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Is Xi Jinping more Hitlerian or Stalinist in his view of Chinese socialism? The answer to that question is important because it bears on the policy choices China’s adversaries will need to make.
George Kennan, the godfather of America’s policy of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union, made clear in his 1946 ‘long telegram’ that Adolf Hitler’s vision of ‘national socialist’ modernity wasn’t a force that could be contained; the reason was that Hitler had a timetable according to which the Third Reich was to achieve global domination and his strategy could be thwarted only by annihilating Nazism by means of total war. The Soviet Union, in contrast, could be contained through Western domestic resilience and a resolve to counter territorial revanchism. That was because Joseph Stalin had in mind no specific time by which the world would need to reach the communist phase of development.
Precisely where Xi Jinping sits on the spectrum of totalitarianism is a matter of dispute. Elements of Xi’s ideology are notably Hitlerian. His ambition to achieve ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ introduces a nationalist character to the Chinese Communist Party’s understanding of socialism. Unifying China and Taiwan is one revanchist mission driving Xi’s ‘great rejuvenation’, but revanchism is only one part of the nationalism Xi has begun to emphasise in CCP ideology—militarism and capitalism are the others. Writing in the CCP’s premier theoretical journal, Seeking Truth (求是), staff from China’s National Defense University argue that ‘a rich nation and a strong military are two cornerstones of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. Chinese socialism seems not to be driven by the Marxian desire to secure a path to communism, but by the militarist ambition for armed strength and the capitalist will for material prosperity. Xi’s ‘new era’ for Chinese socialism undermines traditional Marxism-Leninism, which views those nationalist forces with contempt.
Does it matter whether Chinese socialism becomes more nationalist than Marxist under Xi? According to Hitler, the distinction between national socialism and Marxian socialism was of paramount importance. ‘Socialism is the science of dealing with the common weal. Communism is not Socialism. Marxism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning’, Hitler declared in a 1923 interview with George Sylvester Viereck. To Hitler, Marxism’s rejection of both the legitimacy of the nation-state and the capitalist forces of production was a fundamental error. ‘Socialism, unlike Marxism, does not repudiate private property. Unlike Marxism, it involves no negation of personality, and unlike Marxism, it is patriotic’, Hitler said. His embrace of nationalism and of capitalism had important implications for the Third Reich. ‘Our socialism is national’, he argued. ‘We demand the fulfilment of the just claims of the productive classes by the state on the basis of race solidarity. To us state and race are one.’
Hitler’s distinction between national and Marxian socialism has important implications for the CCP under Xi. The party has allowed China to undergo capitalist industrialisation since Deng Xiaoping, having repudiated Maoist collectivisation, but remained committed to a strong supervisory state. The political economy Xi has inherited is thus similar to the economic structure Hitler presided over in the Third Reich. The problem for the CCP, however, is that China’s state-supervised yet market-oriented economy necessarily repudiates any notion of socialism being driven by Marxism. To a political party that supposedly follows traditional Marxism-Leninism, that contradiction constitutes an existential threat. The way to negate it, for Xi, is to unify ‘state and race’ by integrating nationalist notions of China’s ‘great rejuvenation’ into CCP ideology. China’s economic model has forced Xi to take a leaf out of Hitler’s book.
The CCP can never disclose the national socialist forces behind Xi’s vision for China. Leninism remains crucial to the party’s identity as a revolutionary agent for historical change, while Stalinism remains critical to the CCP’s organisation as a vanguard party securing a path to communism. As Xi said to the party’s 18th National Congress in 2012, ‘To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and … undermines the [CCP’s] organisations on all levels.’ Xi can’t acknowledge the national socialist character that his ideology has taken on, lest he be accused of undermining the legacies of Lenin and Stalin.
Nor can he repudiate the legacies of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Many commentators note that Xi’s response to his family being sent to labour camps during the Cultural Revolution was to become ‘redder than red’. That experience drilled into Xi a deep respect for Mao as the inheritor of Stalin’s legacy and as the father of the CCP. But the unique position Deng occupies in CCP historiography is also relevant. As the cadre who introduced market-oriented reforms at the Third Plenum of 1978, Deng kicked China out of agrarian feudalism and pushed the country closer to the communist phase of development. Xi can repudiate neither Mao nor Deng, lest he be accused of the very ‘historical nihilism’ he says he abhors.
How might Xi interpret his own place in CCP history? Lenin and Stalin may have been the world’s first true socialists, but the early leaders of the CCP believed that socialism had to be indigenised in China. Mao and Deng, being true Marxist-Leninists, saw that process of indigenisation as a necessary by-product of China’s relative lack of social development. For Mao, the nationalisation of socialism was a necessary part of winning a revolution in China’s largely agrarian society. For Deng, nationalising socialism was but the petit bourgeois result of capitalist industrialisation. Xi, however, views leadership in terms of a sacred bloodline and believes nationalism to be essentially ethnic. He probably sees the nationalisation of socialism as his personal mission on behalf of the Chinese nation.
National socialist images of a sacred bloodline have now become a feature of CCP ideology. Su Jingzhuang (苏敬装), from the Central Party School, recently wrote an article on Xi Jinping thought in the Study Times (学习时报), arguing: ‘Red genes are a genetic factor that has taken root in the body of our party and flows through the blood vessels of CCP cadres; they [form] the spiritual lineage of the Chinese races’ coexistence and co-prosperity, and [they are] a core political advantage in realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ The national socialist mission of unifying race, party, nation and state seems to have taken on singular import for the CCP, while its Leninist role of securing a path to communism has been subordinated. Nationalism is no longer a necessary step on the road to communism, but the driving force behind Chinese socialism.
Under Xi, the CCP has proven all too willing to incorporate aspects of Hitlerian national socialism into its mode of governance. Carl Schmitt, known as the ‘crown jurist of national socialism’, has been cited by legal advisers to China’s leadership to rationalise the CCP’s imposition of a new national security law on Hong Kong last year. Schmitt’s central argument was that the sovereign, as someone who decides on exceptions to rules, has a necessary power to suspend civil liberties. That the CCP is now incorporating Schmitt’s fascist jurisprudence into its legal regime indicates that China’s ruling elite has been influenced not only by the ideological elements of national socialism but also by Nazism’s governmental aspects.
How long Chinese socialism will continue to nationalise under Xi remains an open question. But one thing has become clear: the CCP’s role in securing China’s path to communism is being subordinated to Xi’s vision for China’s nationalist resurgence. The likeliest result of this phenomenon is a less patient, more erratic and risk-hungry foreign policy. Indeed, the prominence of Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats and the CCP’s track record of economic coercion are good indicators that Chinese foreign policy is already taking on that distinctly Hitlerian quality. Yet, the CCP itself remains steeped in Marxism-Leninism and retains a deep respect for Joseph Stalin. Ironically, it may be those Stalinist traditions that could save the world from a Xi Jinping who has started to flirt with the Hitlerian ideas that drove Nazi Germany.