By Tom Walsh
On Monday 29th January Professor Patricia Thornton, a leading expert in Chinese politics from Oxford University, visited Durham to address the recent hubbub surrounding Xi Jinping. Western media have recently been upping their efforts to portray him as a contemporary Mao Zedong. Time magazine even went as far as to have their front cover as Mao emerging from behind a sticker of Xi. Whether the reasons for this comparison are about ignorance or ideology is for you to decide. Nevertheless, on inspection, it seems a crass and over-simplistic characterisation.
On 19th January, “Xi Jinping thought” was officially brought into the Chinese constitution. Apart from Mao, no other leader has had their philosophy codified in this way. Finding a balance between economic modernisation and the maintenance of the one-party structure of China, Xi’s successes have tightened his grip on power. Yet, unlike Mao, he does not command absolute deference from the rest of the CCP. The Chairman was, in his prime, largely free of factionalism. Since the Cultural Revolution, there has been a split between the leftist descendants of the deified participants of the Long March, known as princelings, and the other, more progressive party members.
This is a rivalry with particular volatility. During the Cultural Revolution, the latter group was persecuted for their lack of revolutionary identity in schools and universities across the country. Bullying would be at the tame end of the spectrum, with torture and killing becoming fairly commonplace. The victims were the children of the intellectual elite, many of who were loyal to the Kuomintang, the rival to the CCP, in the years leading up to the revolution. They were portrayed as entitled and treacherous and condemned for the loyalties of their parents and grandparents.
President Xi’s appointment is interesting in that he appears to lay somewhere in between these two groups. Whilst his father, XI Zhongxun, was a revolutionary, Mao eventually turned on him for his so-called “bourgeois” views. He lost his post in the CCP and was sent to work in a factory, even being put under surveillance. Whilst technically a princeling, Xi is also the son of a progressive. Rather than a fiercely ideological leader, who relies on the cult of personality alone, he is someone who is a master of compromise and balance. The hangover from the Cultural Revolution is a continuance of the battle between the two factions, but this time within the government itself. Xi’s inclusion in the constitution could be seen as an attempt to heal these wounds. Professor Thornton characterised him perfectly when she said he was “a consensus candidate”. As always, one must take a critical eye when listening to what the West says about countries with different economic models. Rather than accepting it as sacrosanct, always search for signs of orientalism. The story in China is far more complicated than the likes of Time and The Economist would have you believe.
Photograph: vhines 200 via Flickr