The Great Entrenchment: An Unofficial Synopsis of ‘Twentieth Party Congress Spirit’
The Theme: Study Me! Be Loyal and Struggle!
In the opening of his 72-page report to the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping (2022b) proclaimed that the theme of the congress would be ‘comprehensively implementing Xi Jinping Thought’. The theme also included ‘carrying forth Great Party-Founding Spirit’ (伟大建党精神), being ‘self-confident and self-strengthening’ (自信自强), ‘innovating in the observance of fundamentals’ (守正创新), and uniting to build a ‘modern socialist country’.
The ‘theme’ (主题) of a National Party Congress is like a synopsis that appears at the start of the event’s report. It typically states which body of ‘thought’ to follow, which overarching goal to pursue, and something about the approach for pursuing it. Jiang Zemin’s Fifteenth Congress report in 1997—shortly after Deng Xiaoping’s death—proclaimed the theme to be sticking to ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’. Since then, each congress report has had an explicit theme. The CCP General Secretary opens a congress by delivering the report orally. Even if he orates only certain parts, the theme is among them. It sets the tone for the congress.
The Twentieth Congress’s theme entrenches a twist in the inner workings of the Party instituted in 2017, when Xi’s Nineteenth Congress theme abandoned all mention of the theories of former leaders. Contrasting sharply with each report since 1997, Xi in 2017 stripped the theme of ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ and the theories of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Amendments to the Party Charter at the Nineteenth Congress had then codified the status of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ (hereinafter ‘Xi Thought’).
The Twentieth Congress theme flows smoothly from that Nineteenth Congress twist, entrenching the notion that the body of thought to ‘comprehensively implement’ (全面贯彻) is Xi’s own. While Jiang’s final congress report used the same formula—‘comprehensively implement [my theory of] Three Represents’—Jiang (2002; emphasis added) had then stepped down as General Secretary and passed the reins to Hu. In contrast, the Twentieth Congress theme is about ‘comprehensively implementing’ the ‘Thought’ of an incumbent leader. The Nineteenth Congress twist and the Twentieth Congress entrenchment thus introduce and lock in a new phenomenon in the Party: this is the first time in post-Mao China that a living, incumbent head of the CCP has had his Thought leading the show—a body of thought that will continue to swell and suffuse the Party’s systems and policies going forward and which may do so in ways that the theories of leaders who stepped down or died did not.
The entrenchment of Xi Thought is paired with the theme’s call to ‘carry forth Great Party-Founding Spirit’, which kicked off the congress by turning the gaze inwards on the Party. Though CCP congresses are always heavy on Party content, their themes typically feature the Party’s guiding theory and goal but not the Party itself—its people and organisations—or, specifically, the ‘Spirit’ they must seek to exude.
Great Party-Founding Spirit is a Xi-era invention, introduced on the Party’s one-hundredth anniversary in July 2021 in the context of ‘carrying forth the honourable traditions, [and] continuing the red bloodline’ (弘扬光荣传统、赓续红色血脉) (Xi 2021b). The Central Propaganda Department (CCP CPD 2021) followed that same summer with a long exposition about the Party’s ‘mission and values’, starting from this ‘Spirit’. The ‘Resolution on History’ (CC 2021) that autumn located the Spirit in history and Xi later penned a piece in Qiushi on the resolution, pointedly stating: ‘[D]on’t think you understand it by giving it a quick read; that’s not the case.’ By way of explanation, he highlighted the resolution’s novel revisions to Party history: ‘[We] wrote for the first time in a resolution on history the view’ that ‘in the course of revolutionary struggle’ the Party evinced ‘Great Party-Founding Spirit’ (Xi 2022a). So, a ‘new’ age-old Spirit was born.
The demands of the Great Party-Founding Spirit are to: ‘Uphold truth, uphold ideals; practise the founding aspiration, shoulder responsibility for the mission; do not fear sacrifice, bravely struggle; be loyal to the Party, [and] do not let the people down’ (CCP Twentieth Congress 2022a). While some among these are longstanding Party precepts, they have been reinvigorated in the ‘New Era’ (the regnal name for the decade since Xi came to power in 2012). The Spirit’s inclusion in the congress theme is the first of many instances in the Twentieth Congress’s documents that hammer home to Party members the entrenchment of New Era requirements for their behaviour, internal Party culture, and the way the Party exercises leadership.
Using discursive formulations steeped in actual Party history, Xi’s Twentieth Congress report opens by singling out one of the tenets of Great Party-Founding Spirit: ‘All Party comrades must have the courage to struggle, and be good at struggle’ (敢于斗争、善于斗争). The exhortation itself (务必, ‘must’) unmistakably replicates Mao’s cautionary commands to members in the final days before the Party morphed into a governing party by establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). ‘Struggle’ has a long history in the Party (Wang 1995) and is a concept of which Xi seems fond (CMP 2019). Even when heading the drafting of Hu Jintao’s Eighteenth Party Congress Report in 2012, Xi had reportedly ‘explicitly advocated including’ the notion that the Party ‘must prepare to undertake great struggles with many new contemporary features’ (Wenmingcn 2021).
The Nineteenth Congress report had stated plainly that ‘it is in the movement of contradictions that a society advances; where there is contradiction there is struggle’; and had called for ‘great struggle’ (伟大斗争), offering basic points on what this would involve (Xi 2017). The first was: ‘Resolutely oppose all statements and actions that undermine, distort, or negate’ Party leadership and the socialist system. In 2019, speaking to cadres training at the Central Party School, Xi listed five ‘whatevers’ (凡事) to ‘struggle’ against (Xi 2019). They included ‘whatever risks and challenges are harmful to’ Party leadership and the socialist system, China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, ‘core national interests and major matters of principle’. He made clear that ‘struggles’ would arise in many fields, domestically and beyond, from the economy to culture and environmental protection. ‘Struggle is an art,’ he said, ‘be reasonable in choosing the method, get the degree and duration right [把握斗争火候]; on matters of principle do not give an inch, on matters of tactics be flexible’ (Xi 2019). Xi (2021a) then used the runup to the Party’s one-hundredth anniversary as an opportunity for a new campaign, which he launched with a ‘mobilisation speech’ restating the need for struggle: ‘[We must] prepare mentally and in our work for a relatively long period of responding to changes in the external environment, strengthening struggle consciousness, enriching struggle experience, and raising struggle ability’ (Xi 2021a).
The Twentieth Congress report treats ‘carrying forth struggle spirit’ as one of five ‘major principles’ to which the Party must adhere in pursuit of its goals. It cites a lack of ‘struggle ability’ (斗争本领) as a continuing problem but reassures: ‘We have already adopted a series of measures to deal with this.’ One such measure are the Provisions on Advancing the Ability for Moving Leading Cadres Up and Down (CCGO 2022b). Released publicly on the eve of the congress, the revised provisions make ‘weak responsibility-taking and struggle spirit’ (担当和斗争精神不强) a criterion for removing leading officials from posts across Party and state systems.
Having invoked Great Party-Founding Spirit, the congress theme then states the need to be ‘innovative in observance of fundamentals’ (守正创新). The report later explains to what the ‘observance of fundamentals’ alludes. The correct practise of the ‘world view’ and ‘methodology’ of Xi Thought requires one to: ‘Uphold no wavering on basic Marxist tenets, no wavering on the Party’s comprehensive leadership, and no wavering on socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (Xi 2022b). What is newly entrenched here—doubling down on the Nineteenth Party Congress report’s thinking—is ‘comprehensive’ Party leadership.
With the expectations for Party members set—study Xi Thought, struggle, and uphold comprehensive Party leadership—the theme suggests more measured expectations for the Party’s mission for the coming five years. The goal of the congress (stated in its title and theme) is comprehensively building ‘a modern socialist country’ (社会主义现代化国家) and not a ‘great modern socialist country’ (社会主义现代化强国), the latter being the ultimate, longer-term goal. Plans for the coming five years detailed later in the report also point to this more measured end—working towards the Party’s notion of modernisation.
The Greatest Strength of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is the Party’s Leadership
Question 5 [True or false]: The Twentieth Congress report pointed out that we have comprehensively strengthened the Party’s leadership and made clear that the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the Party’s leadership, the greatest strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the people as masters of the country, and the CCP is the highest political force.
Answer: False. (Xuexi Daguo 2022)
A congress report functions as not just a guide to broad-brush strategies, policies, and aims, but also the most authoritative text in the Party’s canon on the ‘correct’ current views to which Party members must adhere about how to pursue those strategies, policies, and aims. Its language must be precise; and Party members must study it. To help them, Party propaganda departments and Party schools create talks, videos, visual aids, and quizzes.
The ‘Study Country’ (学习大国) WeChat account’s quiz (Xuexi Daguo 2022) quoted above does not provide the correct versions when a passage from the congress report is ‘False’ (that is, intentionally misquoted). Presumably, quizzers are meant to check incorrect answers for themselves, though the answer to most questions is ‘True’. The example cited above is an exception. Its incorrectness is jarring: ‘The greatest strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the people as masters of the country.’
China’s single-party system is meant to uphold the ‘unity’ of ‘the people as masters of the country’, CCP leadership, and rule according to law. The ‘people as masters of the country’ part is a role that ‘the people’ are meant to fulfil through channels and systems such as people’s congresses, which are organs of the state.
In the context of the New Era, the idea that the Party could conceivably describe ‘the people as masters of the country’ as the socialist system’s ‘greatest strength’ is preposterous. It is preposterous because for at least five years the Party has consistently, through its discourse and actions, made patently clear that it is Party leadership that is of paramount importance to the system. The Party’s New Era project, which most visibly ground into motion after the Nineteenth Party Congress, is one that seeks to exert powerful Party leadership over all organs, actors, and operations of the state. It was at the Nineteenth Party Congress that Xi declared that the Party ‘leads everything’, the Party Charter codified ‘the Party leads everything’, and the congress report stated the correct version of the above ‘True or False’ passage as a basic principle of Xi Thought: ‘The greatest strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the CCP’ (Xi 2017; emphasis added).
The 2017 congress set in motion a deep new agenda for resetting the Party’s relationship to its state, strengthening the Party vis-à-vis its state in virtually every conceivable way: through law, institutions, organisations, mechanisms, and rules governing personnel. In the spring of 2018, after the Nineteenth Party Congress, the CCP inserted ‘the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the Party’s leadership’ into the main body of the PRC Constitution, breaking with the 35-year convention of keeping Party leadership within its preamble. It was that spring that the Party had rolled out a path-breaking ‘Party and government agency reform plan’, foreshadowed by the Nineteenth Congress report’s promise to ‘scientifically designate powers of Party and state agencies’. It was that spring that had seen the constitutional creation of a new system of state supervision, extending the Party’s reach deep into the state (Horsley 2018).
The Twentieth Congress report entrenches that reset in the Party’s relationship with the state. The notion that the Twentieth Congress report had stated that ‘the people are masters of the country’ as the system’s ‘greatest strength’ is preposterous and jarring because for this to be true, the Twentieth Congress would have had to be a ‘Great Overturning’. It was not; it was a ‘Great Entrenchment’. It confirmed with great clarity that the Nineteenth Congress reset is here to stay.
Every Field, Every Element, Every Node: Strengthen the Party’s Comprehensive Leadership
‘Comprehensive’ is such a bland word. It feels somehow inadequate to capture the vision that the Great Entrenchment continues to pursue. Quanmian (全面) is sometimes translated as ‘overall’, which can be read as ‘in general rather than in particular’ (Cambridge Dictionary 2022b), which in this case does not seem quite right. Another option for translators is ‘comprehensive’: ‘complete and including everything that is necessary’ (Cambridge Dictionary 2022a). Whatever the word chosen, the ‘Party’s comprehensive leadership’ (党的全面领导) has to it a definite ring of the ‘everything’.
The notion of ‘the Party’s comprehensive leadership’ made its New Era Party congress debut in the Nineteenth Congress report, which put it bluntly: ‘Uphold the Party’s leadership over all work’ (坚持党对一切工作的领导), listing this as the first of 14 principles (十四个坚持) to underpin all New Era Party operations (Xi 2017). The Twentieth Congress report does not trouble itself with detailing Xi Thought again. Instead, it tells students of congress Spirit that the ‘main content’ of Xi Thought has already been articulated elsewhere—at the Nineteenth Congress and in the 2021 Resolution on History—and directs them back to those 14 principles.
The Twentieth Congress report commands: ‘Implement the Party’s leadership in every field, every element, every node of the Party’s and state’s cause’ (Xi 2022b). This echoes the wording of a 2019 Central Committee resolution (CC 2019b), which worked towards having ‘Party leadership’ permeate ‘whole processes for fulfilling all functional duties of all state agencies’. The Twentieth Congress report entrenches the notion of Party leadership in ‘every field, every element, [and] every node’, both in its overall requirements and in specific sectors.
On science and technology, it calls for ‘improving the system for Party Centre unified leadership over sci-tech work’ and ‘perfecting the new form of whole-of-country mobilisation system’ (新型举国体制) (the latter being an approach for aggregating, mobilising, and deploying human and material resources towards particular ends [Ye and Zhao 2022]). On law, the report proclaims that there will be ‘no wavering on the status of the Party’s leadership as affirmed by the PRC Constitution’—a nod to the post–Nineteenth Congress constitutional amendment that altered the Party–state relationship at a deep institutional level. On discourse and ideas, it reasserts the need to ‘comprehensively implement ideological work responsibility systems’ (this ‘comprehensively’ is new compared with the Nineteenth Congress report) and states the need to ‘firmly grasp the Party’s leadership authority over ideological work’ (Xi 2022b)—a principle that the Party added to its Charter in 2017 and an end towards which it has recently been building up its systems and mechanisms, such as the Party Committee (Party Group) Ideological Work Responsibility System Implementing Measures (CCGO 2015) and the Party Committee (Party Group) Internet Ideological Work Responsibility System Detailed Rules for Implementation (CCGO 2017). On security, the report calls for ‘integrating the protection of national security into all aspects and whole processes of the work of the Party and state’, prescribes the principle of ‘upholding the Party Centre’s centralised, unified leadership of national security work’, and states the aim of improving the ‘high-efficiency, authoritative national security leadership system’ (Xi 2022b). On townships and neighbourhoods, villages and communities, CCP Charter amendments ‘clarify the status and role’ (CCP Twentieth Congress 2022b) of Party organisations as being to exercise unified leadership of all types of primary-level organisations within their respective geographic spaces (CCP Twentieth Congress 2022a; emphasis added).
On the Party itself, the report exhorts ‘strengthen the Party Centre’s centralised, unified leadership’. This is a dimension of pursuing ‘comprehensive Party leadership’ that particularly preoccupies the CCP. The Nineteenth Congress report had explicitly asserted that ‘the foremost task of the Party’s political building’ is to ‘ensure the entire Party obeys the Centre, [and] uphold[s] the Party Centre’s authority and centralised, unified leadership’ (Xi 2017). Subsequent central documents asserted that ‘resolutely protecting the Party Centre’s authority and centralised, unified leadership’ was ‘the most important thing in strengthening the Party’s comprehensive leadership’ (坚持和加强党的全面领导, 最重要的是坚决维护党中央权威和集中统一领导; CC 2019a) and that ‘the Party Centre’s centralised, unified leadership’ was the ‘highest political principle’ (CC 2021).
‘Strengthening the Party Centre’s centralised, unified leadership’ is about both making the Centre’s operations ‘centralised and unified’ and making the rest of the Party obey the Centre. The Twentieth Congress, like the nineteenth, was followed immediately by a meeting of the newly installed Politburo to review the Central Committee Politburo Provisions on Strengthening and Protecting the Party Centre’s Centralised, Unified Leadership (《中共中央政治局关于加强和维护党中央集中统一领导的若干规定》). In 2017, that meeting (which suggests something of the content of the provisions, which are not publicly available) reportedly involved ordering Politburo members to ‘submit major issues to the Party Centre for study’, to report orally to the General Secretary annually, and to ‘struggle against words and actions’ that ‘violate the Party Centre’s centralised leadership and unity’ (Xinhua 2017). In 2022, the meeting reportedly called on the Politburo to ‘comprehensively implement’ the Twentieth Congress report’s demands about ‘strengthening the Party Centre’s centralised, unified leadership’ (Xinhua 2022). Those demands include ‘improving the Party’s leadership systems for commanding the big picture and coordinating all sides’, improving ‘the mechanisms for ensuring that Party Centre major decisions and deployments are implemented’, and developing ‘new and improved leadership methods’ to build the Party’s capacity to ‘chart the course, make overall plans, [and] design policy’ (Xinhua 2022; emphasis added).
Act Four (The Finale)
Xi may have started his Twentieth Congress report by borrowing discursive formulations straight from Mao’s mouth, but his strategy for running the Party and exercising ‘comprehensive Party leadership’ shatters the common claim that Xi is ‘the new Mao’. The congress report calls the strategy ‘improving the system of institutions and regulations for Party self-revolution’ (完善党的自我革命制度规范体系). The strangeness of the juxtaposition—regulating ‘revolution’—was likely of no concern to drafters, and the now commonplace ‘self-revolution’ (自我革命) is officially translated as ‘self-reform’.
The content of the ‘regulating revolution’ section is not new to the New Era. It alludes to a vast, systematic initiative carried out over the past decade to remould the Party from within by building an intraparty regulatory system to tighten its culture, practices, intraparty relations, and the exercise of Party leadership. This has involved developing an increasingly sophisticated system of Party regulations, mechanisms, and methods to attempt to tame and systematically control the Party through mutually reinforcing, highly efficient levers. Though the congress report cites insufficient implementation and the need for mechanisms to allow for errors, imperfect as this system remains, this is the direction of travel being entrenched.
The report suggests that China’s domestic and international environments are becoming tougher and more fraught with uncertainty. Its caution about the need to ‘be ready … even for stormy seas’ (准备经受甚至惊涛骇浪) reminds of the wording of Xi’s 2019 talk to cadres at the Central Party School about ‘struggle’. He had demanded of them a heightened awareness of challenges and risks:
Leading cadres must be able to see subtleties and sense what is coming, as if discerning a flutter of grass and sensing a deer, pines dropping in a gale and knowing a tiger is approaching, or a single leaf turning colour and knowing autumn is drawing near. (Xi 2019)
Xi told them they must be able to ‘judge potential risks, know where the risks are, know what their signs are, know how they will develop, and struggle against those that need struggling against’ (Xi 2019).
The congress report sets clear expectations for Party members insofar as it lets them know that New Era demands are here to stay. It entrenches the thinking expounded at the Nineteenth Congress and thereafter: be literate in the bulging body of ‘Thought’ of the incumbent leader and capable of applying it; know that obeying the Party Centre is the highest political principle; pursue ‘comprehensive Party leadership’ in ‘every field, every element, [and] every node’ of the state’s work; know your place in the well-oiled, well-regulated Party machine; and be ready to struggle. This is not just a bucket list of disparate demands but rather a mode of managing the Party and restructuring its relationship to the state; the bulging body of Thought is not just shouted into a void but is laced through the regulations of ‘self-revolution’. Be it in ‘struggling’ or in exercising ‘comprehensive Party leadership’, the system’s design is increasingly geared towards commanding calibration to the preferences of a ‘unified’ Party Centre and the spirit of Xi Thought.
And still, as the curtain closed on the congress, students of its ‘spirit’ may be left pondering: just how might a Party official find the time to keep up with the Party Centre’s preferences, digest the latest in Xi Thought, discern flutters of grass—and all while leading every node of the state’s activities? And what is the fate of the state as its Party-defined role becomes more of a supporting one to the Party protagonist?