shunned.
That China’s president is often more comfortable talking about the country’s past than its future was evident this week when he delivered a speech at a meeting of the International Confucian Association commemorating the 2,565th anniversary of Confucius’s birth – the first time, according to Chinese Central Television that a Chinese president has addressed an international meeting on the philosopher.
The speech (in Chinese ) was praised by people who were there as erudite and eloquent. Extolling Confucius and his importance, Xi said that “to understand today’s China, today’s Chinese people, we must understand Chinese culture and blood, and nourish the Chinese people’s grasp of its own cultural soil.”
Many have taken notice of the Communist party’s interest in Confucius – a scholar excoriated by previous generations of communists for advocating a social system that promoted inequality – in recent years. Although that revival seemed to be starting before Xi took over, it has accelerated under his watch, with official media repeatedly portraying the leader as being steeped in classical Chinese literature.
There’s no question the glorification of China’s past has helped the party win public support, adding emotional heft to the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. The question is how much an obstacle it’s going to be for Xi’s efforts to lead the party.
Xi Jinping Reuters
Xi’s approach is different from his immediate predecessors, who provided ideological templates with slogans designed to summarize what the Communist Party stood for and where it planned to take China.
With Jiang Zemin, it was the “Three Represents”, which said that the party had to incorporate business elites into their ranks. Hu Jintao proffered “Scientific Development” in the expectation that government decision-making and economic growth would be more technocratic and based on an overall strategy from Beijing, instead of being driven largely by officials looking out for local interests. Both ideological guides were also designed to unite the rank-and-file behind something recognizable—a political shorthand that could also act as a means of testing the loyalty of party officials to follow the Party line.
As with so many matters, Xi’s been different. He’s made no secret of his desire to remake major parts of Chinese politics—seeking to clean up the rampant corruption in party ranks while refusing to tolerate even moderate dissent of government policies. Xi’s policies have run into some resistance , but thus far he’s kept political opponents largelyoff-balance through a skillful combination of revolutionary nostalgia while acknowledging that the Communist party has drifted out of touch with China’s modernizing society.
But it’s in articulating a general vision for the future of the party where Xi has either stumbled or been especially cautious. State-controlled media is quick to praise particular speeches Xi has made (in Chinese ) and pressed Communist party cadres to study them (in Chinese ) as they appear; yet there’s been nothing like an activating principle of general political vision that Xi has been pushing for or identified with.
He has, however, displayed an impressive facility with ancient aphorisms. He visited Confucius’ birthplace of Qifu in Shandong province late last year, paraphrasing China’s great sage that “a state without virtue cannot endure” (in Chinese ). Earlier this year, Party media gave great play (in Chinese ) to Xi’s pronouncements of praise for China’s cultural heritage and the part it played in the nation’s political development; some commentaries have argued that cadres themselves would benefit by reading ancient Chinese philosophy and literature (in Chinese ).And yet Xi seems caught between an abiding respect for the Chinese classics and the need to make sure that China modernizes.
That’s created a conundrum that he seems far from fully resolving. For example, while commending China’s heritage, he has also made it clear in a commemorative speech for Mao Zedong’s birthday (in Chinese ) that China’s Cultural Revolution—an event that devastated many of the nation’s traditional treasures—is a period that should not be necessarily condemned outright.
One interpretation could be that this is Xi playing a balancing act, worshiping Marxism on the one hand, and at the same time appealing to political conservatives by agreeing that there is a need for Beijing to build up Chinese culture as a means of combating “hostile Western forces.” By adopting a higher profile when events about Chinese tradition take place, Xi would be showing China’s political fundamentalists that he is someone who shares their values, and is uninterested in adopting the modes and models of Western development—a stance he reiterated last weekend when he insisted that China’s version of democracy suited China best.
There’s also the very real chance that when Xi is celebrating Confucius, he is speaking from his heart, not his political head—that this is the real Xi, committed to both the classics and the Marxist establishment at the same time, and looking for a way to combine the two into a new political program for the nation.
Whatever the explanation, the challenge for Xi is that he’s looking to reform a system faced with a full set of problems: Economic challenges are intensifying ; ethnic tensions show no sign of abating ; and every day seems to bring new revelations of malfeasance among major players.
Amidst these new tribulations, appeals to ancient tradition can only take him and the Communist party so far. At some point, he and his supporters have to stop staring longingly at the past, and start looking more fully to China’s future.