Xi’s the man. Or so the deluge of Xi-centric coverage would lead one to believe. Where many China watchers once examined history to understand strategy, some have become “Xi watchers,” scrutinizing music videos, paraphernalia, and social media accounts on Xi for clues of what he may be thinking. This undertaking, aimed at tracing and explaining Chinese behavior, has led to an obsession with Xi’s personality, endless comparisons between Xi and Mao Zedong (and even Chiang Kai-shek), and a singular emphasis upon Xi’s position at the apex of China’s political system akin to the “great helmsman” or as the “core leader.” But a singular focus on his personality and background misses the forest for the trees by mistakenly ascribing strategic behavior to highly subjective interpretations of Xi’s life story and overlooking the preeminence of the Communist Party’s (CCP) mandate. While Xi’s background makes for compelling prose, a preoccupation with the personalities of Chinese leadership — be it Mao, Xi, or leaders yet to come — risks elevating less meaningful correlations between personages and strategy at the expense of understanding the Party’s agenda.
Under Xi, the argument goes, collective leadership has been pushed aside for personalized rule. The political ranks are less reflective of interests across the spectrum and rather increasingly encompass those that support Xi’s strategic vision. To be sure, Xi has competently and confidently filled his role as President and General Secretary of the Communist Party since 2013. The Third Plenum, held in November 2013, effectively set out the agenda and priorities for Xi in its communiqué: economic reforms, political stability, and greater coordination of China’s security strategy as focal points. To these ends, Xi has created new leading small groups to spearhead economic reform efforts and lead the anti-corruption crackdown. A new National Security Commission (中央国家安全委员会) has also emerged, a mechanism that David Lampton interprets as a way to manage the flow of information and decision-making processes from the central government outward. More recently, Xi emerged in military green as he assumed his new title as commander-in-chief, a role that symbolizes his command and control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amid ongoing overhauls to expand and transform the Chinese fighting force, linking the realm of politics to the PLA’s military sphere of influence.
Where the comparisons to Mao run particularly strong is the shift to personalized rule — leadership, in other words, that has cult-like undertones. But the Chinese political system is explicitly structured to avoid another Mao. The collective leadership model that emerged under Deng Xiaoping intentionally preserves the centrality of CCP norms and prevents the emergence of an all-powerful strongman. Xi’s job as the “core” leader (领导核心) is to ensure reliability and stability within the ranks of Party leadership while spearheading consensus-driven decisions with input from the CCP Secretariat, the Politburo, and its Standing Committee. His selection as the “core” of the current leadership cohort is but another facet of political power, allowing Xi to construct the government bureaucracy in service of the Party’s strategic objectives and less in pursuit of a personal agenda or vision.
From other perspectives, Xi’s emergence as the new core or as some sort of “Mao 2.0” is often weighed retrospectively, detailing his childhood as the son of Xi Zhongxun — one of the first generation of Chinese leaders, who was imprisoned and purged several times. Equally pervasive are references to Xi’s formative experiences in Shaanxi during the Cultural Revolution or even the start of his career in the lower ranks of the Party, rising through the ranks in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai while navigating both marriage and divorce. Some accounts laud his time in Fujian as fostering a receptivity to the cross-Strait issue or a particular attentiveness to taishang, Taiwanese businessmen operating in mainland China; still others point to the seven months he spent in Shanghai as a window of opportunity Xi seized to push aside then-rising star (and now Premier) Li Keqiang.
Xi’s back story may explain much about his personal psychology, but it would be a mistake to attribute his grasp on political power as President and CCP General Secretary to his personage alone. Nor is Xi’s centralization of power through new bureaucratic apparatuses and recognition as a “core” leader simply an attempt to reform the governance system and economy. While Xi is stronger than his predecessors, he is no Mao, and there is very little about Xi that is Maoist. If he was Maoist, Xi would be actively evading the CCP’s dictums rather than endeavoring to save and preserve the Party as his existing and planned reform packages suggest. Maoism would further require a return to class struggle, a guiding point of Stalinism that Mao cited in crafting violence to induce social change. And while Maoism still exists, it has yet to take root in Xi’s approach to statecraft. Rather, what can be seen in Xi’s life story and references to Mao is an homage to the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Without Mao, there would be neither a CCP nor Xi Jinping.
So that leaves us with the question of where Xi’s political power comes from in the “post-strongman era.” The answer is the CCP. His power — to change the political system, oversee huge reform plans and an increasingly assertive politico-military strategy — comes from the Party and the political mandate set for the Xi era, beginning with the 18th Party Congress in 2012 and trickling down ever since. To a certain extent, the work report of the 18th Party Congress was the legacy of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. It is a document that reflects the highest level of consensus within the Chinese political system and sets the agenda for the five-year period until the next Congress. Xi assumed the presidency at a time when China was starting to feel the ripple effects of a slowing economy, with inequality growing and manufacturing declining. The work report thus offered a guideline for what Xi’s priorities needed to be and what his boss — the CCP — expected of him.
While the political mandate handed down from the CCP to Chinese leaders has changed over the years, as has the ability of different administrations to operationalize the Party’s mandate, what has not changed is the underlying goal such a mandate serves: preserving the legitimacy and legacy of the one-Party Chinese state. As seen in the text of the 18th Party Congress work report, the mandate for the Xi era is to “build a moderately prosperous society and achieve the renewal of the Chinese nation.” His task as President and General Secretary is actually, on the surface, no simpler than to ensure a single-mindedness permeates all levels of Party cadre. It is a task that demands of Xi unwavering loyalty to the Party. Xi wields power to establish new arms of the Chinese political apparatus out of the blue, only made possible through the Party’s mandate. Without the Party, it is difficult to conceive of Xi bestowing new titles and affiliations upon himself or others or tightening the screws on those officials ensnared in corruption. It is the same political mandate that shapes his strategic outlook and his ability to turn concepts and resources into actual, measurable progress on issues at the core of contemporary Chinese strategy.
Taking the party mandate as the lens through which to examine continuity and change in China entirely reorients an understanding of China’s trajectory on numerous issues. It is the CCP — not Xi — that should be held accountable and responsible for the changes seen in Chinese defense and foreign policy. Taking this approach, Chinese strategy thus becomes less about what Xi’s personal vision for Chinese strategy is and instead evolves into a more nuanced appreciation for strategy as rooted in terms of the Party’s own priorities. For instance, under the mandate Xi has been handed, Taiwan is less a policy problem with an indefinite timeline and more an important piece of renewing the Chinese nation through reunification. Other issues at the forefront of this summer’s policymaking agenda, such as last week’s U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue and tensions in the South China Sea over China’s island reclamation efforts are no different. Each serves a purpose in support of the Party’s mandate and, by corollary, for Xi’s efforts as “core” leader and president.
Efforts by senior U.S. government officials to understand how Xi may see the world in comparison to his peers or predecessors are worthwhile, but only to a point. Instead, focus can and should remain upon how Xi’s actions are made in service to the CCP’s political mandate. Absent an overhaul to the highest echelons of political power at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, it is likely that Xi’s hawkish strategy and accompanying behaviors will continue, for both are ultimately in service of the Party’s agenda of building a prosperous society and achieving national renewal. In other words, without Xi, the structure of opportunities and incentives would be similarly shaped by the Party’s priorities and driven by a wide range of domestic reforms and assertive foreign and defense policy.
There is hardly anything unique about Xi’s background that makes him a stronger, more capable leader than his predecessors. What is different — and what policymakers and academics alike must not lose sight of — is Xi’s wholehearted devotion to the Party’s mission. For it is through such a commitment that strategy is formulated, policy implemented, and decisions made that may well leave the Party under Xi’s tutelage at odds with the United States and its allies.
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between China and Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.