Xi Jinping’s “Speech 8.19” misinterpreted

By He Qinglian on September 8, 2013.
Source Article in Chinese: 被左右两方曲解的习近平“8.19讲话”

The recent debate about constitutionalism is very lively. While Maoists and Leftists took Xi Jinping’s remarks that showed his admiration for Mao as indications of a full turn to the left; the pro-constitutionalism faction (aka the “faction of universal values”) expected the Communist Party of China (CPC) to put political reform on the agenda during the Third Plenum this fall. And so the two factions talked past each other, oblivious to the strong political signal Xin Jinping released in his speech “Ideology work is a paramount task of the Party” (known among the Chinese media circle as “Speech 8.19”) and continued to make interpretation following their wishes.

“Speech 8.19”: a CPC declaration to revert to Deng’s path of reform

The political signal of “Speech 8.19” is glaringly obvious. However, the speech, delivered on the eve of the trial of Bo Xilai, received much less attention than the trial and very few people read its content carefully. Some individuals who focus habitually on “internal speeches” which truthfulness are hard to ascertain have inadvertently overlooked this “Speech 8.19”.

It didn’t slip my attention. But unlike specialists within the Party, I didn’t try deliberately to look for a certain number of “highlights”. Instead, some paragraphs caught my eye.

One passage stated that
So long as there is no fundamental change in the trend at home and abroad, we cannot and should not alter our persistence in placing economic development as our top priority. This is what is fundamentally required to uphold in an unwavering fashion the basic line of the Party for a hundred years. This is also what is fundamentally required to solve all problems of contemporary China. At the same time, only when the construction of both material and spiritual civilization are well executed; only when both the material and spiritual strengths of this nation are increased; only when the material and spiritual life of people of all ethnic groups are improved can the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics advances successfully.
Those who are familiar with the political discourse of China in the 1980s and 1990s would surely see that many of Deng Xiaoping’s “classical remarks” appeared in the lines above.

Another paragraph conveyed this signal even more clearly. “Leaders and cadres, high-ranking cadres in particular, have to be serious in studying Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thoughts and especially, Deng Xiaoping’s theories, alongside the important thinking of 'three represents' and the concept of scientific development”. The word “especially” wasn’t added there without any purpose, taking into account that the speech showed approval even to “thoughts” of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, which followed Deng’s path of reform.

The pro-constitutionalism faction has somewhat missed the point in taking the “Speech 8.19” as a huge blow to them because the authorities’ repression on that faction has never been relaxed and there is no need to reinforce it with a new speech.

What that speech actually targeted was the burning desire of the Maoists and Leftists to revert to Mao’s path.

Specialists inside the Party saw this point more clearly. On August 20, the website the People’s Forum published an article by Huang Wei-cho, former deputy editor-in-chief of Red Flag Publishing House. The piece singled out specifically that the first thing Xi Jinping did after he assumed office was to revisit the route of Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour. His action served to make clear both at home and abroad that “the process of China’s reform and opening up is irreversible”, and that means reverting to the Maoist path is not an option.

Why does the CPC prefer Leftists to Rightists?

In the rivalry between Leftists and Rightists that spanned over two decades, the Leftists—including the new-Leftists—was clearly favored and shielded by the authorities, that's why the Maoist Utopia remains standing throughout the period; the Rightists, the liberal intellectuals have not been as fortunate: influential figures of the faction were subjected not only to repeated suppression, but also a state of devoid of any proper online forum.

The reason for this was of course not that the higher levels of the CPC found the Maoist path likable. Rather, from the strategic perspective, the CPC needs the Leftists there to confront the “faction of universal values”.

Back when Mao was in power, life was not easy for senior members of the CPC (including the elders who fought with Mao to seize power). Mao imposed a personal dictatorship, describing himself as a man with utter disregard for the law (和尚打伞,无法无天).

An individual who distrusted his men, an individual who was better at inciting uprisings than governing a country and a person who found himself to be out of his depth in “leading the construction of socialism” and made one wrong decision after another, Mao was constantly worried that his subordinates would use his mistakes to plot to take his Party and seize power. And so Mao frequently launched all kinds of inner-party struggles. The most serious of these was no doubt the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao mobilized the masses to topple the capitalist roaders and brought about a shuffle within the Party.

Viewed from the experience of senior cadres of the Party, the Cultural Revolution was a carnival of Mao’s core political clique, the grassroots, and was not a period of safe and security for other high-ranking CPC cadres. Even when Bo Xilai engineered the  “Singing Red and Striking Black” campaign, he did not include red songs that glorified the ten years of upheaval.

The golden age for the CPC interest group has in fact been these three decades following Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening up.

Apart from Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and Bo Xilai, who were involved in power struggle or had been convicted because of irreverence, who else among the ranks of Politburo members or higher have been imprisoned for corruption or the sudden wealth of their families? Even rudimentary officials in villages are enjoying a good life with unchallenged power in their jurisdiction. In this light, why would the sensible-minded CPC elite want to revert to the Cultural Revolution?

To allow the Maoists and Leftists to exist is, in the eyes of the CPC authorities, an act of political wisdom. Speaking neither facts nor reasons, the Maoists and Leftists construe “history” and “theories” according purely to their own needs. They made use of the grievances of members of the working class who lost their hero status and became losers in the reform and blatantly created myths of the Mao era. For instance, they claimed that during that period there was no corruption, no privileges, everyone was equal and had access to free medical care; in the world arena, China enjoyed a high international status and had stood up against the United States, revisionism, hegemonism and all anti-China forces that dared being hostile to China. Recently, a Leftist professor went to the extent of whitewashing the Three Years of Great Chinese Famine that claimed 30 million lives as “nutritious death” that killed 2.5 million people.

These historical lies of Maoists and Leftists that covered up the darkness are very consistent with the political needs of the CPC. Firstly, the current regime derives its legitimacy from Mao’s accomplishment of “founding the republic”. To show approval to Mao is to recognize the current regime a legitimate one. Secondly, China’s Leftists are, to their core, dependent on power. This is the biggest difference between them and their Western counterparts.

Ever since the Reform and Opening Up, this faction has been speaking most strenuously against domestic capital, foreign capital, American forces, blaming corruption, wealth disparity and everything on these capitals and forces instead of the ruling group in China.

Dissimilar to the Leftists, the Rightists might still hope that the CPC authorities would look at the big picture and initiate reform to the political system, implement democracy and constitutionalism. However, everyone is aware that the result of implementing these would mean a shake-up of the existing pattern of interests, the establishment of checks and balances mechanism and an end to the CPC one-party dictatorship. If there were such a day, all the good things the elite group has been enjoying would be gone. This is the biggest worry of the CPC ruling group.

From late Jiang era to the decade under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the CPC has made a wonderful chess move to safeguard its core interests by giving the Leftists a free hand to attack the Rightists.

There are of course times when the Leftists crossed the line and became defiant of the authorities, as was the case in the issue of Bo Xilai. However, the authorities would only make symbolic gestures, such as shutting down the website of Utopia to warn the faction not to go too far. In general, the CPC has been quite lenient to the Leftists.

With this faction in place, the Rightists would be suppressed and their energy consumed. The chief purpose of the nonsensical speeches of Maoists and Leftists, however, is not to confuse the Rightists; rather, it is to help the CPC win over the support of the people.

When Maoists took fierce actions, they could also cause members of the elite group who dread violent revolution staged by the underlying people to fear that the Cultural Revolution would take place again. And so they would figure that the existing state of politics is better than the Cultural Revolution and conclude that they might as well support the government.

That’s the raison d’etre of Leftists. Anyone who thought the authorities would lose its mind and mobilize the grassroots to stage a Cultural Revolution, and allow itself to become the target of the revolution has grossly underestimated the intelligence quotient of the rulers.

Wise the rulers may be, the pro-constitutionalism faction should not expect optimistically that Xi Jinping would roll out political reform in the Third Plenum. Do bear in mind what Xi said on the Second Plenary Session of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China:
In terms of structure, institution, the path we are treading on, or the unprecedented situation we found ourselves in, our country has features that are parallel or even identical to those of the former Soviet Union. If we could get these things right, we would see bright sunny days ahead; if we fail, what happened to the Soviet Union yesterday would happen to us tomorrow.
So long as Xi Jinping holds on to the possibility that the CPC can get things right and see sunny days ahead, he is unlikely to take in any suggestion to carry out political reform until he realizes nothing can be done about the Chinese economy. 

But by that time, whether or not he would get his chance is a different story.