Kor Kian Beng China Bureau Chief In Beijing

Pursuing the China Dream

China's leader Xi Jinping is moving fast to secure his legacy through an ideology that will bear his name. But there are risks involved in pushing too hard, too early.

China's most powerful leader in recent decades, President Xi Jinping, is further boosting his power base by formulating his own signature ideology and ensuring it enters the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charter.

It is par for the course that the CCP chief would work to secure his historical legacy through his own doctrine - likely based on his "China Dream" political slogan. But minefields lie in the way as he is doing so with more haste and force than his predecessors.

News that five of China's top 10 state-funded research projects this year will focus on the study of Mr Xi's speeches is a clear sign that the CCP is ramping up efforts to shape his signature ideology.

Another two of the 10 projects, each receiving grants of up to 800,000 yuan (S$166,400), will delve into Mr Xi's "China Dream", which envisages the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation across spheres such as standard of living and military might.

Other related efforts include a book compiling his important speeches since taking power in November 2012. More than 10 million copies have been sold since its launch in June, most of them to officials.

There is little surprise at Mr Xi's moves as party tradition compels the party chief to be seen as contributing to the CCP's ideological development. To do so, the chief has to be associated with an ideology that is enshrined as a "guiding thought" in the party charter, alongside the doctrines of preceding leaders.

The tradition began in October 1997, eight months after Deng Xiaoping's death, when the CCP charter was amended to include the Deng Xiaoping Theory that allowed China's opening up and reform, by advocating "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

The charter read: "The Chinese Communist Party adopts Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory as the guide to action."

In 2002, when Mr Jiang Zemin retired, the charter added "the important thought of Three Represents" - Mr Jiang's doctrine that the CCP should represent the broad masses and which paved the way for entrepreneurs to join the party.

His successor, Mr Hu Jintao, left his mark through his "Scientific Outlook on Development", which advocated sustainable development and a harmonious society. It was first worked into the CCP Constitution in 2007 and then, in 2012, when Mr Hu retired, it was upgraded to a guiding thought in the charter with this new line: "The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development as its guide to action."

Mark of a worthy leader

WHAT might account for Mr Xi's eagerness to cement his reputation through ideology, given that he has proven more powerful than his two predecessors at similar stages of their stint as CCP chiefs?

He became CCP chief and chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the 2012 power transfer, unlike Mr Jiang and Mr Hu who waited at least two years to head the military. Also, Mr Xi now wears a record number of nine hats as CCP chief, CMC chair, State President, and head of six party committees on national security and cyber security.

Beyond a grip on power, a personal ideology ensures a CCP chief is deemed a truly worthy leader, said Singapore-based analyst Bo Zhiyue of the East Asian Institute. "It shows that the top leader is not just a leader of factions but also of thoughts," said the expert on elite Chinese politics.

Dr Bo cited how the lack of a pet doctrine counted against former CCP chiefs Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in the party annals. Both were ousted from their positions in the 1980s after running afoul of Deng with their reformist streak and opposition to an armed crackdown on the June 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations respectively.

University of Sydney analyst Kerry Brown said a signature ideology attached to every CCP chief is also "an attempt to give some sense that the party is not ossified and sterile in its ideology but trying to change and develop".

But the assertive way Mr Xi is pushing his ideology carries political risks for him as it raises expectations of the final product and the speed with which he secures its inclusion in the CCP charter. A less than impressive ideology or delay may boomerang on Mr Xi's power base and historical legacy.

First, he is formulating his pet doctrine at an earlier stage than his two predecessors.

Mr Jiang, who became CCP chief in 1989, surfaced his "Three Represents" in 2000 near the end of his tenure in 2002. Mr Hu did, in a way, move faster than Mr Xi, as he introduced his "scientific development outlook" in 2003, a year after becoming CCP chief. But he intensified much later his efforts in pushing for it to be written into the CCP charter.

In contrast, Mr Xi first articulated his China Dream slogan less than two weeks after taking power at the CCP's 18th Party Congress in mid-November 2012.

"In moving so fast, it reflects Xi's ambition to secure his historical legacy and also his self-confidence over his current stature and power base," said Peking University political analyst Zhang Jian.

Mr Xi is also employing more resources than his predecessors in shaping his ideology, or si xiang ti xi in Chinese.

For instance, no research grants were awarded to study speeches of Mr Hu and Mr Jiang when they were in office.

Also, the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science that gives out the annual grants is known to support a wider range of research projects. But this year, the office, which comes under the CCP's Publicity Department headed by propaganda chief Liu Qibao, has picked a large number of projects focused on ideology.

While that could be a case of academics exercising "self-censorship" by choosing topics likely to be approved, Wuhan University analyst Qin Qianhong believes the phenomenon could also be the outcome of a concerted push by the CCP's propaganda officials.

"Xi is certainly more direct and systematic than Hu and Jiang," Professor Qin told The Straits Times. "Xi likely feels his time in charge is too short and sees the need to use the propaganda machinery to ensure the ideology is well-received."

China Dream as doctrine

MR XI'S early moves may also stem from a recognition that the China Dream, compared to doctrines of his predecessors, may require more time and work to ensure it enters the CCP charter.

Dr Bo thinks the China Dream is more of a goal than an ideology; Prof Zhang feels it is a tad too "unsophisticated"; and Prof Qin says it may be too esoteric for others.

While it is possible for Mr Xi to come up with something entirely different from the China Dream, there will be political risks.

"I don't see other alternatives for Xi. If he adopts a new ideology now, he may come across as indecisive and not sure of what he wants, especially if it is not as well-received as the China Dream," said Dr Bo.

It is thus more likely that Mr Xi's eventual signature ideology may be an evolved, more sophisticated version of the China Dream.

Even then, he has to strike a politically sensitive balance between continuing the ideologies of his predecessors and coming up with something most would deem novel.

Looking at Mr Xi's words and deeds so far, his ideology is likely to contain these key elements: a holistic rejuvenation of the Chinese nation; "self-confidence" in socialism with Chinese characteristics, in the chosen path and system of the CCP; and a strong Confucianist ethos reflecting his desire to portray himself as a morally upright ruler.

But having consolidated his power base and moved so early on his signature ideology, expectations are high too for Mr Xi to achieve his place alongside the party giants in the CCP charter ahead of schedule, most likely at the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

The China Dream is a doctrine worth sticking to as Mr Xi stands to get good political mileage out of it.

It provides a chance for him to declare that the dream has been realised and to do so at a time of his choosing, perhaps when he is due to step down in 2022. That was not possible with the Three Represents or the Scientific Outlook on Development, which are more theoretical concepts to be adhered to perpetually.

The attainment of the China Dream may well cast Mr Xi as the leader who rejuvenated the mainland, completing what Deng set out to do with his opening up and reform policies of 1978.

Another of Mr Xi's goals would be to ensure his name appears next to his pet doctrine in the CCP charter, an honour that eluded Mr Jiang and Mr Hu.

But in manoeuvring his way forward, Mr Xi would do well to remember that success would hinge on the strength of his power base. The more powerful a leader, the stronger he is in ensuring his ideology takes its rightful spot.

With social stresses mounting in a slowing economy, and potential political opponents gathering against Mr Xi as he pushes on with his anti-graft campaign, there is no guarantee that his power base will remain at current levels amid challenges in the years ahead.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg