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As Challenges Mount, China’s Xi Calls for ‘Self-Revolution’

Larry Ong is a senior analyst with SinoInsider, a New York-based risk consultancy that focuses on Chinese elite politics.
Published: January 25, 2022
xi-jinping-screen-china-self-revolution_detail_GettyImages-1236490788
Visitors walk in front of a screen showing China's President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on November 11, 2021. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Xi is focusing on “self-revolution” to secure political priorities in a crucial leadership reshuffle year. The “self-revolution” push also signals that Beijing is struggling to keep its head above water as China’s various crises compound. 

Speaking to the annual plenary session of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) on Jan. 18, Chinese leader Xi Jinping boasted about his “unprecedented courage and determination” to “struggle against corruption” over the past decade. 

Under his leadership, Xi told leaders of the anti-corruption agency, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “stopped malign practices that have not been stopped for many years, resolved many stubborn diseases that have not been resolved for a long time, eliminated serious hidden dangers in the Party, the nation, and the military, fundamentally reversed the laxity and softness of Party management, and explored the successful path of relying on the Party’s self-revolution to jump out of the historical cycle,” he claimed, according to state media reports. 

“Self-revolution” (自我革命) appeared 13 times in Xi’s 3,400-character speech. In the days leading up to the anti-corruption agency’s plenary session, propaganda outlets prominently featured articles about the importance of “self-revolution” to the CCP. 

Xi is focusing on “self-revolution” to secure political priorities in a crucial leadership reshuffle year. The “self-revolution” push also signals that Beijing is struggling to keep its head above water as China’s various crises compound

Why ‘self-revolution’?

The term “self-revolution” entered the Party’s lexicon before Xi’s tenure, and until recently, merely stood as a synonym for reform. For instance, when Chinese premier Li Keqiang was pushing local government reforms in 2013, he urged officials to regard changing their style of work as “self-revolution.” 

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“Self-revolution” simultaneously took on a narrower definition while being elevated as a concept from late 2021. Xi’s “historical resolution,” a rare Party document intended to boost his “quan wei” (authority and prestige) issued at an important political conclave in November, listed “commitment to self-revolution” as one of the CCP’s ten key “historical experiences” in its over century-long rule. On Dec. 27, 2021, the CCDI noted in an article that the top “anti-corruption buzzword” for the year was “self-revolution.” 

Days later, in his annual New Year’s Day address, Xi Jinping prominently linked the term with regime security by referencing a famous conversation about how China can escape the cycle of dynastic rise and fall between Mao Zedong and the pro-democracy figure Huang Yanpei while stressing “the importance of carrying out bold self-revolution so as to gain the historical initiative.” 

Propaganda outlets subsequently published articles touting Xi’s response to Mao and Huang’s discussion about averting regime collapse. A Jan. 14 People’s Daily article opened by emphasizing Xi’s “self-revolution” as the solution to escaping the “rise-and-fall” cycle before observing that Black Swans and Gray Rhinos are emerging “all the time.”

The “heavy task of reform, development, and stability, the staggering amount of contradictions, risks, and challenges, and the great tests of governance are unprecedented; the world is seeing profound changes unprecedented in a century,” the article wrote. Continuing, the article noted Xi’s caution about corruption leading to the “destruction of the Party and the nation” before citing quotes from Xi that highlight his “determination” to fight corruption and preserve the regime.

Party propaganda also repeatedly stressed that “self-revolution” reflects the people’s will. For instance, the first episode “Zero Tolerance,” a new anti-corruption documentary by the CCDI, features Xi saying, “The hearts and minds of the people are politically paramount, and the people hate corruption the most. Either offend hundreds of corrupt elements, or you offend 1.4 billion people.” 

Today, “self-revolution” is almost synonymous with Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. More broadly, “self-revolution” refers to the undertaking of necessary but interest-hurting reforms, like stringent (“scrapping poison off bone,” “deep-water territory,” “no iron-capped princes,” etc.) anti-corruption measures and financial deleveraging, to ensure that the CCP regime does not go the way of the Soviet regime. “Self-revolution” is also being carried out “in the name of the people,” likely to establish that the initiative has broad appeal and to insulate Xi from criticism from the Party elite. 

Crises threaten regime’s survival

Xi Jinping is angling for a norm-breaking third office term at the 20th Party Congress near the end of the year. To ensure that intra-Party “democracy” swings in his favor, Xi needs to justify his effort to break with modern leadership renewal norms by delivering tangible “achievements” for the regime and possessing high levels of personal “quan wei.” 

However, almost nothing seems to be going Xi’s way at the moment. The Chinese economy is rapidly worsening and seems headed towards recession. Financial contagion is spreading from a debt crisis in the real estate sector. Coronavirus outbreaks are threatening the holding of a successful Winter Olympics in Beijing and making a mockery of Xi’s “zero-COVID” policy. 

Countries continue to call attention to genocide in Xinjiang and the CCP’s other human rights abuses. And members of the Party elite are pushing back against Xi’s agenda, be it blocking him from criticizing a rival predecessor in his “historical resolution” or openly questioning his ability to lead the Party in a “decisive battle” over Taiwan.  

Faced with steep challenges from within and without, Xi appears to be doubling down on the anti-corruption campaign under the guise of implementing “self-revolution.” Notably, the anti-corruption campaign remains Xi’s only “achievement” where he has unquestionably delivered results (the anti-corruption authorities recently revealed that a record 627,000 officials were punished in 2021) and is not in danger of being undermined. Equating anti-corruption efforts with “self-revolution” (regime preservation) also gives Xi a valid reason to tighten his control over the Party elite and justify purging those who insist on opposing him, including “untouchable” very senior cadres. 

On the flipside, the fact that Xi needs to rely heavily on naked intimidation and totalitarian fervor via the anti-corruption campaign and other painful reforms to secure his political priorities and prevent regime collapse is a sign of the times. 

Xi’s desperation also suggests that Party propaganda, while prone to deception and hyperbole, is not exaggerating the dangers from so-called “profound changes unprecedented in a century” to the regime. 

The “self-revolution” push could be a catalyst for another sort of revolution. Factional struggle in the CCP elite is “you die, I live,” and Xi’s enemies will be inclined to push back dangerously when they feel that they are at serious risk of being taken out entirely. 

However, Xi’s effort to get the masses on his side against the elites like Mao during the Cultural Revolution could also backfire should he be compelled to take action that would shatter the Party’s “great, glorious, correct” image. “Self-revolution,” meant to preserve the regime, could ultimately doom it.

Larry Ong is a senior analyst with New York-based political risk consultancy SinoInsider. He was part of the SinoInsider team that forecasted the 19th Party Congress and 2018 Two Sessions personnel reshuffles with a high degree of accuracy.