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Xi’s ‘historical resolution’ downplays the political legacy of his predecessors

Xi’s “historical resolution” quietly lays the groundwork for him to move the Party further away from the “collective leadership” model and towards strongman dictatorship. 

◎ The following analysis was first published in the November 18, 2021 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

Updated on Jan. 24, 2022. 

On Nov. 16, the CCP issued the full text of Xi Jinping’s “Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century” (henceforth referred to as the “Resolution” or “historical resolution”) and Xi’s explanation of the Resolution and why it was made. 

The Explanation noted that the Resolution was drafted by a working group established under the auspices of the Politburo Standing Committee. The working group was headed by Xi and had Wang Huning and Zhao Leji serving as deputy chiefs. Comments on the Resolution project were sought from “Party members and non-Party figures within an appropriate scope” in April, and comments on the draft text of the Resolution were sought from “select Party members, including retired senior Party officials” in September. 

The Resolution contains a preamble and conclusion, as well as seven sections. 

The first section, “A Great Victory in the New-Democratic Revolution,” outlines how Mao Zedong and other CCP leaders established a Marxist-Leninist Party, spread Marxism in China, and eventually seized power. The section also criticizes Chen Duxiu’s “right-leaning opportunism,” Wang Ming’s “left-leaning dogmatism,” and Zhang Guotao’s “separatism” while affirming Mao’s “historical resolution,” which “helped the entire Party reach a common understanding of the basic questions regarding the Chinese revolution.”

The second section, “Socialist Revolution and Construction,” outlined Mao’s tenure as the first CCP boss of the PRC. Mao is credited with having led a “second round of efforts to integrate the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism with China’s realities.” His Mao Zedong Thought is described as representing a “creative application and advancement of Marxism-Leninism in China” and “the first historic leap in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.” Mao is not directly named for failing to uphold the “correct line” of the Party’s Eighth National Congress, which led to “mistakes” like the “Great Leap Forward and the people’s commune movement, and the scope of the struggle against Rightists [being] made far too broad.” While the section notes that Mao’s “completely erroneous appraisal” led to him launching the Cultural Revolution, the blame is placed on the “counter-revolutionary cliques of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing” who “took advantage of Comrade Mao Zedong’s mistakes.”

The third section, “Reform, Opening up, and Socialist Modernization,” lumps together the “historic contributions” of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Deng is credited with “founding socialism with Chinese characteristics”; Jiang with “launching socialism with Chinese characteristics into the 21st century”; and Hu with “upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics under new circumstances.” The Deng-Jiang-Hu period is defined as “the Party re-establishing the Marxist ideological, political, and organizational lines, thoroughly refuting the erroneous “two whatevers” policy, and correctly appraising the historical position of Comrade Mao Zedong and the value of Mao Zedong Thought as a scientific system” in order to “promote reform and opening up.” Further, the period saw the forming of “the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and achieving “a new leap in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.”

The fourth section, “A New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” credits Xi Jinping with pioneering “a new historical phase in China’s development” and lauds him for coming up with “original” and “new” concepts, ideas and strategies for governing the regime. Xi is hailed as the “principal founder” of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” a political theory that represents “Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century,” “embodies the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times,” and “represents a new leap in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.” Also, “Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” is said to “reflect the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and Chinese people of all ethnic groups,” and is “of decisive significance” in driving the Party and the regime to make “historic achievements” and “historical changes.”

The fourth section also highlights 13 areas where Xi oversaw “great achievements and historic shifts” during his tenure:

  • Upholding the Party’s overall leadership;
  • Exercising full and rigorous self-governance;
  • Pursuing economic development;
  • Deepening reform and opening up;
  • Advancing political work;
  • Comprehensively advancing law-based governance;
  • Driving cultural advancement;
  • Promoting social advancement;
  • Spurring ecological advancement;
  • Strengthening national defense and the armed forces;
  • Safeguarding national security;
  • Upholding the One Country, Two Systems policy and promoting national reunification; 
  • Bolstering the diplomatic front.

Further, the section claims that under Xi’s leadership, the “Chinese nation has achieved the tremendous transformation from standing up and becoming prosperous to growing strong.”

The fifth section, “The Historical Significance of the Party’s Endeavors over the Past Century,” calls attention to the “historical significance of the Party’s endeavors from a broader perspective” for five aspects:

  • Fundamentally transforming the future of the Chinese people;
  • Opening up the right path for achieving rejuvenation of the Chinese nation;
  • Demonstrating the strong vitality of Marxism;
  • Producing a profound influence on the course of world history; 
  • Making the CCP a forerunner of the times.

The sixth section, “The Historical Experience of the Party’s Endeavors over the Past Century,” summarizes the Party’s historical experience in 10 aspects: 

  • Upholding the Party’s leadership;
  • Putting the people first;
  • Advancing theoretical innovation;
  • Staying independent;
  • Following the Chinese path;
  • Maintaining a global vision;
  • Breaking new ground;
  • Standing up for ourselves;
  • Promoting the united front; 
  • Remaining committed to self-revolution (堅持自我革命).

The seventh section, “The Communist Party of China in the New Era,” positions Xi Jinping to lead the Party and regime to achieve the “Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects.” The section “calls upon the entire Party, the military, and all Chinese people to rally more closely around Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core” to “realize the Second Centenary Goal and the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”

1. The full text of Xi Jinping’s “historical resolution” affirms our previous analysis of it based on details about the document published earlier in official media and the Sixth Plenum communiqué (see here and here). 

To briefly reiterate, Xi’s “historical resolution” seeks to establish his importance to the CCP’s past, present, and future by touting his “great, glorious, correct” contributions to the development of Marxism in the 21st century, the Party’s ideological work, and Party history. In doing so, Xi is looking to substantially boost his “quan wei” and justify his effort to break with modern CCP leadership tenure norms and take a third five-year term in office at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. 

2. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping issued their respective “historical resolutions” only after they secured decisive victory in factional struggle against their opponents at the time and when their “quan wei” was relatively unassailable. Mao and Deng were also looking to repudiate the “incorrect line” of their foes and certify their vision for the Party as the political orthodoxy of the day.

By contrast, Xi Jinping issued his “historical resolution” while his chief factional rivals are still at large (Jiang faction, influential princelings, etc.) and factional struggle has yet to be decisively settled. Moreover, Xi’s “quan wei” is not at the stature of Mao or Deng. What Xi can write into his “historical resolution” is also constrained by his insistence on avoiding “historical nihilism” and efforts to establish his “quan wei” by leveraging Party history. Taken together, the aforementioned factors mean that Xi cannot cleanly criticize and marginalize his factional foes in his “historical resolution” the way Mao and Deng did in their respective resolutions. 

As a workaround, Xi subtly watered down the political “achievements” of his predecessors while playing up his own and exaggerating his contribution to ideological work. For instance, Xi’s “historical resolution” credits Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu with having participated in the process of “Sinicizing Marxism,” but indicates that Xi surpassed their ideological work by ushering in a “New Era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Xi is mentioned 22 times in the document, while Mao is mentioned 18 times and Deng six times; Jiang and Hu each received only a single mention. 

Meanwhile, Xi could only criticize Jiang Zemin and the faction named after him indirectly. Xi counts among his political “achievements” the “fixing” of problems that were hallmarks of the Jiang faction’s era of dominance (1997 to 2012), including “lax and weak governance,” corruption, “cliques and factions,” and unruly capitalism. While Xi’s oblique censuring of his factional rivals did not go unnoticed by observers, it was far from an outright repudiation of their “incorrect line,” indicating that Xi presently lacks the required “quan wei” to decisively resolve his factional struggle problems.   

3. Xi’s “historical resolution” quietly lays the groundwork for him to move the Party further away from the “collective leadership” model and towards strongman dictatorship.

Most noticeably, there is zero mention of the phrase “collective leadership” (集體領導) in the entire “historical resolution.” The closest the resolution comes to referencing a “collective leadership” is the sentence, “began to form the first-generation Party Central leadership collective [领导集体] with Comrade Mao Zedong at the core” (開始形成以毛泽东同志为核心的党的第一代中央领导集体). Xi’s other predecessors are introduced in the format of “Comrade So-and-so, the chief representative of the Chinese Communists” (以某某同志為主要代表的中國共產黨人), with no indication that they were part of a “collective leadership.” The “historical resolution” also does not indicate that Deng established the “collective leadership” model or that he abolished lifetime leadership tenure for senior cadres.

Xi’s “historical resolution” also appears to apply that he is the only “core” (核心) leader of the Party. Xi is positioned as the “core” of Party Central (sans “collective leadership”) seven times in the document, and Mao is “restricted” to being just the “core” of the “first-generation Party Central leadership collective.” Meanwhile, Xi’s “historical resolution” makes no mention that Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are officially designated “core” leaders. The “core” leader concept was originally devised by Deng to boost Jiang’s “quan wei,” and was retroactively applied to himself and Mao. 

Finally, Xi’s “historical resolution” only refers in passing to the Party’s ban on personality cults and the development of intra-Party democracy. In assessing the Mao period, the resolution notes, “regrettably, the correct line adopted at the Party’s Eighth National Congress was not fully upheld,” resulting in “mistakes” like the “Great Leap Forward and the people’s commune movement, and the scope of the struggle against Rightists was also made far too broad.” In contrast, Deng’s “historical resolution” emphasized and elaborated on the “correct line adopted at the Party’s Eighth National Congress” as he implemented the “collective leadership” model and secured his political legacy. Xi’s downplaying of intra-Party democracy and the personality cult suggest that he is planning to move away from Deng’s model and legacy while advancing his own. 

4. Xi’s “historical resolution” minimizes the importance of Deng’s “reform and opening up” contribution to the Party’s history and the policy in general.

“Reform and opening up” is not included in the 10 aspects of the “historical experience of the Party’s endeavors over the past century,” or the operating principles by which Xi believes that the CCP should adhere to and from which his 13 “great achievements and historic shifts” are derived. The omission of “reform and opening up” from the aspects leaves Xi and the CCP with the flexibility of using or abandoning the policy going forward as they see fit, and not be bound by it. 

In considering Party characteristics, operations, and factional struggle, there are at least two likely reasons why Xi diminished the prominence of the CCP’s most well-known policy of the past 40 years in his review of Party history. 

First, the CCP still officially adheres to Marxism-Leninism and socialism. The policy of “reform and opening up” was adopted as a pragmatic measure to enable the CCP regime to survive the post-Mao era following the bankruptcy of a purer form of communism under Chairman Mao. Later, the policy proved useful in helping the regime secure foreign funds, technology, and diplomatic goodwill, as well as in providing cover for its external influence operations; “reform and opening up” was instrumental for the CCP’s global domination agenda. However, “reform and opening up” is ultimately anti-socialist at its core, and Xi, who aspires to a more “fundamentalist” interpretation of “Sinicized Marxism,” cannot fully embrace the policy lest it contradict and undermine his political thought and ideological work. Businesses, investors, and governments should recognize from the marginalization of “reform and opening up” in Xi’s “historical resolution” that they are dealing with a communist regime and not a normal country, and take relevant precautions instead of banking on the CCP being able to “change its spots.” 

Second, Xi does not want Deng’s political legacy to outshine his own “new leap in the Sinicization of Marxism” and weaken his hand in factional struggle. For instance, Xi needs his “going global” (對外開放) political “achievement” to be viewed as a “historic achievement” or “historic change” in its own right, and not the result of his adherence to Deng’s “reform and opening up” like Jiang and Hu. The downplaying of “reform and opening up” thus better allows Xi’s theoretical “innovation” and political “achievements” to stand on their own while minimizing the “achievements” and ideological work of Deng and his handpicked successors. While Xi does include “deepening reform and opening up” in his 13 “great achievements and historic shifts,” it is likely intended as a subtle jibe at Deng, Jiang, and Hu and a boasting of his prowess; unlike his predecessors who only talk about “reform and opening up” but have not done enough (from Xi’s perspective), Xi dares to take “reform and opening up” into “deep water territory” (深水區) and secure actual achievements. 

5. Xi’s “historical resolution” omits mention of Jiang Zemin’s persecution of Falun Gong even though it is a high-profile political campaign that the CCP once claimed “decisive victory” in (see here, here, and here). The omission is glaring in considering that the resolution makes a reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre without naming it, which indicates that Xi has no qualms about including controversial human rights issues in his “historical resolution” if it can be considered an “achievement” for the Party.    

There are three likely reasons for why Xi omitted the Falun Gong persecution campaign entirely from his “historical resolution” after accounting for Party characteristics, operations, and factional struggle. 

First, the CCP has not secured “victory” over Falun Gong. While the CCP crushed pro-democracy protesters relatively quickly in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, it is still waging what The Economist described as a “war of attrition” with Falun Gong more than two decades after Jiang Zemin ordered the persecution campaign in July 1999. In fact, the CCP is even losing the “war” in some consequential arenas; the DC think-tank Center for European Policy Analysis noted in a May 2021 report that “the CCP simply cannot compete” with Falun Gong-linked media outlets (The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television) for views in several European countries despite its propaganda outlets spending $10 billion a year to Epoch Media Group’s $8 million (a ratio of $1,250 : $1). The CCP’s inconclusive and ongoing campaign against Falun Gong means that it is no “achievement,” and hence merits its exclusion from Xi’s “historical resolution.”

Second, Xi appears to lack the “quan wei” to issue a “historical resolution” where he unambiguously repudiates his factional rivals and their “incorrect line” (see point 2). If that is the case, it follows that Xi also does not have the “quan wei” to explicitly attack a key part of Jiang Zemin’s political legacy in a critical Party document like the “historical resolution” even as he slowly dismantles Jiang’s anti-Falun Gong apparatus (see here, here, and here). 

Third, Xi might be concerned that he will imperil the Party and undermine his own “quan wei” by calling attention to an unsettled issue that involves gross human rights violations. The CCP has long sought to deflect attention away from its human rights violations lest it loses political legitimacy at home and abroad, leading to the “end of the Party and the regime” (亡黨亡國) scenarios. Given that Xi’s “historical resolution” is also partly an exercise in propping up his efforts to “preserve the Party” (保黨), he would be hesitant to include even an indirect mention of Falun Gong in the document even if the persecution campaign were a legitimate “achievement” and its inclusion in the text would provide him with an edge in the factional struggle (by calling out the negative political legacy of his chief political rival). 

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