With just a little under 90 million members, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) portrays itself as a powerful bulwark of socialism and the Chinese people. Upon admission, party members swear to guard CCP secrets, be loyal to the party, fight for communism throughout their lives, and be ready at all times to sacrifice everything for the party and the people. The outward earnestness of the ceremony belies the fact that party membership has long been viewed as a means to improve personal fortunes with little thought given to ideological matters. In the pre-Xi Jinping era, one would often hear young party members say, “I don’t believe in communism, but I believe in the CCP.”
Such sentiments must have sufficiently alarmed Xi and his advisors because ever since becoming General Secretary of the CCP in 2012, Xi has stressed party loyalty as an integral pillar of the state and society. Party loyalty—or the lack thereof—has also been linked to problems of graft within the party and the military. A cursory look at Xi’s statements nets 24 separate speeches or reports that have mentioned “party loyalty (对党忠诚)” since December of 2013. Most recently, Xi asked CCP cadres to remain loyal to the party, "at any time, and under any circumstance." Xi also said party officials should: "always be reliable, align themselves to the party's central leadership in thinking and deeds, follow the party's instructions and fulfil their responsibilities."
Xi’s Campaign to Enforce Party Loyalty
Party loyalty has been a theme in the CCP’s ideological work since well before 1949, but in the last two years the campaign to strengthen it has seen an unmistakable reinvigoration and elevation in importance. In 2016, the 6th plenum of the 18th Party Congress passed two resolutions that specifically address proper party behavior: “Principles for Inner-Party Political Life Under New Circumstances” (关于新形势下党内政治生活的若干准则) and the “CCP Inner-Party Supervision Regulations” (中国共产党党内监督条例). The documents were in response to Xi’s repeated emphasis since the 18th Party Congress on the importance of strict party discipline and absolute party loyalty. According to Vice President of the Central Party School Zhen Zhanmin (甄占民), the new formulations will strengthen the party’s political position, forge loyalty, maintain strict and impartial discipline within the party ranks, and perhaps most importantly preserve the original, foundational fighting spirit of the party.
The new campaign on party loyalty extends far beyond the usual exhortations towards party cadres and the military. In 2016, Xi told newsroom staff that China’s journalists must: “love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.” At a time when there was speculation that different state media outlets backed opposing inter-party factions, the Xi visit sent a clear message that China’s journalists must faithfully serve the party central committee. In a similar vein, Xi addressed China’s Foreign Ministry in December of 2017 with a message of party loyalty. "Absolute loyalty to the party, country and people is the root and spirit of diplomats," Xi said.
Taking up the cause championed by paramount leadership, provincial level and local officials have made even more dramatic statements about “party loyalty” likening the process to tempering steel that eventually enters the souls of party members. A Zhejiang cadre, Ye Jun (叶骏) , wrote that party loyalty is the most important foundation of all political work; only when party members are loyal can they withstand the pressures and tribulations that they will face. Although it is tempting to dismiss such pronouncements as mere party-speak, their growing frequency suggests that this is indeed a major priority for the central leadership and that more investigations and dismissals of “disloyal” members are likely to be in store.
Xi and other Politburo Standing Committee members have repeatedly said that a lack of party loyalty is inextricably tied to problems of corruption, thus posing a serious threat to the CCP’s political legitimacy. Official commentary on party loyalty is explicit: corrupt cadres are inherently disloyal due to their venality. Zhao Leji (赵乐际), the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI)—the CCP’s highest institution enforcing internal discipline—stressed that the commission is at the forefront of strengthening party loyalty as it continues the anti-corruption campaign launched by Zhao’s influential predecessor, Wang Qishan. According to official statistics, 159,100 individuals were disciplined for violating the party's code of conduct in the past year, with most of the cases involving graft. The number of cases was lower in 2017 than in 2016, but by linking corruption investigations with the campaign for party loyalty, Xi can tap into the strong public support that the former continues to have throughout the country to advance loyalty to the CCP and himself.
Xi’s Campaign to Enforce Party Loyalty in the Military
Given the scope of the party loyalty campaign, it should come to little surprise that the effort has also swept up China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Party control over the military has always been a non-negotiable tenet of CCP rule, but the PLA’s privileged access to economic resources has allowed many senior military figures to amass significant influence (and wealth) outside their immediate roles. Xi’s crackdown on corrupt senior military figures coupled with ambitious military reform has coincided with a concerted propaganda campaign to reiterate that the army should, “follow Xi's command, answer to his order, and never worry him.” As mentioned earlier, when it comes to the military such language is not new, but the accompanying public inspections and rallies with the troops have a new muscular look, reflecting Xi’s overall effort to portray himself as a leader without equals.
The campaigns to root out graft in the PLA have given Xi both strong popular credentials and an opportunity to consolidate his command. Indeed, along with the amendment to the CCP constitution in October of 2017 to enshrine Xi Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era in the party charter, changes also were made ordering the PLA to “implement Xi's thinking on strengthening the military” and clarifying that the “Chairperson of the Central Military Commission (CMC) assumes overall responsibility over the work of the Commission.” On its end, the PLA was quick to acknowledge that as CMC Chairman, Xi has absolute command over the military. These steps strongly suggest that while Deng Xiaoping and to a lesser extent Jiang Zemin elected to exercise their influence in subtler, behind-the-scenes fashion after formally retiring, Xi has elected to build a very public apparatus for extended rule.
The Specter of “False Loyalty”
As the party devotes more resources towards shoring up loyalty, it is unsurprising that some of the party’s ideological cannons have been aimed at those who disobey. In particular, the threat of “false loyalty” (伪忠诚) has been identified as especially pernicious. According to research published by a group at the Hubei provincial party school in the party’s leading theoretical journal, Qiushi, there is a minority within the CCP membership which outwardly supports the goals of the party while secretly pursuing selfish personal agendas. Such elements are charged with sullying the reputation of the party and thus must be rooted out.
Quoting Vladimir Lenin, comparing “false loyalty” to metastatic tumors on the body of the party, and hinting at sabotage from within all set a clear tone for the publication. Its hostile tone suggests that the conspiratorial, “us against the world” mindset that has always been part of the CCP’s identity is alive and well. According to the paper’s authors, only those members who are 100% loyal to the party can be considered “loyal”; a cadre who is only 99% loyal inherently falls into the “false loyalty” category and poses the same threat to the party that a cancer cell does to an organism.
Going further, the authors argue that “false loyalty” threatens to deceive the people, thwart development, and worst of all undermine the ultimate faith in the party. The paper cautions readers that the Soviet Union was not defeated in battle but was brought down by “fake beliefs” and “false loyalty” towards Marxism. To address these threats, the authors argue that the party must increase its vigilance and political consciousness--and of course strengthen loyalty.
The CCP is in the midst of an effort to promote party loyalty and to pass on “red genes” to the new generation of party members. Official statements clearly show that the growing levels of cynicism towards the party from both within and outside are seen as a serious threat to the CCP’s long-term legitimacy. Judging from the above-mentioned publication, one could safely surmise that internal (內部) publications disseminated among party members are no less lenient towards the so-called “false loyalty” elements.
When analyzing the broader importance of this loyalty drive, it is crucial to avoid the self-comforting explanation that the drive is only due to an inherent sense of insecurity felt by either Xi or the party writ large. There is enough evidence to suggest that having dealt with his rivals in the upper-echelons of power, Xi is now pursuing the age-old authoritarian goal of creating a loyal and fully compliant governing bureaucracy. The result will be enhanced personal power for Xi. It is reasonable to assume that once the new National Supervision Commission begins operations this year—a super-body “political organ” charged with overseeing all government officials (even those not in the party)—it will be used to root out disloyal elements, both inside the party and without.
Image Credit: Reuters