All Xi, All the Time: Can China’s Pres­i­dent Live Up to His Own Top Billing?

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By David Sham­baugh

the Chi­nese pres­i­dent is con­vinced that lead­er­ship from the top must be strength­ened.

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is con­vinced that for his coun­try to achieve the “Chi­nese Dream” and as­sume its right­ful place on the global stage, the cen­tral role of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and the im­por­tance of lead­er­ship from the top must be strength­ened.

That flies in the face of those who be­lieve China’s fu­ture lies in greater open­ness and re­form. David Sham­baugh ex­am­ines how Xi’s ap­proach to lead­er­ship is mov­ing China both for­ward and back­ward. XI JIN­PING Is widely viewed as the strong­est leader China has had since Deng Xiaop­ing or Chair­man mao Ze­dong. With greater grav­i­tas than his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors Hu Jin­tao and Jiang Zemin, Xi has put his stamp on the na­tion to a de­gree not seen since the days of Deng or mao.

But just how im­pact­ful has Xi ac­tu­ally been? What does the bal­ance sheet on his rule look like six years into a ten­ure that may be in­def­i­nite fol­low­ing his de­ci­sion to re­move term lim­its in march this year? What ex­actly has he ac­com­plished? Where has he fallen short on prom­ises or ex­pec­ta­tions? and, look­ing for­ward, where might China be headed un­der his rule?

the Vi­sion thing

Great lead­ers usu­ally have grand vi­sions. Xi has ac­tu­ally voiced his views on a wide va­ri­ety of is­sues. In his 1,134-page, two-vol­ume tome, The Gover­nance of China, Xi has some­thing to say on seem­ingly every sub­ject. yet, his core vi­sion for China, which res­onates deeply with the Chi­nese peo­ple, is ac­tu­ally not at all new. like all Chi­nese lead­ers dat­ing back to the Qing self-strength­en­ing move­ment of the 1870s, Xi’s prime ob­jec­tive is to achieve what he de­scribes as “the great re­ju­ve­na­tion of the Chi­nese na­tion.” He has re­branded this long­stand­ing na­tional mis­sion as the “Chi­nese Dream,” but the quest is no dif­fer­ent: for China to ac­quire the ma­te­rial at­tributes of a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional power and the com­men­su­rate re­spect from oth­ers. the legacy of the coun­try’s former weak­ness and hu­mil­i­a­tion thus con­tin­ues to deeply haunt Xi and his gen­er­a­tion.

so too does the col­lapse of Com­mu­nist Party

rule in the former soviet Union. now hav­ing ruled al­most as long as their soviet coun­ter­parts, Xi and his peers in the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP) live in reg­u­lar trep­i­da­tion of a sim­i­lar melt­down.

these two is­sues — aug­ment­ing China’s strengths and mak­ing China a ma­jor global power while rec­ti­fy­ing the Com­mu­nist Party’s weak­nesses and pre­vent­ing its in­sti­tu­tional im­plo­sion — are in­ter­twined in Xi’s think­ing and dom­i­nate his agenda. For him, these meta-chal­lenges are com­ple­men­tary, not con­tra­dic­tory. In his view, to strengthen the party is to strengthen China. With­out a re­vi­tal­ized and in­vin­ci­ble CCP, China will be un­able to achieve its great re­ju­ve­na­tion. no strong party, no strong China, goes the logic.

rolling back deng

In a sig­nif­i­cant way, though, the ques­tion is more about the means than the end. Xi is try­ing to take China for­ward by mov­ing it back­ward. In many pol­icy spheres, but par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to the party, Xi is ret­ro­gres­sive rather than pro­gres­sive. His pre­ferred lead­er­ship style and pol­icy pref­er­ences are rooted in the mao era and the early years of the Peo­ple’s repub­lic. In­deed, there is an ap­par­ent el­e­ment of neo-stal­in­ist style in his rule. Xi clearly has nos­tal­gia for the 1950s and early 1960s — a pe­riod of strong soviet in­flu­ence in China and a time when his own fa­ther was in the lead­er­ship — and he has res­ur­rected many of the hall­marks of that pe­riod.

In so do­ing, Xi has been sys­tem­at­i­cally rolling back many of Deng Xiaop­ing’s core re­forms that have guided China’s lead­ers for the past four decades: no per­son­al­ity cult around the leader, col­lec­tive lead­er­ship and con­sen­sual de­ci­sion-mak­ing, bot­tom-up “in­ner-party democ­racy” rather than top-down dik­tat, ac­tive feed­back mech­a­nisms from so­ci­ety to the party-state, rel­a­tive tol­er­ance of in­tel­lec­tual and other free­doms, lim­ited dis­sent, some de facto checks and bal­ances on un­con­strained party power, fixed term lim­its and en­forced re­tire­ment rules for lead­ers and cadres. Deng also sought a so­ci­ety and econ­omy that was open to the world and used a cau­tious for­eign pol­icy. these and other norms were cen­tral el­e­ments of Deng’s post-1978 re­form pro­gram, and they all con­tin­ued un­der Jiang Zemin and Hu Jin­tao — but all are be­ing dis­man­tled by Xi.

Xi wants to move China for­ward as a ma­jor power in the 21st cen­tury, but his means for do­ing so are deeply il­lib­eral and harken back to a much ear­lier era. like other na­tion­al­ist/pop­ulist au­to­cratic lead­ers around the world to­day, Xi re­jects the link­age of progress with lib­er­al­ism. Quite the con­trary.

the party Con­trols all

Xi is also a hard­core lenin­ist and in some ways a throw­back to the stal­in­ist era. above all, he be­lieves in the ab­so­lute hege­monic power of — and con­trol by — the Com­mu­nist Party. ac­cord­ingly, he has launched many ini­tia­tives to strengthen the party. soon af­ter he came to power in 2012, he gave a speech in Guang­dong warn­ing that un­less the CCP took dras­tic ac­tions, given its mul­ti­ple signs of at­ro­phy, it too could face a soviet-style col­lapse.

Xi be­lieves deeply in rul­ing through party-led in­sti­tu­tions and reg­u­la­tions. this is the essence of lenin­ism: pen­e­tra­tion of all el­e­ments of state and so­ci­ety with party cells, like a mi­crobe that per­me­ates the en­tire body politic. mao was like this be­fore 1956 too, but sub­se­quently be­came pro­gres­sively dis­trust­ful of the party and later sought to dec­i­mate it with the Cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion. Fol­low­ing mao’s de­struc­tion, Deng sought to re­build party in­sti­tu­tions, but at the same time, to de­volve power within the party, be­tween the party and the state, and from Bei­jing to lower lev­els. Deng fun­da­men­tally be­lieved that loos­en­ing con­trols ac­tu­ally strength­ened party le­git­i­macy and longevity.

Xi too is try­ing to save the party — as Deng did fol­low­ing the de­ba­cle of mao­ism — but, un­like Deng, he is all about re-cen­tral­iz­ing power in the party and at the na­tional level, rather than de­volv­ing it to lower lev­els and em­pow­er­ing other ac­tors in the sys­tem. as Xi tersely told the 19th Congress of the CCP in Oc­to­ber 2017: “the party con­trols all.” this is ap­par­ent in mul­ti­ple ways, in­clud­ing the sweep­ing re­or­ga­ni­za­tion/re­cen­tral­iza­tion of the state Coun­cil and Cen­tral Com­mit­tee or­gans at the march 2018 na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress. these in­sti­tu­tional re­forms sug­gest a re­turn to the stal­in­ist-style cen­tral­ized bu­reau­cratic con­trols that China in­her­ited from the soviet Union in the 1950s. the re­asser­tion of the cen­tral plan­ning sys­tem and the reem­pha­sized role of the state sec­tor in the econ­omy also sug­gest a re­turn to neostal­in­ist eco­nomic ap­proaches. Both mao (af­ter 1958) and Deng (af­ter 1978) sought to de­cen­tral­ize the party-state’s role in the econ­omy — but not Xi. He wants to bring the party-state back into all as­pects of na­tional life.

xi is Ev­ery­where

the CCP un­der Xi has also reached back to the maoist, if not stal­in­ist, era by con­struct­ing a mas­sive per­son­al­ity cult around him. maoist rhetor­i­cal throw­backs such as zhuxi (chair­man), lingxiu

(leader), hexin (core) and even da du­oshou (great helms­man) are again com­monly used to re­fer to Xi. more­over, the of­fi­cial ide­o­log­i­cal canon of “Xi Jin­ping thought on so­cial­ism with Chi­nese Char­ac­ter­is­tics for a new era” has now been en­shrined in both the party and state con­sti­tu­tions. Xi kitsch is to be found in shops across the coun­try; tele­vi­sion pro­grams cel­e­brate his wise lead­er­ship; mul­ti­me­dia track his every ut­ter­ance and ac­tiv­ity; and his ex­hor­ta­tions bom­bard the public daily through a ramped-up pro­pa­ganda ap­pa­ra­tus. Xi dom­i­nates pol­icy-mak­ing by per­son­ally chair­ing all cen­tral lead­ing Groups and party and military or­gans. He has also emas­cu­lated the author­ity of Premier li Ke­qiang. so dom­i­nant is Xi that Chi­nese pol­i­tics have be­come a syco­phan­tic echo cham­ber.

this per­son­al­iza­tion of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Xi com­bined with his in­sti­tu­tional strength­en­ing of the party-state cre­ates a par­a­digm of what I call “Pa­tri­ar­chal-lenin­ism.” In these ways, Xi is very much a mid-20th cen­tury lenin­ist leader rul­ing a huge coun­try in a glob­al­ized era dur­ing the early-21st cen­tury. He is rul­ing in a fash­ion not un­like a pa­tri­ar­chal mafia Don.

there would seem to be a sig­nif­i­cant con­tra­dic­tion here be­tween Xi’s tac­tics, the re­al­i­ties of the mod­ern world and China’s de­vel­op­men­tal needs. since com­ing to power in 2012, Xi has sought to rel­a­tively close China’s doors rather than fur­ther open­ing them (all the while pro­fess­ing that China con­tin­ues to fol­low the open-door pol­icy). He has cer­tainly cracked down on cor­rup­tion in the party (and govern­ment and military), and has presided over the most dra­co­nian purges and po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion in China since the 19891992 post-tianan­men pe­riod. there has been a sig­nif­i­cant tight­en­ing of the for­eign in­vest­ment and cor­po­rate op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment, a sweep­ing sup­pres­sion of civil so­ci­ety and for­eign ngos (most of which have aban­doned China), steppedup study of marx­ism and an as­ser­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal con­trols over the en­tire ed­u­ca­tional sphere (es­pe­cially uni­ver­si­ties), xeno­pho­bic cam­paigns against “hos­tile for­eign forces,” strict en­force­ment of party-state con­trols on all me­dia, new tech­no­log­i­cal prac­tices of per­va­sive public se­cu­rity sur­veil­lance, con­tin­ued tight­en­ing of con­trol over Xin­jiang and ti­bet and per­se­cu­tion of Chris­tians and other or­ga­nized re­li­gions.

these re­pres­sive and ret­ro­gres­sive poli­cies have more in com­mon with mao­ism than Dengism. more­over, they would all ap­pear to be the ac­tions of an in­se­cure leader and rul­ing party, rather than se­cure and con­fi­dent ones. there is thus a con­tra­dic­tory di­chotomy be­tween Xi, who ex­udes per­sonal con­fi­dence, and his do­mes­tic poli­cies and ac­tions that sug­gest just the op­po­site.

Xi has def­i­nitely suc­ceeded in strength­en­ing the party in­sti­tu­tion­ally over the past five years — but is it fair to won­der whether he has not ac­tu­ally weak­ened it in the longer term? How long can these back­wards ac­tions en­dure in an in­creas­ingly glob­al­ized, wealthy and so­phis­ti­cated so­ci­ety? Xi is try­ing to run the party like a military by giv­ing or­ders to be fol­lowed.

side Ef­fects of putting the party first

to be cer­tain, Xi has def­i­nitely suc­ceeded in strength­en­ing the party in­sti­tu­tion­ally over the past five years — but is it fair to won­der whether he has not ac­tu­ally weak­ened it in the longer term? How long can these ret­ro­grade ac­tions en­dure in an in­creas­ingly glob­al­ized, wealthy and so­phis­ti­cated so­ci­ety? Xi is try­ing to run the party like a military by giv­ing or­ders to be fol­lowed, rather than as an or­ga­ni­za­tion with

feed­back mech­a­nisms and pro­ce­dures to cur­tail dic­ta­to­rial prac­tices.

there al­ready ex­ist nu­mer­ous anec­do­tal ex­am­ples of dis­con­tent with the way Xi is lead­ing the coun­try in sev­eral sec­tors of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing within the party it­self. In­deed, there ap­pears to be an in­crease of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent. Xi is fre­quently lam­pooned as Win­nie the Pooh, and acer­bic Xi jokes cir­cu­late on the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia (and are promptly taken down). Xi’s sig­na­ture anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign, which has en­snared more than a mil­lion al­legedly cor­rupt party and state cadres plus more than 4,000 military of­fi­cers, has also had the col­lat­eral side-ef­fect of par­a­lyz­ing mul­ti­ple bu­reau­cra­cies. Tingzhi, the Chi­nese call it: to “freeze up.” Bu­reau­crats and ca­pa­ble tech­nocrats through­out the sys­tem have been freez­ing up out of the com­bined fear of be­ing de­tained on cor­rup­tion charges (real or trumped-up), be­ing ac­cused of not suf­fi­ciently sup­port­ing the Xi agenda or by sim­ply feign­ing com­pli­ance.

When one ex­am­ines Xi’s im­pact on the Chi­nese econ­omy, his record is mixed. yes, the “new nor­mal” GDP growth rates con­tinue to chug along at the man­dated 8 per­cent, state in­vest­ment con­tin­ues to flow into fixed as­sets and more hard in­fra­struc­ture, and China main­tains near full em­ploy­ment with so­cial sta­bil­ity. Xi has also launched pro­grams to elim­i­nate poverty by 2020, in­crease ur­ban­iza­tion, spur in­no­va­tion and high-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing un­der the “made in China 2025” pro­gram and ex­pand cov­er­age of so­cial ser­vices. On the en­vi­ron­men­tal front, he has pro­grams to build eco-cities, at­tack pol­lu­tion and tran­si­tion to a green econ­omy while de­creas­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and in­creas­ing foresta­tion. Xi has pri­or­i­tized delever­ag­ing China’s bal­looned debt (now near­ing 300 per­cent of GDP) while ex­pand­ing do­mes­tic con­sump­tion and ser­vices as driv­ers of growth. these are all com­mend­able goals and ini­tia­tives, but they are all just that. time will tell whether they are achieved.

yet, when one re­views the ex­pan­sive and am­bi­tious third Plenum eco­nomic re­form plan of novem­ber 2013 — the bench­mark eco­nomic blue­print per­son­ally un­veiled by Xi — his ad­min­is­tra­tion has come up way short. By vir­tu­ally all for­eign eval­u­a­tions, only a mea­ger 10-15 per­cent of the third Plenum pack­age has been im­ple­mented (de­spite much of­fi­cial rhetoric about “sup­ply side struc­tural re­form”). the sig­nif­i­cance of this short­fall is that the Chi­nese econ­omy is not mak­ing the mul­ti­ple struc­tural ad­just­ments needed to nav­i­gate through the mid­dle In­come trap and up the value-added chain to be­come a de­vel­oped econ­omy over time. to make these ad­just­ments, how­ever, runs counter to Xi’s party/ state-cen­tric view of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and re­quires con­sid­er­able de­cen­tral­iza­tion and em­pow­er­ment of non-state ac­tors.

bet­ter Marks for for­eign pol­icy

If there is one pol­icy area where Xi de­serves high marks, it is in for­eign relations. China is not only seen as a global power but, in the wake of amer­ica’s with­drawal from global lead­er­ship un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump, Bei­jing is now in­creas­ingly looked to as the pre­dictable and re­spon­si­ble power in world af­fairs.

this is par­tic­u­larly true in so-called global gover­nance — transna­tional is­sues man­aged mainly through in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. China had pre­vi­ously and ac­cu­rately been crit­i­cized as a “free rider” in global gover­nance by not con­tribut­ing pro­por­tion­ately to China’s reser­voir of hu­man and fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal. But Xi has taken a per­sonal in­ter­est in global gover­nance, con­ven­ing sev­eral Polit­buro meet­ings to dis­cuss it, speak­ing about it at nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional fo­rums and di­rect­ing his sub­or­di­nates to in­crease China’s in­volve­ment and con­tri­bu­tions. as a re­sult, China un­der Xi has

re­ally upped its game — con­tribut­ing much more to the Un op­er­at­ing bud­get, global peace­keep­ing, over­seas de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance and the mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals, while China is ac­tive in a range of ar­eas from com­bat­ting public health pan­demics to dis­as­ter re­lief, en­ergy and sea lane se­cu­rity, counter-ter­ror­ism and anti-piracy op­er­a­tions in the Gulf of aden and the south China sea. Bei­jing has also cre­ated new lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions like the asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank and other global public goods.

Xi’s sig­na­ture Belt and road Ini­tia­tive is also note­wor­thy. an in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tive un­par­al­leled in his­tory, which claims more than 80 par­tic­i­pat­ing na­tions, BRI will build rail lines, pipe­lines, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, elec­tric grids, deep-wa­ter ports, high­ways, new cities, and other needed in­fra­struc­ture from asia to europe. While it re­mains sev­eral years pre­ma­ture to ren­der an ul­ti­mate ver­dict on its rel­a­tive suc­cesses or fail­ures — and there will be both — BRI is an­other ex­am­ple of China’s new for­eign pol­icy ac­tivism un­der Xi.

Xi clearly has jet­ti­soned Deng Xiaop­ing’s strate­gic dic­tum for China to “bide its time, hide strength, never take the lead,” which had guided China’s for­eign pol­icy since 1989 (when Deng made the state­ment), Xi in­stead ar­gues that China should act like the great power that it is. thus, un­der Xi, all cor­ners of the globe have ex­pe­ri­enced the in­creased ac­tivism of Chi­nese diplo­macy (bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral). to be sure, China’s in­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ships are not all rosy — but they are, on bal­ance, quite pos­i­tive. Only with the United states, aus­tralia, Ja­pan and In­dia can China’s bi­lat­eral ties be said to be poor and strained. ev­ery­where else they are sound or strong. this is more than rus­sia or the Us — the world’s two other ma­jor pow­ers — can claim.

Xi’s high marks in for­eign af­fairs can also be given to China’s military and de­fense es­tab- lish­ment — prob­a­bly Xi’s no. 2 pri­or­ity af­ter strength­en­ing the party over the past five years. In Jan­uary 2016, un­der the new ti­tle of Com­man­der-in-chief of the armed Forces, Xi launched a sweep­ing re­or­ga­ni­za­tion — the most com­pre­hen­sive ever — of China’s military and para­mil­i­tary forces. the re­struc­tur­ing is but one part of sys­tem­atic ef­forts to build a world-class military and, in Xi’s re­peated ex­hor­ta­tions, to “pre­pare to fight and win wars.”

on bal­ance

like all lead­ers, Xi’s bal­ance sheet is a mix­ture of pluses, mi­nuses, mixed re­sults and un­cer­tain out­comes. this var­ie­gated ver­dict is, how­ever, at vari­ance with the over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive por­tray­als pro­claimed in China’s of­fi­cial me­dia. In Bei­jing’s ren­der­ing, Xi can do no wrong. this in it­self may prove to be his achilles Heel. no leader is in­fal­li­ble. the sub­ter­ranean grous­ing about Xi’s “im­pe­rial” lead­er­ship style now in­creas­ingly heard in China (and from Chi­nese when they go abroad and speak with for­eign­ers), may be a harbinger of dif­fi­cul­ties to come.

Hav­ing con­structed a pro­pa­gan­dis­tic car­i­ca­ture of an in­fal­li­ble Xi Jin­ping, the regime will find it very dif­fi­cult — if not im­pos­si­ble — to de­con­struct this ir­ra­tional im­age of China’s new “great helms­man.” and there are many con­stituen­cies in China that have suf­fered from Xi’s poli­cies — in­clud­ing more than a mil­lion party and state cadres and military of­fi­cers who have lost their po­si­tions and priv­i­leges as a re­sult of Xi’s anti-cor­rup­tion purges — all of whom lie in wait for him to trip up.

david sham­baugh is the gas­ton sigur pro­fes­sor of asian stud­ies, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence & in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at the ge­orge wash­ing­ton uni­ver­sity in wash­ing­ton, dc.

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