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How Xi Jinping is being placed at the very centre of China’s story of reform

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the political meeting that marked the start of China’s long journey of “reform and opening.” For most, change was not immediately evident in the months following this important meeting. Even the term “reform and opening” was years away. In a bulletin from the meeting published in the Party’s official People’s Daily on Christmas Eve 1978 the words stood apart, in pledges to “seriously reform the economic management system” and to “engage in mutually beneficial economic cooperation with the various countries of the world.”

But that political session is rightly regarded Tuesday as a seminal moment that began China’s dramatic transformation into an economically dynamic nation — and this is why it is important for us to understand the vantage from which China’s current leaders choose to view that moment of transformation.

xi jinping

Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee was not of course just about economics. It was a commitment to a more open China, and it was a repudiation of the path the Party had previously taken, marked by the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution. The session criticised Mao’s failures to enable collective leadership, and spoke out against the personality cult that had developed around him. These criticisms were a prelude to the 1981 Decision Regarding Certain Historical Questions for the Party Since the Founding of the Nation (关于建国以来党的若干历史问题的决议), for which drafting began in November 1979 under the direction of Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang.

On Monday, on the eve of the anniversary, the People’s Daily ran a special feature extending over five full pages, from page five through to page 19, which we can read as an authoritative summary of the reform period as glimpsed through the lens of the current leadership. The special feature, called “Major Events of Reform and Opening” (改革开放四十年大事记), was prepared for the newspaper by the Institute of Party History and Documentation (中央党史和文献研究院), a Party office created in March this year through the merger (part of the resolution on “deepening reform”) of three bodies, the Party History Research Center, the Literature Research Center, and the Compilation and Translation Bureau. The feature runs to 54,000 characters.

So what does this special feature tell us? Here is our quick rundown, looking principally at the names of China’s top leaders, from Mao through the reform period, and how they are represented in the text.

people's daily xi jinping

Readers will notice that “Mao Zedong” appears in the text a total of 11 times, the lowest frequency among the five past leaders. Of these appearances, 8 occur within the phrase “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想), and none of these refers to Mao in the context of the Cultural Revolution as major tragedy or misstep — a notable detail, of course, because, as we said previously, this assessment of Mao’s legacy formed an important component of “reform and opening.”

Even a section of the special feature that deals with the Decision Regarding Certain Historical Questions for the Party Since the Founding of the Nation emphasises only Deng Xiaoping’s remarks in March 1980 that “Mao Zedong Thought must be continued and developed.”

Deng Xiaoping, who is generally known as the “architect” of reform and opening, is mentioned a total of 60 times in Monday’s special feature. Of these, six mentions are of “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” Deng’s so-called “banner term,” or political brand, while the vast majority of mentions occur in the context of Deng’s various meetings and speeches within the timeline of China’s reform history.

Deng Xiaoping propaganda

Deng Xiaoping propaganda billboard. 

Jiang Zemin is mentioned 47 times in the text, of which 10 mentions are in the context of Jiang’s banner term, the “Three Represents” (三个代表). Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, trails the pack, with 39 mentions in total, 13 occurring in the context of his banner term, the “Scientific View of the Development” (科学发展观).

The star of the show, of course, is President Xi Jinping. This is something we might have guessed. But just look at how far Xi Jinping leaves the pack behind. His six years in office account for just 15 percent if the total duration of the reform era, and yet he receives 127 mentions in total in the text, more than double that of Deng Xiaoping.

Comparing with other contemporary leaders, we may also note that China’s current premier, Li Keqiang (李克强), is mentioned just three times within the entire text—and these mentions occur, moreover, only alongside other officials as Party appointments are noted. As for other important names, Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) appears 4 times in the feature, in the context of his appointment as premier, and in a policy document that includes his name. Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) appears just twice. Wan Li (万里) appears once only (his appointment in 1988 as head of the NPC Standing Committee). Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋) does not appear.

If memory serves, we often say. And in this case, the numbers make it very clear who the Party’s memory serves — and what that means, by extension, for the consensus reached in the early reform era regarding collective leadership.


This article was written in collaboration with researcher Dorothy Dong.

How Xi Jinping is being placed at the very centre of China's story of reform