Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders held a plenary session in November during which they approved a landmark “Resolution of the CCP Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century”—marking the centenary of the party’s founding in 1921. It has been widely noted that this was only the third time the CCP has conducted such an exercise: only in 1945 under Mao Zedong and 1981 under Deng Xiaoping did party leaders officially take stock of China’s historical experience and lessons learned. Since the new resolution was issued, Xi Jinping has continued to proclaim its importance, promoting it during a “study session” of the CCP “Party School” on January 11.
Most foreign commentary has highlighted the resolution’s veneration of Xi as the indispensable leader for China’s “rejuvenation,” and its corresponding exaltation of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Xi receives more mentions in the document (twenty-five) than Mao (eighteen), with Deng a distant third (six), and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—Xi’s immediate predecessors—each getting only a single reference. Also widely noticed is the incessant invocation of the party itself, which is mentioned more than 500 times (roughly every fiftieth word). But this emphasis on Xi and the party was widely anticipated and not surprising, given the emergence of Xi’s cult of personality over the past several years, and the increasingly explicit reinforcement over the same period of the party’s pervasive authority and control. There can be little doubt that the resolution presages Xi’s “reelection” as Party leader at the Twentieth CCP Congress later this year, breaking from the pattern of two-term limits for Jiang and Hu. But there is much more in the resolution that merits attention than its homage to Xi.
In focusing on the centrality of Xi and the party, some commentators have asserted that the historical resolution actually “lacks history” and is more about justifying Beijing’s future policy direction than assessing its past. It is certainly true that the purpose of the document is to legitimize the CCP and Xi’s leadership going forward, but it does not lack history. Indeed, the first one-third of the resolution is a survey of China’s last 200 years, covering “the period of the new democratic revolution” (from the Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949); “the period of socialist revolution and construction” (essentially the Mao era, until 1979); “the period of reform, opening up, and socialist modernization” (the Deng, Jiang, and Hu era of 1979-2012); and “the New Era” of Xi Jinping. Of course, there is much selective, self-serving history and Communist propaganda in this narrative. But it cannot be dismissed or ignored as only that. The resolution really does place Xi in a historical context, and it contains several core themes that are vital to understanding Beijing’s strategic mindset in 2022.
The middle half of the resolution is a comprehensive outline of the domestic and foreign policy agenda that Beijing is pursuing in “the New Era,” and the final sections of the document review and summarize what CCP leaders see as the party’s historical achievements and guiding principles. As with the historical narrative, these sections are laden with Communist jargon and CCP self-congratulation. But they nonetheless merit serious attention because they authoritatively convey key elements of Beijing’s approach to the rest of the world—going far beyond Xi’s personal role and influence.
Foremost among the central themes of the historical section of the resolution is the importance of the Chinese experience that predated the establishment of the CCP itself: the period when China, previously “a great and ancient nation,” was “gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society due to the aggression of Western powers and the corruption of feudal rulers. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to untold misery, and Chinese civilization was plunged into darkness.” Notwithstanding the stilted language, this essentially is historically accurate. Eventually, as the resolution asserts, “the Chinese people rose to fight back.” In the CCP’s telling—which selectively and self-servingly obscures the details of the Chinese Civil War and the CCP’s role in the war against Japan—the party emerged “to lead the movement to save the nation” and achieve “the liberation of the Chinese people,” who “have chosen the Communist Party of China” as their representative and agent. It is quite a stretch to assert that the Chinese people “chose” the CCP, either then or since. But the narrative of the “century of humiliation” remains central to the historical mindset of both Communist and non-Communist Chinese. Although its emphasis in such a CCP document probably diminishes its validity in Western eyes, its genuine and lasting impact should not be dismissed.
The resolution’s treatment of Mao is predictably and appropriately ambivalent. It credits “Mao Zedong Thought” as a “creative application and advancement of Marxism-Leninism in China” and a “summation of theories, principles, and experience ... that has proven correct through practice.” But “mistakes were made, such as the Great Leap Forward” and the “catastrophic Cultural Revolution,” which the resolution admits was based on “theoretical and practical errors” and “a completely erroneous appraisal of prevailing class relations and the political situation in the Party and the country.” In any case, given the prevailing notion that Xi is reverting to Maoism, it is noteworthy that there is no mention of Mao in the latter two-thirds of the resolution except for one passing reference to upholding “Mao Zedong Thought.”
The same relative absence applies to Deng, but—contrary to the view of some commentators—the resolution does not appear aimed at minimizing Deng’s historical significance. Its introduction of the “period of reform, opening up, and socialist modernization” credits the CCP leadership of 1979, “with Comrade Deng Xiaoping as their chief representative,” with uniting and leading “the whole Party and the entire nation in conducting a thorough review of the experience gained and lessons learned” since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This yielded “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and “efforts to freeing minds and seeking truth from facts.” Moreover, the resolution’s later discussion of the CCP agenda under Xi affirms that the “significant achievements attained in the cause of the Party and the country since the launch of reform and opening up have laid a solid foundation and created favorable conditions for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.” This strongly supports the notion that Xi, in his policy orientation, is more an heir to Deng than to Mao. Indeed, in his address to the World Economic Forum at Davos on January 17, Xi avowed that “China will stay committed to reform and opening up ... [which is] always a work in progress.”
The resolution also implicitly gives credit to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, by associating the years of their tenure with the party’s promotion of “a multipolar world and the democratization of international relations,” support for “economic globalization in a direction toward common prosperity,” pursuit of a “new international political and economic order that would be fair and equitable,” and “unequivocal stand against hegemonism and power politics.” All of these components of Beijing’s foreign policy today have been routinely attributed to Xi, but here the party essentially affirms that their origins predated him.
When it reaches the “New Era,” the resolution clearly underscores Xi’s pivotal role. It was his “meticulous assessment and deep reflection on a number of major theoretical and practical questions regarding the cause of the Party and the country in the new era” that has yielded “a series of original new ideas, thoughts, and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times.” As “the principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” he thus “embodies the best of Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.” Xi’s “core position” in the CCP “reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for ... driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.”
Taking Xi’s leadership as a given, the key notion here arguably is “the common will of the Party.” There is little reason to doubt that the historical lessons and policy agenda outlined in the resolution reflect a consensus within the CCP’s collective leadership—not just Xi’s personal references. Most of the substantive contents of the document echo longstanding themes and Chinese strategic perceptions, and continuity with trend lines that were underway prior to Xi’s tenure in office. The resolution highlights “changes in the international environment” that have “brought about many new risks and challenges,” but merges them with “no small number of long unresolved, deep-seated problems as well as newly emerging problems regarding reform, development, and stability.” The bottom line is that the international implications of the resolution transcend the central role it assigns to Xi, and reflect fundamental aspects of Beijing’s overall strategic perspective and goals.
This includes the document’s emphasis on “safeguarding national security,” which is explicitly defined as all-encompassing, covering “political, military, homeland security, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyberspace, ecological, resource, nuclear, overseas interests, outer space, deep sea, polar, and biological security issues, among others.” Although this has become a mantra under Xi, it reflects a nexus between internal and external security that has emerged in Beijing’s threat perceptions over the past few decades, as both the need and the opportunity for China’s global engagement has expanded. These circumstances have reinforced the party’s determination to resist any challenge:
confronted with various types of external encirclement, suppression, disruption, and subversion, we must not be misguided or intimidated, and we must fight to the end with any forces that would attempt to subvert the leadership of the CCP and China’s socialist system, or to hinder or obstruct China’s advance toward national rejuvenation.
The resolution reaffirms Beijing’s vigilance and determination in confronting the “grave and complex international situation and unprecedented risks and challenges” the CCP now perceives. In this regard, the party appears confident that it has a winning hand in the emerging ideological competition: “Our continued success in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times has ... significantly shifted the worldwide historical evolution of and contest between the two different ideologies and social systems of socialism and capitalism in a way that favors socialism.” China’s success has created “a new model for human advancement” and “a new option for countries and nations who want to accelerate development while preserving their independence.” Although scholars and policymakers debate whether this means Beijing is “exporting” the Chinese model, it clearly reflects Beijing’s growing belief that that CCP’s model has international legitimacy, applicability, and appeal—especially in the midst of the crisis of American democracy.
This apparent confidence that time and tide are on China’s side is perhaps the most striking aspect of the resolution. (It is made explicit on the Taiwan issue, where the document asserts that “We have maintained the initiative and the ability to steer in cross-Strait relations. For realizing China’s complete reunification, time and momentum are always on our side.”) Summarizing the CCP’s historical experience, the resolution concludes that “the Party and the people have shown the world that the Chinese nation has achieved the tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong.” This judgment appears in some ways to be validated by China’s growing international power and influence.
Some commentators have noted, however, that the resolution also contains hints of CCP leaders’ underlying insecurity, or at least fault lines in their confidence. The document cautions that “all Party members must realize that achieving national rejuvenation will be no walk in the park, and it will take more than drum beating and gong clanging to get there.” It also asserts that “The Party is great not because it never makes mistakes, but because it always owns up to its errors ... and has the courage to confront problems and reform itself.” This is not consistently true, nor is it consistently true (as the resolution also claims) that “The Party represents the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. It has no special interests of its own, nor has it ever represented the interests of any individual group, any power group, or any privileged stratum.” The gap between these statements and the historical record is obvious enough to mar the credibility of the party’s self-assessment in this document.
Nonetheless, the resolution cannot be discounted as merely a self-justifying and self-aggrandizing exercise by the CCP. Although that no doubt is among its purposes for the domestic Chinese audience, foreign audiences should read the resolution as a benchmark manifesto in the Party’s quest for China’s global power and legitimacy.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).