The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping

Li Xueren/Xinhua

“History always moves forward according to its own laws despite twists and turns, and no force can hold back its rolling wheels. The tide of the world is surging forward. Those who submit to it will prosper, and those who resist will perish.”

—Xi Jinping, Speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (2013)

To understand the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, first understand this: Xi Jinping believes in “laws of history”—and he requires his diplomats to believe in them too.

No country’s foreign relations can be reduced completely to the personal ideology of a single man, no matter how prominent or powerful. But in the case of General Secretary Xi Jinping, this is not for want of trying. Xi constantly reminds the men and women who staff China’s embassies that their first loyalty is the Communist Party of China and their first duty is to implement the directives of the Central Committee (that Xi himself leads). Just as a U.S. president will fret that the “blob” frustrates his diplomatic design, so must Xi deal with an aimless foreign policy apparatus whose parts are content to move to their own tune. But unlike his American counterparts, Xi has taken dramatic action to tame the machine.

Communicating his precise foreign policy vision preoccupies Xi: no General Secretary has delivered more speeches on foreign affairs than Xi. New offices and coordinating bodies have been created to whip the bureaucracy into shape, all with Xi at their head. Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative, The Belt and Road, has been written into the Communist Party’s constitution. Twice Xi has summoned the full Politburo, the general staff and regional commanders of the PLA, the leading cadres of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Front Work Department, and all of China’s serving ambassadors to Beijing to listen to his personal instruction. At the second of these two meetings he unveiled “Xi Jinping Thought on Foreign Affairs”—a set of principles and guidelines that all of China’s foreign-facing officialdom is supposed to memorize, internalize, and implement.

Xi Jinping began both of these meetings by reviewing the “underlying trends” of our times. “We should not allow our views to be blocked by anything intricate or transient,” he told the leader’s of China’s foreign policy apparatus in 2014. “Instead, we should observe the world through the prism of historical laws.” Xi has given similar advice on many other occasions. One of the earliest came on a May 4th commemoration in 2013, when Xi took advantage of the anniversary to advise China’s rising generation to:

…base your ideals and convictions on the rational recognition and acceptance of scientific theories, on a correct understanding of the laws of history, and on an accurate understanding of the basic national conditions; keep enhancing your confidence in the Chinese path, theories, and system; have more faith in the Party’s leadership, and always follow the Party in upholding Chinese socialism.

Xi was not breaking new ground when he tied together “scientific theory,” “laws of history,” and “faith in the Party leadership.” For a generation the Constitution of the Communist Party of China has opened its justification of Party rule with the declaration “Marxism-Leninism reveals the laws governing the development of the history of human society.” The vanguard Party’s ability to discern these laws and develop them into coherent “theories” of action validates the Party’s paramount role in Chinese life. Xi explained this line of reasoning on the 95th anniversary of the Party’s founding. “Adopting Marxism as our guide to action,” he said, both allowed China’s communists to “free [themselves] from the limitations of all previous political forces, which focused on pursuing their own special interests” and “enabled us to hold onto the materialist dialectic view.” Xi makes clear that the version of materialist historical analysis that guides Party policy has “not remained static” since the days of Marx. This is a “scientific theoretical system that keeps up with the times.” As such, “we should believe that the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the right theory to lead the Party and the people towards realizing national rejuvenation.”

Xi constantly repeats—and presumably believes—that as stewards of a “scientific,” materialist mode of analysis his Party is uniquely placed to discern the laws of history. Few other governments, whose vision are corrupted by class or partisan interests, can be so confident that they have “grasp[ed] the pulse of the times.” This need to discern the “pulse,” “trend,” “direction,” or “tendency” of the times is asserted so often in the speeches of Xi Jinping (and the official exegeses of Xi Jinping Thought) that the rest of this piece could consist of nothing else but quotations on the theme. It is much harder to find explanations of just how cadres are supposed go about using historical dialectic materialist theory in practice. Politburo member and former head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi’s attempt to explain this aspect of Xi Jinping Thought on Foreign Affairs remains vague and impractical:

We must accurately grasp the great trend in the development of the world and the China of the New Era. [In 2018] General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized that to grasp the international configuration, we must be able to accurately see affairs from the perspective of history, the perspective of the overall situation, and from the perspective of the role [of China within the whole].

Just how one analyzes an issue from the viewpoint of history, the existing order, and the country’s role within the whole remains unclear. Yang instead launches into a summary of Xi’s assessment of each of these three questions. Yang does not show how Xi reached these conclusions so much as celebrate that the Core of the Party has managed to do so. Xi is a statesman who sees the tides of history; Xi Jinping Thought prepares the Party-state to ride the wave.

General Secretary Xi consistently describes this wave with a phrase that has now become an official Party slogan: “the modern world is experiencing great changes unseen in a century.” Various Party commentaries have tried their hand at decoding this phrase. A century ago, the mantle of power and the engine of global economic growth moved from Great Britain to the United States, these commentaries remind us, meaning that changes of equal significance must now be occurring. The heart of the global economy shifts from the developed world to the developing, they note, and the center of global power moves from West to East. This tide cannot be turned. As Xi Jinping explained to the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2014:

The growing trend towards a multi-polar order will not change. We should be fully aware that the ongoing global economic adjustment will not be smooth sailing; we also need to recognize that economic globalization will not stop. We should be fully alert to the grave nature of international tensions and conflicts; we also need to recognize that peace and development are the underlying trend of our time, will remain unchanged.

In address after address, Xi teaches that the arc of history bends towards “multi-polarization,” “globalization,” and “peaceful development.” Each faces its own obstacles (in Maoist fashion, he describes these obstacles as “contradictions” linked to the productive forces that create the trends themselves) but those obstacles cannot overturn the general trend. After all, as Xi instructed in 2018, “the development of the world has always been the result of contradictions intertwining and interacting with each other.” More important is for cadres to have “a deep appreciation of the essence and overall situation” lest they “get lost in a complex and changing international situation.” The key is to identify the forces of history that transcend any individual crisis and ensure that the Party-state moves with, not against, their development.

As any proper Marxist would, Xi identifies these forces of history as powers unleashed by the material productive forces of our age. These forces are independent of human will, the product of material developments no individual can hope to control. One of his most direct statements of this very Marxist belief was delivered, ironically enough, to the capitalists collected at Davos for the 2017 World Economic Forum:

From a historical perspective, economic globalization is a result of growing social productivity, and a natural outcome of scientific and technological progress—not something created by any individuals or countries…. there was once a time when China too had questions about economic globalization, but… we came to the conclusion that that integration with the global economy is a historical trend.

…Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the great ocean from which you cannot escape. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital technologies, products, industries, and people between economies and channel the waters of the sea back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible. It runs counter to the historical trend.

Does it matter that Xi Jinping believes that there is a telos to the times? It is possible this is all just talk. If you cannot convince the world to like you, you can at least convince the world that you are inevitable. And for a General Secretary worried about the flagging “faith” of Party cadres, asserting that the Party has mastered the laws of history has ideological allure. But dismissing all of this as mere rhetoric is hard to square with the settings in which Xi appeals to “the pulse of times.” One does not call every ambassador to Beijing just to bore them with the latest propaganda hacks. Xi calls these meetings because he has an exact idea of how he wants his diplomats, bureaucrats, and generals to do their job. Addresses like these are less like stump speeches on the campaign trail than they are like instruction manuals.

There are also clear links between the forces Xi believes govern the future and the strategies he has endorsed to shepherd China’s rise to power. Like all Party leaders since the days of Deng Xiaoping, Xi has declared that the “historical mission” of the Communist Party is to return China to its position of pre-modern eminence. The Chinese communists have long believed that this will require transforming the nature of the international order. They state quite openly that any order whose governing structures and moral underpinnings are intertwined with liberal ideas and ideals cannot safely accommodate a Leninist power. To safeguard China’s rising star, Xi must find a way to increase China’s wealth and power while creating an international environment that is “fairer” to Chinese communism than the one that now exists.

Xi Jinping has called his solution to this problem “the path of peaceful development.” Neither the phrase nor the strategy it evokes is new to the Xi era—indeed, every instance Xi used the phrase in the 2010s was a subtle reminder that China had not gone to war in forty years. But “the path of peaceful development” is not just a decision to avoid war with foreign powers. It is a quest to build up Chinese power and reshape the global order through “interconnected” or “win-win” development. This formula implicitly rejects the revolutionary agitation of China’s Maoist days and sets itself in opposition to America’s military interventions in the Middle East. But why has the Party decided that military tools are of limited use in bringing about their preferred world order? Xi offered his answer in a 2013 seminar on diplomatic work: “The path of peaceful development is the Party’s strategic choice in line with the times and aligned with the fundamental interests of the country.”

In other words, “peaceful development” was a deliberate, strategic decision by the Party. It was adopted because our era is defined by two irreversible trends: international economic integration and the rise of developing economies. In such an era, linking China’s development “with the common development of other developing countries” and building an economic and technological “partnership network that links all parts of the world” to China is the most effective way to increase Chinese power and influence. In this environment open violence is a poor tool to grow either national power or international influence. As Xi said in one of his very first addresses as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China:

The tide of history is mighty. Those who follow it will prosper, while those who resist it will perish. Looking back on history, we can see those who launched aggression or sought expansion by force ended in failure. That is a law of history. A prosperous and stable world provides China with opportunities… whether we succeed in our pursuit of peaceful development to a large extent depends on whether we can turn opportunities in the rest of the world into China’s opportunities.

From this belief stems many of the hallmark features of Chinese foreign policy in the age of Xi Jinping. In his discussion of Xi Jinping Thought on Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi makes this connection between the trends of the time and Xi’s foreign policy program explicit:

Viewed from the perspective of the overall [international] situation, peace and development are still the theme of our times. We [thus] must continue to hold high the banner of peace, development, and win-win cooperation. We must [continue] building a new type of international relations and the community of shared destiny for humankind.… [and] we must firmly adhere to the path of peaceful development, participate more actively in global governance, and play a greater role in international affairs. …Grasp accurately the new laws that govern the interaction China’s interactions with the world, and actively control the new direction of China and the world.

Yang Jiechi’s explanation favors opaque Party shorthand. Phrases like “build a new type of international relations,” construct “the community of shared destiny for humankind,” and “participate more actively in global governance,” and “actively control the new direction of China and the world” denote a wide range of policies the Party-state has pursued over the last decade. A short list of these policies might include:

As that last item suggests, the Party’s commitment to a strategy of peaceful development is not a commitment to abandon coercion. Xi Jinping knows one of the boons that comes from “work[ing] hard to form a highly-integrated, mutually beneficial network through extensive economic, trade, and technological cooperation” is that it allows the Party-state to replace bloodshed with less messy forms of coercion. Xi understands that “as China has increased its dependence on the world and its involvement in international affairs, so has the world deepened its dependence on China.” He believes the Party must use this fact to its advantage. When the “global trend [is] towards multipolarity and economic globalization,” not only development, but corruption and economic coercion are valued means of national restoration.

But what if the global trend changes? Will those means change as well? This cannot be predicted before the fact. The Communist Party of China is not ideologically prepared for a future where Xi has misread the tea-leaves. What happens if the “trends of the times” no longer allow the Chinese Party-state to accumulate power and exercise influence through these tools is an open question. If interconnected economic development and targeted economic coercion lose their utility, we do not know what tools the Party will turn to in their stead.

What we do know: China’s commitment to peaceful development rests on its leader’s belief that globalization and economic integration is an irrevocable historical law. In days of depression and pandemic this is an unsettling thought.

Tanner Greer is the director of the Center for Strategic Translation and a correspondent for Palladium Magazine. His writing focuses on contemporary security issues in the Asia-Pacific and the military history of East and Southeast Asia.