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  • Drew Thompson & David Gitter

Xi Jinping's Xi'an Visit Indicates CCP Objectives and Centrality of Loyalty to the Party

[Xi Jinping delivers a short speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University on 22 April, 2020: WATCH HERE]

The final weeks of April were an important time for the Xi Jinping-led leadership as it sought to finally—yet carefully—get China’s economy back on track after more than three months of battling COVID-19, not only in Wuhan where it emerged but around the country as well. The transition required not only recognizing the suffering of the nation and urging a renewed focus on ambitious end-of-year development targets but also emphasizing that only the Xi-led Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could have pulled off such a feat.

To signal to party-state cadres that the overall priority had shifted from epidemic control to re-starting the economy, party mouthpiece People’s Daily rolled out a new article series on 19 April noting China’s coronavirus difficulties but shifting focus to national development.

This article series was timed to coincide with Xi Jinping’s April 20-23 inspection tour of the heartland province of Shaanxi, signaling to the entire country that Xi Jinping is leading the national effort to recover from the pandemic, instill discipline in the Party, fight poverty, and restart the economy. Accompanied only by head of the Party’s General Office Ding Xuexiang, Vice Premier Liu He, and Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission He Lifeng, Xi Jinping did not share the limelight with other senior cadres who played prominent roles managing the epidemic, such as Vice Premier Sun Chanlan, who headed the Party group coordinating the COVID-19 response in Hubei, or Premier Li Keqiang, who headed the national-level Central Leading Group on Novel Coronavirus Epidemic Response Work. Xi’s site visits and public remarks emphasized what Party officials call “political construction,” filled with symbolism and messages about the strength, legacy, and correctness of the CCP and its continued and inevitable rule over China.

Shaanxi is regarded by party historians as the birthplace of the Chinese nation and civilization (Emperor Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to unify China is buried in Xi’an with his famous terracotta warriors), as well as the heart of the Party’s revolutionary history, embodied in the caves of Yan’an where the Party recuperated at the end of the Long March. Yan’an was also the Party’s bastion throughout the Sino-Japanese war, and the Party’s time there during the war is remembered for the rectification campaign when Mao Zedong eliminated his rivals and secured his complete control over the Party’s leadership. Xi Jinping’s visit to Shaanxi, without stopping in Yan’an itself (he visited in 2015) invokes the “Yan’an spirit” of selfless devotion to the Party’s relentless struggle against its enemies.

Xi Jinping’s visit to farms and factories emphasized the imperative of restarting the economy and alleviating poverty. His visit to a nature reserve in the Qingling mountains was a renewed call for environmental protection, framed as China’s pursuit of an “ecological civilization” (生态文明). That stop was also a warning to cadres about loyalty and corruption. In a well-publicised incident which raised questions about Xi’s ability to manage China’s sprawling bureaucracy, he reportedly issued instructions six times beginning in 2014 calling for the demolition of illegally constructed villas in the reserve, only to be thwarted by local officials refusing to carry out his instructions. In 2018, the villas were finally destroyed and trees replanted in their place after an undisclosed number of senior Shaanxi officials were punished.

Yet Xi’s most interesting visit of the inspection tour was to Xi’an Jiaotong University, where he toured a museum, met with retired cadres, and gave a short, seemingly impromptu speech (translation and link to video below). While this may seem mundane, the brief visit was insightful and important for analysts with a keen interest in the CCP’s dogma and self-perception. Xi’s speech revealed the intention to connect the Party’s early challenges with today’s, focusing the nation on a renewed sense of struggle, toward external threats, and toward achieving China’s national rejuvenation goals of realizing a “moderately prosperous society” despite the massive social and economic setbacks of the pandemic.

Indeed, Xi’an Jiaotong University’s history is inseparable from the Party’s own. In late 1955, the Central Committee determined that Shanghai Jiaotong University, which traces its roots to the late Ming Dynasty, should move to Western China and be re-established in the city of Xi’an the following year. The decision to move the university to the heartland reflected a number of factors. While most observers mark the end of the civil war with Mao’s declaration of victory on October 1, 1949, KMT soldiers were still resisting the CCP in Northwest China through 1953 before they were defeated, slowing the land-reform and collectivization campaigns that were taking place elsewhere throughout China. Transferring the intellectual capital and technical expertise of the university to newly liberated areas would speed the region’s development in support of the first Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) and heed the Central Committee’s 1955 call to “support the frontier’s construction” (支持边疆建设).

Geopolitical trends and the CCP’s distrust of cosmopolitan Shanghai also argued for moving the university west. In 1955, the Taiwan Strait crisis was in full swing after Zhou Enlai called for the liberation of Taiwan, followed by attacks on offshore islands held by Kuomintang forces. President Eisenhower submitted the US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty to Congress for ratification in January that year while Congress subsequently passed the Formosa Resolution authorizing Eisenhower to use whatever force he deemed necessary to defend Taiwan. In 1956, the Sino-Soviet relationship began fraying as Khrushchev undertook the de-Stalinization of Russia, giving his famous “cult of personality” speech, which Mao took as a direct attack. With China facing hostility from both the US and Russia, shifting critical assets out of Shanghai and other vulnerable coastal areas to the more-secure hinterland was considered prudent, almost ten years before Mao’s “third line” policies began in earnest.

Xi’s speech emphasized the University’s loyalty to the Party, even to follow a command as impractical as uprooting itself from Shanghai to the frontier city of Xi’an almost 1,000 miles away. As Xi notes in his speech, “The Party wanted something and they just did it.” Xi’an Jiaotong University’s history is therefore an allegory for Communist China’s earliest days of nation-building and struggle for domestic development and against hegemony by the US and Soviet Union. Xi Jinping’s visit evoked all those symbols and made the visit a masterclass in Party-building.

In November 2017, fifteen octogenarian faculty who had made the trek west in 1956 wrote to Xi Jinping, comparing the spirit of the just completed 19th Party Congress with their patriotic endeavour 61 years earlier, referring to their University’s devotion to “listen to the Party’s command and follow the Party.” Xi Jinping responded by writing instructions to the University to look after the retired cadres, and he mentioned the letter in his 2018 New Year’s speech, setting the stage for his visit. This signalled to the country that the COVID-19 epidemic had been effectively dealt with by the Party, leaving the Party and country confident and ready to tackle the interrupted task of reaching the first centenary goal.

Xi Jinping’s brief speech turns Xi’an Jiaotong University’s history into allegory, emphasizing the necessity to “listen to the Party’s command and follow the Party,” concluding with a call linking China’s past and present struggles and the compulsion to project self-confidence:

The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.

Our nation, it rises and transforms through hardship and difficulty.

The Chinese people deservedly take pride in this form of cultural self-confidence.

We absolutely must have this kind of cultural self-confidence.

Xi Jinping’s speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University is translated below with the original Chinese and with a link to a video of its delivery.


I came to Jiaotong University today to have a look around, mainly because I previously received letters from some of the old professors here.


I greatly approve of this “westward spirit,” so this time I took advantage of the time to take a look at your museum.


Just now the secretary and president gave me a brief introduction to the whole situation in Jiaotong University, especially the “westward spirit” situation.


Although I only understand it to some extent, I still feel it deeply; it makes me overflow with emotions.


Wouldn’t you say, our new China hasn’t had it easy!


It’s been 70 years, now we’re strong, now we’re rich.


Of course if you take a look at that year, you also see that year the Party Central Committee was deeply committed with the best intentions!


Why then did one of the best schools move from Shanghai to here?


Because we are deployed strategically to carry out the development of a new China for the whole Chinese nation, including an educational distribution, industrial distribution, and pushing forward and spurring Western regional development.


And under this strategic deployment, our Jiaotong University students and faculty embodied this westward spirit, which I just discussed. I say at the core of this is patriotism and at its marrow is listening to the Party’s command and following the Party. Really. The Party and the country, the nation and the people breathe together the same destiny.


The Party wanted something and they just did it, pulled up their knapsacks and set out, and over six thousand people moved here.


Moving from the Huangpu River bank to the Wei River (river that borders Xi’an), that is easier said than done!


When this case was happening, the mayor of Shanghai at the time Mayor Chen said, in ten years take a look at how they moved.


Now over 60 years have passed, this incident of history has already concluded.


Xi’an Jiaotong University rose to fulfill great purpose, towards opening up the West, towards this country’s economic and social development layout, in developing many skilled personnel, and making major scientific contributions.


Therefore, stay true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind, this the old professors feel deeply.


In practice, we should also carry forward the old professors’ spirit, managing Xi’an Jiaotong University well now is to continue carrying on this westward spirit.

在当前的历史机遇下,两个一百年、西部大开发、一带一路,老师们、同学们再接再厉。 就是当前防控疫情也是一个历史机遇阿,化危为机。

Faced with the present historic opportunities, such as the Two Centenary Goals, the “development of western China” policy, the Belt and Road Initiative - teachers and students continue to make persistent efforts. The epidemic prevention and control we face is also an historic opportunity to turn a crisis into an opportunity.


The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.


Our nation, it rises and transforms through hardship and difficulty.


The Chinese people deservedly take pride in this cultural self-confidence.


We absolutely must have this kind of cultural self-confidence.


I also have complete conviction, our Jiaotong University students and faculty, our comrades in the west, absolutely will be known in the future history of the New Era for bringing about our heroic success, which the Chinese people will build upon for greater successes.




The authors would like to thank Ann Listerud and Sandy Lu for their assistance with translations.

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