Xi Jinping, according to the propaganda

The Institute for Xi Jinping Thought promotes the ideas of the Chinese leader, who on Sunday secured an unprecedented third term at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party

Security personnel frisk a journalist next to a screen showing an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Security personnel frisk a journalist next to a screen showing an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping.Andy Wong (AP)

Crossing the threshold of the Institute for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, one can be taken aback by how explicit its goals are: the institution – reads a huge panel decorated with a hammer and sickle – was created in accordance with “the requirements of the Central Propaganda Department” and pursues, among other things, the active promotion of the president’s theories “in books, in classrooms, in minds.”

The main room of its headquarters, located in a glass building of the People’s University in Beijing, is packed with books on Xi, with titles like The Origins and Meaning of Xi Jinping’s Thought for a New Era and The New Silk Road Guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. The image of his face tops the bookcase. In the background, pinned to a cork, hang articles published by some of the more than 80 academics and researchers who are part of the organization. “NATO exports turbulence and instability to the world,” denounces one of them, regarding the war in Ukraine.

A visit to this place is a way of peeking into the political vision of the head of state, general secretary of the Party and president of the Central Military Commission, the leader who consolidated his power on Sunday, securing an unprecedented third term at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party.

His theories have become an ideological force in China. Since 2018, “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” has been chiseled into the country’s Constitution. Also in the party’s constitution (or statutes); it permeates almost all areas of life.

Since 2021, it has been mandatory for children and university students to study his ideas. Wang Yiwei, vice president of the institute, uses an analogy to explain the point of the ideological education: “You [in the West] have God, you go to church on Sundays,” he says. “But in China, we are quite a secular society. The Communist Party must take charge of the values by educating the people. We need to emphasize the Marxist ideology.” It is an adapted socialism, he continues, that takes from the “tradition” of the country, and was renovated to adapt to the 21st century. The “Chinese characteristics,” he adds, also emphasize the difference with the Soviet Union, whose collapse is perhaps the biggest of the ghosts that haunt Xi.

The need to spread Marxism, according to Wang, is key in the country. Otherwise, with 1.4 billion people and a middle class that is larger than the entire population of the European Union, “how can China remain a stable society?”

The academic, who is also director of the Institute of International Affairs and a regular in the official press, summarizes the contributions of Xi’s first decade in three points. First, there is the struggle to prevent private capital from gaining control after decades of openness and reform. Second: “We are against a society controlled by technology,” he declares. Third: “We think of the people first.”

This last idea is one of Beijing’s usual arguments to defend its strict zero-Covid policy. When asked if the restrictions have become a source of social turbulence, Wang is quick to reply: “China prefers order to freedom. Collectivism to individualism. [...] We are willing to sacrifice our human rights for the nation. If it’s good for the nation in the long run, we can tolerate the suffering in the short run.”

Xi’s so-called “new era” is also a way of turning the page: since 2012, a period of important social and economic achievements begun, during which China has achieved the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous” society – as the leader stated. However, it must persist until it transforms into a “mighty modern socialist country” by 2050.

A journalist reports before the cameras on the congress of the Communist Party of China, on October 21 in Beijing.
A journalist reports before the cameras on the congress of the Communist Party of China, on October 21 in Beijing.NOEL CELIS (AFP)

In the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party has gained more importance. And in the last year, the idea that Xi is at its core and the rest of the party members have to follow his leadership and theoretical framework has been strengthened. In the words of Wang Yang, president of the Consultative Conference, the main political advisory body of the People’s Republic, the centrality of the president and the guidance of his thought provide “certainty” in a world full of “uncertainties.”

“With his outstanding political wisdom, his extraordinary theoretical courage and his deep sense of the world as a Marxist statesman, thinker and strategist, General Secretary Xi Jinping firmly grasps the general development trend of China and the world, thinks deeply about the future and the destiny of humanity, and inherits and carries forward the fundamental principles and excellent diplomacy of the new China,” said Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu recently in a video appearance.

The press briefings at the 20th National Congress were full of similar language. And well-meaning questions. Only a few Western journalists managed to sneak some queries between those of the official press and the dozens of correspondents from countries of the global south who were expressly brought (and co-financed) by China for the event. All the appearances, for health reasons, were virtual: the Communist leaders were seen through a huge screen, which distanced them from their audience. They looked bigger, more serious and almost unreachable as they talked about “brilliant achievements.”

Another example: after the opening ceremony of the Congress, the delegates took time to speak to the media at the foot of the Great Hall of the People, in Tiananmen Square. “The biggest transformation in our village has been of the mind. There are smiles everywhere,” assured delegate Yang Ning, dressed in a traditional costume. A little further, delegate Li Yinjiang insisted: “In the next five years, the happiness index will be even higher. We are grateful to the Party, to the great Party Congress, which will bring greater happiness to our people.”

But there is a flip side to this “happiness.” Since 2012, when Xi came to power, more than 4.6 million cases of official corruption have been investigated, revealed Xiao Pei, deputy secretary of the feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. These include, he added, 553 positions of vice-ministerial rank or higher.

During his decade at the helm of the country, Xi has launched an unprecedented crackdown on corruption. According to various authors, this has also led to the virtual elimination of enemy factions, something that helped pave the way for his third term. In the essay Rethinking Chinese Politics (2021), Joseph Fewsmith explains that Xi has expelled his political rivals and centralized power in a way that had not been done since Deng Xiaoping.

In the words of Deputy Secretary Xiao, from the other side of the screen: “We will consciously use Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era to unite hearts and forge souls.”

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