It was long assumed that ideology no longer played a role in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the beginning of economic reforms in the late 1970s, the common assumption, especially in Western countries, was that the CCP had abandoned ideological considerations and was guided primarily by pragmatic assumptions.
This belief has gradually changed since Xi Jinping took office in 2012, and it is increasingly argued that the CCP is undergoing a re-ideologization process. Regarding the party itself, Xi’s massive anti-corruption and education campaign for party members and cadres contributed to this. At the same time, the party-state’s increased intervention in the Chinese economy and also the party’s stronger role in controlling social structures are argued to be evidence of the party’s re-ideologization.
These assumptions are problematic on two levels. First, they assume a conception of ideology that implicitly sees ideology as irrational and not practical or pragmatic. Second, they assume that ideology in China automatically means Marxism – and that the introduction of economic reforms consequently must also mean the end of ideology.
However, in order to use ideology as an analytically expedient concept, it would be useful to define it more broadly. In this sense, ideology can be understood as a thought and communication scheme whose task is to classify and interpret socio-political and economic contexts. Such an analytical understanding of ideology also allows us to question the assumption that ideology no longer plays a role in China as Marxism loses its importance.
The party mythologizes itself
Party ideology since the beginning of the period of reform and opening is not primarily Marxist. The credo of adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions, and thus changing Marxist thought in the spirit of the Chinese Revolution, already happened under Mao. With the beginning of the reform and opening-up policy, the party was then confronted with massive political and socio-economic changes, which it had to re-embed ideologically.
The most striking feature in this post-1978 party ideology is the central position of the party itself. In its presentation of its own history and historical achievements, the party mythologizes itself. It asserts sole interpretive sovereignty over its ideological concepts, including rhetorical set pieces of Marxist thinking. This also includes a monopoly on the definition and implementation of future scenarios. At the same time, the party rhetorically signals to all its members and cadres that it is omnipresent and that the sole potential for punishment and commendation rests within the party. Thus, the main message of party ideology is the party itself.
This central message of party ideology is neither new nor characteristic of Xi Jinping. This characteristic could already be observed since the beginning of the reform and opening-up policy. The main task of party ideology is to define and justify the centrality of the party. Under Xi Jinping, we merely observe an increased emphasis on this central ideological feature.
Digital indoctrination and surveillance
At the same time, the means available to the party to underline its central position are changing. As part of its anti-corruption and education campaign, the party is increasingly relying on digital means of indoctrination and surveillance. These include study apps and the ability to report misbehavior digitally. Again, the principle of indoctrination and surveillance is not new and can be found in party documents even before Xi Jinping. Only the implementation is becoming increasingly comprehensive.
The party’s means are also changing for cooperation with – especially international – actors in the economic and international political system. China’s growing strength allows the party to leverage it economically and internationally to advance its own interests. If the party deems changed political and economic measures to be in China’s interests – and thus in its own – it is increasingly in a position to implement them against international actors as well.
Taking the party seriously again
In summary, this means that international actors, in particular, must learn to take the party seriously again. China’s economic reforms and increasing pluralization have resulted in a tendency to neglect the party as an actor. In its own ideological pronouncements, however, the party always held a central position. This also means that its political actions are entirely focused on its main ideological goal: Securing the rule and central position of the Communist Party.
For party members and cadres, but also for state employees, this means increased pressure to be loyal. For economic as well as social actors, it means taking the party seriously again and not dismissing ideological pronouncements as irrational or insignificant. After all, party ideology is a reminder of who really holds the reins – the Chinese Communist Party.
This article is published in the context of the event series “Global China Conversations” of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW). On Thursday, January 26, 2023 (12 p.m. CET), author Carolin Kautz and Joerg Wuttke (European Chamber of Commerce in China) will discuss the topic: “Ideology First, Economy Second? What Challenges do European Companies Face in China?”. China.Table is the media partner of the event series.
Dr. Carolin Kautz researches the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and completed her dissertation on party social identity and the importance of ideology for the Chinese Communist Party at the University of Göttingen last year.