In 1972, a battered, greying man, who had been among China’s most powerful men before he was imprisoned by Mao Zedong, emerged from 10 years in isolation to meet with his family. Xi Zhongxun “looked at his two grown boys, and totally failed to recognise them”, a biographer recorded. He began to weep, and one of the sons offered him a cigarette. The father was startled by the gesture, considered disrespectful in traditional society. “We’ve also made it through tough times over these years,” the son replied.
Fifty-five years after Mao’s purges led to him, then aged 13, being paraded as an enemy of the people, his father to prison and a sister to suicide, President Xi Jinping — the son who lit the cigarette that day in 1972 — is arguably the most powerful leader to ever live in Zhongnanhai, the communist leadership’s private Forbidden City.
Earlier this year, Xi was given the status of “core leader”. Now, 14 of his key thoughts have been enshrined in the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, alongside Mao and the reformer who laid the foundations of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.
Xi’s ideological compass, it has long been clear, points towards Mao, the man who tormented his family — not Deng, the author of the Tiananmen massacre, but also of economic reforms that appeared to lay the foundation for a more liberal nation. In his speech at the just concluded 19th CPC congress, Xi asked for China’s military to be prepared to project power globally by 2050; he applauded himself for presiding over the country’s aggression in the South China Seas, which has made the Pacific more volatile than in decades.
India itself has seen Xi thought in practice: The Daulat Beg Oldi stand-off in 2013, the 2014 Chumar intrusion on the eve of the president’s visit to India, and the still-unfolding Doklam crisis, all point to a growing willingness to use force.
Xi’s speeches, published as The Governance of China by China’s Foreign Languages Press, do little, at first glance, to unpack precisely what this vision is. The book is full of platitudes that would do Indian ministers’ speechwriters proud — “we must see both the advantages and disadvantages in the international and domestic situations”; “concentrate on those problems which are most pressing or most severe”; “establish and promote the conduct of the ‘three stricts’ (sic.) and the three earnests”.
Yet, there is a central idea, a kind of manifest destiny, the 1800s notion that it was the God-ordained mission of the Anglo-Saxon, Christian American providential mission to expand their civilisation and institutions across the New World.
In 2012, Xi told the 18th party Congress that “since the advent of modern times our nation has gone through untold tribulations and faced its greatest perils. Countless people with lofty ideals rose up for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but each time they failed”. Now, the Communist Party of China was responsible to “the people of all China’s ethnic groups in taking on this task and continuing to pursue the goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, so that China can stand firmer and stronger among the world’s nations, and make new and greater contributions to mankind.” For Xi, thus, China’s future lies in overturning the structure of global power — a structure that has been hostile to the country through much of the modern period. He seeks to replace it with a new order, with China at its centre, and its Asian partners arrayed around. In the future, China’s neighbours can expect more inducements to join Xi’s dream, but also more punishment, should they turn their back on it.
Xi’s rise came against the backdrop of a crisis of wealth. In the late 2000s, it became clear that Hu Jintao’s regime had failed. Corruption had reached epic proportions and, worse, the state apparatus seemed unable to contain its exposure.
Deng’s policies raised hundreds of millions out of poverty, but neo-Maoists believed it bred a decadent society, where income disparities rose to unacceptable levels, workers were exploited, and corruption flourished. In essence, Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was not socialism at all. The party needed an authoritarian turn, imposing order and a leader who could deliver it. Xi adroitly outmanoeuvred his key rival, Bo Xilai, a man he had publicly praised, and whose anti-democratic policies he emulated, and secured that role for himself.
Xi’s veneration of the party, and of Mao, is not a oddity, the scholar Agnès Andrésy points out. In much of the world, Deng is cast as a reformer who saved China; Xi and other children of China’s revolutionary élite believe he came close to destroying its most durable legacy. In their vision, China’s leadership today is the inheritor of vast empire built by their peasant fathers, which transformed a degraded nation into one feared and respected. They have no intention of losing it.
Is Xi’s reign likely to secure that objective? Though it might seem counter-intuitive, as the scholar Philip Bowring has pointed out, there is reason to see Xi as a kind of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet communist party general secretary, who presided over a long retreat from the relative liberalism of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, which ended in the country’s implosion. China might be financially wealthy, the argument goes, but its institutions are rotten. Xi’s failure to reform them will have a cost.
Even though suggestions of an impending economic crisis for China may be overstated, the CPC’s paranoiac attack on dissent suggests a deep concern that there are social forces that could overwhelm the state itself. The cult of Xi, scholar Simone van Nieuwenhuizen points out, is not “a cult of personality, but a cult of the Party”. Behind the mask the cult wears, though, lie deep fears about the future.