The cover of the Oct. 14 issue of The Economist carries a picture of China’s President Xi Jinping and labels him as “The world’s most powerful man.” Really? How has Xi achieved his tight grip on power in just five years? What is his background? What is his leadership style?
Congress: Xi is currently being analyzed extensively in the Western press because China’s ruling Communist Party is just concluding its five-year congress in Beijing. Xi is expected to win a second and possibly final five-year term.
Leadership: From a review of Xi’s presidency, I note his supremely self-confident leadership, employing significantly his “princeling” status as the son of a Communist revolutionary under Mao Zedong who came to power and established the Republic of China in 1949. In a form of Neo-Maoism, Xi has thus far championed a strict, one-man, one-party, no-dissent rule over 1.4 billion Chinese, letting fall by the wayside expected political and economic reforms that had begun to percolate under the leadership of the technocrats before him. Political power has been everything for him.
Background: Much indeed is made of Xi as a “princeling,” those called the “Red Generation” who are children of those who fought and served with Mao. There is a whole cadre of “princelings” who have been certain that they have a natural claim to leadership.
I found a detailed biography of Xi by Evan Osnos in the April 6, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. It tells how Xi, born in 1953 in Beijing, grew up in relative luxury because his father was a prominent senior official in the first years under Mao. Then Mao created the hugely disruptive Red Guard. Xi’s father was detained by the Red Guards in 1967, accused of being a class enemy, and the teen age Xi was forced to denounce his father several times. A half sister committed suicide.
When Mao ordered the Red Guards and all students to the countryside to be reeducated, Xi went to his father’s old stronghold province in Shaanxi. He tried to flee but was forcefully returned and now uses his experience of living in a cave dwelling as his story of being “reborn” as a loyal Communist Party cadre.
Evidently viewing the Party as the one and only route ahead, in spite of the ill treatment of himself and his family, he thereafter sought repeatedly to join the CP Youth League and finally was accepted after many rejections; and he went on to university.
Mao rehabilitated his father to a senior position and the father procured for his son a first job in the defense establishment. After that, the young Xi served in the eastern provinces, growth engines of China’s economy, steadily rising through the ranks.
In that period, he was considered very adept at managing his image and his relationships, including with the military. He avoided controversial reforms.
A U.S. interlude occurred in 1985 when he spent two weeks as part of an agricultural delegation to Iowa and met Terry Branstad, who was serving his first term as governor of Iowa. They met again on several occasions and that has led President Trump to tap Branstad as the next U.S. Ambassador to China.
In 1986, Xi, a divorcée, met his current wife, Peng Liyuan, an opera and folk singer who was then far more famous than Xi. She has been very helpful to his public image. They have a daughter who recently graduated from Harvard University and returned home.
It was during his assignment to Shanghai that his big opportunity came. At the CP Congress in 2012, party elders decided to elevate princelings, different from those leaders previously chosen for academic or technocratic merit. When Xi became president that year, four out of the seven men on the Politburo Standing Committee were princelings, more than any ratio since the beginning of the republic.
Fast Rise: Astonishingly, just two years into his presidency, Xi was already being called the strongest president since Deng Xiaoping. He has used his father’s prestige, his fellow princeling contacts and his carefully cultivated credibility with the military to launch his presidency forcefully from the beginning. He has used a draconian anti-corruption campaign to quell rivals, including formerly untouchable top party and military officials. He soon replaced collective decision making with one-man rule, supremely confident of his ability to manage singlehandedly.
His titles and power have grown through his assuming leadership of dozens of small committees, old and newly created, that bypass regular governance circles. His fear-raising campaign against dissent in the last three years includes a renewal of Mao-style forced confessions. In foreign policy, he has been assertive in promoting China as a unique and leading world power — and in assuming the role of leader of “globalization.”
My next column will look more closely at Xi’s policies and his philosophy. They can help determine whether, now that he is cementing another five-year term and promoting his allies into wide-ranging positions, he may relax his thus far authoritarian, non-reformist policies for China, at least in part for needed economic changes. And, important too, is to gain a better sense of where Xi might take China on the global scene and in China’s relations with the United States.
Harriet Isom is