◎ The following analysis was first published in the December 16, 2021 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.
Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published an article by Central Party History and Documentation Research Institute dean Qu Qingshan titled, “Reform and Opening Up is a Great Awakening of the Party (In-depth Study and Implementation of the Spirit of the 19th Central Committee)” (改革開放是黨的一次偉大覺醒 [深入學習貫徹黨的十九屆六中全會精神]).
The article is part of a post-Sixth Plenum propaganda series that largely promotes Xi Jinping’s “historical resolution,” and was published on page nine of the People’s Daily print edition. The article was also published in the Chinese edition of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor (USCNPM), an online publication operated by China Focus of the Carter Center. According to the USCNPM “About Us” page, the Carter Center is dedicated to preserving President Jimmy Carter’s legacy of normalizing Sino-U.S. relations in 1979 and “advancing U.S.-China relations by building synergy between China and the United States, fostering greater cooperation between them and other nations, and helping to shape the critical U.S.-China bilateral relationship through workshops, websites, and scholarly publications.”
Qu expands on a line in Xi’s resolution about how “reform and opening up” represents a “great awakening” for the CCP. The article explained that after the Cultural Revolution (a “serious setback in the Party’s exploration of China’s own socialist path”), the CCP embarked on “reform and opening up” (the Party’s “great awakening”) to “rely on the Party’s own strength to unite and lead the people to finally correct this serious mistake.”
The article, just like Xi’s “historical resolution,” describes “reform and opening up” as the byproduct of the development and practice of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. The Party’s “great awakening” is credited to its “original aspiration” of “working for the happiness of the Chinese people and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”; the Party’s highest ideals and ultimate goal of “achieving communism”; the “scientific guidance of Marxism”; and the “creativity” of the masses.
The article concludes by stating that the Party’s “great awakening” led to “reform and opening up” and “great achievements.” Also, “perseverance and development of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the only way to go. This is a decisive move that determines the future and destiny of contemporary China, and a decisive move for achieving the Second Centenary Goal and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Qu Qingshan’s nearly 4,000-character article does not contain any mention of Xi Jinping’s name, political thought, the “Xi core,” or Xi’s “new era.” This led many Chinese observers and overseas media outlets to speculate that Qu’s piece is evidence of intra-Party dissatisfaction with Xi.
The People’s Daily website published an article by Central Policy Research Office director Jiang Jinquan titled, “Adhere to the Party’s Comprehensive Leadership (In-depth Study and Implementation of the Spirit of the 19th Central Committee)” (堅持黨的全面領導 [深入學習貫徹黨的十九屆六中全會精神]). The article is also part of the post-Sixth Plenum propaganda series promoting Xi’s “historical resolution.”
Through a “review” of history, Jiang’s article makes the argument, “When the Party’s comprehensive leadership is adhered to, the Party and the people’s undertakings will develop healthily; when the Party’s comprehensive leadership is weakened or abandoned, the Party and the people’s undertakings will suffer setbacks or even failures.”
The article cites the “lack of comprehensive leadership in the Party” in explaining the CCP’s “major setbacks” during the “revolutionary period” and the “Agrarian Revolutionary War.” However, after the Party had “established the leading position in Party Central of the correct Marxist line with Mao Zedong as the chief representative” at the Zunyi Conference, “the Party, the Red Army, and the Chinese Revolution were saved at the most crucial moment.” Ultimately, the CCP seized power in China, realized the “unified leadership of the Party,” and established the “basic system of socialism.”
The article glosses over the contradiction between how Mao and the “unified leadership of the Party” saw failures despite having earlier established that the Party and the people’s undertakings will “develop healthily” when the Party’s “comprehensive leadership is adhered to.” Instead, the article simply notes that the Cultural Revolution “caused the most serious setbacks and losses to the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of New China.”
The article notes that the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee restored and re-established the “correct ideological, political, and organization lines,” saw “the Party’s leadership” adhered to and strengthened, and launched a “new situation of reform and opening up, and socialist modernization.” However, “under the conditions of reform and opening up, in the process of reflecting on some of the problems that emerged from the Party’s unified leadership, and in exploring how to improve the Party’s leadership, there was deviation in the content and method of the Party’s leadership, the effects of which were not really eliminated until after the 18th Party Congress.” The names of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao do not appear anywhere in the article.
Jiang’s article then cites portions of Xi’s “historical resolution” in a way that indirectly spotlights problems of the Deng-Jiang-Hu “reform and opening up” era, such the “seven areas of corruption” (七個有之) that seriously affected the Party’s overall leadership. The article goes on to credit “Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core” for taking measures to uphold and strengthen the “Party’s comprehensive leadership.”
The final third of the article goes on to list the main “achievements” of Xi’s “adherence to the Party’s comprehensive leadership,” especially with regard to “the world-renowned achievements in major struggles against corruption, poverty eradication, combatting the new coronavirus pneumonia, dealing with the trade war, etc.” This “fully demonstrates the institutional advantages of the Party’s comprehensive, centralized, and unified leadership.”
Qu Qingshan’s article, if viewed as a stand-alone endeavor, does seem like a public display of intra-Party discontentment towards Xi Jinping. This reading, however, quickly falls apart in considering the broader context in which it was written, Qu’s background, and Jiang Jinquan’s article.
1. The omission of Xi’s name, political theory, or “new era” in Qu’s article, as well as it being printed on a less important inside page (page nine) of People’s Daily, is consistent with Xi’s effort to marginalize Deng’s “reform and opening up” policy and distance himself from the political legacy of his predecessors.
As we earlier observed in analyzing the full text of Xi’s “historical resolution,” “reform and opening up” is not included in the 10 aspects of the “historical experience of the Party’s endeavors over the past century.” Part of the reason why this is so is because Xi likely “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.”
If Xi does not want his name and political legacy to be too closely associated with that of Deng, Jiang, and Hu, then Party propagandists like Qu Qingshan, who leads a Party academic institution dedicated to producing theoretical works (especially those about Xi Jinping in recent years), would naturally take reference from Xi’s “historical resolution” and leave out him out in a piece that is chiefly about the political legacy (“reform and opening up”) of his recent predecessors. Jiang Jinquan’s article achieves the same effect as Qu’s by doing the exact inverse—omitting Deng, Jiang, and Hu’s name in a piece that is primarily about Xi’s political legacy.
In considering the broader propaganda context, we believe that the decision to omit mention of Xi in Qu’s article and the article’s placement in a less important page of the People’s Daily print edition is more likely the result of guidance by instructions from the top rather than a reflection of on-the-ground dissent towards Xi Jinping.
2. A review of Qu Qingshan’s official career suggests that he likely does not have motivation or incentive to risk penning a stealth attack screed against Xi Jinping at this time.
Qu, 61, spent the bulk of his career in the propaganda apparatus and the theoretical research apparatus. From January 2001 to October 2009, Qu was head of the Qinghai provincial Propaganda Department (sub-provincial/sub-ministerial level), and served under four different Party secretaries: Bai Enpei (Jiang faction; purged), Su Rong (Jiang faction; purged), Zhao Leji (Jiang faction; current Politburo Standing Committee member and CCDI secretary), and Qiang Wei (Jiang faction; current Social and Legal Affairs Committee deputy director of the 13th national CPPCC).
In October 2009, Qu was transferred to the Party History Research Center of the Central Committee to serve as deputy director, and later, director. Qu remained a sub-ministerial level official for eight-and-a-half years before he was finally promoted to vice dean (ministerial level) of the new Central Party History and Documentation Research Institute (formerly the Party History Research Center; was upgraded as part of Party and state institutional reforms) in March 2018. A year later, Qu was promoted to dean.
While Qu Qingshan served in the Jiang faction-influenced propaganda apparatus and worked under several Jiang faction provincial Party bosses during the Jiang faction’s era of dominance, his career trajectory indicates that his allegiance to this faction is inconspicuous at best. Qu would otherwise not have stagnated in the backwater province of Qinghai for nearly nine years and stayed at the sub-ministerial rank for almost two decades; during the Jiang and Hu years, Jiang faction officials tended to rocket up the ranks and were handed important positions. Meanwhile, Qu’s promotion in 2018 seems to be consistent with Xi’s appointment of officials with weak or inconspicuous connections to the Jiang faction to some senior positions due to a shortage of trusted personnel and allies.
Qu owes his promotion to Xi, and has neither political prowess of his own nor allegiances to Xi’s chief factional rivals. Rather, Qu seems to be a regular propaganda worker who does whatever the powers of the day in Beijing wants of him; a review of Qu’s earlier work shows that he sticks to the Party line of the times. As a veteran propagandist, Qu would also unlikely make the basic error of publishing a piece containing colossal “political incorrectness.”
Qu’s background further affirms our analysis that his post-Sixth Plenum piece is not evidence of Xi’s enemies attacking him (rather, the reverse is true, i.e. Xi is preparing to attack his opponents), and that he likely wrote it in strict accordance with guidelines or instructions from the Xi leadership.
3. The publication of Qu Qingshan’s piece in the pro-engagement U.S.-China Perception Monitor, as well as its placement on page nine of People’s Daily, suggest that its target audience is not so much Party members, but the United States and the international community. Xi Jinping is no doubt aware of growing concerns abroad that he could abandon “reform and opening up,” and would be looking to assuage those fears through glowing articles on the topic like Qu’s.
However, how Qu’s article is popularly perceived by the international community and its impact in shaping attitudes towards Xi and the CCP could end up affecting Party elite politics. Incessant speculation about Xi’s poor standing in the Party and growing discontentment towards his rule will embolden Xi’s domestic and external enemies to more fiercely resist and challenge his leadership, leading to an intensification of the CCP factional struggle.
4. When read together and in conjunction with other post-Sixth Plenum pieces, Qu Qingshan and Jiang Jinquan’s articles pave the way for Xi Jinping to move against the Jiang faction.
The Qu and Jiang’s articles suggest that “reform and opening up,” the Party’s “great awakening” (Qu appeared to have borrowed this description from a January 2019 speech by Xi Jinping to commemorate the 40th anniversary of “reform and opening up”) after the setbacks and failures of the Cultural Revolution, was ruined by “problems” and “deviation” in the Party leadership (i.e. Jiang faction rule) before Xi took office in 2012 at the 18th Party Congress. Fortunately for the Party, Xi arrived just in time to “turn the tide,” “deliver the country from distress,” “save the day,” “prevent the building from collapsing,” and “steer the giant ship of China through dangerous shoals and turbulent waves,” in the words of propaganda vice minister Shen Haixiong and CMC vice chairman Zhang Youxia in their post-Sixth Plenum pieces.
Such framing potentially sets the stage for Party propagandists to later credit Xi Jinping with sparking another “great awakening” in dealing with the “problems” and “deviation” of Party leadership from the “reform and opening up” era (i.e. criticizing Jiang Zemin and purging Jiang faction members). Once the “problems” and “deviation” are “rectified,” Xi will be justified in seeking a third term to serve as the “great helmsman” in leading the regime towards its “Second Centenary Goal” in the “new era.”