Understanding Xi Jinping Thought: the clear and present implications for democratic nations
3 Jun 2024|

Xi Jinping Thought (XJT) is now the principal ideology governing China. It carries deep implications for the ways democratic nations deal with the country in an increasingly confrontational era of strategic competition.

Yet this ideology promulgated by President Xi Jinping is rarely analysed in any depth in the West. It is superficially understood, commonly misinterpreted, or even dismissed as an insufficient vision for national development to replace the ethos of the era of opening up and market reform.

XJT is a sprawling concept. Among its main ideas is that China must strengthen the party and itself by ‘waging great struggles, building great projects, promoting great enterprises and realising great dreams.’ Reminiscent of the language of Chairman Mao, these so-called Four Greats generically refer to China undertaking big development efforts, to the expansion and outward movement of enterprises, and to dreams of the country taking a new great leap forward in socialist modernization—all under the supreme leadership and guidance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It is a totalising ideology that enshrines the absolute leadership of the party over the state constitution. There is no state separate from the party. The decisive function of the market, a key aspect of the reform era, is now subservient to XJT and the party cells that are embedded in businesses and required to guide them.

Strategic competition with China encompasses global economics, finance, and global governance models, including contestation over the directions of institutions such as the UN, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization and World Bank. It also extends to multilateral and bilateral trade dealings, cyber development, defence alliances and soft-power relationships. There is no longer any significant area that is not heavily contested, including space.

The implications are that those who simply (or unquestioningly) want business with China to return to what they think of as normal (that is, as it was in the defunct market-reform and opening-up era) and who are not recognising the realpolitik of XJT are either wilfully blind, making serious miscalculations, or both. This applies more than ever to those celebratory moments when China makes a trade concession (or removes a coercive measure) to one of its minions. Dealing with a relentless and emboldened Middle Kingdom must start with a recognition and understanding of the realpolitik of XJT.

XJT, incorporated into the CCP constitution at its 19th Party Congress in October 2017 and consolidated in 2022, now represents China’s state ideology. It encompasses the interrelated narratives of building a moderately prosperous society, deepening economic reform, governing the nation according to law, and tightening party discipline. Xi’s philosophy is projected  globally through Chinese enterprises being encouraged to develop abroad—especially under the Belt and Road Initiative.

‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ is tied to a dream of national rejuvenation by 2050 that includes reunification with Taiwan. The overall goal is to create one patriotic people: united by one party, one ideology and one leader. With Xi officially at the core, ideological indoctrination is firmly controlled by the CCP emphasising strict discipline and a highly centralised hierarchy. Indoctrination through XJT is regarded as ineffective if it is not all encompassing. That is to say, it must penetrate civil society completely and be embedded in minds from an early age.

Making China great revolves around the supremacy of a CCP that can guide everyone everywhere in all policy areas. This cannot always work in a nation of so many people, and frail edges have appeared since the end of Covid-19 pandemic controls in late 2022. Xi and Putin have further affirmed their no limits partnership, but Xi’s global vision embraces a principle of China First—for China to be the world’s top power by mid-century.

The realpolitik of the CCP’s totalising grand narrative places the party at the centre of economic and technical development, social cohesion, law, and governance. CCP supremacy is presented as the only way to realise the Chinese Dream. With this totalising discourse, however, a climate of fear and control has arisen, like a dangerous phoenix not seen since Mao’s cultural revolution era. As with any totalising discourse, there is no room for dissent on decided policy—as revealed in the silencing of Chinese legal rights lawyers, citizen journalists and other activists. Indeed, senior business leaders have been disappeared to make examples for others and ensure compliance.

This rule-by-fear element has affected China’s outwards expansion, especially since its loss-of-face when a UN arbitral tribunal ruled unanimously against it in 2016 in the Law of the Sea case Republic of the Philippines v the People’s Republic of China. China’s more assertive approach to its neighbours and the rest of the world have since become clearer, with what it calls US hegemony perceived as its enemy number one.

In short, China’s reform and opening-up era is over. The core factors that characterised it—political stability, some ideological openness and rapid economic growth—are unravelling. Economic cleavages have widened despite the party’s rhetoric around ‘common prosperity’. Ideological indoctrination has deepened along with digital surveillance of the general population. China’s messaging about its peaceful outward expansion under an authoritarian leadership model is inconsistent.

That narrative is no longer convincing to anyone other than diehards still convinced the reform and opening-up era can yet prevail. This is wishful thinking. China has greatly enhanced its technological capacities, significantly enlarged its arsenal of weapons, and successfully landed spacecraft on the moon and even Mars. There is no longer a business-as-usual environment when engaging with China because all Chinese enterprises must fall into line with the requirements of XJT and the supremacy of the CCP.

Sleepers awake.