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Portrait of Xi Jinping - President of the People's Republic of China

BLOG - 22 November 2018

The world is watching with fascination the tremendous changes that have been occurring in China in recent decades. Nonetheless, very few analysts are able to make sense of Beijing’s political decision-making system. The metamorphosis brought about by the consolidation of Mr Xi's absolute power thus remains difficult to assess. The following text is a dazzling portrait of the Chinese leader written by a great sinologist, François Godement, who provides precious keys to our understanding.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.
 

In the middle of the 19th century, after a period marked by the forced arrival of Westerners, and internal rebellions - the Taiping, whose charismatic leader was influenced by Christianity, and Muslim upheavals, - the Emperor founded what became known as the Restoration (Tongzhi) era. After quelling these revolts with the help of Mongol cavaliers, the Qing dynasty practiced self-strengthening (ziqiang), developed arsenals and launched an authoritarian reform of the economy, by capturing and filtering Western knowledge, and developing hybrid companies - privately managed, but under public supervision. The Tongzhi era lasted a good half-century. The government then opened up to a dose of regional parliamentarism before the military revolted and brought down the dynasty in 1911.
 
Xi Jinping is the unlikely author of the second Restoration, which began in 2012, and it is not completely irrelevant that his real career began in the army, even if it was the result of an accident in history. His family environment would indeed rather have led him towards reform policy. His father, Xi Zhongxun, advised Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes on reforms, as well as on the recruitment of leaders in the 1980s. He was the founder of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, a symbol of the country’s opening in the late 1970s, which became the nucleus of the first manufacturing center in the world with a conurbation going from Canton to Hong Kong. Yet Xi Zhongxun also defended political reform. In 1989, he supported Zhao Ziyang, who opposed the Politburo alone up to his elimination, and he himself ended up being sidelined. As for Xi Jinping, he grew up among the children of leaders in Zhongnanhai: on cinema days, ice cream was distributed by General Yang Shangkun. The latter was a key figure in the court of the 1950s, before he was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. He then became Deng's right-hand man and, as such, led the repression of Tiananmen. Yet Xi Jinping was evicted from heaven when his father was purged in 1966. His sister committed suicide. He was “sent to the countryside" in the arid heights of Shaanxi, where the village of Liangjiahe is now a place of worship. With a negative political label because of his father, it will take him eight attempts to enter the Communist Youth League, the CCP’s anteroom. Is it any wonder that, throughout his career, he preferred the children of leaders to executives from the League?

When Mao died and Deng returned, it was time for him to come back. Xi was one of the first students to return to Tsinghua University in 1979. He finished his studies with a PhD supervised by Sun Liping - one of China's best-known pro-reform economists, who still calls for faster reforms today.

But just as Gorbachev’s later unfolding took observers by surprise, commentators did not anticipate Xi's authoritarian restoration. At most, they believed in the advent of a dull leader, without any ability to rally.

If we add that Xi Jinping, like other leaders, sent his daughter to study in the United States - and even at Harvard University where, under a pseudonym, she has taken courses at one of the world's leading sinology centers - all the conditions seem reunited to suggest a Chinese Gorbachev. Commentators sometimes forget that nothing in Mikhail Gorbachev's previous career foreshadowed the action he undertook once in power. He primarily owed his ascension to the fact that he had been head of a district in which Soviet leaders often came to take the waters. He had been the head of Soviet agriculture, virtually unknown abroad. Like Xi, Gorbachev is an enigma, but in the opposite direction.

How come Xi Jinping became an upside-down Gorbachev? Their only point in common precisely lies in agriculture. Xi Jinping's PhD - which is hardly ever quoted today, even by thurifers - focused on socialist agriculture. Xi's first trip to the United States was to rural Iowa, where there was still hope for Chinese investments: Gorbachev had also visited the Noé cooperative in France, which at the time was close to the French Communist Party... But just as Gorbachev’s later unfolding took observers by surprise, commentators did not anticipate Xi's authoritarian restoration. At most, they believed in the advent of a dull leader, without any ability to rally.
 
We must therefore go over his biography, and interpret it freely. The fall from paradise and his disgrace were followed by multiple attempts at rehabilitation and entering the CCP: this is rare for a young man educated in the countryside, and strange given that his father and family were being persecuted at the time. Let us move forward to the 2009-2013 period, before and just after his rise to power: Xi's speeches, his taste for occasional poetic quotes, seem to betray a fascination for Mao. It is probably not love, but it is quite possible that young Xi drew from the Cultural Revolution the lesson that he had to be the strongest, and that he thus tried to match the dictator who had ruined his adolescence. In any case, the praise of China’s strength will be characteristic of the Xi Jinping era.

Then, after his probably circumstantial PhD, Xi became a Party cadre occupying a very special position: he was the personal secretary (the mishu, the equivalent of head of cabinet) of General Geng Biao, who was at the time secretary general of the Party's Central Military Commission. This position led him to visit France for the first time. Geng Biao is a Chinese "leatherneck", and Xi’s military background thus becomes clearer. In fact, Xi’s second wife, whom he married in 1985, was the Army’s most famous singer.

Geng Biao only incurred Deng Xiaoping’s public wrath once: when he saw fit, during negotiations with Britain on Hong Kong’s return, to affirm that the People's Liberation Army would not be stationed in the former colony.

Deng Xiaoping immediately refuted him. Did Xi Jinping remember this episode, when he publicly promised Barack Obama in 2015 not to militarize the South China Sea, before doing exactly the opposite? From his proximity with the Army, Xi also maintained a friendship with the future General Liu Yuan. The latter is none other than the son of Liu Shaoqi, cofounder of the People's Republic, put to death by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Like Xi, Liu Yuan was exiled to Shaanxi. Like Xi, he returned to study in Beijing. Like Xi, he was protected by a senior military official - Yang Shangkun, the ice cream distributor to the children of Zhongnanhai. Like Xi, he chose to return and became a cadre in a poor rural area. More than Xi, he publicly praised the ideology of the regime’s early years, and exalted nationalism. Like Xi, his attitude towards Mao is ambiguous, i.e., not entirely devoid of admiration.

Xi's ambition was revealed to insiders in 2000, when he was already party secretary of the Fujian province. He gave a long autobiographical interview to an official magazine, a rare occurence in China where, to live happily, it is better to live hidden.

Xi's ambition was revealed to insiders in 2000, when he was already party secretary of the Fujian province. He gave a long autobiographical interview to an official magazine, a rare occurence in China where, to live happily, it is better to live hidden. The cult for hardships that "temper like steel" - one thinks of Stalin of course -, and the mention, as noticeable as that of his father, of a little known uncle, but member of a rural guerrilla of Shaanxi before 1949, signed his self-portrait, along with the requirement of perfection for cadres. The latter is certainly inspired by the ghost of Liu Shaoqi, the first decade’s iron man, rather than by Mao's, who knew human nature well and who took advantage of both the weaknesses and strengths of others.

Has he not demonstrated instead the virtues of absolute pragmatism, by considering that combining an unbridled market and the state’s iron hand was possible?

It is worth noting that this part of the biography fits little with Xi’s roundness, his eternal smile and his debonair figure, which earned him to be discreetly caricatured as a bear in China. Xi Dada, Uncle Xi, has many facets. It is the same man who sent his daughter to Harvard, and met (including as the top leader) a critical communist like Hu Deping, son of Hu Yaobang, the only true political reformer of popular China before his fall in 1986. And yet who closed, in 2016, the Party’s rather liberal historical review, Yanhuang Chunqiu, thus completing the ideological restoration at the very heart of the CCP.

These two sides are also present in Xi Jinping's past experience at the head of Zhejiang in the 2000s. This industrious province broke all growth records - up to 15% per year - with the most complete model of dual economy in the world: on the one hand, a multitude of farmer-entrepreneurs, of micro-sized companies and trade channels that are now spreading across the planet, through a strong flow of emigration. On the other hand, a strong state, which has invested - highways, universities, housing - and which represses, sometimes firmly, the bubble economy. Can lessons of economic liberalism, like that of the World Bank or the Chicago School, have a hold on a leader who closely observed this hybrid model, sui generis? Has he not demonstrated instead the virtues of absolute pragmatism, by considering that combining an unbridled market and the state’s iron hand was possible? 
 
In the preceding portrait of the genesis of an absolute leader, there is no mention of experiences from abroad, except for the Gorbachev-style refusal to eradicate the socialist regime. It is not because Xi Jinping lacks international ambition, quite the contrary. But to understand the roots of his dictatorial Restoration, leaving aside an international context that has been permissive towards China since 1979, is to dive into the matrix of the Chinese Communist Party, and into the DNA of ruling families.

 

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

 

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