ZHEYAN NI delves into Xi Jinping’s past to explain the present.

In 1994, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s closest political aide and political strategist Wang Huning wrote in his diary, “Deng Xiaoping is practical and flexible while Mao Zedong is ambitious and idealistic.” Xi Jinping is trying to become both: a practical idealist leader of China.

The highest figure of power in China always has a dual identity: both the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of the country. Balancing the two sides of this identity creates a unique challenge: can he exercise the ambition of a national leader without exceeding the administrative power of the giant bureaucracy on which he depends to execute his political visions?

Mao Zedong failed that challenge when the Cultural Revolution ended in fiasco in 1976. Deng Xiaoping himself barely survived the 20-year course of economic reforms, when the nation’s growing material affluence was enough to appease vehement political wills of the citizens in the late 1980s.

Historically, Xi Jinping is situated in a more challenging game. Unlike Mao, he can no longer count on extreme political fanaticism and the tactic of completely blocking information to mask his fallibility as a leader. Unlike Deng, he has to deal with the downward trend of the GDP growth rate, grave income inequality, and stagnant social mobility. Xi needs to be just as tough as Deng to restore national confidence in power building, but not as tough as Mao so he can avoid igniting widespread discontent.

Since his ascendance to power in 2012, Xi has enacted wide-ranging radical policies to reform the social and political systems. The following examples outline Xi’s ruling approach of “bigger state, smaller society.”

Reforming the political system:

  • Anti-corruption campaign
  • Consolidate personal power in military and central policy-making administration by establishing his own working group
  • Legal reforms, in particular the removal of presidential term limits
  • Stricter micromanagement of lower bureaucracy: warnings, fines or demolitions issued to over 200,000 low-ranking officials, civil servant salary cuts, mandatory passport and overseas travel registrations in prevention of capital escape, work hour supervision, etc.

Reforming general society:

  • Tightening internet surveillance and control over civil society: crackdowns on VPNs, disbanding NGOs, persecution of human rights lawyers and feminist advocates
  • Pollution control and more rigorous enforcement of environmental regulations
  • Party image management: renovation and promotion of several CCP revolutionary bases as historical monuments and tourist sites
  • Personal image management: enshrining “Xi Jinping’s Thought” in the constitution and the publishing biographies to popularize Xi’s life story and political agenda
  • “Chinese Dream” patriotic propaganda, which has borne comparison to the American Dream

Xi’s notable foreign policy moves have included:

  • Strategic economic alliance with Central Asia with the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as increasing financial investment in infrastructure in African nations
  • Hardliner and nationalistic stance on territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries

Such comprehensive reforms require skillful political maneuvering, as they mask anti-feminist, anti-human rights, and anti-constitutionalism policies under the veneer of social benefit. While foreign media portrays Xi as a tyrannical autocrat, Xi has actually obtained popular support from the general public at home with his “down to earth” approach. From showing up at a small Beijing restaurant to eat steamed buns with regular diners, to eradicating corruption down to the prefecture level, Xi has been extolled as truly serving the interest of citizens.

Xi’s reforms unavoidably angered certain power-holders who had vested interests in the regulation of the private sector, as bribery remains commonplace. Successful execution of these policies also demands headstrong dedication. We can catch a glimpse into Xi’s steady mindset through his famous quotation, now a household saying: bu wang chu xin, that one should never forget one’s original aspirations.

Where do his original aspirations come from? Xi Jinping was only 10 years old when his father, Xi Zhongxun, who had served multiple posts in the central government, was purged from the Party and sent to work at a factory during the Cultural Revolution. Three years later, Xi’s sister was killed amid the Red Guard political fanaticism and his mother was publicly forced to claim separation from his father. His home was virtually torn apart. In 1968, when Xi was 15, his father was imprisoned and Xi himself was sent to the village of Liangjiahe in Shaanxi Province to perform farm labor. According to the official memoir, Xi read extensively while attending sheep during his seven-year re-education experience in Liangjiahe. His fellow villagers recalled that Xi never allowed his personal misfortunes or suffering to affect his learning habits and judgment.

Exposed to vicious political infighting and chaos since youth, Xi had acquired a solid and formidable mental capacity, and an acute sensitivity that allowed him to withstand political storms. Subsequently, he was able to execute his grand visions of a Chinese Communist polity and take down his political opponents through the anti-corruption stratagem. As former regional officials, leading figures of state-owned enterprises, and central government institutions are eliminated, Xi is expanding his own influence.

Like Mao Zedong, Xi adopts accessible, animated and sometimes dramatic propaganda language to introduce Party policies. For example, Xi made a promise to eradicate both “tigers” and “flies,” using vivid imagery to refer to both high-ranking and low-ranking officials engaged in bribery. The terms quickly became popular in social media and civic conversations.

Ultimately, Xi is not China’s contemporary Mao Zedong. Although he actively builds personal power in the central government, as a victim of the Cultural Revolution, he does not want to venture as far as to create a fanatic cult of personality. In July, Xi’s administration has dismissed several research projects initiated by the Shaanxi Provincial government to study Xi Jinping’s time in the Liangjiahe village. On one hand, this move demonstrates that Xi does not want to over-expose his past life experiences during the re-education period. On the other hand this may be a strategic move: to maintain his political charisma as a popular leader, he has to remain a somehow obscure and impenetrable public perception both within the bureaucracy and among ordinary citizens. To maintain his dual identity as the Party leader and national leader, it is crucial for Xi to retain a paramount position in the public imagination.

Zheyan Ni can be contacted at nizheyan@126.com.