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Will Xi Jinping Tighten His Grip on Power in 2019?

December 11, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

In 2016, I published a study of Xi Jinping, CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. This book has subsequently been reissued in paperback, and in 2018 I did a shorter overview, The World According to Xi. For one reason or the other, over the last few years I have had to think quite a bit about the current leader of China.

Two years on, we all now have seen a bit more and know a little more about a man The Economist magazine stated in late 2017 was the most powerful in the world.

The most puzzling aspect about his rule, however, remains the same. How has it been possible, over such a complex country, and with so many other contending figures who may have had the chance to compete with Xi, that he has become so seemingly dominant? Did we miss something about his innate political skills as he was emerging into view as a major leader? Or are we still misinterpreting this figure, and seeing the mirage of great power rather than the real thing? Is he really as all-commanding as he seems?

Coming to the end of 2018, the atmosphere in the People’s Republic has become increasingly dominated by Xi’s presence and image. During the Forum for China African Cooperation in September, an already infamous cover of the official People’s Daily had Xi’s name in headlines almost 20 times on the front page.

But this was symptomatic of a deeper penetration of Xi into the political life of the nation. In October 2017, during the 19th Party Congress (a major event held every five years), “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into the party constitution. This was the first time such an accolade had been accorded to a named individual since 1945, when “Mao Zedong Thought” was promoted a similar way.

Even more remarkable was the removal of time limits for occupying the presidency. Restricted to two periods of five years each from the early 1980s, at the National People’s Congress in March 2018, after hardly any discussion, the rules were changed. This was seen by commentators inside and outside China as a clear sign that Xi was intending in some shape or form to stay on long after the current unwritten retirement age of 68.

Are we now at the point where we can say we are looking at the face of a true contemporary Chinese autocrat? It is still hard to say with real certainty. For sure, Xi’s image hangs above China with a ubiquity that sometimes verges on the comically obsessive.

But the response China gave to the Trump administration’s implementation of tariffs on Chinese goods exported to the United States revealed some vulnerability of a leadership where everything seems to be decided by one man.

The Beijing leadership seemed dazed and slow in its response, with indications for the first time that there was only a small huddle of people around Xi running the country and that it was dependent on the quality of their advice over how his administration handled matters. That meant that ideas from elsewhere in the whole vast system that might have been worth listening to were simply ignored, or unimplemented, meaning the world’s most important bilateral relationship grew increasingly fractious and unstable.

Streamlined and centralized decision-making may all be very well, as long as those making the final decisions happen to be broadly right. This episode, so far, has proved that the Xi style can be worryingly unsophisticated and inflexible.

There is little reason, yet, to change the central thesis of the CEO China book about Xi’s greatest source of authority and his good luck – the very unique situation that China has found itself in under his rule. With an economy still growing well, and a national sentiment that continues to be forward-looking, China seems ready to embrace the mantle of “major power status,” finally winning the battle of modern history to be a strong, wealthy, powerful country, with regional and global dominance. 2021, the year in which the first centennial goal arrives, still looms large on the horizon.

At the moment, China’s onward trajectory despite the turmoil with the United States looks good. It has never before produced so much top-quality research, never before has it been so competitive against the United States in key areas from information technology to artificial intelligence and engineering. Its high-speed rail infrastructure remains the envy of the world. And with the Belt and Road Initiative, at least now the outside world is thinking, like it or not, about how they need to engage with this new behemoth.

Is the often pushy and assertive way in which China now behaves towards, for instance, countries in its region over issues that matter to it like the South and East China Sea, or towards Hong Kong and Taiwan, symptomatic of the way Xi runs things within China – categorical, ruthless, and utterly unaccepting of any signs of dissent?

The current management of the Xinjiang region, with its massive and almost unimaginably thorough social surveillance and use of vast “re-education camps” (which look to be little more than prisons for sweeping thought reform), is the acme of this – a vision of a state so invasive and so gifted with new forms of intrusive technology that it can finally enter deep into the inner lives of the common people.

Or is all this in fact the inevitable behavior of a country that, after a modern history of being the underdog, is finally now in a position to assert itself and be respected and feared? In essence, this boils down to a simple question. Is Xi the servant of the inevitable processes or forces of history, or are he and the organization he is in charge of shaping and decisively changing the direction of that history?

As in 2016, I remain skeptical about the kind of power Xi has, and just how to interpret it as down to him and his political skills, and how to understand best the role of the party he heads and the very special period during which he finds himself in power. Donald Trump’s maverick presidency has posed the most significant challenges so far and shown vulnerabilities and lacunae.

As we enter 2019, this remains the core area to focus on. Can Xi produce a new kind of more reciprocal relationship with the world, and one where China is seen as less isolated and more of a true global leader? The opportunity is still there, but has become harder because of the aforementioned sharpness of China’s power.

 

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London and Associate Fellow at the Asia Pacific Program at Chatham House, He is the author of over 15 books on contemporary China, the most recent of which is China’s Dreams: The Culture of the Communist Party and the Secret Sources of its Power (Polity. 2018). He can be followed at @Bkerrychina.

Image: thierry ehrmann