Xi Jinping is widely viewed as the strongest leader China has had since Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong. But six years into his perhaps indefinite tenure, what has Xi actually accomplished? And where might China be headed under his rule?
Like all Chinese leaders since the 1870s, when Qing dynasty rulers launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, Xi also seeks “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The quest has been consistent for 150 years: for China to acquire the material attributes of a major international power and the commensurate respect from others. The legacy of the country’s former weakness and humiliation continues to haunt Xi and his generation.
So too does the collapse of Communist Party rule in the former Soviet Union. Now having ruled almost as long as their Soviet counterparts, Xi and his peers in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) live in regular trepidation of a similar meltdown. These two issues—augmenting China’s strengths while rectifying the Communist Party’s weaknesses—are intertwined in Xi’s thinking and dominate his agenda.
Xi believes in the absolute power of the Communist Party. As Xi told the 19th Congress of the CCP in October 2017: “The party controls all.” Unlike Deng Xiaoping, who launched China’s reforms four decades ago and sought to relatively reduce party power, Xi wants to bring the party-state back into all aspects of national life.
The CCP under Xi is also reaching back to the Maoist era by constructing a massive personality cult around Xi’s own persona. Maoist rhetorical throwbacks such as zhuxi (chairman), lingxiu (leader), hexin (core), even da duoshou (great helmsman) are again commonly used to refer to Xi. The official ideological canon of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has now been enshrined in the party constitution too. Xi personally chairs all central Leading Groups and party and military organs. He has also emasculated the authority of Premier Li Keqiang.
Xi is systematically rolling back many of the core elements of Deng’s reforms that guided China’s leaders for the past four decades: no personality cult around the leader, collective leadership and consensual decision-making, bottom-up “inner-party democracy” rather than top-down diktat, active feedback mechanisms from society to the party-state, relative tolerance of intellectual and other freedoms, limited dissent, some de facto checks and balances on unconstrained party power, fixed term limits and enforced retirement rules for leaders and cadres, a society and economy open to the world, and a cautious foreign policy. These and other norms were all central elements of Deng’s post-1978 reform program and they were all accepted and continued under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—but all are being systematically dismantled and rolled back by Xi Jinping.
So dominant is Xi that Chinese politics have become a sycophantic echo chamber. Xi is trying to run the party like a military, with orders given and to be followed—rather than as an organization with feedback mechanisms and procedures to curtail dictatorial practices. Xi is very much a mid-20th century Leninist leader ruling a huge country in the globalized, early-21st century era. There is thus a contradiction between Xi’s modality of rule and the realities of the modern world and China’s developmental needs.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has sought to relatively close China’s doors rather than further open them. There has been a significant tightening of the foreign investment and corporate operating environment, a sweeping suppression of civil society and foreign NGOs, stepped-up study of Marxism and an assertion of ideological controls over the entire educational sphere, and xenophobic campaigns against “hostile foreign forces.”
Meanwhile, the party continues to enforce strict media controls, carry out pervasive public security surveillance, tighten control over Xinjiang and Tibet, and persecute Christians and other organized religions. Xi has also cracked down on corruption in the party (and government and military), and presided over the most draconian purges and political repression in China since the 1989–92 post-Tiananmen period.
These actions have more in common with Maoism than Dengism. To be certain, Xi has definitely succeeded in strengthening the party institutionally over the past five years — but it is fair to wonder whether he has not actually weakened it in the longer term? How long can such retrograde and repressive actions endure in an increasingly globalized, wealthy and sophisticated society?
Xi’s economic impact is mixed. GDP growth remains very respectable at 6.9 per cent. Xi has also launched programs to eliminate poverty by 2020, spur innovation and high-tech manufacturing under the Made in China 2025 program, increase urbanization and build eco-cities, expand coverage of social services, attack pollution and transition to a green economy, decrease desertification and increase forestation, deleverage China’s ballooned debt while expanding domestic consumption and services as drivers of growth. These are all commendable goals and initiatives—but they are all just that. Time will tell whether they are achieved.
On the other hand, Xi’s administration has significantly failed to meet the benchmarks or implement the policies of the Third Plenum economic reform plan of November 2013. The significance of this shortfall is that the Chinese economy is not making the structural adjustments needed to navigate through the middle-income trap and up the value-added chain to become a developed economy over time. Structural maladies and overcapacity continue to plague economic efficiency, the stock market has plummeted, while dangerously high debt levels loom overhead.
If there is one policy area where Xi does deserve better marks, it is in foreign relations. China is now widely seen as a global power. Xi has taken a personal interest in global governance. As a result, China under Xi is contributing much more to the United Nations operating budget, global peacekeeping, overseas development assistance and the Sustainable Development Goals. And it is more active in a range of areas from combatting public health pandemics to disaster relief, energy and sea lane security, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations.
Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also noteworthy. An infrastructure development initiative unparalleled in history, the BRI will build rail lines, pipelines, telecommunications networks, electric grids, deep-water ports, highways, cities and other needed infrastructure from Asia to Europe. While the BRI is encountering criticism of late, it is nonetheless illustrative of China’s new foreign policy activism under Xi.
To be certain, China’s international relationships are not all rosy—but they are, on balance, positive. Only with the United States—and perhaps Australia, Japan and India—are China’s bilateral ties strained. Everywhere else they are sound.
The same must also be said about China’s military and defense—probably Xi’s No. 2 priority (after strengthening the party) over the past five years. Under the new title of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in January 2016 Xi launched a sweeping reorganization—the most comprehensive ever—of China’s military and paramilitary forces. The restructuring is but one part of systematic efforts to build a world-class military and, in Xi’s repeated exhortations, to “prepare to fight and win wars.”
Like all leaders, Xi’s tenure has so far achieved mixed results. But this variegated verdict is at variance with the overwhelmingly positive portrayals proclaimed in China’s official media. In Beijing’s rendering, Xi can do no wrong. This in itself may prove to be his Achilles’ heel. No leader is infallible. The subterranean grousing about Xi’s “imperial” leadership style now increasingly heard in China (and from Chinese when they go abroad and speak with foreigners), may be a harbinger of difficulties to come.
Having constructed a caricature of an infallible Xi Jinping, the regime will find it very difficult—if not impossible—to deconstruct this image of China’s new “great helmsman.” And there are many constituencies in China that are suffering from Xi’s policies—including the party and state cadres and military officers who have lost their positions and privileges as a result of Xi’s anti-corruption purges—all of whom lie in wait for him to trip up.
David Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University, Washington, DC. A version of this article was originally published in East Asia Forum.