Regular Sinocism readers are no doubt familiar with John Garnaut, one of the top journalists covering China before he joined the Australian government, first as a speech writer for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then as a China policy advisor. John led the Australian government’s analysis of and response to PRC/CCP interference and influence efforts in the country, and his work has since had significant influence in other Western capitals.
John is now out of government and has allowed me to share with you a speech he gave at an internal Australian government seminar in August 2017.
I knew John a little in Beijing and besides having tremendous respect for his work, and especially his access to Princelings at a level I am not sure any other foreign correspondent has ever had, I always found him to be a reasoned and thoughtful chronicler of the PRC.
Some now say he has become a China hawk, but I see it as more the evolution of a sophisticated China watcher who believes in seeking truth from facts, no matter how difficult it may be to accept the reality of the direction Xi and the CCP appear to be taking China. This is a trajectory I have found myself on, along with many of the most experienced foreign China watchers I know.
I wish I could say I find John’s arguments unconvincing, but in fact they only seem more accurate now, over a year after the 19th Party Congress, than they did when he gave this talk in 2017.
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On to John’s thought-provoking talk:
Asian Strategic and Economic Seminar Series
Engineers of the Soul: what Australia needs to know about ideology in Xi Jinping's China
As some of you know I’ve just spent the past eight months as a model public servant on my very best behaviour: biding time, concealing opinions and strictly respecting the bureaucratic order.
Now I get to go unplugged.
Before doing so however I want to thank you very much for coming today and particularly Paul and Sam for giving me this opportunity. It’s an honour to be here at the creation of what promises to be an important seminar series.
This seminar series is itself an audacious act of social engineering. The idea is that by placing economists and security strategists in the same room we could promote dialogue and maybe even peace between the tribes of Canberra - with the long term aim of integrated policy making.
We’ll see about that.
But in the meantime I’m here as someone who was born into the economics tribe and has been forced to gradually concede ground to the security camp. This retreat has taken place over the course of a decade, one story at a time, as I’ve had to accept that economic openness does not inevitably lead to political openness. Not when you have a political regime that is both capable and committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen.
Politics isn’t everything but there’s no country on earth where it is more omnipresent, with the exception of North Korea. And there is no political system that is as tightly bound to ideology.
In the work I was doing upstairs in this building I went out of my way to remove ideology from my analysis of how China is impacting on Australia and our region. It was simply too alien and too difficult to digest. In order to make sense to time-poor leaders it was easier to “normalise” events, actions and concepts by framing them in more familiar terms.
This approach of “normalising” China also served to sidestep painful normative debates about what China is, where it is going and what it wants. It was a way of avoiding a food fight about who is pro-or-anti China. Taking the “Communist Party” out of “China” was a way of de-activating the autoimmune response that can otherwise kill productive conversation.
This pragmatism has worked pretty well. We’ve taken the China conversation to a new level of sophistication over the past year or so.
But by stripping out ideology we are giving up on building a framework which has explanatory and predictive value.
At some point, given the reach that China has into Australia, we will have to make a serious attempt to read the ideological road map that frames the language, perceptions and decisions of Chinese leaders. If we are ever going to map the Communist Party genome then we need to read the ideological DNA.
So today I’m stepping into the food fight.
I want to make these broad points about the historical foundations of CCP ideology, beyond the fact that it is important:
Communism did not enjoy an immaculate conception in China. Rather, it was grafted onto an existing ideological system - the classical Chinese dynastic system.
China had an unusual veneration for the written word and acceptance of its didactic value.
Marxism-Leninism was interpreted to Mao and his fellow revolutionaries by a crucial intermediary: Joseph Stalin.
Communism - as interpreted by Lenin, Stalin and Mao - is a total ideology. At the risk of being politically insensitive, it is totalitarian.
Xi Jinping has reinvigorated ideology to an extent we have not seen since the Cultural Revolution.
I’ll hold off on the practical contemporary implications of all this until we get to the subsequent discussion.
A Dynastic Cosmology
It was clear from my work as a journalist and writer in New China - to use the party speak - that the formal ideology of communism coexists with an unofficial ideology of old China. The Founding Fathers of the PRC came to power on a promise to repudiate and destroy everything about the dark imperial past, but they never really changed the mental wallpaper.
Mao and his comrades grew up with tales of imperial China. They never stopped reading them. The Dream of Red Mansions, The Three Kingdoms - the Chinese classics are all about the rise and decay of dynasties. This is the metanarrative of Chinese literature and historiography, even today.
Mao in particular was obsessed, as Mao’s one-time secretary Li Rui explained to me. He told me: “He only slept on one third of the bed and the other two thirds of his bed was covered by books, all of which were thread-bound Chinese books, Chinese ancient books. His research was the strategies of emperors. That was how to govern this country. That was what he was most interested in.”
And the Founding Revolutionaries passed these same tales down to their children. The daughter of Mao’s leading propagandist, Hu Qiaomu, told me that her father raised his voice to her only once: when she confessed that she hadn’t finished the Dream of Red Mansions (which by the way runs to a million characters). Hu Qiaomu was furious. He told her Chairman Mao had read the book 25 times.
So this is my first observation about ideology - ideology in the broadest sense, as a coherent system of ideas and ideals: the founding families of the PRC are steeped in the Dynastic System.
Admittedly, communism and feudal imperialism are uneasy bedfellows. But they are not irreconcilable. The formula for dynastic communism was perfected by Chen Yun: their children had to inherit power not because of privilege but because they could be counted upon to be loyal to the revolutionary cause. Or, as he put it: “at least our children will not dig up our graves”.
Xi Jinping has exercised an unwritten aristocratic claim to power which derives from his father’s proximity to the founder of the Red Dynasty: Chairman Mao. He is the compromise representative of all the great founding families. This is the starting point for understanding the worldview of Xi Jinping and his Princeling cohort.