From cave dweller to president, Xi Jinping is seen as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. David Mahon and Charlie Gao write from Beijing.
In China’s largely market-forces-driven society, Xi does not face the communist opposition with which Deng Xiaoping struggled in the 80s and early 90s, but he does have to deal with more complex domestic and international challenges than any of his predecessors. He is also deeply ambitious, more ambitious, perhaps, than his Government has the resources to support.
As a senior trade official noted early this year, “China has serious problems, but has benefited from strong, stable leadership since the early 90s, and Xi is the strongest yet. I am concerned, though, that he may not be able to fulfil his regional as well as domestic agendas. We lack the administrative and economic resources to handle much beyond our borders. But Xi wants to leave his mark on the world.”
Xi (pronounced “shee”) is a princeling, the descendant of a member of China’s revolutionary aristocracy. In a government system that purports to be meritocratic, “princeling” is usually a pejorative term. Chinese people tend to mistrust the children of powerful officials, fearing that they will be motivated by a sense of entitlement and lack the life experience to understand their fellow citizens. Xi is not viewed with such scepticism.
Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a Chinese Communist Party founding father who was later marginalised by Mao, particularly for his refusal to embrace the party’s rewriting of its own history, and for his criticism of the Great Leap Forward, the failed programme intended by Mao to rapidly industrialise China, which cost more than 10 million lives, largely from starvation. Xi’s family were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution and, aged 15, the future president was exiled to northern Shaanxi Province, where he lived in a cave for seven years and worked as a peasant farmer.
Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, also suffered through war and revolution, but the popular perception is that Xi’s experiences afforded him deeper insights into the lives of the country’s poorest. He is referred to as a man who has “eaten bitterness”, meaning that he has attained a degree of wisdom through suffering.
A daughter of a high-ranking family who were also sent to the countryside during this period says, “Our parents were imprisoned and we feared for our lives. But, like Xi, many of us saw our exile as a mission to serve the people.
“We foolishly thought that we could enlighten the peasants we were sent to live among. I was useless, afraid of the cattle we cared for, and exhausted after even a few hours of work in the fields. But I learnt some humility and how remarkably resourceful, generous and kind the poorest people often are. I eventually got a good education and have had a fulfilling career in the government, but nothing taught me as much as those years in the countryside.”
After Xi passed a national exam offered to the generation who had been denied education during the Cultural Revolution, he was admitted to the engineering faculty of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 1975.
Still dogged by his father’s legacy, Xi struggled to secure a foothold in China’s political system, but eventually became a party member in 1974 and began working in Beijing for senior leaders. In 1982, he was made deputy party secretary, the second-most senior political post, of Zhengding County in relatively rural Hebei Province. He subsequently worked in senior positions in Fujian, Zhejiang and eventually Shanghai, where he replaced the city’s corrupt party secretary. Xi was elected President of China by the party’s central politburo in 2013.
A retired economist from the National Development and Reform Commission, who dealt with Xi in Fujian in the 80s, says, “I doubt any of us really knew him well. I assumed that he progressed because of his ability, but also his capacity to fit into the party’s culture. Higher positions were offered to him not because he grasped for them, but because he knew how to position himself, get the trust of his superiors and wait.
“He shared our faith in Deng’s economic reforms and has fought against the corruption around him throughout his career, even when there was little career advantage to do so. His father was a staunch supporter of Deng and this will have influenced him. Who knows what Xi has become over the years. But I remember a man of integrity.”
Unlike in the West, there is relatively little information available on China’s top leaders that would provide insights into their personal lives. This is particularly the case for those who make it to the very top, and Xi is no exception, having kept a low profile in the years leading to his presidency. Western commentators have pointed to Xi’s brief time spent in the US in the 80s – which he has recalled affectionately in speeches – perhaps seeking to better understand the man in a more familiar context. Xi led a delegation to Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985 on a fact-finding mission, spending two weeks touring agricultural facilities by day, and staying in the homes of locals by night. In 2012, when he was already the heir-apparent to the Chinese presidency, Xi returned to Muscatine. At a dinner reunion with a small group of Americans he had met nearly 20 years before, he remarked, “To me, you are America.” President Donald Trump has appointed Iowa Governor Terry Branstad – whom Xi has known since his first trip to the state – as US Ambassador to China, a foreign-policy decision that has been generally well received on both sides.
The Chinese like to recount an anecdote about the President from New Year in 1989. Xi accompanied his retired father to a banquet hosted by a local company in Xi’An, his father’s hometown. Xi’s star was already on the rise, and he was party secretary of Ningde city in Fujian Province at the time. When Xi’s father found a spare rib too tough to chew with his old teeth, he refused to waste it. To his hosts’ horror, the senior Xi placed the half-chewed spare rib on his son’s plate. Without a word and without hesitation, the younger Xi ate it. This is offered as an example of Xi’s frugality and filial affection.
At the time Xi ascended to the presidency, the party was reeling from the Bo Xilai scandal. Bo was a popular party secretary of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities in the south-west, who promoted himself as an anti-corruption crusader. His wife was charged with the 2011 murder of a British consultant, Neil Heywood, who was rumoured to also have been her lover. Bo was arrested soon afterwards and found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. A princeling like Xi, Bo displayed naked political ambition; he worked hard to get the popular support of the people he governed and was perceived by many in the party to be making a bid for higher office outside the usual channels. In this way, Bo was the antithesis of Xi. Perhaps noting the conditions that gave rise to Bo’s behaviour and the people’s waning confidence in a corrupt party, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign without parallel in recent Chinese history.
Xi promised that he would “catch both the tigers and the flies”. The flies, the petty officials whose rent-seeking ways have been such a burden to ordinary Chinese people, have been arrested in their tens of thousands, along with many tigers, high-level officials. The most powerful of them was Zhou Yongkang, China’s former head of public security. The degree to which Xi has tackled corruption in the military demonstrates the depth of his power, also dispelling Western misconceptions that the military can pursue its own political agenda. As of last year, more than 40 senior military officials and two former vice-chairs of the Central Military Commission had been charged with corruption.
After four years, the anti-corruption campaign remains universally popular in China. Xi’s critics assert that he has used the campaign to remove his political rivals, which may be partly true, but the scale and depth of the programme have brought about greater judicial transparency and internal discipline. Xi’s challenge will be to elevate the anti-corruption measures from being a political tool to firm principles of an independent legal system.
Last year, a policeman in a remote southern city said of the anti-corruption campaign, “We have more authority now and officials are less likely to frustrate our investigations into corruption. I also see that some of my superiors have used allegations of corruption to depose rivals. I was very young in the Cultural Revolution, but I remember the climate of distrust and betrayal. Local officials are now often too cautious in making decisions, fearing they will be accused of acting out of personal interest. City officials now often decline to hold or attend banquets because they don’t want to be seen feasting extravagantly in public. But the good thing about this campaign is that there are many smaller Bo Xilais in the administration across China who now may think twice before abusing their power.”
Too much power?
The party recently elevated Xi to “core leader” status, placing him in the company of Deng and Mao. This may mean that he will be able to pay less attention to the consensus leadership culture that has developed over the past decades, and perhaps choose his own successor, with less of the political horse-trading that preceded his own appointment.
Although Xi does not have an imperious manner and has demonstrated a natural modesty, some have noted with alarm his consolidation of power. It is odd, critics observe, that a modest man would allow the trappings of a personality cult. It is common to see dinner plates printed with Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan’s faces on display in railway stations and airport kiosks, something Deng discouraged as a negative legacy of the Mao era. One interpretation is that Xi is not, like some previous leaders, seeking to appear larger than life and superior to ordinary people, but is allowing a degree of cult-like attention in order to serve as a role model for the values he has espoused as part of the “Chinese dream”. While Xi introduced this concept partly to imagine a stronger, more prosperous nation, he has argued that a foundation of national rejuvenation is a “civilised” China that elevates family values, filial duties and moral obligations. Xi’s public persona appears to reflect these qualities.
His orchestrated, down-to-earth public appearances may not be out of place in the West, but stand in stark contrast to the formality and stiffness of previous Chinese leaders. Xi has tended to avoid flowery, complex language in his speeches, instead favouring the straightforward, more ordinary language used by common people. He has been observed dropping in unannounced to eat at local steamed-bun restaurants in Beijing, always paying for his own meal. In his televised greeting to the Chinese public during the 2014 Lunar New Year, he chose to broadcast from his relatively simple office, rather than the Great Hall of the People or other grand settings favoured by his predecessors.
Xi and Peng’s public affection has also attracted some attention. Peng was a famous and well-regarded folk singer before she met Xi, but leading up to her husband’s presidency, she, too, maintained a low profile. Since 2013, Peng has harnessed the media’s interest to promote traditional Chinese culture, while drawing attention to international issues by taking on roles with the World Health Organisation and the United Nations.
Many within Chinese social media have commented approvingly on her strength and grace and on the couple’s frequent handholding. A video that went viral showed a private moment between Xi and Peng at the 2014 Apec welcome dinner in Beijing: delegates and Peng are waving their hands enthusiastically while Xi looks on without moving; Peng turns to Xi, who immediately lifts his hand and begins waving, too. According to commenters, here was a man who, despite his enormous power, was not embarrassed to be seen taking his wife’s lead.
Some in the Chinese Government have voiced discomfort that Xi has become too popular and powerful, to the point that he may even try to break with party tradition to secure a third five-year term as President. This is unlikely, and in any case, he may not need to; Xi will almost certainly be able to influence the government after he retires in 2022, as Deng did well into his retirement.
Xi will need to maintain considerable influence just for his own safety, for he has made a legion of enemies through his war on corruption. Ultimately, no modern leader of China is stronger than the party, and the party is not stronger than the people.
The party exists only to the extent that it understands and can deliver, for the most part, what the people want. A great number of Chinese people want to keep the present political status quo because they see it as a force for stability that facilitates their continuing prosperity. Should this change, the party’s legitimacy would quickly be called into question.
Travel gets hopes up
To understand the nature of Chinese political power, it is necessary to understand the resistance of entrenched interest groups to the rule of law. Neither Xi nor the Chinese Communist Party is as powerful as many Western observers assume. Each day, the centre is negotiating, cajoling, compromising with and outmanoeuvring powerful provincial and city officials as well as private industrialists, many of whom are working for their own regional and personal interests.
The fact that China is governed to the extent that it is confounds political logic. Without a strong central administration, the 300 million people who have been lifted out of poverty over the past 30 years may slip back into a world of injustice, malnourishment and despair.
The prospect of a weaker China may spark a sense of schadenfreude among some in the West, but they miss the fact that a weaker China would mean a weaker global economy and a more fractious world.
A Jiangsu-based entrepreneur, recently returned from the National People’s Congress in Beijing, says, “Delegates usually swear an oath of allegiance to the party and the flag, but this year they swore to uphold the Chinese constitution. This marks the difference in the current leadership. Rather than trying to control the country through intervention by party officials, the Government is trying to rely more on regulation and the rule of law. Xi is stronger than his predecessors because he has to be to manage a transition that is long overdue.”
Xi has shown himself to be illiberal when it comes to the freedom of the media and of individuals to access and disseminate information. The fact that social networks and the internet are potentially a medium of dissent and public criticism, but also vital tools for the Government to track public opinion and monitor the people, presents the party with a contradiction. During Xi’s five-year tenure, online information in China has become more controlled, while society has been subjected to a greater level of surveillance. Global internet access is extensively blocked or interfered with to the degree that users give up on certain service providers, such as Google.
According to a Shanghai investment banker, “We can find a wide range of views and reports on social networks, particularly Weibo [China’s Twitter]. If we find that critical information is blocked, we use a VPN [software that circumvents China’s ‘great firewall’], but this issue of the firewall is largely a preoccupation of foreigners. I can access most of the Chinese-language sites I need, and if we must put up with some inconvenience to have a strong economy and stable society, I have no issue.”
China’s internet restrictions do have negative ramifications for the development of innovation in technology and commerce. Chinese academics, senior officials and security personnel are not as sanguine as some businesspeople about blocked internet access. As one security official complains, “I sometimes call colleagues who are handling censorship of the internet and berate them for blocking me from investigating criminals.” Chinese people will continue to disagree over whether it is better for the public to have unfettered access to information online, or whether some restrictions are a reasonable price to pay to ensure other societal objectives.
Social pressure on the party is slowly mounting as tens of millions of increasingly wealthy and adventurous Chinese tourists return home each year with heightened social and environmental expectations. Chinese citizens are demanding, with deepening indignation, cleaner air and safer food.
If the Government does not deal with the continuing degradation of the air, water and soil, anger over environmental problems could result in greater public protest, which in turn could be a catalyst for an array of other grievances.
Xi had a reputation as an environmentalist when he was Fujian’s party secretary, but nothing could have prepared him for the thankless balancing act of ensuring employment across China while boosting environmental quality. In the past two years, measures have been taken against the worst offenders, and the air in coastal cities may have improved marginally. But citizens notice that instances of cleaner air often coincide with major public events, or when social frustrations become particularly intense.
Factories are still frequently allowed to flout environmental regulations when provincial GDP targets need to be met or short-term profits are at stake. A European investor in a Hebei steel mill complained that his partners turned on air-cleaning scrubbers in the factory chimney only when the environmental inspectors visited. But there is no question the central Government is committed to cleaning up the environment and showing leadership on the issue of climate change.
In ratifying the Paris climate change agreement, China has vowed to lower its carbon emissions significantly by 2030, in part by increasing energy efficiency, lowering its dependence on coal and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of its total energy needs are met from non-fossil-fuel sources.
Earlier this year, China pledged to invest at least US$360 billion (NZ$510 billion) on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources by 2020, despite the possibility of the US reneging on its climate commitments under Trump’s leadership. The Chinese Government cited its aims to create up to 13 million “green jobs” in the sector by 2020 and to clean up the country’s air, but its actions are driven not solely out of a sense of responsibility, but at least somewhat out of a fear of social unrest.
More power, please
This reflects the key issue that Xi faces. It is not that he is too powerful, but that he and his coterie are perhaps not powerful enough. This is evident in the banking system. Policy loans and loans to large state-owned enterprises continue to abound, creating unnecessary risks to the banks’ balance sheets. It appears that Xi would prefer a more disciplined financial sector to enable reduction of overcapacity in the industrial sector, but provinces and cities only show restraint to the degree that they must, while prioritising their own needs for economic growth.
Later this year, Xi will begin his second five-year presidential term, and many in the private sector are hoping he will begin to fulfil his promises to allow more private banks while encouraging the state-owned banks to lend more freely to small- and medium-sized companies. They also hope he will instigate much-needed tax reform for private enterprises. His challenge in the years to come will be to ensure the current economic transition empowers the private sector, which constitutes 65% of production and employment.
The evidence and scale of Xi’s ambition may also be seen in his “One Belt, One Road” strategy, which evokes the ancient Silk Road. At its loftiest, One Belt, One Road offers increased common wealth to its immediate neighbours, and at its most practical, gives China opportunities to secure strategic positions, such as a port on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, all while expanding markets for Chinese surpluses of industrial products such as steel, glass and cement.
The Government also wants to help develop its western regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. In this, Xi risks compounding the misconception of his predecessors that economic development in itself will resolve unrest among Buddhist and Muslim minorities. China also risks repeating the mistakes made in former colonies such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand towards their indigenous peoples, who resented policies of assimilation and, by association, forced participation in competitive markets, instead preferring models of integration with respect for and celebration of their separate cultural identities. New Zealand has demonstrated that an approach that allows Maori to begin regaining control of significant assets, and that encourages officials and all citizens to learn something of the Maori language and culture, can have profoundly positive results.
Xi is aware of these issues and alternative models. The challenge for his officials in western China will be to look beyond real and immediate economic and security concerns and use One Belt, One Road as an instrument of local empowerment and amelioration of a sense of historical injustice. Xi is a man of the people, and knows that these dynamics are not unique to China.
Across the country, the Government can, at most, strive to ensure that reasonable controls are established, but that, equally, the impediments to ordinary people realising their commercial and personal aspirations are few. For China’s development relies on the energy and the aspirations of all its citizens striving to improve their lives. This drive differs from that in Western societies, as it is fuelled by a determination not to slip back into the poverty and chaos of the recent past, or the suffering and indignities of being colonised by foreign, largely Western, powers.
Chinese people are patriotic and many have a positive view of their future as a part of the international community at a time when many Western countries are becoming increasingly inward looking. It is an irony that this year at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos in Switzerland, it was left to Xi to champion the principles of free trade and open markets, just as Washington was reinforcing its commitment to isolationism and protectionism.
Feeling a little thaad
Xi began his tenure as President by asserting China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, triggering the ire of its neighbours and the US. China’s view is that national maritime borders in the South China Sea were arbitrarily created during a colonial period and now warrant reassessment. Within 18 months of becoming President, Xi was in disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Despite the scale of China’s economy, it remains poorly equipped to handle multiple foreign-relations disputes at one time.
Although the country continues to build bases on the rocks and reefs in the region, in the past two years Xi has taken a less-belligerent stance, perceiving perhaps that he has over-reached his political and diplomatic capacity. He has also softened his responses to Japan’s rearmament, and reacted calmly to President Trump’s random statements regarding the One China Policy and possible trade sanctions. In early March, when the US delivered Thaad (terminal high-altitude area defence missile) systems to South Korea, Xi’s tone became harsh again, but largely for domestic consumption.
The Thaad deployment is unpopular with the Chinese people and a loss of face for their military. In response, Chinese authorities have closed nine stores of the South Korean retailer Lotte. Chinese tourist flows to Korea have been restricted, and the widely admired South Korean dramas and popular music, largely watched online, blocked. This will pass. Xi and his advisers understand that South Korea wants to protect itself from the threat of a North Korean missile strike, but suspect the US is using the situation to weaken China militarily.
South Korea has existing Patriot missile systems that would help protect it from short-range attacks from Pyongyang. The Thaad system is designed to intercept longer-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles in the upper atmosphere or outside the atmosphere, which despite their boasts, the North Koreans cannot yet deliver. Thaad also comes with sophisticated tracking systems with which the US could spy on China more effectively. A nuclear deterrent balance relies on the principle of mutually assured destruction and the stalemate that results. By increasing its allies’ defensive capabilities, the US is degrading China’s offensive capacity, shifting the balance in American favour. China has some cause to view the Thaad deployment as an aggressive act.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited China last week in the face of lingering tensions over North Korea, Taiwan and Trump’s past statements on China. Before his visit, the US had said its policy of stategic patience with North Korea was over, and suggested it might decide to take pre-emptive military action as one option. Tillerson defended the Thaad deployment, and China’s state media responded forcefully to his comments, particularly regarding the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
Trump has been a vocal critic of China, including its “currency manipulation” and actions in the South China Sea. But he has since agreed to honour the One China policy, and negotations are now under way for a potential first summit meeting in the US between Xi and Trump in April.
If Trump realises his aims to increase US military spending and expand its naval presence in the region, Xi will be tested acutely in coming years. The idea persists in Washington that the US, a country of some 300 million, has the right to contain the rise of China, with its 1.4 billion people. Chinese officials argue in private that in standing by its allies in Asia, the US should seek to maintain a supportive but less belligerent stance.
In the end, whoever possesses the economic and industrial resources to support development in the region will have the most influence. Military might is secondary to economic prowess in Asia, and in the absence of actual military conflict, China’s economic influence will probably continue to increase.
Keeping China close
Governments across Asia and in Australasia are working hard to deal with the confusion and contradictions that flow from Washington each week. Trump’s dysfunctional presidency will challenge the US’s traditional allies, forcing them to weigh their strategic alliances with their need for the Chinese economy. China is now the leading trading partner of at least 180 countries. Although it has allowed a degree of fair-weather friendship over the past few decades, in the light of a declining US presence in the region, it may become more prescriptive.
Singapore has been feeling greater pressure from Beijing regarding its close alliance with Washington. Singaporean armoured vehicles, being shipped from exercises in Taiwan back to Singapore through (bafflingly) Hong Kong, were recently impounded, allegedly at Beijing’s insistence. Australia is perceived as pursuing a regional foreign policy largely in tandem with Washington’s, something Beijing will tolerate less and may deal with through non-tariff trade barriers.
New Zealand has enjoyed a long-trusted relationship with China, breaking Western ranks on many occasions and standing by Beijing on international legal principle. It recognised the new Hong Kong Government in 1997 and China as a free-market economy, and signed a free-trade agreement with it in 2008. Publicly, China praises New Zealand as one of the few Western countries it trusts. Officials in private are less effusive, however, claiming that in a serious crisis over territorial claims, New Zealand would probably side with the US.
New Zealanders regularly cite former prime minister Helen Clark’s decision not to join the fatal US-led coalition to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a powerful declaration of nonalignment. Although he moved closer to the US, John Key forged a good relationship with Xi, who continues to think well of New Zealand.
It is now incumbent on Prime Minister Bill English to ensure that he does the same early in his tenure. WikiLeaks and whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s disclosures have shown how close New Zealand remains to its traditional allies on intelligence issues. The trust that the country has earned in the past, not just from China but in the region, cannot be taken for granted. In the new, harsh, confused political reality in which countries must operate after the election of Trump, it will be harder to sustain the foreign policy path of independence and nonalignment, based on objective principles, on which New Zealand’s economic and political future will depend.
David Mahon, a longtime Listener contributor, is the executive chair and Charlie Gao the managing partner of Mahon China, a Beijing-based corporate advisory firm.