Who really is Xi Jinping could be among the stupidest questions to ask. He is, after all, the second most powerful leader in the world with aspirations of transforming his country into the most powerful nation on earth. While it is a no-brainer to assume that India’s strategic leadership would have understood him well by now, it is surprising that an English translation of his speeches during the initial years after he assumed power in 2012, has not sparked much discussion in the Indian public domain. Much as Xi Jinping: The Governance of China (Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 2014) is a tough book to read; it is instructive and illuminating if you manage to see through the many contradictions that seemingly emerge from his pronouncements after benchmarking them against much of what has happened on the world stage.
Though his political ideology is ensconced in the steel-clad virtues of socialism with Chinese characteristics, Xi has flirted with the proposition of fusing the ambiguities of Sun Tzu, the simplicity of Confucius, the rigidity and discipline of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thought, and the progressiveness of Deng Xiaoping’s Scientific Outlook on Development, into what he believes is an ideology that will help the Chinese people stay on the “chosen path”. Xi’s political ideology is clearly a “risk mitigation” strategy. He believes that by embracing diverse strategies that have been successful at various periods in China’s history, he can deal with the ambiguities of contemporary geopolitics, the fault lines within China and the varying aspirations of his people.
At a time when the world at large scoffs at the benefits of studying history, Xi urges the youth to seek answers for the present by studying history, culture and literature. Staying in the knowledge domain, he swings to the modern proposition that while in the 18th century the body of human knowledge doubled within 90 years, “since the 1990s there has been an exponential acceleration in this process — the body of human knowledge is now estimated to double every three to five years”. To tackle this, he has an interesting proposition for leaders when he says that they “must have a sense of crisis and constantly improve their professional competence”. The spurt in the number of Chinese studying English; the rise in registering patents; and the steep increase in the number of academic papers in professional journals across disciplines including those from military establishments like the Chinese National Defence University indicates that the Chinese are serious about bridging the “knowledge gap” with the US.
All this is Xi Jinping’s outer layer. His core seems to be steeped in the ruthless exercise of power and many of his pronouncements reflect impatience at China’s lethargy in shaking off the stains of its “century of humiliation”. Born in 1949, Xi does not carry the hardships of the Long March or the depravities of famine and other natural disasters that Mao and Deng saw — and these did infuse a sense of caution in how the latter two conducted statecraft. That excessive caution is no longer seen in Chinese statecraft, it needs to be seen through the prism of its current leader, particularly in the manner in which he has spoken about his vision to build “powerful military forces” that are able to “follow the Party’s commands” and “be exemplary in conduct and capable of fighting to win”.
Xi also realises that apart from being seen as a strong power, a great power must also be respected and admired for its culture, values and its willingness to coexist at the regional and global level. He propounded at length in 2013 about “building bridges of friendship across the Eurasian Continent”, “Diplomacy with neighbouring countries characterised by friendship, sincerity, reciprocity and inclusiveness”, and reflecting China’s desire to seek parity with the US by “building a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States”.
Xi talks about “power being caged by the system” — his anti-corruption drive seems to reflect this desire, but his own consolidation of power points elsewhere. While these reflections and musings demonstrate a cultivated statesman-like public posture, actions and events since then either reveal deep contradictions, or demonstrate the ambiguities in contemporary Chinese statecraft and it is such complexities that make Xi Jinping a difficult leader to fathom. His anointment as a “core leader” firmly ensconces him as the unchallenged political heir of Mao and Deng.