Everyman’s Strategic Survey: “Isn’t Xi Great?”

There is an interesting article in The Economist about the forthcoming (October) Party downloadCongress in Beijing. The article says, and I agree, that “It is likely that the new Standing Committee will contain more Xi loyalists. But the problem for outsiders is that, even when the new men (and they will almost certainly all be men) are paraded before journalists at the end of the meetings, it may still be hard to calculate how much additional clout Mr Xi will enjoy. Factional allegiances are often ill-defined. Mr Xi is a stickler for secrecy … [and] … It is not yet known how, or whether, the congress will change the party’s constitution to recognise Mr Xi’s contributions to Communist ideology. If it rules that the party should be guided by “Xi Jinping Thought”, that would suggest he has gained enormous power (the only other leader acknowledged to have Thought with a capital T is Mao Zedong). If the term chosen is “Xi Jinping Theory”, that would place him on a par with Deng Xiaoping—not bad either. Avoiding being elevated to Mao’s level may simply reflect good judgment on Mr Xi’s part. Diehard Mao fans would be appalled by his hubris should he claim to have Thought, too … [but] … Assuming that Mr Xi does emerge stronger (which is likely), what will that mean? Early in his tenure some commentators predicted that he would spend the first five years building up his power, and then use it to carry out wide-ranging economic reforms as well as, perhaps, some limited political ones. That now seems unlikely. Mr Xi’s concentration of power has developed its own momentum and intensifying control over a fast-evolving society appears to be his main aim. As one party official puts it, Mr Xi will remain a “stabilising factor”; policy will not change much.

I believe, but it’s just a guess, that Xi Jinping sees himself as a transformative leader, à la Deng Xaoping, and that he will need (and want) to retain control for more than ten years ~ as Deng did ~ to accomplish the transformation he intends. One interesting question is whether he will want (need) to retain formal power or whether he will, as Deng Xiaoping did, keep his hands on the levers of power from retirement. In 1989 Jiang Zemin, to whom Deng yielded his chairmanship of the Military Commission, took formal power, but Deng, who lacked any formal post in the communist leadership, still retained ultimate authority in the party. Although his direct involvement in government declined in the 1990s, he retained his influence until his death.

Slide1Deng Xiaoping was, I think, a very wise man. He set himself, very carefully, a half step or so below but, mainly, very far distant from Mao Zedong, who had positioned himself on a very high pedestal as, at least, the equal of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Xi Jinpeng would do well to, equally carefully, position himself even father from Chairman Mao (whose influence amongst the Chinese people is, I suspect, barely felt any more) and a half step below Deng, too. Perhaps there is another Chinese word, below “thoughts” and “theories” that Xi can use to describe his legacy.

What is that legacy to be? What is Xi Jinping trying to do?

I think the anti-corruption campaign has two goals:

  • First ~ to reduce corruption which is endemic in China and is very damaging to the economy and the social fabric of Chinese society; and
  • Second ~ to isolate and remove those who do not, actively, support Xi.

He is reshaping the Chinese military ~ something that his predecessor began ~ into a my-cute-shark-attack-cartoon-2-dragon-vs-dinosaur-lion-king-t-rex-best-of-kids-animal-cartoonmodern, sophisticated, balanced force. He is, I suspect, a believer in the theory that, when it comes to America, the tale of the shark vs the tiger applies: each is supreme in his own environment (America is a great maritime power and China is a great land power) but the two cannot fight on even terms because the exist in different domains. I believe he wants a force which remains unbeatable, on land, in East Asia, but is, also, capable of projecting Chinese power anywhere in the world. This is the sort of strategic nirvana that America achieved in the 1940s and 50s but began squandered (by overreaching?) in  the 1960s.

My guess is that he needs more than 10 years as paramount leader to achieve both goals. “It is not clear what will happen when he steps down,” The Economist says. “Chinese leaders have tended to line up successors by this stage of their tenure. Not Mr Xi. He recently ousted the party chief of the south-western region of Chongqing, once tipped as a possible heir. The lack of an anointed successor need not mean Mr Xi will stay for a third term. But it does make it more likely that, even if he steps down as general secretary in 2022, he may try to hold the strings of any new leader. After all, Deng retained power from his perch as head of the China Bridge Association. Since the pro-democracy upheaval of 1989, the party has owed its longevity partly to managing peaceful, institutionalised transitions of power from one autocratic leader to another. Mr Xi may prove the joker in the pack.” Given the current state of global leadership …

… Xi Jinping might just be a welcome pillar of sense and stability in an uncertain world.

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