A spotlight on Xi Jinping


A few weeks ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) passed a ‘historical resolution’ cementing the power of Xi Jinping’s leadership. The first in over 40 years, the party’s central committee declared Xi’s leadership “the key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. By equating the leadership of Xi to the future prosperity of China itself, Xi has strengthened his position as the most powerful leader of China since Mao. This follows the implementation of “Xi Jinping thought” into the CPC Constitution in 2017 and the 2018 removal of the presidential two-term limit setting up the potential for Xi to remain in power for life. To try to understand the direction of modern China and the implications for global politics, we must then also try to understand Xi Jinping. 

Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a leading communist revolutionary who made large contributions to the party from its first rebel bases in the 1930s to economic reform in the 1980s. Yet under Mao’s rule, he was purged from the party and later persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. During the younger Xi’s early childhood, he often visited his father at Zhongnanhai (the centre of Chinese Government) and attended school alongside the children of other important government officials, forming important relationships for his future political career. But at 13 his education was curtailed by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. 

An early lesson in the often brutal nature of authoritarian politics

In 1968, Mao ordered students down to the countryside to restore order in the anarchic cities, and the 15-year-old Xi was sent to the small village of Liangjiahe. Xi was to spend seven years of his youth in rural China which he portrays variously as a character-building period of hard manual labour, but also as an early lesson in the often brutal nature of authoritarian politics. His less publicised failed escape attempt and of his stepsister’s suicide during these years paints a darker picture of Xi’s experience of the Cultural Revolution. The formative nature of this chaotic period for Xi helps explain the focus he puts on national security and internal order today.         

Unlike many who had been in similar positions and had become embittered towards the party, Xi instead focussed on joining its ranks –an early sign of his drive and ambition. After multiple attempts he finally gained membership in 1974, allowing him to study for a degree in chemical engineering at Tsinghua University. From there he took his first steps in climbing the ladder of elite Chinese politics. Relying on hard work as well as his father’s connections, he spent the next decades taking various military and provincial administration roles, the most significant as leader of the province, Zhejiang, from 2002, where he earned a reputation as an effective administrator with provincial economic growth rates of up to 14% during this period.

He earned a reputation as an effective administator

In 2007 Senior Party officials were looking for the next generation of Chinese leaders, and with Xi’s revolutionary family history he was considered a safe option. However, despite becoming heir apparent, this by no means secured Xi’s future as leader of China. In Chinese politics, plans are rarely final until they happen, as party leaders often choose weak candidates to replace them with the intention of exercising power through them. Xi also faced rivals such as Bo Xilai, the populist leader of Chongqing, who was later engulfed in a high-profile scandal; that Xi survived this period of intense turbulence speaks to his political adeptness. Finally in 2012 after a short and mysterious disappearance, Xi became General Secretary in a successful handover of power.

Outside of China, many saw Xi as a continuation of recent trends. Some even hoped he would act to further liberal reform in China, both economically and politically. Conversely, Xi Jinping had long worried about the direction of China and quickly acted on his fears. A huge anti-corruption campaign soon engulfed the CPC, which both combatted the genuinely damaging corruption plaguing the party but also acted to purge Xi’s enemies and potential threats to his ability to wield power. 

Now less bound to party consensus than his predecessors, Xi started to act on many of his concerns. Domestically, he directed the party to reduce the influence of foreign ideas and culture. China, at this point, was often referred to as Communist in name only but Xi disagreed, fearing western influence undermining the ideological foundation of CPC rule. This prioritisation of social control has also taken the form of increased repression for minorities within China and the imposition in Hong Kong of the National Security Law by Beijing.

Xi is not simply driven by concerns for the stability of China

Xi is not simply driven by concerns for the stability of China. Instead, in the tradition of Chinese leaders dating back to Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, he is also driven by the narrative that China must retake its rightful place as a major world power. Consequently, on the international scene, Xi has led a more assertive China as seen in the more confrontational positions taken on issues such as the South China Sea, and its somewhat aggressive diplomacy with the US and other Western nations. Huge international infrastructure investments under the One Belt One Road initiative have also increased China’s presence in Asia, Africa, and Europe, while increased funding for the modernisation of the Peoples Liberation Army has increasingly given Xi’s China the hard power to back its regional and international ambitions. 

In the last year, China has undergone another round of major changes. Buoyed by their success in restraining the spread of Covid-19, the CPC has led crackdowns on videogames and tuition companies, tightened regulation of the tech industry, and has attacked the speculative nature of Chinese real estate. Such is the scale of reforms that some China-watchers refer to this program as ‘China’s New Red Deal’. It is clear that Xi’s vision for transforming China has by no means neared completion, and with the new ‘historical resolution’, Xi’s position of leadership and his agenda for China look to be assured for some time to come.     

Image: Chuck Hagel via Wikimedia Commons

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