Xi Jinping emerges as forceful No. 1 – rewriting China's power playbook

Not since the days of Mao Zedong has any one individual in China been so visible a leader or held so much control. He's changing China by scrapping 'rule by consensus' and targeting civil society.

Ed Jones/Reuters/Pool/File
China's President Xi Jinping waits to greet Cuba's First Vice President of the Council of State Miguel Diaz-Canel at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in this June 18, 2013 file photo.

With a speed and toughness not imagined when he took China's top job as head of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping has not only consolidated power but is overseeing such an extensive crackdown that some wonder if he’s accrued too much power.

Not since the days of Mao Zedong has any one individual in China become so visible a leader or held so much control over the rising nation of 1.3 billion people as Mr. Xi – whose father was a prominent comrade of Chairman Mao. 

Nor since Mao has a Chinese leader pushed so complete a program of old-style Communist Party values and blunt force. Not since Tiananmen Square in 1989 has a leader so thoroughly undercut even baby steps toward political openings. Under Xi’s grip in recent months, even civil society moderates have been harshly silenced – in what now appears to be a serious purification program of party and society. 

He is being called everything from a new “dictator of the party” to a modern day emperor. He is said to see himself as a man of destiny who is overseeing the waking up of China.

Quietly, he has emerged on the world stage as a leader whose authoritarian direction rivals that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Certainly he’s dashed hopes of the birth of a more pluralistic civil society here any time soon.

In the past 18 months Xi has rolled up rivals in a vast, multilayered anti-corruption campaign that has often been tantamount to a soft purge. Upwards of 2,000 ranking party cadres have been replaced. Rising young cadres like Guangzhou party chief and mayor Wan Qingliang can find themselves earning honors one day – and out the door the next.

Xi’s tactics are creating fear and uncertainty up and down party ranks, according to a range of sources in China, Asia, and the United States interviewed about Xi during August and September.

Asians talk about “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” – as a form of control. But Xi has also taken down monkeys. A powerful general, Xu Caihou, will soon be court-martialed. An even more powerful party figure, Zhou Yongkang – whose police and security force network often acted like a second government or mafia – was taken down in July. 

“The message is clear, ‘If he can get Zhou, who can’t he get?’” says David Kelly of the research group China Policy in Beijing.  

'New concept for China' 

Xi’s “new concept for China,” as state run Xinhua news service put it in August, runs “farther and wider than the outside world can imagine.” Xi refers to this as a great “rejuvenation.” 

Xi has lavishly promoted a vision of a “China Dream” of wealth, status, and national pride that appeals to the urban middle class where he is very popular. It strikes a nationalist chord in a country that has long felt looked down on. Yet Xi is also implementing strict prohibitions found in party circular Document 9 of August 2013, also known as the “Seven No’s.”

The manifesto calls on party faithful to stamp out free expression, foreign influences, or anything that faintly smells of democracy, transparency, or independent views. 

In his own backyard, Xi has out-hardlined the hardliners: He clamped down with extra vigor on upstart ethnic Uighers in the far west Xinjiang Province. His messages to Taiwan about unity with the motherland are tougher. He deep-sixed Hong Kong’s hopes for free and fair elections in 2017 – something that has come back to bite him on the streets of that former British colony, Asia's financial hub. 

For the first time, China, under Xi, is taking aggressive stances in Pacific waters, confronting East Asian powers like Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the US. It claims vast swaths of ocean and sky.

Right after President Obama visited Asia this spring to reassure rattled allies, China moved an oil rig directly into disputed waters off Vietnam. On Sept. 22 after a visit to India he was quoted in Xinhua telling People’s Liberation Army military units to make sure they stayed combat ready should they need to win “a regional war.” 

“We didn’t see this coming,” a White House national security staffer told reporters after China denied a Pentagon account of a mid-air encounter between a PLA jet and a Navy spy plane off Hainan last month.

Orville Schell of the Asia Society US-China program now asks: “Does China have any real friends?” US analysts say that Xi and Mr. Obama will have much to talk about in a November APEC meeting in Shanghai.

Collective leadership wanes 

If Xi’s rise is a turning point, the reason is because he and a coterie of patriotic elites in 2012 essentially scrapped China’s “collective leadership” model. For decades, ultimate power in China was shared diffusely. Decisions were made by consensus among nine standing committee leaders.

Shared power was designed by Deng Xiaoping, the reformer who opened China, in part to avert another Mao-like “cult of personality” – or another Cultural Revolution. So the collective model had a reassuring quality to it. No one would get too strong. There were brakes. 

Yet Xi is already proving far tougher than his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Their tenures featured a “friendly” China that wanted to learn from the outside world and rise “harmoniously” in Asia. Yet Jiang and Hu are now called caretakers or stewards. What China has been waiting for, so goes the new party line, is a strong man like Xi – able to rein in the clashing fiefdoms and corruption that threatens party authority and economic progress, two of the sacred goods of the People’s Republic. 

Xi comes from China’s “Red Second Generation” – children of the nation’s founders. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of “Eight Immortals” who helped pioneer Mao’s revolution. The “Second Reds” see the party and the nation as one. They feel a deep reproach for opportunists that grew rich and corrupt off the sacrifice made by their parents. They want to curb those who live ostentatiously but care little for China, those “who take and don’t give,” as a scholar here put it.

“He has a ‘red heart,’ as we say,” says Li Datong, an intellectual and prominent former newspaper editor. “His generation feels a very deep sense of responsibility. They feel, above all, that faced with a crisis, they must do something.” 

While Xi’s father was jailed by Mao, as were many, the son is turning to Mao for inspiration. In a new book of essays released Sept. 25, Xi urges party members not to abandon the “spirit of Mao” or of Mao’s idea of constant revolution. Xi is the first Chinese leader since Mao to refer to himself in the first person, notes French Sinologist Francois Godement. Xi believes in a "strongman" theory of history, and is also the first since Mao to hold forth publicly on leadership, saying the “role of No. 1 is key.” 

China needed a strong hand

The dynamics behind Xi’s rise to No. 1 date to the early 2000s and the invitation for capitalists to join the party. That invitation is today seen as a very mixed blessing. It was an attempt to harness China’s economic dynamism into the politics of a 19th century structure conceived by Vladimir Lenin. 

New fiefdoms, tycoons, and the so-called princeling sons and daughters of China's top families all vied for connections within the party. It became ground zero for the “guanxi” or relationships needed for access to cash and credit. Huge streams of money flowed from sectors like telecommunications, minerals, steel, and construction. By 2010 the cacophony – the offshore bank accounts, the shark fin soup banquets, the purchase of sex and drink, the elbowing and backstabbing – threatened, as one source put it, to make China “ungovernable.” 

Hu Jintao seemed unable to rein in the surge of money and ambition before his tenure was up in 2012.

Diagnoses of China’s crisis were many and varied. Some said the party was doomed. Others said the economy was doomed. Some said both. Some of the fundamentals were disturbing: Local governments had borrowed beyond their means to build apartments, skyscrapers, shopping malls, and highway overpasses. 

The core question was how China was going to turn its export-based economy into an advanced technology-driven one. Could the party reform itself to allow a more innovative approach – or was a more authoritarian centralizing of party decisions needed?

As fear in the party deepened, elites turned to the Red Generation for help. And they chose the hard-line route, virtually abolishing any remnant talk of a liberal opening.

Xi first emerged as an almost folksy man of the people who eats jaozi or dumplings, stays in modest hotels, and has a reassuring baritone voice.

Yet when the top six Politburo ministries were remade in 2012, including national security, finance, military, and reform – Xi headed them all. He also had the opportunity to quickly dispatch his disgraced former arch-rival, Bo Xilai, in a highly public trial in 2013.  

Unlike Hu and Jiang, Xi is seen as not just talking but acting. He has interpreted Document No. 9 to go after moderate reformers, which is new. Xi has “obsessively” worried about how the Soviet Union fell under Mikhail Gorbachev and does not want the same corrosive free expression or “glasnost” to topple China, Harvard senior China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar argued in a recent talk on Xi.

Targeting civil society 

Increasingly, police are cracking down on artists, evangelicals, lawyers, bloggers, social media figures, and professors who appear to be influenced by civil society ideas or refute the party's concept of China’s unity and its paramount role. 

“About 300 rights lawyers are now detained, never has there been so many,” says Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer at Harvard for a year. “These lawyers are moderate. They aren’t taking on sensitive issues, or defending Liu Xiaobo [the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner] but are dealing with things like anti-discrimination and consumer rights.” 

Document No. 9's main target is “constitutionalism.” That is, a push to make the Communist Party more accountable – under, not above the rule of law – and to allow freer expression. (Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, for example, calls for experiments with competing systems of power and “an end to the practice of treating words as crimes.”) 

Under Xi, words not cherished in the Leninist vernacular – such as dialogue, negotiation, power-sharing, rule of law, NGO, rights, and mutual understanding – are increasingly viewed with suspicion. 

In recent months, every day brings reports that sound like a trip down Red China memory lane: Police and goon squads have been closing rural libraries since some books promote civil society and offer places to gather and discuss. TV shows from the US are taken off the air. The party announced it will issue its own version of Christian theology. An independent film festival in Beijing that ran for 10 years was not allowed to open for its 11th.  

In September, during Uigher uprisings in Xinjiang, Ilhem Tohti, a moderate Uigher scholar in Beijing who advocated dialogue and who opposed violence and separatism, was sentenced to life in prison. 

“A rural library has nothing to do with politics,” says Mr. Teng. “It is completely separate. But Xi is going after all civil society. He is actually implementing Doc. 9."  

First comes Putin, next comes Xi?

Unlike Mao, who only traveled once outside China – to visit Joseph Stalin in Moscow – Xi has some cosmopolitan credentials. He lived briefly in the US, served in coastal Zhejiang province and in Shanghai, and oversaw the 2008 Beijing Olympic preparations. He has a daughter at Harvard and is married to a famous singer. Yet Xi has clearly set himself against Western style government – as has Mr. Putin. 

Putin may be the prototype new authoritarian. He seized Crimea, pampered crony capitalists, and speaks of a Slavic union based on what he calls “Eurasian values.” Xi is thought to share many of Putin’s notions that the US and Europe are demoralized and in a downward spiral as civilizations – and a new authoritarian axis bridging Asia is the next thing.

Xi is not yet perceived as a Putin-style bully however. He’s “taken a number of pages from Putin’s book,” says Mr. Kelly of China Policy. “Except Xi has resources and capabilities Putin can only dream of.” 

The question is whether Xi has created such turmoil and so many enemies that he must become an ever-harsher authoritarian to maintain his grip. (Intellectuals in Beijing seriously debate whether Xi is a hardline authoritarian or a new kind of totalitarian, the latter having truly unknown implications.)

The Chinese press says Xi sees himself as a man of destiny. And this may be true. He cut his teeth in the violent and inward Cultural Revolution and now sees China moving out as an equal to Japan, the US, and Europe.

Deng Xiaoping counseled the nation as it recovered from Mao that China should “hide its light and bide its time.” Yet Xi may believe those days are over. He has ten years in office to prove it. 

“Xi believes he can be a great leader, articulate a great vision,” says a knowledgeable Beijing professional with ties to the party. “He thinks the people will be the grass and he will be the wind. He will blow and they will bend.”

“The problem is that the qualities in Xi that make him effective now are not good for a next phase toward an open and more innovative economy and society. When will that come?” 

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