Students wave flags of China and the Communist Party of China before celebrations in Beijing on July 1, 2021, to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party. However, few celebrate graft among party ranks. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

In the latest sign of China’s profound transformation, President and Communist Party of China (CPC) Secretary-General Xi Jinping has urged the nation’s youth to “abandon illusions and dare to struggle” to safeguard national sovereignty, safety and development.

“At present, the world’s profound changes unseen in a century have accelerated while the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a critical period,” Xi said on September 1 when addressing the opening of a training session for young and middle-aged officials at the Party School of the Central Committee, or the National School of Governance.

“The risks and challenges we will see have significantly increased. It is unrealistic to always expect a peaceful life without struggle,” Xi told the assembled youth in rhetoric some have interpreted as moving the nation onto a war footing.

“We must abandon illusions and dare to struggle. On matters of principle, no concession shall be made. We must have the unprecedented determination and quality to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.

“Communists should have character, integrity and courage so that we’ll never be taken in by fallacies, never tremble in the face of danger, and never be spineless cowards,” he said.

The speech comes on the heels of a new ban limiting the amount of time Chinese youth may play online video games, which the Party has circumscribed to three hours per week.

It also comes amid widespread reports of China’s “laying flat” youth, a phenomenon among young Chinese who instead of striving for career success and social status are opting to lie down and give the bare minimum.

Some analysts believe Xi’s speech deliberately reflected the spirit of “Don’t believe in superstitions, don’t be afraid of ghosts,” which was first mentioned by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in the late 1950s, when China faced sanctions imposed by the US after the Korean War.

Mao had promoted the idea of “Don’t be afraid of ghosts” since the communist May Fourth Movement in 1919. In the first edition of the Xiangjiang Review journal he founded, Mao implored Chinese people not to fear ghosts, which academics have said he metaphorically meant to include bureaucrats, warlords and capitalists as well as the undead.

The ghost metaphor also meant that China would ultimately be defeated if it cowered to Western powers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, at celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Xi’s similarly strong words came after a hardline and some suggest historic commentary by a known Maoist supporter was widely circulated by state media on August 29.

The article, entitled “Everyone can feel that a profound transformation is happening”, explained in detail the motives for China’s recent moves to impose new rules restricting the internet, education, property and entertainment sectors.

Li Guangman, the author of the article and former editor-in-chief of the Central China Electric Power News, which was closed in 2013, also said China should not rely on big capitalists as the main force of anti-imperialism and anti-hegemonism or the nation would collapse like the Soviet Union.

He added that the curbs on the entertainment sector were far from adequate as ordinary workers and people, not flashy movie stars, should be the main characters on screens. 

Some commentators said the article could be the curtain-raiser for a “Cultural Revolution 2.0,” which would promote statism and suppress individualism. About 20 million people died during the political struggles in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

On Thursday, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), China’s broadcast regulator, banned reality talent programs first made popular in the West and ordered broadcasters to promote more masculine representations of men.

On Tuesday, NRTA said it was scheduled to hold the “Power of Faith-National Radio, Television and Internet Audiovisual Industry Youth Speech Competition” in Beijing in November 2021. People aged 40 and under could join the competition to tell stories about their personal achievements and faith in the CPC.

Wang Huning, a member of the Political Bureau Central Committee, stands as he is introduced as a new member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee and a member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, was in attendance at Xi’s youth speech on September 1. He is widely seen as behind Xi’s emerging new ideology.

In his speech, Xi also urged young officials to cherish time, study assiduously and read more good books. The leader also called on Party youth to sum up and reflect on experience accumulated in practice and dared them to struggle instead of being “Mr Good.”

“When communists talk about party spirit and principles, they must talk about struggle. There must be no ambiguity and no concessions on issues of principle, otherwise it would be irresponsible to the Party and the people, or even it would be a crime,” Xi said, adding that Party cadres must have the spirit of acting impartially and stressing principles.

On December 28, 2017, Xi said for the first time that the world had been undergoing profound changes unseen in a century, referring to the rise of the Chinese economy and weakening Western economies after the global financial crisis in 2008.

Soon thereafter, the former Donald Trump administration launched in earnest its trade and tech wars against China.

In June 2019, Xi said China stood ready to make concerted efforts with all other parties to uphold the concept of sustainable development, shoulder the responsibility of building a community with a shared future for mankind, advocated multilateralism and improved global governance to promote long-lasting peace and create a more prosperous and beautiful world.

But that outward view may be changing, particularly after Beijing accused the US of supporting the anti-government and anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong in 2019-2020. Those protests prompted the CPC to impose a new National Security Law which has stripped the globally-oriented city of liberties and freedoms.

Last year, Xi said the “profound changes unseen in a century” had accelerated since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In February and March 2021, he reportedly told Chinese officials in closed-door meetings that China had entered a time of opportunity when “the East is rising and the West is declining” and the country could now look at the world horizontally as the era of a powerful Western world had ended.

Fears are rising in the US that China is on course to overtake American global leadership. Image: Facebook

That’s not how all observers see the situation, however. At the virtual Aspen Security Forum on August 3, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented on US-China relations and suggested the two countries review their foreign policies towards each other.

“I think there is a possible misunderstanding on both sides, because in China people say the East is rising and the West is declining … I do not think so,” he said, adding that the US was able to attract people from all over the world and had great talent, vibrancy and ability to reinvent itself.

“But China is not going to disappear. This is not the Soviet Union … this is a country with enormous dynamism, energy, talent and determination to take its place in the world again,” Lee said.

Read: China on the cusp of a ‘profound transformation’