The politics of China’s purges

  • Themes: China

It would be wrong to think of the disappearance and possible downfall of China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, as an embarrassment for the Communist Party. Purges are an essential part of its political philosophy.

Qin Gang, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, now missing.
Qin Gang, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, now missing. Credit: dpa / Alamy Live News Photo

Regular purges are a method of governance adopted by China’s President Xi Jinping in accord with the practice of Stalin. If, as reports suggest, the insinuating and plausible minister of foreign affairs Qin Gang – who came from the incubator of the Ministry of State Security – has come a cropper, his one-time patron will make the most of it.

Xi believes the Chinese Communist Party is renewed and strengthened by periodic bouts of punishment and cleansing. Conveniently, drastic measures also serve the interests of one-man dictatorship by making all his minions insecure. In President Xi’s orbit, nobody is safe, even, it seems, his ‘wolf warrior’ envoy to the world. Certainly Qin Gang’s alleged plot has potential, involving as it does a glamorous Chinese television interviewer, a private jet, the CIA, and Churchill College, Cambridge. The more colourful and shocking the betrayal, the greater its salutary effect.

Maybe it is true, as the hapless ministry of foreign affairs spokespeople in Beijing insist, that the minister is indisposed for health reasons. Perhaps it is all an unfortunate misunderstanding and he can be expected to make a happy return to the bosom of the party and to his anxious family.

Chinese leaders do vanish from time to time into the penumbra enveloping what passes for public life under the single-party state. They may reappear to applause on a balcony or in the dock at a show trial. Like the doctrine of military necessity, it all depends on what the party needs. In the absence of proof, outsiders might be content to enjoy the spectacle of the regime consuming its own, but no student of the Chinese Communist Party will be deceived into thinking it is a sign of systemic weakness.

It is not clear whether Lenin actually uttered the phrase ‘the worse, the better’ – the excellent archive source is not conclusive – but the Soviet dictatorship internalised the concept from Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a nineteenth-century Russian author. Bad times can be good for some. Communists are meant to be dynamic, disciplined, opportunistic and single-minded in the service of the cause. They react to setbacks by seizing the moment, defeating the plotters and building the party’s resilience. Xi, who is also general secretary of the party, has said so on many occasions.

The textbook was written by Stalin himself. It is called A Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks, published in 1938, and was at one time the most widely disseminated book in the Soviet Union with more than 42 million sales. It is greatly admired by the Chinese leader, who has ordered cadres to study it. In truth, the Short Course is neither short nor historical. It is, however, a manual for dictatorship. The work was first identified as an inspiration to Xi by John Garnaut, an expert on the Chinese elite, who has advised the Australian government. Garnaut told an official seminar that ‘the practical utility of the book is that it prescribes an antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that inevitably corrodes and degrades every dictatorship.’

The lessons absorbed by Xi, whose own father was purged more than once, were that the party became strong through such tests, that class war meant perpetual struggle and the revolution always needed enemies. As a trainee dictator on the way up, Xi found that foreign plots were useful, just as Stalin did in the throes of his own purges. It is well documented that in an early speech, Xi said that to dismiss Lenin and Stalin was ‘to engage in historical nihilism’. Less well known is his personal commitment to Stalin as a guide, his faith in the party’s capacity for internal regeneration though crisis, and his belief in the dialectic as the Marxist way to resolve contradictions through a test of opposing forces.

That is a long way of saying that the wretched Qin Gang may be just the latest Communist to fall victim to his own party’s methodology. Throughout the party’s 102-year history (it was founded in Shanghai in July 1921) political life at its summit has been perilous. The party’s co-founder, Chen Duxiu, was out by 1929 and ended up living in Nationalist China. A faction loyal to the Comintern was headed by the long-forgotten Wang Ming, Mao’s principal rival until he fled to Moscow. Astonishingly, both died in their beds.

Unluckier were victims of Mao’s strike against so-called Bolsheviks in the Red Army and his lethal ‘rectification campaign’ in the Yan’an base area after the Long March of the 1930s; it was in the latter that ‘self-criticism’ and ‘struggle sessions’ were pioneered. The political vortex consumed victims at whim, inculcating paranoia. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, narrowly escaped a horrible end.

While the great crimes and mass movements of Mao’s ‘New China’ are etched in history, it can be helpful to enumerate the sheer number of leading figures who fell. They included China’s president, Liu Shaoqi; Mao’s designated successor, Lin Piao (whose demise was only discovered when foreign correspondents noticed his portrait missing from a state gift store), the military titan Peng Dehuai, and, eventually, the chairman’s widow with her cohorts in the ‘Gang of Four’.

In recent times the party’s struggles claimed the ousted general secretary, Hu Yaobang, his liberal successor Zhao Ziyang, the mayors of Shanghai and Beijing, a slew of generals and numerous provincial chiefs. After an interlude of collective calm, purges resumed with a vengeance during the rise of Xi Jinping. His two main rivals for power, the charismatic and corrupt Bo Xilai, and the sinister security chief, Zhou Yongkang, languish in a prison for the elite. His ‘anti-corruption’ campaign ensnared Politburo member Sun Zhengcai and Ling Jihua, a close aide to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Two generals on the Central Military Commission went down; one died of cancer while under investigation; the other is in jail for graft.

Through all this apparent turmoil, the party emerges stronger as it concentrates on the core leader and absorbs the messages of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, a corpus of wisdom which is said to be miraculously applicable to everything from medicine to diplomacy. Predictions of its downfall sound as premature as they were after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

In examining the exercise of Chinese power, it is therefore useful to remember that purges are a feature, not a bug. In this system the supreme leader uses every misdeed or bungle to serve his own ends and that however faithful, shrill, slavish or self-abasing the functionary, they are but a ‘rustless screw’ in the service of the party and its leader.

The fluent and ambitious Qin Gang, who was wont to muse on the follies of democracy and the decline of western society, will doubtless enjoy ample time to study and reflect on the superiority of the Chinese Way. One day he may even emerge to share his conclusions with us.


Michael Sheridan