Is ‘consultative Leninism’ dead? — Q&A with Steve Tsang

Society & Culture

Steve Tsang coined the phrase “consultative Leninism” to describe the Chinese political system that took shape in the early 21st Century. But is this still accurate in the age of Xi Jinping, the Chairman of Everything?

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Steve Tsang (曾銳生 Zēng Ruìshēng ) is a Hong Kong born political scientist and historian who focuses on politics, security, and foreign policy in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, including aspects of the Cold War, and relations between Britain and China. He is currently working on a book about the political thought of Xi Jinping that will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

Steve is the director of the China Institute at the SOAS University of London and the main convenor of a course at SOAS from September 19 to 21: China and the media — who decides the stories? (I’ll be speaking at the course.)

Steve and I chatted briefly by video call today about how we can understand China as it becomes more and more closed to foreign journalists and scholars. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

Why are you organizing this course on China and the media now?

China is becoming such a big story globally, that we all need to understand how China is being reported, and how the Chinese government tries to take advantage of the way the Western media works to get its story across. On the other hand, the Western media needs to maintain media independence and critical reporting, and yet make it easy for readers to get the story. But that often provides scope for the Chinese government to take advantage of us.

Do you see differences between British and American media coverage of China?

I don’t think there are huge differences between the British or the American media in terms of the coverage of China. I think individual media organizations may have more of a difference rather than simply a straightforward British and American approach of reporting. I think the best of British reporting and the best of American reporting on China are equally good.

But we all suffer the same problem. We want to make China’s stories easily understandable to our readers or viewers, but in that process, we provide a huge opportunity for the Chinese government to [make use of misunderstandings]. One example is the way the Chinese government calls Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 “president,” which is habitually used in the Western media — from the best to the worst. But the office of president does not exist in China. Xi Jinping is unquestionably the leader of China, but either as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, or as Chairman of the PRC (国家主席 guójiā zhǔxí). He has never been president. No Chinese-language media describes him as president.

Is there not even any kind of official presidential title that he has, even though it’s not significant?

It is an office that he does not hold because the office doesn’t exist. But it is actually very important because your average English-speaking media user relates to the office of president after an image of the U.S. president. So, there is an assumption that somebody who is president is in office through some kind of electoral process, thwarted or not. There is no equivalent in the selection of Xi Jinping as leader of China.

We have many examples like that. We have, for example, the way we described the Hong Kong National Security Law or the Chinese national security law when they’re not talking about national security in the sense of what national security normally means in English language. They are using language that refers to external security threats, but they’re actually talking about regime security, which is very, very different.

Now, this is something that we can get it right, but we almost never get it right. Because if we refer to it as the National Security Law of China or the Hong Kong National Security Law, readers or viewers know exactly what it is supposed to be. If one translated correctly, as the state security law, your average English-speaking viewer or reader will wonder, what is that?


The Western media tries to strike that balance. They know it, and they deliberately use language that makes us confused. Then we provide a distorted image of China. We need to understand that when we are dealing with Chinese media.

It is one of the things that we actually will do, for example, in the short course, is to explain so that users of media will know what to watch out for and how to understand it best, and why it is actually happening.

Journalists are increasingly unable to enter China and to work in China. Even the ones that are able to report from China are increasingly unable to travel around the country. It’s becoming more and more difficult to speak to government officials who, 10 or 20 years ago, were pretty open to journalists. Historians and other scholars are finding that many Chinese archives are closed to foreigners, and even to local Chinese researchers.

And everybody in China, from ordinary people to government officials, is very reluctant now to speak openly, or even at all, to the press. Fieldwork for all kinds of scholars is also right now impossible under COVID-19 rules.

How does this affect our ability to understand China and to see into China and understand what’s going on?

I think it makes it a lot more difficult, but I don’t think it makes it impossible for us to understand China. It makes the job of journalists much more difficult because we cannot do the kind of verifying of sources of information in a way that we would normally like good journalists to do.

But it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand China. Unlike the 1970s, when we did not really have much of a strong basis for understanding Chinese politics, society, economy, and other elements, we have built that up. We have built that capacity up already. A lot of journalists who are providing frontline reports on China have very, very strong understanding of China and have personal networks that they still somehow manage to use, even though they cannot formally identify their sources.

So, it affects the way that news reports are presented. And I think that is something that news consumers need to know. But I think the assumption that we cannot understand China is not entirely true. It’s more difficult, but not impossible.

You coined the term “consultative Leninism” in a paper that was published in 2009. I remember when I first read the phrase, it immediately made a whole lot of sense to me as a way of explaining so much of what I’d seen living and working in China.

It seemed to capture the fundamental, Leninist nature of the state, a state that is completely obsessed about control, but yet, was open enough to talk to its citizens and get feedback, which, in some ways, has accounted for the Communist Party’s success and its ability to remain in power. So, how do you think this has changed since Xi Jinping came to power?

It feels to me like there’s a lot less consulting and a lot more Leninism.

I think you are absolutely right. Things have changed quite a bit. The way I see it is that the hardware hasn’t changed. The software has changed. The basic system and the structure in place hasn’t really changed, but how it operates has changed. In fact, I think it has changed so much that after the 19th Party Congress in 2017, a better way of conceptualizing the system in place in China is not calling it “consultative Leninism,” but what I will now call “Sino-centric consultative Leninism.”

It is very much China-first…I think the starting point remains keeping the Communist Party in power and enhancing the capacity for the Communist Party to stay in power. And that is primarily the Leninist bit. So, Leninism remains as the core. Now, the consultative bit has not completely been discarded because, even though it does not do that much consultation in terms of listening to people, but the consultative element has always been about the use of the Mao’s idea of the mass line of, from the masses to the masses.

It is more the shaping of the opinion than the hearing of the people’s sides of it. It’s still trying to listen to the people a bit, but it’s more about shaping people. And in shaping people, and the way people think and what people should think — this is where that Sino-centric element has come to the fore very strongly under Xi Jinping. The Leninism that Xi Jinping is talking about is a lot less Marxist, but there’s a lot more of the Xi Jinping understanding of Chinese tradition, myth, and culture. Yeah, a bad interpretation of Chinese history, but it is from that distorted interpretation of Chinese history that Xi Jinping has drawn on. The Communist Party is being presented as the ultimate instrument for making Chinese civilization and culture and traditions relevant, effective, and indeed great again. It is a kind of merging of “Confucian” — in quote marks — traditions with Leninism, still using Mao’s mass line to disseminate ideas and educate people to think the way the Party wants people to think. Hence Sino-centric consultative Leninism.