Shortly after coming to power in October, 2012, the government of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang issued what came to be known as ‘the eight rules’, the beginning of a long and ardent campaign to alter government behavior.
The rules specifically addressed the elimination of government privilege and urged a dramatic reduction in the pomp and circumstance that accompanied official behavior at the time. (One of the rules states: ”All government meetings shall be short, clear in focus, and all empty and courteous comments should be eliminated.” Another specifically forbids the organization of Chinese students studying abroad to ‘welcome’ visiting Chinese officials at the airport.)
And the application of the eight rules has been expanded and more broadly interpreted since. Prior to this past Spring Festival, a time of traditionally generous gift-giving within families, from companies to their employees and customers, and from subordinates to their superiors, the government specifically forbade the use of public funds for the purchase of printed materials to be used as gifts, a move that had a devastating impact on the calendar industry, once a beneficiary of the government’s annual largesse.
The Western media has, for the most part, interpreted all of this to be part of a broader program to curb corruption and graft, a perspective reinforced by the vigorous and well-documented campaign the administration has conducted to expose and punish corrupt officials at every level of government. It is a campaign unprecedented in its scope and scale, bringing down officials considered off-limits in previous campaigns.
Just recently, in fact, the Communist Party of China officially announced that it was investigating Zhou Yongkang, the former security tsar and member of the nine-member Politburo, the pinnacle of power in China. He is, in fact, the first and only member of the Politburo ever to be investigated for “serious violations of discipline,” the common euphemism for taking bribes.
I believe, however, that the Western media is missing the real story here. While Westerners tend to think of corruption in the context of Judeo-Christian morality, the real storyline here is Xi Jinping’s desire to re-invigorate the Party’s commitment to Marxist ideology.
President Xi is not in any way attempting to remake China in a Western image. He has, in fact, specifically warned his Party faithful not to ape Western morality and behavior. The implication, in fact, is that Western ideology and morality, with its emphasis on material and financial achievement, is the root cause of government corruption and the polarization of wealth and income that plagues most capitalist democracies.
As the head of the Communist Party of China, President Xi, of course, is a Marxist. As with most ideologies, however, there are Marxists and there are Marxists. There are, to put it another way, Marxists who buy into the mechanics of Marxist politics (i.e. technocrats). And there are idealists who truly believe in the utopian community Marxist ideology seeks to achieve. President Xi, I believe, falls decidedly into this latter camp.
It is true, as some analysts have correctly maintained, that President Xi and Premier Li took office at a time of growing concern within the Party about it’s grip on power. Mao Zedong was a revolutionary. But he was a populist revolutionary. He was, even at the height of his power, a man of the people and continues to be revered as such today, even among those who suffered during the Cultural Revolution. (President Xi himself was ‘sent down’ to learn from the rural peasants who farmed the soil and his own father was jailed for his beliefs and advocacy.)
As China has prospered economically, however, many members of the Communist Party have prospered far more than the average Chinese citizen whose hard work and sacrifice were the engine that raised 300 million people out of poverty in a single generation. Some senior government officials and their families became, in fact, obscenely wealthy and enjoy a life of luxury and privilege that the average Chinese cannot comprehend, much less abide.
President Xi, simply put, understood that the Party was losing touch with the citizenry from which it rose. And, in the end, he understood all too well that this would ultimately lead to a loss of legitimacy and jeopardize the very existence of the Party and its singular grip on power in China.
I believe, however, that President Xi is motivated by more than mere self-preservation.
On July 21 of this year a statement from the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China (ODCPC) announced a sweeping plan to re-educate government officials in basic Marxist principles, noting a loss of faith and a moral decline among their ranks. This is not, however, a sign that the CPC has any desire to adopt a Western model of morality and virtue. In its announcement the ODCPC specifically and meaningfully noted, “Chinese officials should safeguard the spiritual independence of the nation and avoid becoming an echo of western moral values.”
The official government-run Chinese news agency, Xinhua, later noted that authorities would “work to improve officials’ morals, calling on them to be noble, pure and virtuous persons who have relinquished vulgar tastes.”
The government officials are not alone. Chinese journalists, who must be certified to have access to government spokespeople and official government announcements are likewise undergoing remedial education in Marxist ideology and the Marxist view that journalism be both objective and supportive of Party ideology.
Westerners will naturally interpret this as a move to silence dissent. And that is, by definition, true to a degree. Journalism, however, is no more immune to corruption than government service and several leading Chinese journalists have recently been investigated for taking bribes.
To paraphrase Freud, all of life is personal. And journalists are no exception. We all have an agenda, whether it is consciously articulated or not. True objectivity, even when it comes to journalism, is a journey, not a destination.
And social change, more than anything else, is a political enabler. Once the genie is out of the bottle anyone can use the cover of change to pursue their own political and social agenda, no matter what they may be.
And at few points in history will a single country of such size and significance go through more change than China as it pivots away from the export manufacturing model that allowed it to become the second largest economy in the world to the consumption-based economy that will be necessary to both improve the quality of life for all Chinese and relieve the pressure that being the factory to the world has put on the environment.
The government knows, in other words, that the gut-wrenching changes necessary to complete such a grand economic pivot will open the door to competing political agendas that might have some intrinsic merit, but might, nonetheless, de-rail the whole process and plunge the country into social and political chaos. Which is which will depend on your perspective. But neither truth makes the other any less true.
President Xi frequently refers to the Chinese Dream. It is the cornerstone of his administration. And it is, I believe, a dream defined by proud perseverance, national and ethnic pride, and shared community.
It is not a Western dream. It is a Marxist dream. And that, I believe, is, on balance, very good news for the West.
But that is another topic for another time. Stay tuned.
Title photo credit: chrisdorney@Shutterstock.com
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.