Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era: Whose Era?

China, Editorial

The big take-away from Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress Report is that China has entered a ‘New Era’. Many pundits have been claiming that this is Xi’s era, but whose is it really?

19th Party Congress and Xi Jinping Thought

Definitely a New Era

As soon as Xi Jinping enunciated the last words of his 204 minute speech, a wave of applause began to reverberate throughout the Great Hall of the People. 2,287 Party Delegates clapped enthusiastically, demonstrating perhaps a combination of heartfelt affection and ardent relief.

Xi himself emphasised his last two words – jixu fendou! Continue striving – with a suppressed grin, allowing himself a fully pleased-with-myself smile as he resumed his seat at the bosom of his party.

Meanwhile, thousands of foreign journalists also breathed sighs of relief and cast their minds ahead to the difficult task of interpreting the Party Congress Report.

Xi’s Report has probably been the subject of more international scrutiny than any other, and most pundits (FT $, Guardian, SCMP, Sky, BBC, etc.) seem to have gone with the obvious headline phrase ‘new era’.

Not to blame them of course, ‘New Era’ is without a shadow of a doubt the most important take away from Xi’s speech. This is, after all, the key bit of Xi’s signature contribution to Party theory, wheeled out in the very first minute of his speech:

The theme of the Congress is: Remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind, hold high the banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, strive for the great success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and work tirelessly to realise the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.

Without the sexy ‘New Era’ tag, Xi’s formulation would just be ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, which was a phrase enshrined in lore at the 13th Party Congress in 1987 to justify the free market work of a reform era Communist party.

Xi Jinping Thought

In the run up to the Party Congress, one of the key “things to watch out for” in many a Party Congress primer was whether or not Xi would get an eponymous theoretical contribution to the Party Constitution.

It looks like we have Xi’s theoretical contribution – ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ – but Wednesday’s Xi-less phrasing frustrated many predictions.

In terms of its emphasis on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, Xi’s speech wasn’t dramatically different from Hu Jintao’s mid-term Party Congress Report in 2007; Hu also made his new ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ idea a main theme of his speech.

But it should be remembered that amendments to the Party Constitution haven’t been voted on yet. This is the moment we are looking ahead to.

In 2007, the Party Constitution wasn’t amended to include Hu’s ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ as party of its “guiding ideology”. That only happened in 2012, when Hu stepped down.

So if Xi’s theory makes it into the constitution, that seriously breaks with precedent: Jiang and Hu only got their theories mentioned once they retired, and Deng had to be dead before he got an eponymous ‘Theory’.

Is it still too early to gauge the extent of Xi’s authority?

Some analysts, like the Beijing-based research firm Trivium, suggest that the signals are clear. Three top dogs in the party used the formulation ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ during post-Congress discussions, and state media is pretty insistent on ‘Xi Jinping Thought’.

Trivium think that the Party will unanimously agree to add Xi’s name on the last day of Congress, following the pattern of Xi’s Party-led assumption of “core” status last year.

This makes sense. Presumably even the “Chairman of Everything” would blush at suggesting that the Party should ‘hold high the banner’ of “Xi Jinping Thought”. If the Party itself attributes this “Thought” to “Xi Jinping”, that’s a little more tenable, in fact, it makes Xi look powerful and humble at the same time.

Is the ‘New Era’ the Party’s era?

So, Xi leapfrogs even Deng’s “Theory”, to be placed on a par with Mao and his “Thought”. Have all the Xi-Mao comparisons over the years been accurate? Maybe… but it is worth bearing revisiting this wonderful ChinaFile article by Jessica Batke and Oliver Melton:

Without insight into high-level deliberations and leaders’ priorities, it is almost impossible to differentiate between a strong Chinese leader who forces his compatriots to adopt his preferences and one who has a supportive environment and institutional capacity to enact such policies-or indeed, one whose statements and actions only ever reflected a consensus position in the first place.

International media is very keen to run on “Xi the Emperor”, “Xi is Mao” headlines, and that’s understandable. It’s exciting, and perhaps there’s a little sub-conscious dictatorship-envy/fear thing going on.

Xi does wield tremendous authority, but what struck me about ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ was not Xi’s claim to power, but the tenacity of the Party’s sense of historical mission.

Perhaps because Chinese politics is so opaque, there is a tendency to understand it purely as the manifestation of one man’s political power.

There is no denying the truth of that autocracy, but a more astonishing reality should be the force of the Party’s theoretical logic. Nowadays in the West, we are unfamiliar with the idea of a nation being guided by ‘historical mission’. But that is exactly what Xi Jinping spent three and a half hours talking about on Wednesday.

China’s Communist credentials are often seen as some sort of joke, but we should never underestimate the Party’s Leninist practices, and it’s unique, somewhat weird understanding of Marxism.

There is truth to the assertion that the Party clings to Marxism for reason of its foundational legitimacy, but this isn’t necessarily a case of having to stick to one’s own colours for the sake of appearing sincere.

Marxism also supplies the party with a progressive understanding of history that sees the Party itself as the sole means by which the Chinese nation can achieve its historical mission. This is something Xi spelled out in his 19th Party Congress Report, and it is something Hu spelled out in his 18th Party Congress Report, Jiang in his 16th, and so on.

On Wednesday, Xi told the Party Congress that China had ‘crossed the threshold into a new era’, and that the ‘principle contradiction’ which drove the reform era, had ‘evolved’.

Xi said that, while the ‘historic mission’ and ‘ultimate goal’ (Communism) of the Party remained unchanged, it had reached a ‘historic juncture in Chinese development’, represented by the evolution of this contradiction.

To guide the party and resolve this new contradiction, Xi revealed ‘Chinese Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, and set out a two step plan for becoming a ‘great Socialist country’ by mid century.

There is no theoretical break here from the idea that China is at a capitalistic ‘primary stage of socialism’, but Xi’s entire speech set forth the idea that China was reaching, if you will, a new secondary step in that primary stage. In other words: things are different now. Deng, Jiang, Hu, all belong to one era, and I belong to another.

The message couldn’t be clearer. Like foreign teachers of Chinese history, the Party delineates the story of the People’s Republic of China into two eras: that of Mao Zedong and Revolutionary China; and that of Deng Xiaoping and the Reform Era China. We are now entering the era of Xi Jinping and Global China.

As Bill Bishop, a revered China watcher, noted in his newsletter, this front page is one for the ages.

But we shouldn’t solely focus on Xi’s role in this great psychodrama of the Chinese nation. The developments that we are witnessing now were in play at the opening of the 18th Party Congress, before Xi came to power, when Hu set out the Party’s path according to Party theory.

Obviously it’s very important that this era belongs to Xi, but we should take heed of the context  which situates this moment in China’s grandiose historical narrative, and which situates this Party Congress in a long line of Party Congresses.

In a very immediate sense, this era belongs to the Party and it belongs to China, more than it does Xi Jinping.

You can read my very rough transcript of the Party Congress here. And continue below for five other takeaways from the Party Congress.

Scroll on for more observations on the Party Congress

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin uses a magnifier as he reads Chinese President Xi Jinping's report during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

Five Takeaways from the Party Congress


The Environment

‘Making Great Efforts to Promote Ecological Progress’ was added to the 18th Party Congress Report as an important new section, but Xi’s speech goes a step further in emphasising environmental protection as a pillar of party legitimacy and a main goal for the nation. Xi also mentions China’s role as a global leader in the fight against climate change and describes the environmental situation in new, emotive language, saying we should ‘cherish the environment as we cherish our own lives’.

Foreign Policy

In this Report we saw a manifestation of what many consider Xi’s newly assertive foreign policy. If you compare it to the 18th Party Congress Report, Xi certainly builds on Hu’s portrayal of a ‘confident China’. For instance, in this report Xi drops the ‘local’ in Hu’s claim that the army should be able to ‘win a local war in the information age’.

Xi also implicitly offers the “China model” as an alternative to the “Washington Consensus”, saying that ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ was ‘blazing a new trail for other countries to achieve modernisation’ and offered a ‘new option for other countries’ to develop ‘while preserving their independence’. With regards to the debate over whether China is a ‘status quo’ or ‘revisionist power’ when it comes to overhauling the international system, Xi said that China was intent on ‘reforming and developing the global governance system’.

Xi said that he ‘sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind’, he also uses my favourite phrase ‘community of shared destiny with mankind‘, building on the 18th Party Congress usage and applying the concept more broadly and more definitively.

Hong Kong

Xi was more assertive on the issue of separatism, with his sentence ‘we will never allow anyone, any organisation or any political party at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory’ receiving a big round of applause. On Taiwan, he wasn’t dramatically more assertive than Hu five years ago, who said that independence was ‘doomed to fail’, but, as might be expected after the 2014 Hong Kong protests, Xi was a lot tougher on Hong Kong.


On reform there was a typical mix of market-orientated promises and support for state owned enterprises. It is hard to guess what will actually make it into policy, and such guesses are often wrong, but commentators have highlighted Xi’s statement that the Party would ‘support state capital in becoming stronger and doing better and growing bigger’. Trivium say that supply side structural reforms, something Xi emphasises, will be important in the years to come.

Innovation is mentioned lots. Xi wants to ‘foster a number of world class advanced manufacturing clusters’ and ‘foster new growth areas’ with the help of things like Big Data and AI. Previous growth targets have also been dropped in this year’s report, perhaps to give more room for China’s transition into Xi’s ‘new era’ of addressing balance, rather than pursuing breakneck growth.

The Party

The party was obviously the Report’s most important topic. As is usual, the report ended with a long section on ‘party building’, during which Xi emphasised the need to combat corruption, follow the lead of the Central Committee, and provide institutional reform and oversight. Here are three good quotes:

  • On corrupt officials: ‘wherever offenders may flee they will be bought back and bought to justice’.
  • We must ‘build our party into a vibrant marxist governing party that is always at the forefront of the times, enjoys the full support of the people, and has the courage to reform itself’.

  • ‘The people resent corruption most and corruption is the greatest threat our party faces’.

Other points

  • Xi mentions the South China Sea island construction as one of the Party’s achievements over the past five years.
  • Good quote: ‘without leadership of Chinese Communist Party national rejuvenation would just be wishful thinking’.
  • The Belt and Road gets lots of mentions.
  • New Leading Group ‘for advancing law based governance in all areas’ to be set up.
  • On property: ‘housing’s for living not for speculation’.
  • Best instance of colourful language: Xi wants to encourage interactions between ethnic groups ‘helping them remain closely united like the seeds of a pomegranate’.

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