People's Daily article lauds Deng's economic reforms; doesn't mention Xi Jinping

Commentators say the article is highly unusual given the degree of influence Xi usually exerts over state media.
By Cheng Yut Yiu
2021.12.13
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People's Daily article lauds Deng's economic reforms; doesn't mention Xi Jinping Portraits of China's former top leaders from left Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping are seen at a military camp in Beijing, Nov. 11, 2021.
AP Photo

A recent article in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece the People's Daily praising former leaders but not Xi Jinping hints at a potential power struggle in the corridors of Zhongnanhai, analysts said on Monday.

The article summarizes the achievements of the post-1979 economic reform era under late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and references a ground-breaking 1978 third plenary session lauded by liberal CCP commentator Bao Tong as revolutionary, because delegates seized control of the proceedings and overturned Deng's attempts to control discussions.

It also insists that the process of economic reform and opening up to the rest of the world came as a result of the party's reflections on the "serious deficiencies" that led to the Cultural Revolution, an era of top-down rule by late supreme leader Mao Zedong, political denunciations, mass detentions and social turmoil, kangaroo courts and factional violence on the streets.

The 4,000-character piece, signed by Qu Qingshan, dean of the Central Party History and Documentation Research Institute, quotes Deng repeatedly on the need for economic development, as well as crediting former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao - both leaders who rose to power from different support bases from current leader Xi Jinping - with furthering his work.

There is no mention of Xi, an unprecedented move for an official CCP news organization, which have largely dedicated themselves to singing Xi's praises on every front page since he warned state media in February 2016 that their primary job is to serve the ruling party.

In what appears to be a sideswipe at Xi's aggressive "wolf-warrior" diplomacy in the name of national "self-confidence" in recent years, Jiang's personal brand of ideology, the "Three Represents," is credited with "defending socialism with Chinese characteristics in the face of a complicated domestic and international situation."

It also credits Deng with building a new kind of diplomacy on the back of economic development, and lauds the CCP's ability to correct its own "mistakes" and "turn around a crisis."

The party's reckoning with the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution ushered in a new revolution that sparked people's "enthusiasm, initiative and creativity," the article said, making China stronger.

It said Deng's "reform and opening up" approach was a "magic weapon" for the party, and the key to determining the country's future.

Unprecedented omission

Chinese political commentator Willy Lam said the omission of Xi's name was unprecedented, and very strange.

"[The author] thinks that in the nine years since Xi Jinping took power, he hasn't made much contribution at all to reform and opening up, when compared with Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin," Lam told RFA. "Qu Qingshan is clearly speaking on behalf of people inside the CCP."

"He may not oppose Xi Jinping, but he certainly opposes Xi's revival of Mao era politics in recent years, his rolling back of Deng Xiaoping's approach, and his highly conservative political and economic policies," he said.

Critic and author Yao Bo said the article's publication could be an indicator of growing dissatisfaction with Xi's leadership in CCP party ranks.

"Many in the party who originally supported Xi Jinping have come to reject his economic and foreign policy and his methods lately," Yao told RFA. "They think he is rolling back all of [Deng's] economic reforms and opening up."

"It's not just about their personal vested interests; there is also a sense that there has to be some sense of [collective] responsibility over what is happening in the party," he said.

"They think he's driving China backwards ... we've known this for some time; this is just a clearer expression of opposition [to Xi's direction]."

Return of Mao-era politics

Bao Tong, a former top CCP aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, has described the third plenum of the 11th Party Congress as "the revolution they never had," seen from the point of view of rank-and-file delegates.

"The Third Plenum was a uniquely lively meeting," Bao wrote in 2008. "It started a chain reaction. The frenzied debates in the Central Committee led to similar discussions at local and grass-roots levels, to a healthy hubbub within the Party and in society at large."

"The entire impetus for reform sprang directly out of this process of everyone talking at once," he wrote.

Under Xi, CCP cadres have been punished for deviating from the centrally established party line, whether in public or private conversation.

Nonetheless, there has also been considerable push-back in public over growing attempts by the CCP under Xi to paint only a positive picture of China, and delete, censor or retaliate against any form of utterance that doesn't toe the party line in public.

China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), voted in 2018 to abolish any limits to Xi Jinping's term in office, ushering in a new era of imperial-style rule, both within and outside party ranks.

Since Xi took the helm of the party in 2012, formally assuming the presidency in March 2013, authorities in China have stepped up nationwide "stability maintenance" measures targeting anyone with a critical opinion of the government and cracking down on civil society groups fighting discrimination and social injustice.

And in a move reminiscent of the Mao-era Anti-Rightist campaigns, more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, rights activists and relatives have been detained, questioned, or placed under surveillance or other restrictions in a nationwide police operation targeting the legal profession launched in 2015.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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