By: Ian Easton |
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the author’s new book, The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy.
There are watershed moments in the life of a country that say something crucial about why it exists, what it wants, and where it is going. May 4, 2018, was such a moment for China. It was a day of immense pomp and circumstance across the entire nation, and especially in Beijing. It was a turning point after which, by design, nothing would be quite the same ever again.
The Great Hall of the People had been specially decorated to mark the occasion. Red banners with gold tasseled trim hung across the paneled walls. Blocks of Chinese characters announced the theme of the event, each character occupying over a dozen square meters of banner space. Three thousand members of China’s high society filled the aisles. The room rippled and hummed with anticipation.
Finally, with every piece of the set in its place, the grand ceremony began. The orchestra began an upbeat revolutionary number. The crowd rose to its feet. All eyes and cameras panned forward, homing in on the reason they were gathered.
Enter the Dictator
Xi Jinping strode onto the stage, hot waves of applause washing over him. His plain attire – a navy-blue suit, white shirt, and checked necktie – made him blend in with all the other officials present. But a massive chasm separated him from them. He was China’s paramount leader, the general secretary of the CCP, the chairman of the PRC, and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. And those titles didn’t even begin to capture the mammoth totality of his power. Xi was merely 64, and he had already secured more official authority than any Chinese leader before him. He was like the emperors of old, only more so.
Xi was the core leader, the commander-in-chief, and the chairman of multiple new super committees he had conjured out of thin air. Those bodies now allowed him to decide China’s policies on state security, the economy, the Internet, and anything else that actually mattered. Xi had become an absolute dictator, the first China had known since Mao Zedong’s death four decades earlier. Like Mao, Xi knew how to be ruthless, how to purge rivals, and how to wage mass campaigns that rocketed his strength to new heights.
In recent years Xi had developed a cult of personality around himself and overseen a series of brutal crackdowns on enemies both real and imagined, campaigns that seemed likely to go on indefinitely. A political egomaniac, Xi had appointed no successor and, so far, had destroyed all those that looked capable of replacing him during his lifetime. The hallmarks of his rule had become tightening the CCP’s iron grip on all aspects of Chinese society while at the same time expanding all aspects of China’s global influence.
He dressed plainly to show his oneness with the Party and the people. Yet that was merely an illusion. He stood alone, towering above all the rest.
The room stood at attention as the national anthem blared through the speaker system. For Xi, this moment was the crowning achievement of a lifetime of misery, suffering, and grinding hard work. After paying his dues and making others pay theirs (many with their lives), he had now accumulated more power than any man in Chinese history. He had been constantly humiliated – as a child, as a young man, and even as a senior official – but had never broken. His resilience and determination to win at all costs had paid off handsomely. As his eyes scanned the beaming faces of a multitude desperate to please him, he might have marveled at the twists and turns of fortune.
At Fever Pitch
The day’s ceremony at the Great Hall of the People was not about Xi himself. It was about another man, a man he respected and revered above all others, a man he worshipped. Xi had gotten his doctorate degree studying this man’s ideas and had dedicated his entire professional life to writing about, practicing, and spreading those ideas. Xi believed that he owed this man everything.
According to Xi, this man was the light and hope of the entire world. The grand event was the capstone of an all-out national education campaign to celebrate his legacy. And while the man’s ideas were already widespread in China, Xi felt they needed far more hammering in. To this end, he had ordered the entire country, and especially the members of the Communist Party ruling class, to pour over the man’s writings, gushing that the man was “the greatest thinker in human history.”
In a not-so-subtle reminder of what was considered politically correct, Xi’s much feared loyalty enforcement unit, the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, circulated an article that opined, “In the entire history of human society and human thought, no one has contributed more.” The article went on to order all Communist Party members and government officials to “deeply grasp the far-reaching influence” of the man’s teachings, and “more correctly grasp” how important his ideas were for guiding the future of human society.
Xi put China’s vast resources behind the campaign. His largesse ensured that a historic series of commemorative events were organized across the nation and by Chinese embassies around the world. The week before, state media had begun airing a five-part prime time documentary, simply titled He is Right.” This was followed by a two-part documentary about the great man’s writings. Part one of the documentary had been shown on China Central Television the night before. Part two would be shown that evening after Xi’s speech.
The next day was a Saturday, the great man’s birthday, and the weekend crowd was expected to pack into a museum event planned in Shanghai’s affluent Xintiandi district, where the government would be unveiling a rare copy of the man’s most famous book. Dozens of similar museum exhibitions and commemorative events had been set up around China to mark the occasion.
Propaganda outlets in Guangdong, one of China’s most influential provinces, had gone so far as to produce audio programs in which government officials could be heard reading the man’s works out loud in endless recording sessions. This and other related audio content were made available on mobile apps, so that anyone with a cheap smartphone could listen and learn.
Xi had recently visited Peking University, the “Harvard of China,” and given a speech in which he ordered China’s educators to further promote the man’s ideas “in campuses, classrooms, and among students.” In honor of China’s paramount leader, Peking University had just opened a new research institute on Xi Jinping Thought. But, when he visited, Xi himself seemed far more interested in their programs on the thinking of his hero. “Inspired” by his passion for the great man’s ideas, the university was now hosting a world forum for international researchers from thirty countries who, like Xi, had decided to dedicate their graduate studies to him.
Meanwhile, a towering statue of Xi’s savior had been commissioned and erected in the man’s hometown, with hundreds of flag-waving fans cheering as the two-ton bronze monolith was officially unveiled. Printing presses manufactured stacks of the man’s books. Factories churned out a mountain of plastic memorabilia, including gnome-like renditions of the man’s bust and baby bath toys made of rubber. A special wine label was released in his honor. Digital stoplights were programmed to show him directing traffic. Commemorative cash was even printed with his portrait.
Hundreds of academic papers were published. An avalanche of editorials in the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and other CCP mouthpieces lauded his ideas as the everlasting key to China’s stability and development. The man’s hand-written notes had been obtained from a foreign institution and were now being displayed at the PRC National Museum in the way in which the Vatican might be expected to display the fabled Holy Grail should it ever turn up. All of China was at a fever pitch.
The moment had finally come. Xi Jinping strode up to the podium, bowed to the audience, and began to deliver his address. Directly behind him, a colossal portrait of the godlike figure dominated the wall. The painting was so large that anyone standing next to it would have appeared smaller than the man’s billowing white beard, which flowed down over his chest. The man was depicted in a black bowtie, with his head turned all the way left, his fierce gaze piercing into the distance. Under the portrait were the numbers 1818–2018.
Xi began his sermon in signature fashion, his smoker’s voice deep, flecked with grit and tar. He spoke methodically, weaving together the man’s life story and the story of modern China, peppering the narrative with worshipful quotes from the man’s friends and disciples. After a protracted warm-up, Xi finally came to the point, exclaiming:
“Comrades! Today, we are here to remember and celebrate Karl Marx. We are here to show our respects to the greatest thinker in human history. And we are also here to demonstrate our unshakable belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”
Karl Marx was the father of The Communist Manifesto, a document that opposed the institutions of family, religion, democracy, free markets, and even countries – a document that urged followers to violently overturn their governments and establish a new system where all money, property, armaments, and political power were centralized in the hands of the despotic state. Marx’s manifesto was published in 1848 as the platform for a secret society in England, the Communist League. It was translated and disseminated, ultimately catalyzing radical movements that established communist governments around the world.
In his speech, Xi made clear that when he talked about socialism, he was not talking about the liberal democratic socialism practiced in northern Europe. He was talking about the communist type, the ideology practiced by regimes in North Korea, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union. He was talking about a form of government that had killed staggering numbers of its own people. In 1999, it was conservatively estimated that Marx-inspired communist regimes caused one hundred million deaths in the twentieth century, more than half of them in China itself.
And today, without a hint of irony, Xi was leading all of China in a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of Marx’s birth. Yet, while that was the stated theme of the day’s event, the actual purpose Xi had in mind was far bolder. It was downright revolutionary.
Xi proclaimed, “Karl Marx dedicated his entire life to overthrowing the old world and establishing a new world. He fought for that relentlessly his whole life.” Xi told the audience that Marx’s lifework had not been in vain. His long-term dream of creating a stateless collective, a global communist civilization and utopia, was still on track and would one day be realized. World socialism was coming. Thanks to China, the international communist movement was still alive, and, in fact, had never been stronger.
“Even though world socialism has had twists and turns in its path as its developed, the overall trend of human social development has not changed. And it will not change.”
Xi described the teachings of Marx as foundational, saying: “Marxism is the ultimate guiding thought of our Party and our state. It is a powerful thought weapon for understanding how the world works, for grasping fundamental laws, for seeking truth, and for changing the world.”
He again emphasized that China would change the world. The following words filled the Great Hall of the People:
“We must deeply understand that realizing communism is an objective that happens in a historical process. It occurs in stages, one step at a time. It happens by us unifying the far-reaching ideals of communism together with socialism with Chinese characteristics, and then unifying them with everything we are doing right now…We must firmly believe in the ideals of the communist man. Just like Marx, we must struggle for communism our entire lives.”
Then, in a thinly veiled threat to anyone in the audience who might harbor other sympathies, Xi declared that the man who rejected Marxism would make himself an enemy of the increasingly assimilated world. It would be far better, he said, for everyone to help “Construct a Community of Common Destiny for All Mankind” (also commonly translated as Creating a Community of Shared Future for Mankind) − a slogan he equated to a beautiful collectivized world, something he promised was not far off.
And, with quasi-religious zeal, Xi reminded all the gathered CCP members that their souls belonged to Marxism. “Comrades! The Chinese Communist Party is a political party that has armed itself with Marxism. For the Chinese Communist Party member, Marxism is the soul of our ideals and our beliefs.” Xi Jinping’s speech culminated in the following lines:
“It is the sacred responsibility of the Chinese Communist Party member to continually push forward the development of Marxism. We will resolutely use Marxism to observe this age, understand this age, and lead this age. We will use modern China’s vitality and rich experience to push forward the progress of Marxism…. We will unceasingly spread modern Chinese Marxism and Marxism in the twenty-first century!”
He capped the speech off with a quote from Marx’s best friend and coauthor, Friedrich Engels. The ceremony ended with a rendition of “The Internationale” – a song inspired by The Communist Manifesto, which had served as the anthem of the Bolsheviks and early Soviet Union. This song had once been the national anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic, the CCP’s base in the early years of the Chinese Civil War. It was now the closing number for all major Chinese political events.
As the curtains fell on Xi’s grand ceremony, the following words of the Chinese version of the anthem rang out: “We will be masters of the world! This is the final struggle. Unite together. Soon international communism must be realized.”