Will China's Xi Mao


Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown (* 1967) is a British sinologist and publicist. He heads the China Institute at King's College, London, is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Kerry Brown has authored more than 20 books and is considered one of the most influential experts on China in the western world. His book "Die Welt des Xi Jinping" was published in German in 2018 by Fischer Verlag.

Xi Jinping has been at the helm of China since 2012. Who is the man and how is his politics changing the most populous country in the world? A portrait.

China's head of state Xi Jinping on a visit to Guangdong, a province in southern China. (& copy picture-alliance, Xinhua News Agency, Ju Peng)

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, was born in Beijing in June 1953. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was part of the leadership elite under party leader Mao Zedong. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he had served as commander of the communist armies in World War II and then in the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949). In the early 1960s, however, he was placed under house arrest for allegedly participating in the publication of writings considered critical of Mao. For Xi, this meant a tough youth, even though he was born into an elite family with his two sisters and a brother. It became even more dramatic for him with the Cultural Revolution from 1966, in the course of which he, like many of his age and family background, was "sent" to the country. In his case, it was Yan’an in central Shaanxi Province. He did not return to Beijing until 1974, when he was assigned a place in chemical engineering at Tsinghua University.


Xi Jinping's China - A series of pictures

China should become "strong" under President Xi Jinping. How did his rise come about? What narratives does he use to support his power? And how does it show itself on social media? A series of pictures.

Xi's rise to the peak of power

One of the explanations why Xi was elected head of state in 2012 is the diversity of his administrative and political experiences. From 1978 onwards, he worked for four years as the private secretary of the senior military leader Geng Biao. He then moved to civil government, where he held positions from village level to central government. He spent most of his career during this time in Fujian, a rapidly growing southeast coastal province just across from the island of Taiwan. From 1999 to 2002, Xi was the governor of Fujian. Then he was seconded to 2007 as party secretary of the even more entrepreneurial province of Zhejiang near Shanghai. After a brief tenure as party leader in Shanghai in 2007, he was finally appointed to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo. From then on he was considered one of the most important leaders in the future.

Xi's rise to the pinnacle of modern China power and his ability to become such an autocratic and seemingly omnipotent figure has surprised many. After joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, many observers assumed that China would continue to develop in the direction of greater economic openness and liberalization. Some expected policy changes, albeit likely slowly, in terms of public participation in decision-making and in strengthening civil society.

When the 2008 Olympic Games took place in Beijing, for which Xi was personally given responsibility, one of his tasks was to bring China closer to the world, to open up the Internet and other limited spaces to more plurality and more intensive cooperation. But this goal did not last. On the contrary: Since then, more and more controls, tougher crackdowns on dissidents and ever stronger restrictions for the minority regions, especially during protests, have been observed in Tibet in 2008, in Xinjiang in 2009 and in Inner Mongolia in 2011. Xi has proven that he is not a liberal. His first loyalty is to the Chinese Communist Party and ensuring its monopoly of power.

Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong

Since assuming his current offices - he became General Secretary of the CCP in 2012 and President of the People's Republic in 2013 - Xi has been compared to Mao Zedong for mercilessly crushing any opposition. From 2013, an anti-corruption campaign led to crackdowns in the party, army, state-owned company and then also in society as a whole. In part, the real problem of the corruptibility of officials in the course of the extraordinary economic growth of China in the previous decade should be resolved. Xi wanted to restore the social standing and the moral greatness of the party and bring about a sharper separation between politics and business. However, given the ubiquity of the party and its extensive powers, this proved difficult. His efforts were accompanied by legal reforms that strengthened industrial and property protection, but hardly expanded civil rights. In this respect, Xi's efforts at home were mainly concerned with creating greater reliability in regulations and more clarity in the distribution of responsibilities in the country. It was not about paving the way for democratization.

Although Xi's rule in tone is sometimes indeed Maoist - when he appeals to a sense of nationalism and promotes his vision of a strong and rich China, as Mao envisioned - and although like Mao he can be associated with a style of politics that is often emotional in the public eye - for example the "Campaign of the Chinese Dream" 2013 to 2014 - it is nonetheless a fact that the country he leads is very different from that of which Mao Zedong was chairman. Mao's China was a small economy with a tremendous degree of poverty and a very low degree of urbanization, it was isolated and internationally marginalized. It had no seat at the United Nations until 1971 and no direct relations with the United States until Nixon's visit a year later. Today China is the second largest economy in the world, the largest trading partner of over 120 countries, the world's largest exporter and second largest importer. It also spends more on its military than any other state except the United States. Mao may have dreamed of a China that would one day be a great power. Xi lives in the reality that it is one.

On the way back to a great power

For Xi the big challenge now is to steer the country through the final phase of his initially huge modernization project - or, to put it in the language of the Communist Party: the completion of the "initial stage of socialism". That implies middle-income country status by the end of 2020, which means China's GDP per capita of around $ 13,000. In 2021, the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party will be celebrated in Shanghai in 1921. For Xi, as well as for the party he heads and the country under her control, this provides an opportunity to discover that, despite the enormous challenges that modernity has faced since the mid-nineteenth century, the restoration of their ancient country has turned out to be a great, if not the greatest, power in the world is looming for them on the horizon.

The 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party was celebrated in the "Great Hall of the People" in Beijing. (& copy picture-alliance, Xinhua, Wang Ye)

The widespread perception in China that this goal could eventually be achieved under Xi gives Xi Jinping's rule its own mark. Since Mao's death in 1976 and the reforms of his successor Deng Xiaoping in the decades that followed, the country has increased its economic performance and built a unique hybrid model that in its own way combines what is known as Marxism-Leninism with elements of capitalism. There were critical moments during this process, including the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. But in 2020, Xi will preside over a country that has seen a huge middle class emerge, with more people in for the first time in history Cities live than rural areas and where non-government companies like Huawei and Alibaba are some of the world's most profitable and successful. And that despite headwinds from the USA since 2017 in the trade war against China. Xi's era has proven to be ambitious and confident. Up until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 100 million Chinese people traveled abroad each year. Chinese technology companies are global leaders in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics. One project that particularly characterizes Xi's China is the construction of a high-speed rail network in little more than a decade with over 22,000 kilometers of track today, more than the rest of the world put together.

Xi's message to the Chinese people has remained the same since 2012: The moment of modern greatness is within reach, and as long as you maintain the unity and stability that the Communist Party offers, you will be able to achieve this greatness. This is complemented by a significantly more proactive and communicative foreign policy positioning, best illustrated by the huge one Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the "New Silk Road". Since 2015, China itself has given the first genuine answer to what world it imagines and what relationship it wants to have with this world. In terms of the economy, China appeals to common interests and the creation of new opportunities by building infrastructure, and promises greater access to its greatest economic capital: a vast emerging middle class and its consumer capacity. At only a third of GDP, this is still relatively low, but once Chinese consumption reaches the level of the European and American economies, it will be a huge engine of global demand and global growth. However, it has always proven difficult to actually penetrate the market. Companies like Apple or Kentucky Fried Chicken, Volkswagen or BASF are exceptions to this and confirm the rule. If you come from outside, China remains a difficult market to make a profit even twenty years after joining the World Trade Organization.

Lifetime Presidency?

In 2017, during his lengthy speech at the party congress, which takes place every five years and sets out the main goals for the country, Xi spoke of a national mission and China's special fate. That his rule is closely linked to this can be clearly seen in the way in which he has completely focused on his own personality and life story. It's hard to move around in China today without seeing the signs of Xi's rule - his words, read in public spaces, his picture, constantly on television, and his authority on display. There is an immense anomaly here, because on many other levels, Chinese society has never been more diverse and complex. Chinese are some of the best connected people in the world, online and in their social lives. Many live a life similar to that of people in the West - with mortgages, stressful leadership jobs, and a constant pursuit of status and social standing. In many ways, under Xi's influence, nationalism has become an increasingly important source for the Chinese Communist Party: the idea that the Chinese people now live in a country that is rising to the top of the world order and to which others look up in admiration can. In 2018, Xi abolished the constitutional restrictions on his term in office, at least for the state president (although there had never been any restrictions on his most important position, that of the party's general secretary). Serious candidates for his successor, if he should ever withdraw, are not in sight. This has led some to speak of a "presidency for life", which would mean that he would have responsibility well into the future. He even gave his presidency an official name: "The New Era" in Chinese history, as opposed to the earlier phases under Mao and Deng.

But with all the self-confidence that Xi and the country he leads exude - and with all the power that is attributed to him by the world - it must not be forgotten that China still faces gigantic challenges. While absolute poverty (people living on less than $ 2 a day) is largely eliminated in 2020, worrying levels of inequality persist and many people whose lives are ruled by a lack of resources. China's environmental problems are grave and remedying them, if at all possible, will cost huge sums of money. Most acute, however, is the fact that the country is the only remaining great power in the world that maintains a communist one-party system and that lacks an institutionalized mechanism for selecting the next party chairman. The resulting challenges will become much more acute once the country succeeds in becoming the largest economy in the world with some likelihood in the next decade or sooner. In addition, one should not forget: It would be a miracle if Xi had not made enemies on his way to becoming a personality that dominated domestic politics in a way that hardly anyone would have thought he could when he came to power in 2012. Some of them have experienced first hand the anti-corruption fight and the associated action against self-interest and against functionaries or business people who have made great profits from the system. But there are also signs of concern in the party's innermost circles about its extremely autocratic style of government. One of this group, Cai Xia, a former professor at the elite party school in Beijing, even fled to the USA in 2020 and has since denounced Xi's rule there. As of 2020, however, patriotism and the sense of impending national rebirth have still managed to marginalize these voices. Xi's China looks strong and self-confident, at least externally. So far, this has provided him with enough basis to put down any dissent.

Translation from English into German: Brigitte Höhenrieder