As Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the CCP, delivered his quinquennial political report in the Great Hall of the People on October 16, 2022, he began by outlining the key themes of the congress, including the “comprehensive implementation” of his own governing concept, “[Xi Jinping] Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Immediately after, he defined the necessary character of all Party members as the country faced the road ahead. He said:
Our responsibility is unmatched in importance, and our mission is glorious beyond compare. It is imperative that all of us in the Party never forget our original aspiration and founding mission, that we always stay modest, prudent, and hard-working, and that we have the courage and ability to carry on our fight. We must remain confident in our history, exhibit greater historical initiative, and write an even more magnificent chapter for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.
This phrase outlined the basic points of what subsequently has been touted in the Party-run media as the “Three Imperatives,” or sange wubi ((三个务必), which broadly set out what is demanded of CCP officials and Party members over the coming years.
It is imperative that the original aspiration and founding mission not be forgotten. This is the idea, in other words, that the legitimacy of the CCP arises from its service to the people.
It is imperative that Party members remain humble, prudent, and hardworking (谦虚谨慎, 艰苦奋斗). This plays to the idea of clean governance, and the fear that corruption and extravagance might undermine the CCP’s legitimacy.
It is imperative that Party members “dare to struggle, and are adept at struggling” (敢于斗争、善于斗争). This arises from the idea that tough times are ahead for the country and for the Party, and meeting challenges — and no doubt maintaining unity and keeping down dissent — will require resolute and forceful leadership and decision-making.
In October and November 2022, the use of the “Three Imperatives” rose rapidly in the official Chinese media, with many officials and scholars writing to praise the concept and its timeliness (something always expected after the introduction of new terms to the official lexicon), and explain its meaning.
On November 7, 2022, a piece on page three of the People’s Daily newspaper spoke of the “Three Imperatives” as the essential guide for the Party in tackling challenges ahead. The piece was written under the pen name “Zhong Yin” (仲音), a homophone for “sound of China,” marking the piece as an official work, likely by a commentary group within the People’s Daily, meant to represent the view from the center of the leadership.
On the first imperative, remembering the “original aspiration,” the commentary stressed that this aspiration was to “breathe together with the people, sharing a single destiny, and remaining heart-to-heart.” So long as the CCP could maintain its political and ideological leadership power, it said, this “will certainly ensure the Party is always the reliable backbone of the Chinese people.”
On the second imperative, the commentary painted a portrait of the self-effacing and hardworking official, laboring without a mind to his own comforts. In colorful language, it said that “Red rice, pumpkin soup, and wild root vegetables provide sustenance too” — suggesting officials should not insist on privilege. It also noted the observations made by the American reporter Edgar Snow in his book Red Star Over China, who “saw Mao Zedong living in a simple cave dwelling, wearing patched clothes, and eating millet rice and shredded potatoes with chili.”
The second imperative fits well with the nostalgic attitude toward the CCP’s past that Xi Jinping has cultivated since coming to power in late 2012, emphasizing the traditions of the Party and its “red genes” as a source of both legitimacy and cultural identity.
On the third imperative, the People’s Daily commentary resorted largely to hyperbole and very mixed metaphors, speaking of mountains scaled, and concluding that “it is because of the spirit of perseverance and struggle that the Chinese Communists have been able to engrave the miracle on the wheel of time without fearing the wind and rain.” Translation: The CCP is in the midst of a new “revolution,” which Xi Jinping has called a “self-revolution” within the Party, and in a period of new uncertainty, and this will require all within the Party to steel themselves.
The “Two Imperatives”
On October 20, an explanatory piece in China Newsweekly (中国新闻周刊) addressed the “Three Imperatives” by explaining their echo in the depths of CCP history. It was at the Second Plenum of the CCP’s 7th National Congress in March 1949, months ahead of the decisive victory in the Chinese Civil War, that Mao Zedong prepared for what would be an important new phase for the Party, with a shift in focus, by introducing his “Two Imperatives” (两个务必).
Victory in the Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China would mean a shift from work in the countryside to work in the cities, and governance in place of revolution. Mao Zedong stressed that “while the revolution in China has been great, the distance that follows the revolution is even greater, and the work is greater and more arduous.” As such, Mao said, it was imperative that Party comrades 1) continue to keep a style of humility and hard work, and 2) that they maintain an attitude of struggle against hardships. Mao Zedong’s “Two Imperatives” essentially meant: stay clean and don’t go soft.
An official CCP historian, Luo Pinghan (罗平汉), told China Newsweekly that Xi’s “Three Imperatives” had been built “on the foundation of the ‘Two Imperatives,’ according to the new situation and tasks faced by the Party.” CCP members needed first, in other words, to remember the original mission set by Mao’s Party, to stand with the people, and then they needed to meet the challenges of the New Era with the same attitude Mao defined on the eve of the nation’s founding.