China's Xi Jinping isn't a reformer. He's a pragmatist.
China's President Xi Jinping is neither a reformer nor a non-reformer. He is a pragmatist – a disciple of former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Xi seeks to build the overall vitality of the Chinese nation, and to do this, he feels the Party must maintain absolute control.
For the past year, ever since Xi Jinping was confirmed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the big question has been: Is Mr. Xi a reformer? Now, after the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee, we have our answer. It is neither "yes" nor "no."Skip to next paragraph
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Without doubt, the third plenum institutes systemic reforms that seek to transform China's economy and society. Specifics will come later and implementation will take years, but major reform is finally policy, not rhetoric. It is Xi's unambiguous commitment that the market must drive the economy, government retreat to regulation and oversight, farmers and migrant workers have equal rights and opportunities, and judicial system reform "deepen."
All and more are paragons of reform. That some reforms were not enacted, particularly breaking the monopolies of state-owned enterprises, should be viewed with the lens of political expediency.
In addition, early in his first year, Xi seemed to articulate a liberal agenda: curbing official extravagances, praising China's rights-protecting (but largely irrelevant) constitution, and suggesting some form of judicial independence. More recently, Xi backed Premier Li Keqiang established the Shanghai free-trade zone.
Intriguingly, Xi called for the party, which maintains atheism as an article of faith and requirement for membership, to be more tolerant of China's "traditional cultures" or religions. Though he did so to halt moral decay and fill the spiritual vacuum created by market-driven materialism, this was no hard-core Marxist at work. (Xi's father, former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, was respected as a far-sighted visionary on ethnic and religious affairs.)
But initial hope and optimism among liberals gave way to growing dismay and pessimism as China tightened media controls, policed social media, detained liberal activists, and forbade discussion of "universal values" such as civil society, judicial independence, and press freedoms. In internal speeches, Xi used the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the Soviet Communist Party as a case study of what the party must never permit. For sure, Xi will not be "China's Gorbachev."
Most worrying, perhaps, Xi seemed to embrace Mao Zedong : visiting Mao's shrines, adapting Mao's party "rectification" and "mass line" campaigns, defending Mao's leadership ("not being negative about the 30 years before Deng Xiaoping's economic reform"), and resisting "historical nihilism" (restricting condemnation of Mao's egregious delusions, particularly the mass political campaigns that terrorized millions).
How then to harmonize this "reform-resisting Xi" with the "reformer Xi" we saw at the third plenum? I put this question to an intellectual minister who worked with Xi. Xi is neither a reformer nor a non-reformer, the minister told me. "Xi, like Deng Xiaoping, is a pragmatist," he said.
This rings true. Xi's first trip outside Beijing as China's leader was to Shenzhen, where he seemed to track Deng's famous southern tour in 1992 that triggered the recrudescence of reform, following its stagnation in the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy in June 1989.
For those disquieted by Xi's good words for Mao, recall that even here Xi follows Deng. According to Deng, Mao was "70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong", and his "contributions are primary and his errors secondary". Even though Deng had been purged by Mao three times, he still opposed those who would have assessed Mao more harshly. Deng, who was a realist, preserved Mao not to uphold Mao, but to preserve the party, which, at the very beginning of reform, Deng believed deeply was essential for China's development.
In 1981, at the sixth plenary session of the 11th Central Committee, a "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party" was passed as judgment of Mao's historical role and thought in light of the still-fresh Cultural Revolution.
The resolution called Mao "a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist". It admitted he "made gross mistakes during the 'cultural revolution', but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes."
The resolution praised "Mao Zedong Thought" for socialist construction; ideological, political and cultural work; party building; seeking truth from facts; the "mass line;" national independence; and self-reliance.
Sound familiar? Xi, vintage 2013? Remember this comes directly from the 1981 resolution on Mao, for which Deng was wholly responsible. That's why when Xi said, early this year, "to completely negate Mao Zedong would lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to great chaos in China," he was channelling Deng, not Mao.
Xi is convinced that continuity of party rule is essential for China to achieve its historic goals, and because he believes that if Mao is brought down, the foundations of the party would crack and perhaps crumble, that for the good of China, he must secure Mao's legacy. Society allows no perfect alignment between success and truth and Xi is choosing his priorities with vision and commitment.
So is Xi "signaling left while turning right", as the aphorism attributed to Deng goes? Conventional wisdom, to which I had subscribed, says the jury is still out. I've changed my mind. I think we can know today, following the third plenum, who Xi really is and what he really believes. Just take what he says at face value; then harmonize what seem to be contradictory positions within his higher-order political philosophy, which Xi has labelled, famously, the "Chinese dream."
Xi is goal-oriented, not ideologically constrained. His seeks to enhance the overall well-being of the Chinese people and to build the overall vitality of the Chinese nation. To accomplish these grand and complex goals – delivering the greatest good to the greatest many – Xi believes, as do many, that the party must continue to be the ruling party and that no measures can be excluded in assuring its control.
So, is Xi a reformer? Here's what we know. Xi is "not a reformer" and "not a not-a-reformer." He is a pragmatist. His role model is Deng. He is progressive on economic and social issues and conservative on political and party matters.
Here's what we do not know. If during Xi's decade of leadership, it becomes clear that tight political control is no longer optimal for China's development, what would Xi do? I return to my earlier forecast, though now for more nuanced reasons: To find out, we will have to wait, perhaps until the middle of Xi's second term, following the 19th party congress in 2017.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn has long-term relationships with China's leaders and the Chinese government. He is strategic adviser to multinational corporations and the author of "How China's Leaders Think."
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