By Kerry Brown
The consensus on the history of the People’s Republic of China after its establishment in 1949 is that the last seven decades divides into two phases. The first until 1978, broadly covering the Maoist era, saw mass campaigns, utopian visions guiding social development, and an ideology based on class struggle. After 1978, in the reform and opening up era, the focus shifted dramatically to making economic development and material improvements through marketization, privatization, and opening to the outside world.
These two phases are so different that they frequently cause people to wonder whether they can truly be said to belong to the same entity. The claim is often made that up to 1978 China was one place, and then after that date another. Communism prevailed under Mao. And then a form of indigenous capitalism from Deng onwards held sway. This schemata is one that the current supreme leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has rejected. For him, the Communist Party is like a learning community, one that made one set of judgments about China’s needs and its developmental priorities up to 1978, and through the mistakes, simply recalibrated its core positioning, while still pursuing the same overall commands and directions. There is no division, simply two complementary, contrasting parts of the same tale.
What unites all history from 1949 despite these differences, most agree, is that throughout this period the Communist Party has enjoyed a monopoly on power. This has never been seriously contested. Its greatest threat, ironically, was not from without, but within – during the Maoist onslaught on it during the Cultural Revolution half a century ago.
There is a different, triadic framework to see this history however, rather than the dyadic one described above. That focuses more on the issue of control, one of the fundamental attributes of the Party and its exercise of power.
One could say that in the early era of its existence, from the time when Mao became the most influential leader in the late 1930s down to the time of his death, the main source of authority and enforcement for the Party was violence – either through insurrectionist struggle in the years before it came to power, or through controlling the organs of coercion from 1949 onwards. After all, Mao himself recognized that `power grows from the barrel of a gun.’ His control of the military was crucial in this, meaning that even in the chaos from 1966 he could call on their loyalty to enforce his will. Violence, often waged by the state, was widespread in the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightist campaigns from the late 1950s, and through the many different movements that comprise the Cultural Revolution a decade later. The Party rose to power through violence, and exercised violence when it needed to once it has a secure grip on power.
From 1978, however, while monopoly on coercion and violence remained, the Party as society became richer started to locate power in material and in particular monetary assets. The acme of this was the era of Hu Jintao when the Party was able to enforce its will simply by either granting people money making opportunities, or paying them off to get their acquiescence. Most succumbed. The era of fast growth meant that the Maoist adage of power growing from a gun was replaced by power growing from a vast pile of RMB.
There was one huge issue with this however: the corrosive effect it had on the loyalty of cadres, the huge amounts of corruption it saw develop, and the incredible distraction it offered. The Party elite became like business leaders with almost no political or ideological soul. This was an extraordinary place for a Party to arrive at which has, as part of its founding story, the attack on inequality and corruption experienced under the nationalists prior to 1949.
We are now into a third phase. The basis for power under Xi Jinping, as growth and enrichment have fallen in pace, has changed. It is now more about control not of state sanctioned violence, or money and wealth, though these are still important issues – but about narratives. Xi is more into promoting visions, stories of national development, renaissance and growth. This vision more than anything else is what motivates, recruits and mobilizes Chinese people.
Power growing from narratives lays at the heart of the various grand stories that Xi and his colleagues have promoted. These range from the China Dream, to the Belt Road Initiative, to the huge story of the rise to great nation status when the first centennial goal is achieved in 2021. Like all good stories, this one has had a beginning (China’s national suffering in the era of humiliation), a middle (the arduous march over the last seven decades to modernization) and, within arm’s reach, an end – the restoration of China at the centre of the world, and its moment finally as a modern, powerful, strong and respected nation.
The Communist Party under Xi could not, and does not currently, need to use state sanctioned violence as it once did. Nor does it have the ability to simply focus on gaining people’s support through money and wealth creation – that always has its limits. Under Xi, the third phase of power is now underway – control of the grand narratives and stories for Chinese society. And this may well prove to be the most sustainable, the most powerful, and the most influential of the three, as long as it least some of its core ambitions and elements are achieved. Because, as always with power, those exercising it are also at the same time at its mercy. Xi’s power derives from the grand stories he is telling – and will wax, or wane, dependent on how much these are seen to be happening, rather than proving to be mere daydreams.
Kerry Brown is Professor and Director of the Lau China Institute at Kings College London, and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute.