Xi Jinping Invests in Ideological Legitimacy Amid Slowing Economic Growth
Hongjia Yang, Endowment Intern, Summer 2023, Center for China Analysis
General Secretary Xi Jinping recently highlighted a political concept that illuminates the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and hints at an emerging trend in his governance of the country: the "Two Integrations" (Liang ge Jiehe 两个结合). The concept, which promotes Marxism and emphasizes its integration with Chinese politics and culture, suggests that Xi is increasingly embracing ideological legitimacy amid growing economic challenges.
In a speech to mark the Party’s centenary in 2021, Xi defined the Two Integrations as "the integration of the fundamental principles of Marxism with China’s specific reality and with China’s outstanding traditional culture." His report to the 20th Party Congress last October said the Two Integrations are necessary to "correctly answer major questions raised by the times and practice" and "maintain the vigorous vitality and exuberant energy of Marxism."
Xi spotlighted the Two Integrations this June when he addressed a Symposium on Cultural Inheritance and Development that convened at the Chinese Academy of History. He emphasized the deep combability of Marxism with China's traditional culture, despite their very different origins. The two reinforce each other and create a uniquely modern Chinese cultural identity, according to Xi. Moreover, this union spurs innovation, granting China the initiative to shape its own cultural and ideological trajectory. The Two Integrations have also become prominent in Xi’s most recent thematic education campaign, which is socializing Xi’s political dominance and policy priorities throughout the party following last year’s congress.
Why might Xi have chosen to elevate the Two Integrations in major political speeches over the past couple of years? One significant explanation could be that Beijing is wrestling with significant challenges that threaten established sources of popular support (or degrees of tolerance) for the Party. Chief among these is the ongoing economic slowdown, which appears to have worsened markedly this year. If this is not effectively managed, it could undermine the popular legitimacy the Party historically derived from strong growth. Recent crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, escalating U.S.-China tensions, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, have also raised questions about the Party’s governance. Doubling down on the Party’s claims to possess a unique understanding of Chinese conditions and to represent traditional Chinese culture may appeal to the nationalist strain of Chinese public opinion.
The Two Integrations also appears to be an effort by Xi to shore up his own authority within the Party. He may have emerged from the 20th Party Congress with a firm grip on Chinese elite politics, but leaders only stay strong through vigilance against potential threats. And Xi wants to protect himself from more difficult times ahead. Further enhancing the association between Xi Jinping Thought and both Chinese Marxism and Chinese tradition will make it somewhat more difficult for any opponents to dilute his policy agenda in the future, even if China experiences declining economic growth or rising social instability.
The Two Integrations are made more effective by how they reflect actual developments in Chinese governance under Xi. The first integration — of Marxism with Chinese conditions — reflects Xi’s ability to adapt socialist principles like international solidarity to advance Chinese interests, such as through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The second integration — of Marxism with China’s traditional culture — manifests in Xi’s record number of visits to Chinese historical sites and his more than doubling of Politburo study sessions focused on history and ancient culture compared to under his predecessor Hu Jintao.
Of course, Xi is hardly the first Party leader to turn toward ideology and history to cement his political legitimacy. For example, Mao Zedong pioneered the adaptation of orthodox Marxism to Chinese conditions through the "Sinification of Marxism" well before he declared the People’s Republic in 1949. And celebrating the continuity of traditional Chinese culture has become standard practice for Party leaders in recent decades.
But Xi’s decision to promote the Two Integrations at the highest levels of Party discourse suggests he is turning further toward emphasizing ideological and historical claims to legitimacy. This reflects a growing realization in Beijing that China’s economy will no longer deliver significant levels of performance legitimacy and that the Party currently lacks the political will to embrace the difficult reforms needed to revive the economy. If so, we can expect more history, more ideology, and more politics in the rest of Xi’s third term.