European Council on Foreign Relations

China’s new Long March Part 2

 

Does Xi Jinping have entrenched beliefs and definite goals for his country? He wasn’t very forthcoming in his public expressions during the lead up to the 18th Party Congress. This is not much of a surprise for a long-distance runner in a race where bullets are flying around. One needs only to remember Hu Jintao’s own accession to power back in 2002 when the prevailing joke was “Who’s Hu?”

And so, when Xi Jinping met the press at the closure of the 18th Party Congress, his 1500 word speech, following Hu Jintao’s delivery of a lengthy work report, was immediately hailed as a sign of modernity:  short, pragmatic, and devoid of slogans and empty words. Indeed, Hu’s rambling and balanced statements about “harmonious society”, “democratisation of international relations” and other shovels of coal such as “the whole Party must more purposefully take the holistic approach as the fundamental way of thoroughly applying the Scientific Outlook on Development”(official translation) nearly tired everybody to death. In Beijing in 2011-2012, it was hard to find someone who was not ironical about Hu’s reign, in spite of China’s tremendous achievements during the same period.  Few people would recall that when Hu came in, a decade earlier, he was also hailed as a breath of fresh air: a contrast to Jiang Zemin who had set himself up as a “Yellow Emperor” and as a master theoretician with his “Three Represents” motto.

Xi’s own acceptance speech was mercifully short and simple.  But what did he really say? The first of two goals that really stood out was that of “happiness”, repeated twice. It’s not a completely new idea in China (Guangdong province under its reformist leadership has even had a “happiness index” for the past two years), but the word now supersedes any fast disappearing mentions of the word “harmony.” The other goal was the “great renewal of the Chinese nation”, a formula that both suggests the country needs renovation, and that also puts forward greatness as an objective: the theme has been expanded upon immediately after the Congress, with a well-publicised visit to a National Museum in Beijing exhibition that builds on the same theme. There, he explained the renewal embodied in “the China dream”, and quoted – twice – Mao Zedong.

Finally, Xi mentioned the need to “ensure that our Party will remain at the core of leadership.” That was a real play on words: instead of emphasising the “core leadership” which has designated a collective group of leaders excluding factional wings, Xi’s words put an emphasis on a monolithic Party that is at the helm. This is a real change from the last decade. Instead of playing a balancing role between factions, Xi wants the Party to unite around him, and he emphasises cooperation, calling the Standing Committee members “colleagues” (tongshi). His own views may swing from one option to the other, but there can’t be open debate, much less dissent, within the Party’s ranks. And again and again, Xi has quoted Mao in recent speeches – usually Mao poems from the 1943 to 1949 period – as well as (occasionally) the poet Li Bai. Cynical observers note that these poems were standard fare for Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution – and that Xi shares this stock with the deposed leader Bo Xilai, who also quoted Mao extensively. Realists go one step further: quoting Mao was a standard recipe for political survival during the Cultural Revolution, and Xi Jinping might just currently be reassuring the older generation and conservatives who backed his victory. Appropriately, outgoing president Hu Jintao’s first public visit was to Cunyi, the site of a January 1935 meeting during the Long March. There is an irony there. It is at Cunyi that Zhou Enlai surrendered the chairmanship of the Party’s Military Affairs Commission, making him the undisputed number one leader. And Hu has just surrendered this very post to Xi.

Indeed, Xi’s acceptance speech also had one Mao quote ( although unattributed every educated Chinese would have recognised it), about “serving the people” and emphasising a responsibility that’s “heavier than Mount Tai.” This is vintage Mao, revived during the Cultural Revolution or during Xi’s formative years as a youngster.  But again, the quote is unattributed and approximate. We are reminded that Xi also ended his White House lunch toast in February 2012 with a series of strangely attributed quotes:

We can only do what Mr Deng Xiaoping said: ‘Cross the river by feeling the stones.’ Or what Secretary Clinton one quoted:  ‘When confronted by mountains, one finds a way through.  When blocked by a river, one finds a way to bridge to the other side.’ A Chinese pop song goes like this:  ‘May I ask where the path is?  It is where you take your first step’.

There go the speech writers, one is tempted to say: the Hillary Clinton quote is in fact – yet again – a hyperbolic quote of Mao; while the pop singer reference has a strong Taoist flavor. It is a completely different direction, for if Mao was also in his youth a believer of the Taoist “Great Way”, it is mostly the nod to violence that he took from it. Xi is said to have made the same statement several times recently – that reform is an on-going process rather than a finite event. This was said to his Politburo colleagues. Xi has also replicated Deng Xiaoping by making a series of talks during a tour to the Shenzhen area in January 2013, which were then circulated to the Central Committee. In those talks, he has castigated those who insist that “real” reform implies “embracing the universal values of the West”, and has claimed the right to choosewhat to reform and what not to reform. There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter in how long a time passes.”  His trip also included a number of visits to military units, including the South China Fleet.

Nor are Xi’s quotes, at the White House or in his acceptance speech, random in any way. “Serve the people” is the one reference to Mao that he made in a longish interview that he gave in 2000 as governor of Fujian province. It also included the same reference to Taihang Mountains in Shanxi – and the information that his uncle had fought there in the revolutionary camp, and had been his source of inspiration. Reading this interview, where he describes his youth suffering after being castigated as a “rebel” by Red Guards, where he explains he fruitlessly applied 10 times to the Party from his exile, one gets the impression that Xi was carefully burnishing his legend in advance: the references to many past and present top leaders are simply not what a prudent province governor would do, even in 2000.[1] At a very personal level, what he may also have been saying to his colleagues, via an interview, is that his whole family has revolutionary credentials, not just his father (Xi Zhongxun) who has taken sides as a reformist liberal, particularly in June 1989.

Yet other threads run from the 2000 interview to Xi’s speeches made recently. These are pragmatism, cooperation, patience, which he eulogised as building a slow fire and then eventually dousing it with water…  Also in his 2000 interview, Xi explained that the present generation of leaders was “carried on the shoulders of the previous generation”, and that it would not do to “negate the accomplishments of the previous generation.” Spoken with true filial sentiment, indeed. But none of these qualities were ever on display by Mao Zedong, and that’s of course where we have to pause and ask a question: is Xi a true believer or a dissembler, who after all has sent his daughter to study at a school that is the epitome of Western education and (one would hope) its values? Has he grasped from his family background and short, but arduous experience in his youth a firm legacy, or has he on the contrary learned to adapt, to go with the wind and perhaps to make do with incompetent ideologues and rigid conservatives?

Already in the first two months following his rise to power he has already expressed himself in contrasting ways on a very hot topic: that of the relationship between the legal system and the Party. This has been debated at the top for the past three years at least, and we are to understand that security chief Zhou Yongkang and “legalist” Wen Jiabao sat at extremes from another in the previous leadership. In his first utterances after the Party Congress, Xi emphasised Party regulations and enforcement, but did not mention legal rule. It is nowhere to be seen in known excerpts of his Shenzhen speech – when Wen Jiabao in the same place had made it his number one point. His anti-corruption drive, the extent of which remains to be seen, is being driven by the Party. Then suddenly in December, for the 30th anniversary of the Constitution, Xi  emphasised that everyone, including the Party which is at the initiative of the legal system, is subject to law.

That turn has given a boost to reformist hopes – with a national petition soon signed for the Constitution, and the famous case of the Southern Weekly in Guangzhou writing an editorial where the “Chinese dream” is… constitutionalism. The issue immediately became a tug of war, which is clearly not over. The conservative boss of Guangdong’s propaganda has been under local attack, Guangzhou’s number two police official has committed suicide, and at the other end of the spectrum a liberal (and largely old Communist) publication, Yanhuang Chunqiu, was closed down – before reopening. In another area, Xi has raised hopes by talking of the need to catch both “tigers” and “flies” in the anti-corruption drive. And he has explained that “power should be restricted by a cage of regulations”: again a phrase with a strong background, since one of the most celebrated framing of market reform (by the late Chen Yun) holds that market and state are like “a bird in a cage.” Every one of Xi’s phrases is designed to emphasise the legacy of the regime over political innovation.

What can be concluded? Xi has an absolute sense of his individual, genealogical and ideological legitimacy. He has already ranted at Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union, and his Shenzhen speech, far from being a eulogy of reform, gives equal praise to the Mao era and to what followed. This is a leader with an ambition of strength over debate, and who is literally pre-empting from his very first days in power any hope of political reform. Second, where Hu held out something for everybody in his speeches, ending up setting no direction, Xi expresses himself ambiguously and sometimes obscurely. The overuse of quotes from poetry is there to give him ample room for manoeuver, and is also designed to show him on a pedestal over his colleagues. It is in the same short period that former president Jiang Zemin, the real strong man of the 18th Party Congress, has been officially designated as only an “old comrade” at the funeral of a PLA veteran. With his preference for personal expression, Xi is trying to escape the clutches of the coalition that put him in power because they hated the legacy of the Hu-Wen tandem.

It is fascinating that in the past two decades, only Bo Xilai has behaved so personally at the top. But isn’t this at the cost of any political innovation? Few people have noted that the well-attended funeral where Jiang Zemin was downgraded to an old retiree was that of Yang Baibing – the general who led directly the Tiananmen repression in 1989. On balance, and in these first few months, Xi Jinping’s flow of words shuts more doors than it opens.



[1]The original interview for the Party’s Women Association magazine Zhonghua Ernü, is available on Chinese and other websites (http://china.dwnews.com/news/2012-02-21/58609785-all.html) and has been almost entirely translated by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (http://nias.ku.dk/news/interview-2000-china%E2%80%99s-vice-president-xi-jinping-translated-western-language-first-time).

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