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.