May 24, 2023 | Policy Brief

Xi Doubles Down on Ideological Indoctrination at the Expense of China’s Economic Recovery

May 24, 2023 | Policy Brief

Xi Doubles Down on Ideological Indoctrination at the Expense of China’s Economic Recovery

In several speeches and policy pronouncements this spring, Chinese leader Xi Jinping outlined plans for a sweeping indoctrination drive aimed at tightening his hold on power. Xi’s declarations re-affirm his fixation on ideological control at the expense of economic growth, a move likely to further strain Sino-U.S. relations and increase the risks faced by American companies operating in China.

Since securing a third term last October as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi has convened semi-regular “collective study sessions” with various party organs. Chief among them is China’s powerful Central Committee, which oversees the CCP’s Propaganda and United Front Departments. The Central Committee held its most recent study session in late March; however, Xi’s remarks only became public in mid-May when they were published in the CCP’s leading news magazine, Qiushi.

During the March session, Xi announced a national-level “theme education” (or mass study) program to promote his political doctrine, called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” commonly shortened to ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ or more recently, just ‘The Thought.’ Xi’s program mirrors one Mao Zedong instituted after the Great Leap Forward, a failed industrialization campaign that left 30 million dead between 1958 and 1962.

Xi’s study program aims to neutralize any residual opposition to his leadership within the party’s ranks. Like Mao, Xi’s campaign employs ostensible “investigation and research,” almost certainly in the form of purges and forced confessions, to facilitate “in-depth” and practical “self-criticism” at “all levels.” Xi’s goal is to implement ‘The Thought’ in “all aspects of reform, development, stability, domestic and foreign affairs, national defense, and governance of the party, country, and military.” Xi noted ‘The Thought’ would solve “various contradictions and problems in [China’s] economic and social development” – a reference to his desire to deepen the party-state’s influence in China’s commercial sector and the lives of all Chinese citizens.

Later, in April, Xi established the Central Theme Education Leading Group to manage his indoctrination drive. Like other leading groups charged with overseeing CCP priorities, such as military reform and Taiwan affairs, this group reports to Xi and the CCP’s Standing Committee, China’s highest-level decision-making body. Its responsibilities include launching 58 ideological steering groups throughout the government and the private sector to ensure total compliance with ‘The Thought.’

Also in April, Xi launched a new state-run website and WeChat group to promote ‘The Thought.’ The platforms offer “publicity and interpretation of the important events attended by and remarks given by” Xi and “showcase the progress and results of the [study] campaign.” Such moves build upon Xi’s extensive use of technology to propagate his preferred political narratives and conduct mass surveillance.

Amidst this backdrop, in late April, China’s rubber stamp legislature passed a new “Anti-Espionage Law.” To root out foreign influence, the law expands the scope of what counts as espionage activity to include all data gathering. The law also grants extensive powers to Chinese spy agencies to investigate firms engaged in routine business activities, such as conducting due diligence, which could lead some Western businesses to exit China.

Xi’s ideological push reflects his long-held fears about the Soviet Communist Party’s overnight collapse on account of its “ideals and beliefs” being “shaken.” Going forward, Xi’s paranoia will increasingly drive Chinese decision-making, likely leading him to embrace ever-more radical policies in pursuit of ideological purity. As a result, Xi may assume a more combative approach in his dealings with Washington, all while ramping up unannounced inspections and pre-dawn raids of U.S. multinationals operating in China.

Craig Singleton is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and deputy director of FDD’s China Program, where Cate is an intern. For more analysis from Craig and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.