The Power of Words: Xi Jinping’s Show of Force

The Chinese Communist Party has made major news across the planet in the last week, after removing term limits from the positions of president and vice president (though Chinese leader Xi Jinping is not actually “president”, that title more a result of convenience in English translation).

The move has generated enormous interest in the Western world: why has this move surprised so many China watchers, myself included, despite there being strong hints of this possibility since late last year? Well, speaking for myself, there are two important points to make here.

First, some historical context.

An increasing number of observers have compared Xi Jinping to Chairman Mao Zedong in recent years, and it is not intended to be a flattering comparison. Mao was the architect and leader of a successful (and popular) Communist revolution in China leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He ruled the country until his death in 1976, and though the various power relations in the Chinese Communist Party during this period were often complex, with Mao’s power being far from unopposed on various occasions, it is fair to say that he was the dominant political and ideological force in the country: the “Great Helmsman” of the Chinese Revolution, an ongoing project to be revisited and relived again and again, often with disastrous consequences. He was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his fellow Chinese, notably during the man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Reasonable critics of course acknowledge the depth of Mao’s failures and the cost of human life, but point to the larger issue behind this critique: Xi has for some time seemed to be maneuvering himself into position to flout significant political norms established after Mao’s death that required support from the Party to survive.

Key among these are the principles of “collective leadership” and the mission to separate Party and State positions and responsibilities more clearly. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was largely responsible for the China that today’s young people have grown up with: an economic powerhouse moving swiftly towards true superpower status. However, Deng also ruled within a specific post-Mao context. Today’s leaders openly decry the Cultural Revolution for example, though are coy about overly blaming Mao; Xi’s father was one of the many targeted during those hectic days of political radicalization. The Party would in theory look to multiple leaders, or at least to a paramount leader who would take into consideration the opinions of those around him. The Party would also observe term limits: Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, stepped down in 2003; his successor, Hu Jintao, gave way to Xi in 2012. For these reasons, it is surprising that term limits would be abolished. Even granting Xi’s significant success in establishing himself as “core leader” in China, this is a significant and aggressive repudiation of an important political norm in post-Mao China.

Secondly, I have to confess to being taken completely by surprise by this development because I just don’t really see why Xi even needed to do it. He began his second term late last year, formally confirmed at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, an event that drew attention for the Party’s official promotion of the concept “Xi Jinping Thought”, an ostensibly banal collection of bromides about China’s future goals that nevertheless drew comparison to the last time the Chinese public was encouraged to extol a specific worldview in the language of their leader, when the “little red book” of Mao could be found in shirt pockets across the country. The cause of human rights in China, which seemed in the early years of the twenty-first century to perhaps be inching forward, has taken huge steps back under Xi. Indeed, the Chinese government infringes on individual rights well beyond its own borders. The power of the state, the power of the Party, and the power of the leader of both those institutions leaves little room for opposition.

So, is China now a dictatorship? Well, yes and no. I have sympathy for the position that this news is not actually all that newsworthy because it merely confirms an existing reality, but I cannot concur. Though perhaps a formality, this move nevertheless makes major statements about how Xi views the Party’s relationship to the State, and how he views his own relationship to political power in the country. Xi has not become another Mao overnight, but he has moved the country’s political calculus from a clearly stated commitment to collective leadership to a thinly veiled reality of one-man rule.

Still, it strikes me as an enormous unforced error on Xi’s part. For many years, from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C. to graduate schools across the United States, it has not been difficult to find enlightened individuals eager to chastise anyone concerned at the slow progress of reform in China. Who are we, with our flawed system, to criticize another culture that is perhaps finding its own way? Most of these critics at least implied that the Chinese way of doing things would lead to political reform of some type of another, though it would likely look very different from Western examples and follow a different path.

Such ideas have been exposed as hopeful but naive, and the collapse of this narrative is harmful to Chinese interests. China, which enjoys enormous economic power and ever increasing military power and geopolitical clout, seemed set to move on to accumulating more of that commodity that the US retains in abundance despite recent malaise: soft power, the use of cultural influence in international affairs. Chinese official language focuses on a “peaceful rise” and frames much of its foreign policy in terms of seeking a harmonious international order. Xi, who came to power amid hopes that he would be a great reformer, has now fully exposed this rhetoric as the window dressing it always was. His anti-corruption campaign, for so long a central achievement in his career, was a clever and systematic removal of his political rivals. There are no alternatives to Xi Jinping within the Chinese Communist Party. There are no alternatives to the Chinese Communist Party for the Chinese public.

For years, China watchers in the West have looked on with concern, but this is a genuinely dramatic step. Xi Jinping has chosen to put into words the ever increasing reality of his unfettered autocracy, rolling back much of the political progress, however modest, made since 1976; and words matter.

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