Xi Jinping: A Leadership Appraisal - II
by G B Reddy on 17 Sep 2017 2 Comments

Xi Jinping is a ‘princeling’, the privileged son of a former top leader. Xi’s lineage, links with the military and his grooming in managing crises sets him as a leader capable of steering China’s rise. Born in Beijing in 1953, Xi studied chemical engineering in Tsinghai before joining the Party in 1974. He learned Chinese politics from an early age when his father was purged and he himself sent to work in the countryside. He worked in Hebei, Fujian and Zhejiang, before being named Shanghai party chief in 2007 and tasked with cleaning up a corruption scandal. Xi has surprising credibility and abundant political capital.  


Xi led the Party’s Secretariat that included the crucial Central Organization Department which controls all personnel assignments within the Party. Xi was also principal of the Central Party School, China’s equivalent of the Kennedy School where senior Party officials receive training. He has a reputation for straight-talking, telling officials in 2004: ‘Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.’ Xi’s close ties to the military and his support for state-owned industries suggest he’s conservative. As a provincial chief in coastal Zhejiang from 2002-07, Xi had been known for the vigor of his fight against corruption. 


Today, Xi Jinping is the most powerful man - Head of the CCP, Commander-in-Chief of the PLA and the President. The “core” or ‘hexin’ - used to describe strong leaders by Deng, is used to hail Xi by his followers. The push to praise Xi as China’s “core” leader, a term resonant with the formidable stature once held by Deng Xiaoping, suggests Xi’s quest for dominance. Numerous provincial chiefs have hailed him as the party’s ‘hexin.’


Xi Jinping’s leadership behavior varies between extremes. His admirers view him as self-confident, innovative, bold, relentless and incorruptible with a glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan (Peng Mama). Also, Xi understands power and is not afraid to use it and willing to take risks. He has helped realize China’s military modernization. He wants to give still more power to the big SOEs, to use the courts more energetically to carry out political repression, to bring academics and creative artists to heel, to squeeze corruption out of the system and change the work style of the bureaucracy, and to fundamentally upgrade the way the military operates.


An expanded view of Xi’s China Dream is about building a resilient authoritarianism through purges, austerity and “rectification through patriotic education in camps, schools and universities”, to enable China to resume a place at the forefront of the world. Quite often, Xi has been highlighting China’s special history, culture and circumstances, justifying its different path. Xi has a different vision: to build a highly efficient and clean government. 


Xi had told Barrack Obama that “the gene of traditional Chinese culture is deeply planted in the mentality of modern Chinese”. The central project of the ‘China Dream’ is shaping the minds of its young citizens before they’re exposed to alternative viewpoints. The Central Party School is teaching Confucius as well as Marxism-Leninism. 2014 saw the introduction of two new national remembrance days, one to commemorate the defeat of Japan and the other, the Nanjing massacre.


When Xi speaks of reform, he does not mean political reform; that can wait until 2049. In private speech, Xi is explicit: “Some people define reform as changes towards the universal values of the West, the Western political system. This is a stealthy tampering with the concept and a misunderstanding of our reform. Our reform is moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”


Xi’s critics view him as a reserved, unsmiling, ambitious, authoritarian, ruthless and impatient autocrat. He understands less about the new complexities of a changing society. He does not understand the economy well, is not sure what to do and does not trust others to act for him. Also, few of them accuse him of lack of direction and confused policies - marked by uncertainty, U-turns and, occasionally, incompetence. His anti-corruption campaign and military reforms have alienated and created numerous enemies. If Xi Jinping goes, the days of CCP rule are numbered. He has completely replaced the collective leadership and monopolized power.


Systemic Challenges or Crisis


Governing China requires a strong central government. Centralized power characterizes the CCP today. When the CCP came to power, its legitimacy flowed from sentiments opposing nationalism and Japanese imperialism. These sustained the Party even through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but were not enough to unify the country after those disasters. It was not until Deng promised economic betterment that the CPC found a new way to preserve its centrality. For China’s autocrats, consolidation of power is most crucial. 


Xi’s core problem is to justify the party’s monopolization of state power when Marxism has lost its broad appeal and the Soviet model has long since collapsed. Xi seized the party’s recent rehabilitation of Confucianism, formerly condemned as the symbol of benighted feudalism, and gone further by resurrecting China’s competing ancient philosophy of legalism, which preached the virtues of a harsh government’s use of law as an instrument of dictatorship. Xi’s emerging rationalization of his unrestricted power might be termed “legalist Leninism.”


Now, the CCP is beginning to understand that the current phase is untenable since large segments of the country have not realized economic betterment. While the general population today is better off than were its grandparents, there is a demonstrable and systemic wealth gap favoring the CCP elite and those associated with them. Leadership is fully seized of the contradiction that economic policies are moving toward liberalization, but political and social policies are moving toward autocracy. With economy fleeing to less developed countries, unemployment is rising. The risk of political instability may be its fallout; quite catastrophic if a breakout occurs.


Political reforms are, therefore, an imperative. Today’s China is a fundamentally different country, socially and economically, from the one Deng Xiaoping inherited from Mao, and that Deng left behind in 1997. The challenges of economic and social management are moving beyond the control of the current CCP leadership. The CCP needs to redefine itself in order to avert a bottom-up movement by enacting political reforms. The problem is that such reforms could risk either the collapse of the entire structure or the loss of power by CCP.


In 2006, Chinese American scholar, Minxin Pei, published a book, “China’s Trapped Transition” where he invoked the most established “law” in political science, that over time, countries that grow economically tend to become more democratic. Scholars argue that there is a “zone of transition” for authoritarian countries when this happens - between $5,000 to $10,000 per capita GDP (in purchasing power terms). China is currently at the top of the range, around $10,000.


Academics believe that as China gets richer it will also get more democratic. As per opinion polls, people view democracy as the best form of government. Analogies with Japan and the Asian Tigers suggest that China will move toward Western-style democracy as it grows richer and stronger. There is an alternate view - the history of empires suggests that the West will move toward Chinese-style authoritarianism as China grows richer and stronger.


Inherited Status of China in 2013          


Xi inherited the leadership with the Party’s image and authority eroded, as people saw corruption and inequality soar. Over the past three decades, the bureaucracy steadily usurped power with parochial interests reigning supreme. The bureaucracy, most corrupt, resisted change. Money flowed to officials and to the rich, not into social security, medical insurance or education or protecting environment. Xi stated “The whole world sees how corrupt our government officials are and how angry our people are.” In their hearts, people no longer believe in the legality of the party’s rule. The party risks becoming viewed as the defender of privilege.


To these challenges, three may be added: active New Citizen’s Movement demanding investigations against members of the then Premier Wen Jiabao’s family for amassing “hidden riches” of billions of dollars; human rights activists demanding implementation of the rights and ideals outlined in the country’s own constitution, such as the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, unequal access to education, and greater transparency including disclosure of assets by leaders; and the protests - “Umbrella Revolution” based on war cry “Occupy Central”,  in Hong Kong.


Xi’s Focus


As per observers, Xi is a leader best qualified to be trusted to guide China forward through difficult times. If Xi wants to achieve the “Chinese dream,” he cannot permit the slightest public disagreement, pluralism and autonomy. While harnessing a type of Chinese nationalism or extreme patriotism, intended to keep all Chinese agreeing on policies, rather than turning against one another, Xi appears to be pursuing a more evolutionary path to reshape China’s economic landscape. He would need to reallocate capital from the more economically advanced coast and Yangtze River basin. As China also tries to transition from low-end manufacturing and economic stimulus driven by government-financed construction, the low end of the economic spectrum will be disproportionally affected.


Xi has concentrated his attention on the anti-corruption campaign and reforming the military, which have allowed him to consolidate power. Economic reforms are an imperative, for which prevention of corruption is vital. Corrupt leaders have been ousted to ensure the overall system’s survival. 


As per “China-gazers”, Xi’s actions aim first and foremost at tightening control: both the Party’s over the Army and his own over the Party. Xi exercises more power than any Chinese leader in history. He is determined to impose discipline. The survival of the regime depends on his ability to bear an enormous work load and make the right decisions. Xi tries to maintain day-to-day control over every aspect of government. It is similar in other areas of politics. Xi has presided over the biggest crackdown on dissent, arresting hundreds of civil-rights lawyers, academics and activists. He has tightened controls over the media, including by making it tougher to use software that allows access to the huge number of websites that are blocked in China.


Xi is trying to introduce reforms from the top down, always difficult to implement because it challenges the interests of people benefitting most from the current system; bottom-up political change in China historically has taken the form of revolution. To pre-empt rapid or violent change that would threaten the party’s hold on power, Xi will introduce political reform slowly and incrementally.


It is critical to understand the difference between rule of law and rule by law. “Rule by law” means that the party is above the law, while “rule of law” means that the party should be held accountable under the constitution. Sometimes leaders say there should be rule of law but other times they say the party should be above the constitution. This ambiguity at the official level summarizes the current status of legal development in China.


Li Chengpeng, a critic of the China Dream, says it does not address key issues: “We cannot mention universal values or an independent judiciary; we cannot talk about multi-party democracy. What we need is not a magical dream but good politicians. Inequality had been rising over the previous decade and was getting close to unsustainable levels.”


Recently, two articles appeared in government linked news media, highlighting the need for more debate and freer speech. One article stated, “The ability to air opinions freely often determined the rise and fall of dynasties”. “We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all.”


The second article, in the form of an open letter on a website, stated “Hello, Comrade Xi Jinping. We are loyal Communist Party members.” It called on Xi to step down as he had abandoned the party’s system of “collective” leadership, arrogated too much power to himself, sidelined prime minister Li Keqiang, caused instability in equity and property markets, distorted the role of the media and condoned personality cult.


Ren Zhiqiang, a property mogul turned commentator, said media should serve readers and viewers, not the party. Censors reacted by closing Ren’s social-media accounts and purging the internet of numerous messages in support of him. Caixin, a Beijing-based magazine, responded to the censors’ removal of one online story about the need for free speech by publishing two more about the article’s disappearance. Those too were deleted.


Xi has been tentative in handling the economy. In 2016 he wanted “supply-side” reforms, implying that inefficient, debt-laden and overstaffed state-owned enterprises (SOEs) need shaking up. This implied millions of job losses. So, neither loss-making SOEs have been shut down nor subjected to real competition. Further, months after taking power, Xi proclaimed that markets would play a “decisive” role. The mishandling of the stock market and currency changes, which spread global tremors, was partly the result of leadership confusion. Some optimists argue that Xi believes the time is not yet ripe for bold economic change but that, once he has cleaned up the party, he will be able to pay attention to economic reform. In this view, a critical period will come after the Party Congress (due shortly) when Xi will put many more of his loyalists in positions of authority.


Leadership Transitions


In China, “leadership transitions” are coordinated handovers of power involving all three parts of the political system. Five leaders - Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping – have ruled China since 1949. The first two generations, led by Mao and Deng, were dominated by the generals of the Communist revolution. Mao is viewed as a traditional dictator, Deng’s collective leadership was based on consensus, Hu Jintao was more often a negotiator, brokering deals in a collective leadership.


China’s leaders are groomed years in advance. Deng Xiaoping was responsible for picking Jiang Zemin, his successor, and even Hu Jintao. Jiang Zemin was responsible for handpicking Xi Jinping. All of them rose to the Politburo Standing Committee and held provincial leadership positions before they got to the central government. “Purges” of dissidents have been common, but they have been enlightened autocrats by the standards of the suffocating Mao era.


Under Article 79 of the Chinese Constitution, the President’s tenure is limited to two terms, which means Xi must step down by March 2023. Also, the 10-year term limit for CCP general secretaries has been followed for more than 20 years and is considered one of the most important political reforms of the post-Mao era, but isn’t actually written anywhere.


Will Xi, considered the all-powerful “new Mao”, relinquish leadership? There are two views. Xi has not yet anointed an heir apparent who will take his place after 2022. So, Xi has no plans to leave office once his second five-year term ends in October 2022. Moreover, Xi has dismissed Chongqing’s party chief, Sun Zhengcai, one of only two next-generation leaders on the party’s Politburo, and tentatively earmarked to succeed President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang at the 20th National Congress.


If anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, remains on the Standing Committee, despite the fact that at 69, he has already passed the informal retirement age of 68 for PSC members, it could mark the beginning of an open confrontation between Xi and China’s constitutional order. If Wang is able to stay on, his reappointment may fuel speculation that Xi intends to keep his own seat on the PSC after the 20th Party Congress in 2022, despite a 10-year term limit that mandates he step down at that time.


Xi Jinping is about to face a constitutional crisis in his bid for acquiring total power during the forthcoming CCP’s 19th National Congress on 18 October 2017, which is to determine the nation’s future leadership. The Party Congress will unveil a new Politburo, including a new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the small group of elites who control the country.


In sum, Xi Jinping’s legacy will largely depend on whether he promotes or opposes the long-term trend of political institutionalization and “intra-party democracy,” rather than over-reliance on individual power. Through the ‘rectification campaign based on patriotic education’, Xi is consolidating his sway over the psyche of the people. And, the army remains the foundation of China and ultimate guarantee of the Party’s rule. The party has to control the military. It doesn’t belong to the country or the people. How the dice will roll out at the 19th National Congress will determine Xi’s leadership legacy and future course of China.


(To be concluded…)

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