In June 2017 former China correspondent, former Turnbull staffer and then principal international adviser in Prime Minister and Cabinet, John Garnaut, delivered within the department the analysis he had long contemplated — Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China.
If you have anything to do with China, personal or professional, you need to read it. The brief was transmitted to HR McMaster when he was national security adviser to President Donald Trump and circulated to the US National Security Council team.
Garnaut says that in initially advising the Australian government on China “it was simply too alien and difficult” to include the vital component of ideology, hence his practice was to “normalise” China simply because people were not ready to grasp the ideological DNA of the regime.
Now he wanted to describe that ideology. It begins with the recognition communism was grafted on to the classical Chinese dynastic system, and the leaders of the People’s Republic “never really changed the mental wallpaper”.
“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,” Garnaut says. “He is the compromise representative of all the great founding families. This is the starting point for understanding the world view of Xi Jinping and his princeling cohort.
“In the view of China’s princelings, or ‘revolutionary successors’ as they prefer to be known, China is still trapped in the cycle which created and destroyed every dynasty that had gone before. In this tradition, when you lose political power you don’t just lose your job. You lose your wealth, your freedom, probably your life and possibly your entire extended family. You are literally erased from history. Winners take all and losers lose everything.
“In the Chinese formulation it is ‘you die, I live’. I must kill pre-emptively in order to live. Xi and his comrades in the red dynasty believe they will go the same way as the Manchus and the Mings the moment they forget.”
Garnaut says Marxism-Leninism was interpreted to Mao by a critical intermediary: Stalin. Mao found his ideological treasure in Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course that, at the time of Stalin’s 1953 death, was the third most printed book in history and “the closest thing in China to a religious text”.
The book, Garnaut says, “is a manual for perpetual struggle against a roll call of imagined dastardly enemies who are collaborating with imagined Western agents to restore bourgeois capitalism and liberalism. You can imagine how this formulation was revelatory to a ruthless Chinese leader like Mao who had mastered the ‘you die, I live’ world and was obsessed with how to prevent the decay which had destroyed every imperial dynasty before.
“What Stalin offered Mao was not only a manual for purging his peers but also an explanation of why it was necessary. Purging his rivals was the only way a vanguard party could ‘purify’ itself, remain true to its revolutionary nature and prevent capitalist restoration.
“Crucially, Mao split with Khrushchev because Khrushchev split with Stalin and everything he stood for. We hear a lot about how Xi and his peers blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet state but actually their grievances go back much further. They blame Khrushchev for breaking with Stalin. And they vow they will never do to Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin. Now, 60 years on, we’re seeing Xi making his claim to be the true revolutionary successor of Mao. This is the language the deep red princelings spoke when together and occasionally when I interviewed them and crashed their gatherings in the lead-up to the 18th party congress.”
Garnaut quotes from Xi’s speech: “To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organisations on all levels.”
This is the logic driving Xi’s “ever-deepening purge of peers”: of challenger Bo Xilai, security chief Zhou Yongkang, two vice-chairs of the PLA Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, Youth League fixer Ling Jihua, and potential successor, Sun Zhengcai. “None of this is personal,” Garnaut said. “It’s dialectical. And inevitable.’’
“History needs to be pushed along its dialectical course,” said Xi in his speech marking the party’s 95th birthday in 2015. “History always moves forward and it never waits for all those who hesitate.”
Garnaut says: “The essence of Maoism and Stalinism is perpetual struggle. This is the antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that has destroyed every dynasty, dictatorship and empire. This is why Xi and his peers believe Maoism and Stalinism is still highly relevant. Not just relevant, but existential. Xi has set in motion a purification project, a war against the counter-revolution, that has no end point because the notional utopian destination of perfect communism will always be kicked a little further down the road.” It is why extreme politics cannot stop at the 19th party congress.
Garnaut asks: “Who was the world leader who described artists and authors as ‘engineers of the human soul’ and said ‘the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks’?”
The quote comes from Stalin’s speech at the home of writer Maxim Gorky, at the end of the great famine. The message is that art and literature are to be instrumental. Their job is to indoctrinate the masses and advance the revolution. Garnaut quotes Mao extending the Stalin formula: truth, love and art have no purpose but that of politics. “Mao’s talk on literature and art was his way of introducing the Yan’an Rectification Campaign, the first great systematic purge of the Chinese Communist Party,” Garnaut said. It was a project of “orchestrated peer pressure and torture”; by breaking people “physically, socially and psychologically”, the human mind could be conditioned “in the same way Pavlov conditioned dogs”.
When Xi spoke at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art in 2014, he argued for a return to Stalinist/Maoist principles: “Art and literature is the engineering that moulds the human soul.” In short, the arts must serve politics, meaning, as Garnaut said, “the totalitarian project” of unity language, knowledge and behaviour. “Xi uses the same ideological template to describe the role of ‘media workers’, teachers and university scholars. They are all engineers of ideological conformity.”
Could China have turned out differently? There was a contest internally from Mao’s death to the Tiananmen massacres but, Garnaut argues, “ideology won that contest”. “Everything Xi says as leader, and everything I can piece together from his background, tells me he is deadly serious about the totalising project,” Garnaut said. “The unbroken thread that runs from Lenin through Stalin, Mao and Xi is the party is and always has defined itself as being in perpetual struggle with the ‘hostile’ forces of Western liberalism.
“ Xi did not invent this ideological project but he has highly reinvigorated it. And he is pushing communist ideology at a time when the idea of ‘communism’ is as unattractive as it has been at any time in the past 100 years. In the space of five years, with the assistance of big data and artificial intelligence, he has been bending the internet from an instrument of democratisation into a tool of omniscient control. The challenge for us is that Xi’s project of total control does not stop at China’s borders. It is packaged to travel with Chinese students, tourists, migrants and especially money. It flows through the channels of the Chinese language internet, pushes into all the world’s major media and cultural spaces.”
Garnaut calls his address “the bit we forgot to study”. It was designed to bust the notion of China as a normal country. This is how the Western educated mind is trained to think, and it is false. He says if you’re in the business of dealing with China in intelligence, defence, higher education, trade, economics or whatever, then you need to understand the ideology of Lenin-Stalin-Mao and Xi.