The key to understanding the relationship between politics and technology in China is a word you might be surprised to hear in the mouth of its president Xi Jinping in 2019: Leninism.
For the Chinese Communist Party, Leninism is more than just a dusty inheritance from the Soviet Union. It’s a guide to governance, shaping how the Party is organized as well as how it controls Chinese society. The Australian journalist Richard McGregor, author of The Party, defined Chinese Leninism as “keep[ing] control of the commanding heights of politics through the party’s grip on the ‘three Ps’: personnel, propaganda, and the People’s Liberation Army.” But there’s another dimension to China’s contemporary Leninism: the way in which Lenin’s ideas shape the Party’s relationship to information technology and electronic surveillance.
The history of Leninism is complex, contested, and violent. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders faced the outbreak of a savage civil war. To mobilize for the war effort, commissars needed unimpeded access to networks of electricity, communication, and transport to execute their central planning. Through the "commanding heights" of telecommunications and transport, the Bolsheviks would wield a lever of political control, a force for economic growth, and a tool for reshaping consciousness itself. Leninism became a way of governing, emphasizing the role of a vanguard party leading the revolution—the Bolsheviks, in the Russian case—and the use of dictatorship to pave the way for transforming society.
Chinese intellectuals like the poet Xu Zhimo watched Lenin’s revolution with fascination. Xu visited Moscow in 1923, writing that in the Soviet Union, "they believe that Paradise exists, that it can be reached. But between our world and Paradise, there lies an ocean streaked with blood." Technology was a crucial tool in the pursuit of this “Paradise.”
In China, the promise of Leninism was equally redemptive: some saw Lenin's approach as the only means to rescue and redeem a country mired in warlordism and humiliated by predatory foreign powers. They borrowed the Soviet Union’s term for this blend of ideologies: “Marxism-Leninism,” or Makesi-Liening zhuyi. Mao Zedong, a cofounder of China's Communist Party in 1921, set an organizational template for Party control that survived decades of ideological oscillations, and endures into the digital age.
Network technologies were a top priority from the start. Often, Chinese communists did not seize the telecommunication or rail lines—in this agrarian empire, much less developed than Russia, they built them. After the revolution's victory in 1949, Mao's propagandists lay a nationwide system of wires for radio broadcasting. Some privileged peasants had a loudspeaker in their own homes. The ideas they heard through these speakers were soon known as Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.
From the start of Communist rule in China, the regime developed massive state surveillance. Mao's secret police, trained in Moscow, tapped phones, opened letters, recruited informers, and closely monitored the populace. The Party's grip on information and logistics technology facilitated its campaigns and efforts at social and economic engineering. But during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards “bombarded the headquarters” and overthrew Party leaders throughout the bureaucracy, including the broadcasting and media centers of Beijing. For a moment, the dictatorship's grip wavered. After a rebel Red Guard faction seized control at China National Radio, Mao personally issued a statement requesting that faction splits be resolved. Rebel factions claiming to support Mao set up secret radio stations with illegal transmitters, forcing central authorities in Beijing, sensing a loss of control, to issue orders banning their use.
Mao died in 1976, but Chinese Leninism survived and continued to shape China’s approach to information technology and surveillance. (Deng Xiaoping’s market experimentation also echoed Lenin's economic loosening under the New Economic Policy.) As markets blossomed, the party-state receded from everyday decisions in citizens' lives. But China's Communist Party never ceded ultimate control over strategic networks or abandoned mass surveillance, and never negated its Leninist inheritance. Even as a fourth official ideology joined Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought—so-called “Deng Xiaoping Theory”—Leninism remained the defining form of Communist Party governance in China.
The Digital Commanding Heights
With the emergence of the internet, the Party’s Leninist approach was updated, but not discarded. For this reason, the German political scientist Sebastian Heilmann has coined the phrase “digital Leninism” to describe the Xi Jinping–era approach to digital technologies. In 2014, Xi chaired a national meeting about "propaganda and thought work" at which he decreed, "We must firmly grasp in our hands the leadership, control, and speech power required for ideological work; at any given moment, we cannot stand idly by, lest we make irreparable historical errors." The Party, Xi continued, echoing Lenin, must "occupy the commanding heights of public opinion, and always exercise and dominate the power of speech."
Advanced technology has certainly given the Chinese party-state’s Leninism new outlets for its impulses. The Party’s supremacy over information technology—its access to smartphone data, its power over private tech firms—offers an immense trove of data that can be used for social control. Today, through chat searches and predictive algorithms that flag potentially rebellious discourse, China's police are picking potential protestors off trains hundreds of miles away from the city where they intend to rally.
Social media also presents new opportunities for propaganda. People's Daily has opened a channel on WeChat, China's ubiquitous chat and commerce app, which blends emojis into bromides against foreign imperialist encroachment on China's "internet sovereignty." China's vast scale, spotty privacy protections, and investment in technologies like facial recognition have created the world's largest natural laboratory for honing AI—a commanding height of the twenty-first century.
This leaves us with a final irony: Leninism's adaptation to the digital age is better articulated in practice than in theory. Data, like oil, is a critical sector for political and economic power, and the Party is working to occupy its commanding heights. But Xi Jinping is drawn to theory as well; his speech on the 40th anniversary of Deng’s “reform and opening” in December 2018 devoted a lengthy section to Marxism, and he has recently become the author of a signature ideology of his own: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Yet new ideological banner phrases, and new technologies, have not altered the underlying Leninist logic of the Chinese Communist Party’s handling the relationship between politics and technology. Expect continuing updates to Leninism 2.0.