The recent publication of two articles supposedly by different camps demonstrates that the feud is intensifying in the face of slow economic growth, stringent anti-monopoly laws and in the run up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Factions in China have all along used ideological institutions to settle scores in a somewhat zero-sum game. The institutionalization of the leadership succession had struck a certain balance amongst the factions, however, by rewriting of the Party and State constitutions, amassing unprecedentedly huge power across the instruments of state power, and leaning to the side of the conservatives or radicals, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi Jinping has rocked this balance. This was observable before and after the proceedings of the 19th Party Congress, however, has become more conspicuous during the recently concluded 6th Plenary Session of the Nineteenth Central Committee of the Party. The recent publication of two articles supposedly by different camps in the “two newspapers and one journal” (两报一刊) demonstrates that the feud is getting intensified in the face of slow economic growth, stringent anti-monopoly laws and in the run up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

“Two newspapers and one journal” refer to the People’s Daily (人民日报), the People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放日报) and the Red Flag (红旗). The Red Flag has been renamed as Qiushi (求是) or Seeking Truth since initiation of the reform and opening up policy. News and editorials published in these are considered as authoritative statements of official government policy or that representing authoritative voice of the CPC. On 9 December 2021, the People’s Daily published a 3,985-character long article entitled “Reform and opening up is a great awakening of the Party” by Qu Qingshan, director of the Institute of Party History and Literature of the Central Committee of the CPC and also a member of the present powerful Central Committee. Though there is nothing special about an article that vehemently defends the Reform Era, but the timing and context pitch it against another article that could be regarded as written in defence of the New Era. Qu’s article mentions Deng Xiaoping 9 times and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao each once for initiating and carrying forward the legacy of reforms, but there is no mention of Xi Jinping at all. Rather Qu argues that the CPC by way of correcting the “grave mistakes” (严重错误) of the Cultural Revolution, “re-established the ideological line of seeking truth from facts, and liberated people’s thinking from the long-term ‘Left’ confinement (长期“左”的禁锢) and the shackles of dogmatism.” Qu argues that it was the reform and opening up that avoided the “old closed ossified road” (封闭僵化的老路) and the one which would have forced us to change our banner.

Interestingly, on 13 December 2021, Jiang Jinquan, director of the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, the post that was headed by Wang Huning before, also wrote a 4,332-character long article in the theory edition of the People’s Daily entitled “Adhere to the overall leadership of the Party.” The article makes mention of Mao Zedong twice and that of Xi Jinping six times. It recounts the Party’s struggle through revolution, construction and reform periods, and argues that the leadership of the party is the “fundamental and lifeblood” (根本所在、命脉所在) of the party and the country. Had it not been for the “strong leadership core” (坚强领导核心) it would have been impossible to make such great achievements. The same has been regarded as crucial for realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Contrary to Qu’s article, Jiang’s article deems the Cultural revolution as the “most serious setback” since the establishment of the People’s Republic. Jiang acknowledges the fact that after the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Party, the CPC “restored and re-established the correct ideological, political, and organizational line,” however, also argues that there was also a “deviation” ( 出现偏差) in the content and methods of the party’s leadership, which was eliminated only after the 18th National Congress of the CPC.” The article argues in favour of upholding the Party’s overall leadership; denounces individualism (个人主义), decentralism (分散主义), liberalism (自由主义), parochialism (本位主义) and nice-guyism (好人主义), and recommends elimination of “double-faced people” (清除“两面人”) for sabotaging the centralised and unified leadership of the Party. It concludes that General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Party Central Committee enjoy high degree of trust and sincere support of the entire Party, army and people.

If these two articles are read in tandem with the 4,700-word mission communiqué issued after China’s latest Central Economic Work Conference, between 8 and 10 December 2021, it becomes clear that “economic construction as the centre” (经济设为中心) of the Deng Xiaoping era will return to the mainstream discourse in 2022 or at least until the situation stabilises. Owing to this, “seek progress while maintaining stability” (稳中求进) has been emphasized in the communiqué. No wonder the word “stability” (稳) was cited 25 times. The communiqué requires “all regions and departments to take the responsibility of stabilising the macro economy and actively introduce policies conducive to economic stability.” It appears that there will be some course correction as far as anti-monopoly laws, crackdown on hi-tech and edu-tech sectors, and real estate financial supervision etc. recent policy measures are concerned, for the communiqué stresses on first making the cake bigger.” It could also be seen as a half step forward from the conservatives so as to reach a middle ground with the reformers as regards the “One central task” but there seems no commitment on one of the components of the “Two basic points” i.e., “Reform and opening up.” It may be recollected that in 1987 when the then Premier of the State Council, Zhao Ziyang put forth a three-stage development strategy for China’s modernisation in the next 62 years in a speech entitled “Advance Along the Road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and proposed the concept of “one central task and two basic points” (一个中心两个基本点). “One central task” refers to economic development as the central task of the government, while “two basic points” refer to the “four cardinal principles” (the socialist road, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the leading role of the Party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought), and the “reform and opening up.” These were reiterated by Deng Xiaoping on 9 June 1989 Tiananmen speech when he authorised the use of force against the protesting students.

There are no differences amongst the two camps as far as the issue of “four cardinal principles” is concerned, however, the policy of “reforms and opening up” has drawn flak of late, as it was missing from the “ten upholds” in the Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century passed during the 6th plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee in November 2021. Compromising on the “one central task,” however, doesn’t mean to say that Xi Jinping’s position in the Party has been weakened, but certainly demonstrates the fact the reformers are upset with the state of the economy in China and would like to have a bigger say in economic matters.

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.