Political jargon and gnomic catchphrases are one of the most discernible propaganda tools of the Communist Party of China. In fact, their prominence in communicating political theories and policy plans is so pervasive that entire legacies of China’s top leaders have been immortalized by the slogans they have patented under their names.
Xi Jinping’s new year gift to China, as millions returned to work after the holiday season ended last week, was a high-octane publicity salvo of his political dogma, the “Four Comprehensives” – the President’s policy-cum-action plan for China.
Zhongnanhai flexed its propaganda muscles and the state controlled media – from print to TV to the internet – threw up elaborate editorials, protracted articles and primetime discussions extolling the far-reaching virtues of Xi’s “strategic” blueprint for the world’s second largest economy. They were quick to declare the President’s future course of action as a “major breakthrough” having already “won people’s hearts”, while of course sparing us the details of how they arrived at such bullish conclusions.
The Four Comprehensives, an amalgamation of theories that have been doing the rounds for many months now, has been listed as: Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, Comprehensively deepen reform, Comprehensively implement the rule of law, and Comprehensively strengthen Party discipline.
A Xinhua editorial noted that Xi first revealed the “Four Comprehensives” theory in December last and described the strategy’s first step as “achieving the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. The “Chinese dream”, Xi’s first major contribution to China’s repository of gnomic catchphrases, continues to remain ambiguous in its definition and vague in its purpose. While the slogan itself nominally calls for greater nationalism rooted in communism, critics say it is a ruse at influencing the minds of its citizens, especially the impressionable youngsters, before they’re defiled by alternative opinions.
Among the Four Comprehensives, reports point out the top goal of comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society as the main aim while the latter three are “strategic moves” at realizing this goal. Thus we are made to understand that in Xi’s “moderately prosperous society” reforms will be deepened, rule of law implemented and communist party discipline strengthened. This all sounds hunky-dory on paper but if Xi’s two and half years of roguish rule is anything to go by, the Chinese society stands to be comprehensively moderated where the only prospering entity will be the Party.
Xi’s Reform mantra: Consolidate power
After he became the President of China in March 2013, Xi implemented his own brand of structural reforms, rapidly consolidating power, to emerge as the country’s paramount leader in the mold of Mao Tsetung and Deng Xiaoping.
Under the slogan of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, Xi streamlined the policy-making process in major areas by forming new top-level central bodies – a move reminiscent of Mao style of decision making which involves the sidestepping of the State Council and its ministries.
Xi currently heads the all-powerful National Security Commission that oversees domestic and foreign threats to security, in addition to fronting the Leading Small Groups on economy, Internet security, military reform, Taiwan, and foreign affairs.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Xi’s big-ticket social reform measures remain lackluster. The relaxation of the one-child policy, permitting couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child, surprisingly failed to germinate. Out of the approximately eleven million couples eligible to have a second child, only one million applied. Experts put the blame for the lukewarm response on toxic environmental conditions and economic concerns.
Xi’s much talked about relief package to China’s more than 200 million migrant workers also remains ineffective. The July 2014 reform of thehukou, or residency permit, allows migrants to receive full urban residency benefits if they move to towns and cities of less than 500,000. This has meant that cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangzhou and other large second-tier cities, where the largest concentration of migrant workers live and find work, are excluded from the policy.
Socialist rule of law
The rule of law as we understand in the free world is empirically different from the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics that the Party expounds. The subject was debated at length with much optimism following the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP, held in October last, during which the commitment to the “rule of law with Chinese characteristics” was formally endorsed.
However, in Xi’s rulebook, the primary role of law is to maintain social order within a convenient system where the Party is above the law and the Constitution. The Party not only controls the law for its own benefit but ensures that social stability, which usually translates to protecting the interests of the Party, remains the basic task of the country’s political and legal work.
The Constitution, which is the bedrock of all the laws that govern the land, is a muted and censored subject in China. Although last year China celebrated its first Constitution Day, the country’s largest search engine Baidu banned Internet forums about the constitution. In 2013, an editorial on constitutionalism set to be published by Southern Weekly was ruthlessly censored and changed at the last minute to one extolling the virtues of the Party. That same year, an internal document issued by the party central office, listed constitutionalism as one of the seven political “perils” to be attacked and guarded against. The official press has in fact termed the idea of the Party being a subject to the constitution as preposterous as “climbing trees to catch fish”.
The highest custodians of the law, the courts in China, continue to remain as tools for the Party. A meeting of the Supreme People’s Court Party Committee last week denounced “judicial independence,” rejected “separation of powers” and called on judges to “resolutely resist the influence of the West’s erroneous thought and mistaken viewpoints.” This after China’s Justice Ministry in 2012 created a requirement for lawyers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Party before receiving their licenses.
Corruption of power
Xi’s call for strengthening party discipline is a direct reference to the ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has captured headlines internationally, and for a change, inside China as well. However, Xi’s hunt for both flies and tigers is seen by many as a reprisal of previous politically motivated anti-graft campaigns aimed at removing opponents and replacing them with loyalists.
An ongoing study by Professor Wang Yuhua at the University of Pennsylvania on all cases of prosecutions in the current campaign at the vice ministerial level and above has revealed that roughly half of them are in fact tied to one man, the disgraced former security czar Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the downfall of Zhou has allowed Xi to consolidate his power base.
According to official sources, under Xi’s anti-corruption drive, cases involving 68 high-level officials are under investigation or have been closed, a total of 71,748 Chinese officials were punished in 2014 and about 270,000 Party cadres have faced sanctions since the campaign started. However, the latest report by Transparency International released last month revealed that corruption has actually become worse in China since Xi took over in 2012. The survey placed China at 100th position, along with Algeria and Suriname, a steep fall from its 80th place the previous year.
Despite his promises of reform and rule of law, Xi is being credited for overseeing a fierce crackdown aimed at limiting dissent, tightening control over the press and social media, prosecuting activist lawyers, banning foreign textbooks, blocking Gmail and VPNs, and putting cameras in classrooms to report on professors. The human rights situation inside China is often described as the harshest since 1989.
A report released last month by the Hubei based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch Group called the present human rights situation in China the worst in the past quarter century. The report finds China’s rights situation “worsening and regressive” and calls the domestic security regime more oppressive than anything seen in the past 25 years.
Voicing similar concerns, Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2015 censures Xi for unleashing the harshest campaign of politically motivated investigations, detentions, and sentencing in the past decade while marking a sharp turn toward intolerance of criticism.
With no end in sight to the worsening rights situation, coupled with Xi’s growing clout in the Party, his absolute rejection of political pluralism and insularity towards alternative voices, his new political theory is at best a façade for legitimising his rule and at worst an indication of the evils to come.
Sherab Woeser is a Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute of the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamshala, India. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the TPI.