By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s ruling Communist Party is ramping up calls for political loyalty in a year of sensitive anniversaries, warning against “erroneous thoughts” as officials fall over themselves to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and his philosophy.
This year is marked by some delicate milestones: 30 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square; 60 years since the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet into exile; and finally, on Oct. 1, 70 years since the founding of Communist China.
Born of turmoil and revolution, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 on the back of decades of civil war in which millions died, and has always been on high alert for “luan”, or “chaos”, and valued stability above all else.
“This year is the 70th anniversary of the founding of new China,” Xi told legislators from Inner Mongolia on Tuesday, the opening day of the annual meeting of parliament. “Maintaining sustained, healthy economic development and social stability is a mission that is extremely arduous.”
Xi has tightened the party’s grip on almost every facet of government and life since assuming power in late 2012.
Last year parliament amended the country’s constitution to remove term limits and allow him to stay in office for the rest of his life, should he so wish, though it is unclear if that will happen and Xi has not mentioned it in public.
Later in the year the party will likely hold a plenum of its top leadership focused on what China calls “party building”, diplomats and sources with ties to China’s leadership say, a concept that refers to furthering party control and ensuring its instructions are followed to the letter.
In late January the party again stressed loyalty in new rules on “strengthening party political building”, telling members they should not fake loyalty or be “low-level red”, in a lengthy document carried by state media.
“Be on high alert to all kinds of erroneous thoughts, vague understandings, and bad phenomena in ideological areas,” it warned. “Keep your eyes open, see things early and move on them fast.”
On March 1, Xi spoke at the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, mentioning the word “loyalty” at least seven times, according to official accounts in state media.
Xi noted that whether an official is loyal to the party is a key gauge of whether they have ideals and convictions. “Loyalty always comes first,” he said.
Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said China was concerned about resistance at lower levels to following party orders, the slowing economy and also about demands for political reforms as people get steadily richer.
“The desire for control is not something particular to any time period,” he said. “It is a fundamental tenet of autocratic governments that they are constantly paranoid about being overthrown.”
Xi looms large over this year’s session of China’s largely rubber stamp parliament, known as the National People’s Congress, which has always been stacked with people chosen for their absolute fealty to the party.
Government ministers who spoke to reporters on the sidelines of parliament’s opening session on Tuesday peppered their comments with references to Xi – 16 times in all.
Customs minister Ni Yuefeng said that Xi himself “pays great attention to not allowing foreign garbage into the country”, a reference to China’s ban on solid waste imports, part of the country’s war on pollution.
“Ideology comes first this year,” said one Western diplomat who is attending the parliamentary sessions as an observer. “It’s all about the 70th anniversary.”
The party has increasingly been making rooting out disloyalty and wavering from the party line a disciplinary offence to be enforced by its anti-corruption watchdog, whose role had ostensibly been to go after criminal acts such as bribery and lesser bureaucratic transgressions.
The graft buster said last month it would “uncover political deviation” in its political inspections this year of provincial governments and ministries.
Top graft buster Zhao Leji, in a January speech to the corruption watchdog, a full transcript of which the party released late February, used the word “loyalty” eight times.
“Set an example with your loyalty to the party,” Zhao said.
China has persistently denied its war on corruption is about political manoeuvring or Xi taking down his enemies. Xi told an audience in Seattle in 2015 that the anti-graft fight was no “House of Cards”-style power play, in a reference to the Netflix U.S. political drama.
The deeper fear for the party is some sort of unrest or a domestic or even international event fomenting a crisis that could end its rule.
Xi told officials in January they need to be on high alert for “black swan” events..
That same month the top law-enforcement official said China’s police must focus on withstanding “colour revolutions”, or popular uprisings, and treat the defence of China’s political system as central to their work.
The party has meanwhile shown no interest in political reform, and has been doubling down on the merits of the Communist Party, including this month rolling out English-language propaganda videos on state media-run Twitter accounts to laud “Chinese democracy”. Twitter remains blocked in China.
The official state news agency Xinhua said in an English-language commentary on Sunday that China was determined to stick to its political model and rejected Western-style democracy.
“The country began to learn about democracy a century ago, but soon found Western politics did not work here. Decades of turmoil and civil war followed,” it said.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson)