Xi Jinping, the unquestioned leader of the People’s Republic of China, has further transformed the once inward-looking China into an outward-looking and highly organized country that is now resolutely challenging American global leadership in a drive to become a world power.
In his chapter on Xi and the Cultural Revolution in the newly published book Studies of China and Chineseness since the Cultural Revolution (World Scientific, Singapore, May 2023) Indian scholar Professor Swaran Singh of Jawaharlal University, meticulously analyses the Cultural Revolution’s role in the shaping of Xi’s mind and political style.
It showcases how that traumatic era in modern Chinese history taught Xi how to weather storms and creatively use opportunities thrown up by the vicissitudes of politics.
What emerges from Singh’s account is that Xi is an innovator with firm roots in certain vital aspects of the past. This has vested him with a firm ideological commitment, an iron will, an ability to put up with adversity with patience, an ability to seize opportunities to further his goals and consolidate power through a combination of imaginative and ruthless actions.
Xi has taken leaves out of Mao Zedong’s book even as he has built on Mao to shape China’s destiny in a rapidly changing world.
Xi’s father, mother, and Xi himself, had gone through the tumultuous phases of the Chinese revolution. He has been toughened by its privations and humiliations and also inspired by its uncompromising ideals. The techniques Xi has used to acquire and consolidate power may be different in form from those used by his immediate forebears, but they have been equally effective.
Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, an early member of the communist party, was purged twice and also publicly beaten up during the Cultural Revolution. But neither father nor son nor the mother, vacillated from their commitment to Chairman Mao. When young Xi was put in the doghouse for criticizing the Cultural Revolution, and he slipped out of detention and headed home, his mother refused to give him food and reported his presence to the authorities.
These episodes inspired him to commit himself to the cause, though later the negatives of the Cultural Revolution also dawned on him.
In 2001, as party secretary of Fujian province, remembering his father on his 88th birthday, Xi recalled that Xi Zhongxun, led “a frugal life, almost to the point of being harsh.” Xi acknowledged that he inherited “self-cultivation, devotion to work, belief and commitment, patriotism, and simple living” from his father. He owed to his mother his grit and commitment to the cause setting aside personal considerations.
Xi told state-run CCTV in 2003: “I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervor of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion.” Xi has been able to sift the grain from the chaff.
He unreservedly adopted the Maoist ways of the Cultural Revolution when confronted with the humongous problem of corruption in the party and the State. Swaran Singh quotes the president of the US–China Policy Foundation, Dr. Chi Wang, as saying in 2020: “In recent weeks, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been cracking down on law enforcement officials in a campaign echoing actions taken by Mao in the 1940s to ensure loyalty.”
Reinforcing “loyalty to the party” among China’s military, media, and masses has been a constant refrain in Xi’s speeches, making him sound like Mao.
Given the constitutional amendment of 2018 that removed the two-term limit on the Presidency, experts speculate that Xi may even change the party constitution to revive the title of “Chairman” that is used only for Mao.
Xi’s bringing under his wing an array of key structures such as the Central Military Commission, the newly created National Security Committee, the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and several other leading groups on sectoral decision-making, indicate a Maoist agenda.
Xi’s “China Dream of national rejuvenation” could become the second Cultural Revolution, albeit with a distinctly Xi stamp, Swaran Singh says.
The Indian scholar draws attention to the fact that Xi has successfully shifted China’s national narrative from a “century of humiliation” to the “rejuvenation of a nation” setting up clearly defined benchmarks for China.
These goals are: becoming a “moderately prosperous” nation by 2021, completing modernization of the People’s Liberation Army to make it the “world class armed forces” by 2035, and making China “a developed nation” by 2049.
Xi is on the path to becoming a cult figure like Mao. Adoption of the title “Chairman” would enable him to assume that status. As Ling Li, lecturer in Chinese studies in the University of Vienna, put it: “The title (Chairman) would provide a mechanism to extend Xi’s tenure because there is no term limit for party chairmanship in the past”. This would easily legitimize Xi Jinping’s continuation in power.
Xi’s apotheosis as a cult figure was hinted at in the November 2021 Sixth Plenum of the CPC Central Committee. It concluded that the establishment of “Comrade Xi Jinping’s position as the core of the central committee as well as the whole party, was of decisive significance in advancing towards the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Western media commentaries attribute Xi’s “authoritarian streak” to the way he put up with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and did not turn against Mao and was indeed “redder than red” as a US embassy leak put it.
Xi once told to an interviewer: “Nothing could be as hard as that…. With that kind of experience, whatever difficulties I would encounter in the future, I am fully charged with the courage to take on any challenge, to believe in the impossible, and to conquer obstacles without panic.”
Swaran Singh notes that during the Cultural Revolution, Xi also developed “cautiousness”, which included political prudence, self-discipline, and careful avoidance of any demonstration of “dangerous” ambitions.
However, after lying low and patiently biding his time, Xi came out of his shell when the time was ripe and circumstances were propitious. Speaking at the game-changing 19th Party Congress in October 2019 Xi said: “History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.”
Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of China and the internal reforms he effected created new opportunities for Xi. He assiduously worked on his assignments to climb the party ladder and wisely kept disagreements to himself.
His early career began in the province of Hebei, close to Beijing and yet a relatively poor region. Experience in working in a poor region was useful for his future massive poverty alleviation program.
When he was transferred to the rapidly growing and wealthier regions like Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, he got a different kind of experience. “These regions were integral to Deng’s experiments with China’s opening up and reforms that saw China rapidly integrating with the global economy. Especially Xi Jinping’s longest tenure in the rapidly growing Fujian province would provide him with several opportunities to showcase his caliber, commitment, and concerted dedication to the party line. It was here that Xi would learn about globalization and the market economy,” Swaran Singh points out.
But prosperity brought corruption in its train. Xi held this bull by the horns. “He dealt with the matter so effectively, that within months, he was propelled to the central leadership in Beijing and became Vice President in March 2008,” Swaran Singh notes.
But true to style, even as Vice President, Xi continued to be quintessentially low profile. So much so that he was not seen as part of China’s fifth-generation leadership to take over the reins from the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao collective leadership. Leaders like Bo Xilai and Li Keqiang and several others who were in the running, not Xi.
Indeed, when Xi took over as Party General Secretary in November 2012, not much was known about him and little was expected from his leadership. Western media portrayed him as a “compromise candidate”, easy-going and amiable.
But the US had seen Xi in his true colors, that he was no lamb. Swaran Singh refers to a cable leaked by the CIA which said that Xi, then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Vice President, was ‘exceptionally ambitious’, ‘confident’ and ‘focused’, and had had his ‘eye on the prize’ from early adulthood.
From the very beginning, an anti-graft campaign was to be his main instrument to consolidate the party’s absolute power as well his path to the party’s central leadership. Xi’s first term in office saw large-scale reshuffles and reorganizations in the intelligence, army, and other security and disciplinary organizations.
Swaran Singh points out that by 2015, the Central Military Committee’s Vice-Chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong were arrested. The director and his deputy at the Central Guard Bureau, Chao Qing and Wang Qing, and also Vice Minister of State Security, Ma Jian, were dismissed, to name just a few.
It was a Cultural Revolution packaged differently and bearing a different name, but effective nonetheless.
But in contrast to Mao, Xi’s domestic consolidation of power was accompanied by global image-building in tune with his global plans for China.
“At the beginning of Xi Jinping’s second term in office, Xi had been listed six times in TIME 100 (annual list of 100 most influential world leaders), hailed as “the most transformative Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping”, “the leader of rising China”, and “China’s first truly global leader.”
Xi showed his capabilities in domestic affairs also by the resolute way he handled the Hong Kong crisis, Sino-US trade and technology wars, Western admonition of China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, and of course the coronavirus pandemic.
Significantly, in true Maoist style, Xi tackled these problems not through decentralization or collective leadership but through further centralization of authority in his hands as indeed Mao did when challenged.
(This article was also published in Ceylon Today)