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5 Years Ago, China's Xi Jinping Was Largely Unknown. Now He's Poised To Reshape China

China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party Congress on Wednesday.
Wang Zhao
AFP/Getty Images
China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party Congress on Wednesday.

What a difference five years can make.

In the autumn of 2012, Xi Jinping — the Chinese Communist Party general secretary, someone the Economist recently dubbed the "world's most powerful man" — was a little-known figure. As the 18th Party Congress neared, he had spent five years as Chinese president Hu Jintao's heir apparent, but he was not associated with any specific policy, phrase or ideological position.

Little was known about his personal life, except that he was married to a famous singer — or his personal history, except that he was the son of a onetime comrade in arms to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

When specialists speculated about him, they often considered two possibilities: Would he turn out to be, like Hu during the preceding half-decade, a colorless, rule-by-committee sort who maintained the status quo, gradually tightened control over civil society and made only cautious economic moves? Or would he follow in Deng's footsteps and reboot China's economic reforms — and perhaps even, in the mode of his liberal-minded father, push for some political reforms as well?

That was five long years ago. And the reality of how Xi is ruling China has confounded those early predictions.

Now, Xi's face and words are everywhere. China's bookstores are filled with volumes by and about him. He is closely linked to ubiquitous slogans, such as the "China Dream," and sprawling infrastructure and investment programs, such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Hagiographic details about his youth and early career — such as the character-building hardships that he reportedly endured as a young man sent to do rural labor during the Cultural Revolution — circulate widely in China. Internationally, he is known for high-profile visits to Seattle (where he spoke to a group of billionaire CEOs), England (where he rode in a golden carriage) and Davos (where he struck a pose as a promoter of all things global).

A man who once seemed shrouded in mystery has made his worldview clear: Xi has embraced a strongman style of personal rule rather than being content with first-among-equals leadership. China has remained prosperous and has gained in global clout, especially as the U.S. withdraws from global leadership under President Trump. But Xi's government has also clamped down on political life, erected new barriers to intellectual openness — and, strategically timed paeans to globalization notwithstanding, called for greater vigilance in protecting China from the influx of foreign influences.

At the 18th party congress in 2012, Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao (left) as China's top leader. He had spent five years as Hu's heir apparent, but at the time was not closely associated with any specific policy, phrase or ideological position.
Lan Hongguang / AP
At the 18th party congress in 2012, Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao (left) as China's top leader. He had spent five years as Hu's heir apparent, but at the time was not closely associated with any specific policy, phrase or ideological position.

Rather than asking whether he will be another Hu or another Deng, many now ponder how much he is like Mao — or, looking beyond China, like Vladimir Putin. The 19th Party Congress, which is underway this week, will glorify Xi and his way of ruling China — and it is expected to further strengthen his ability to bend the system to his will.

Some of this was to be expected. Chinese leaders, in contrast to American presidential candidates, announce their platforms only after coming to power. Much that has happened, though, has been unexpected.

The Xi-focused order

Five years ago, a growing set of norms seemed to have taken root. Under the post-Tiananmen new normal, an heir apparent was put forward five years before the Congress at which he would take over. Senior Communist Party standing committee members were expected to step down prior to age 68. The general secretary made clear his intention to step down after two full five-year terms, and the current leader's contribution to Communist Party ideology was positioned clearly below those of Mao and Deng.

Now a Xi-focused order is taking shape in which any of those norms could be jettisoned — just as the post-Tiananmen taboo against anything that suggests a leadership cult has already been cast aside.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, (enters) enters the opening ceremony of the 19th Party Congress ahead of his predecessors Jiang Zemin (center) and Hu Jintao (left) on Wednesday.
Ng Han Guan / AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, (enters) enters the opening ceremony of the 19th Party Congress ahead of his predecessors Jiang Zemin (center) and Hu Jintao (left) on Wednesday.

The frequency with which Xi's face appears and words are quoted on the front page of the People's Daily is unsurpassed since Mao in the heyday of his personality cult. And while none of Xi's writings has attained nearly the revered status of Mao's "Little Red Book," there is a stark contrast between their proliferation during his first term — not just in China itself, but in volumes created for export, such as one in English called The Chinese Dream and the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation — and the fact that collections of the speeches of Xi's two immediate predecessors, Hu and Jiang Zemin, did not come out until after they had finished their second terms.

Similar issues, different approach

The great question of this party congress has become what the gathering will do and mean for Xi's maximization of power — because Xi's power is poised to reshape China's future.

Xi may be remaking Chinese politics in his image, but the biggest issues on his plate are remarkably continuous with what his predecessors grappled with during earlier Party Congresses. Yet the past five years have shown that Xi's approach is radically different.

Here are five issues that will be crucial for Xi's second term and China's future.

  • The future of market reforms
  • In 1992, the 14th Party Congress offered the promise of powerful market reforms that would propel China's growth. After years of debate about the role of the market, China was refashioned into a "socialist market economy."

    That designation endures to this day, but the future of market reforms in Xi's second term is highly uncertain. Much will turn on whether he appoints and empowers market reformers to top jobs, such as the governor of the People's Bank of China and the Politburo Standing Committee. Yet his overriding interest in control and stability in the economy cuts against the sweeping, risk-taking approach of past economic reformers such as Premier Zhu Rongji, who pushed forward painful but necessary reforms to state-owned enterprises and oversaw China's accession to the World Trade Organization.

  • The future of political reforms
  • In 1987, the 13th Party Congress rolled out an ambitious program of political reforms that the general secretary at that time, Zhao Ziyang, made clear were aimed at making China's leadership more pluralistic, transparent, and accountable (while avoiding multi-party democracy, as Deng Xiaoping mandated).

    Today we see a weakening of civil society after several years of political crackdown, and a strengthening authoritarianism. The cause of political reform within the party seems to have become subsumed by Xi's anti-corruption campaign, which has purged political opponents alongside corrupt officials.

  • The future of China's private sector
  • In 1997, the 15th Party Congress finally recognized China's private enterprises as "important" to the economy, rather than an ancillary force below the state-owned enterprises. And it's true: Although the largest companies in China are still government-owned, the economy has been driven by private sector growth.

    As just one example, China has fostered a third of the world's tech unicorns (private companies valued at or above $1 billion), according to a recent McKinsey report.

    But the future independence of the private sector is precarious. In recent months, China's rulers have clamped down on the tycoons who are feared as possible Russian-style oligarchs and sought to rein in overseas acquisitions, as well as the activities of China's major tech firms such as Alibaba and Tencent.

  • The future of Hong Kong
  • In 1997, the 15th Party Congress celebrated Hong Kong's handover from Great Britain to China, to be governed under the "one country, two systems" policy. Protests broke out in 2012 and 2014, growing into the 2014 Umbrella Movement that rocketed Hong Kong's struggle to global attention. Yet the "two systems" model seemed to endure through this period.

    Now, by contrast, the most striking feature of the Hong Kong issue is how fragile that same structure has become. Joshua Wong, who emerged as a young leader in Hong Kong during the lead up to 2012's 18th Party Congress, is now a political prisoner. Carrie Lam, who succeeded C.Y. Leung as Hong Kong's Chief Executive earlier this year (chosen via a selection process that stacks the deck to ensure that the post is held by someone Beijing finds acceptable), has called for emphasizing patriotic themes in local schools. Xi has made it clear that he is determined to do all he can to minimize the degree of difference between how Hong Kong and other cities are governed.

  • The future of ideology
  • In 1977, at the 11th Party Congress, Hua Guofeng, Mao's designated successor, affirmed his commitment "to follow Chairman Mao's teachings and carry the continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat through to the end." But the powerful role of ideology in Chinese politics seemed to be watered down in the intervening years.

    Now ideology is resurgent. Xi has repeatedly called for cadres to read Marx and has placed great emphasis on ideological matters. Even China's top securities regulator has promised to do his job in line with Marxist ideology.

    "The whole party should remember, what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism," Xi stated emphatically last year. Now the question is whether Xi's ideas will take on the "guiding" status previously reserved for the ideologies of Mao and Deng.

    The road ahead

    This quick march through recent history, with an eye toward both continuities and ruptures, underscores that the changes of the past five years are neither completely unprecedented nor easy to fit into a single pattern. We have likely only seen the beginning of the making of the "new new normal" of the Xi era.

    Five years ago, Xi sat listening as Hu Jintao presided over the 2012 congress. This year, the stage will be his from beginning to end. The streets of Beijing are already covered with paeans to his importance as the core of China's political system and the leader of its "great rejuvenation." Xi's party congress — and it is truly his — will promise this "great rejuvenation" and more.

    Yet with so much power in his hands, history's judgment will be withering if he fails. These are lofty promises to make good on. And the less power is shared, the fewer people there are to share in the blame when something goes wrong.

    Julian Gewirtz is a Fellow at Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of books including Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo. Follow them @JulianGewirtz and @jwassers.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Julian Gewirtz
    Jeffrey Wasserstrom
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