Rouge vif, a new book by French sinologist Alice Ekman, debunk theories that China is “no longer Communist.” In fact, under Xi Jinping, it is more Marxist than before.
by Massimo Introvigne
One of the best books on Xi Jinping’s China, Rouge vif. L’idéal communiste chinois (Bright Red: China’s Communist Ideal, Paris: Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2020) has been published in French in February 2020, just before the world coronavirus crisis erupted. The author, Alice Ekman, is the Senior Analyst of Asian Issues at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, and a lecturer at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. The method of Ekman is simple. She mostly relies on speeches and texts by Xi Jinping that have not been translated into languages other than Chinese, both for political reasons (not everything should be easily disclosed to foreigners) and because the most ideological texts would not be widely read abroad. Even scholars of China found them repetitious and boring. Yet, Ekman argues, they are the most important documents for understanding the CCP and Xi Jinping.
The thesis the book demonstrates is that, “not only China never abandoned its Communist identity after the ‘reform and opening’ campaign of 1978, but after Xi Jinping came to power, this identity has been reinforced.” According to Ekman, scholars and politicians in the West who believe that China is “no longer Communist” make a fatal mistake. She proves her thesis through ten facts.
- “Even after 1978, Chinese leaders never denied the Communist identity of the Chinese political system.” In fact, the term to be used should be “Socialism,” as the CCP still firmly believes in the Marxist theory that Communism is a future millenarian kingdom of general equality and happiness, and that, still for many decades, what China is going through is just the preparatory stage called Socialism. Xi Jinping reminded the Chinese of this distinction in his speech at the 19th Congress of the CCP in 2017. However, often “Communism” and “Socialism” are used as synonyms.
Ekman confirms that the CCP leaders devote long hours to study why the Soviet Union collapsed. One of the roots of this, according to Xi Jinping, was the “stupid” criticism of Stalin. China, Xi insisted, should “never forget the teachings of Chairman Mao, Lenin, and Stalin,” and resist the temptation of criticizing Mao in the way some Soviet leaders criticized Stalin. Xi maintains, with his predecessors, that Mao made serious mistakes during the Cultural Revolution, but claims that he was “a great Marxist,” and that “his achievements occupy the first place, while his mistakes are but minor.”
- “The foundation of the Communist governance never disappeared.” All political and social activities are controlled by the CCP according to a rigid Leninist and Stalinist model. If anything, this has been reinforced by Xi Jinping, both in theory and in practice.
- “The role of the CCP in the economy has been reinforced.” All statistics show that, with Xi Jinping, the role of the private sector is constantly decreasing. Additionally, in each private business, including the Chinese branches of foreign companies, the CCP is implanting a cell of the Party, whose authority is parallel and often higher than the management’s. Xi Jinping explains that, just as Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) inaugurated in 1921, a temporary detour through capitalism was needed in China with Deng Xiaoping, because of the country’s poverty and the mistakes in the Cultural Revolution (which Xi explains by the fact that in these years China deviates from orthodox Marxism, rather than applying it). But, as poverty subsides, this detour will end, and the existing pockets of capitalism will be replaced by traditional Socialist economical forms.
- “Propaganda continues to follow the Soviet and Maoist models.” Journalists and writers, according to Xi Jinping, should “love the Party, protect the Party, and serve the Party.” Xi added the Internet: each university had to supply a quota to reach the number of ten and a half millions of “volunteers to civilize the Internet,” in other words, trolls invading the social media internationally to hammer the CCP propaganda there.
- “Self-criticism is widespread.” Xi Jinping insists that one of the mistakes of the Soviet Union was that, after Stalin, self-criticism and purges were no longer used enough. All Chinese leaders have launched great “campaigns,” and Xi’s greatest project is the “campaign against corruption.” Its meaning is often misunderstood in the West. Even if some local leaders have been arrested for receiving bribes, the campaign is as much against ideological than against economic corruption. Those who are not Marxist enough, and do not devote time to study Marxism and the works of Xi Jinping, are compelled to “confess” in sessions of self-criticism and may end up in re-education camps or in jail.
- “Daily life is managed by the CCP” in all sectors. If it may be true that control is less violent than during the Cultural Revolution, it is also true that Xi Jinping has at its disposal technological tools, such as facial recognition and huge data bases allowing for the social credit system, that Mao never had.
- “Art and culture are used as Communist propaganda tool.” Artists are told to avoid styles and domains that are not useful to the CCP and, like everybody else, live in fear of becoming the next victims of the “anti-corruption” campaigns.
- “The CCP supervises schools and universities.” With Xi Jinping, the study of Marxism-Leninism is more important than before, and Xi’s own thought should also be studied. Academics who show any form of criticism or independence lose their jobs or “disappear,” but also fields that are regarded as inoffensive but “not useful” to the CCP are liquidated, such as the once flourishing academic study of pre-revolutionary Chinese poetry.
- “Religion is considered incompatible with the Marxist ‘faith.’” In one of his main speech on religion, Xi Jinping introduced himself and the CCP as “inflexible Marxist atheists.” He regards all religions, but Christianity more than the others, as potential enemies of the CCP, which should be strictly controlled now and eliminated in the long run. Members of the CCP are expelled from the Party not only if they have any kind of religious belief, but even if they have relatives or close friends who are believers. Solving in his own way an old debate between Western scholars, whether Communism was a purely political ideology or a secularized form of religion, Xi Jinping proclaims that Marxism is a “faith,” as such incompatible with all other forms of faith.
- “Communist and Maoist symbols are always present,” in flags, songs, architecture, culture, and sport.
Marxism, Ekman concludes, is at the core of Xi Jinping’s China. It is true that Xi likes to mention the millennia-old “Chinese culture,” but he systematically interprets and reconstructs it through the lenses of Marxism. This is, the author insists, the key to interpret Chinese internal politics, dominated by the fear of the “anti-corruption” repression, and Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Xi himself ridiculed the Western scholars of China who do not understand “the key role of [Marxist] ideology” in governing its foreign policy. In fact, Xi firmly believes in the Marxist paradigm. “The analysis of Marx and Engels on the contradictions of capitalist society are not at all obsolete, Xi wrote. Nor is it obsolete the core prediction of the doctrine of dialectic materialism, that capitalism will disappear, and Socialism will win. On the contrary, it is the unavoidable direction of the whole historical and social development.”
“Coexistence” between capitalist and Communist societies is also unavoidable, for a while, perhaps for decades. But Western democratic and capitalist countries are fundamental enemies of Communism, hence of China. While the economical confrontation may go through different stages, the ideological confrontation is perpetual and can only end with the victory of one side, i.e. of Communism, since Marx’s predictions are regarded by Xi Jinping as infallible.
At this stage, the ideological campaign, Xi believes, should systematically attack ideas such as the universal value of human rights, the existence of a civil society independent of the state, and the freedom of the media, as “false ideas” created by the West to fight Communism and destabilize non-democratic countries.
Politically, Chinese diplomacy (currently, the largest diplomatic machine in the world) is mobilized to win friends, not necessarily Communist, which would share the CCP’s criticism of Western and democratic values. Russia, Ekman reports, has been identified as “the best friend,” and the cooperation went as far as to quietly organize joint Russo-Chinese military maneuvers in areas such as the Mediterranean (2015), the Baltic Sea (2017) and Central Asia (2019). But with the Belt and Road initiative, the propaganda goes much further, and the extraordinary number of 15,000 foreign politicians have been invited, wined, and dined in China for “educational courses.”
All this, Ekman predicted, will become “tougher” in the next years, as the course of Xi Jinping’s policy seems irreversible. She also believes that Chinese pressure on Hong Kong and Taiwan will escalate, as it relates to the grand narrative of a final confrontation between capitalism and Communism. Not that Xi does not have critics within the CCP, disturbed by the growing cult of his personality. But, even if they would prevail, Ekman predicts that Xi’s fall would not be the fall of the CCP nor of the ideology.
The COVID-19 crisis is in fact confirming this analysis, as well as Ekman’s comment that Chinese propaganda in the West may somewhat be perceived as exaggerated, and backfire. Her book is recommended reading and a welcome antidote to the poisonous idea that China “is no longer Communist.”