Written by Kerry Brown.

Michael Igantieff’s extraordinary account of his life as a politician in Canada after over three decades as an academic and public intellectual carries a suitable title: ‘Fire and Ashes’. He makes it clear in the very powerful stories he gives of why he went into politics so late in life, how he stood first as leader of his country’s Liberal Party, and then tried to run for Prime Minister and why it was such a searing, transformative experience for him.  His tale truly covers the warm glory of fire and the desolation afterwards of fragile ashes.

The challenges appeared in places where Ignatieff evidently least expected them. ‘If you’ve spent your life as a writer, journalist and teacher, nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena,’ he writes. ‘It is unlike any word game you have ever played. You may fancy yourself as a communicator, but the first time you step up on a political platform, you can have the weird feeling that you have walked into  Woody Allen’s film Bananas in that sequence where the guerilla leader changes the official language of his Latin American country to Swedish.’ The ways in which his personality was almost taken over by someone else as he went into public life are well represented in this annexation even of the language he was allowed to us, and the meanings imputed to it.

No one could claim, after a careful reading of Ignatieff, that there are easy parallels between the political life in a democracy like Canada, and those of a country where one party has a monopoly on power like China. But as the current Chinese government undertakes populist anti-corruption campaigns that look set to take on some major entrenched power groups within the Party itself, the issues of assessing people’s loyalty and getting their support weight just as heavily on Xi Jinping’s mind as they evidently did on Ignatieff as he got closer to power.

Let’s take the loyalty issue first of all. The Communist Party of China is vast, and has over 80 million members. But in what way these paid up members actually internally understand their Party membership is still largely a mystery. We can speculate that for a huge number it is because of utility. For many others it is because of being asked by someone else. There might be a tight tiny core at the centre who are `true believers’. This is not so different from a political party in the West. But loyalty is something that a leader in the Politburo really needs as he starts to take swipes at a particular network like that around Zhou Yongkang which has plenty of high level membership and support. Trying to build up a constituency who are there to support you when more of your potential targets get edgy, and mobilize against you is a hard thing to do in China. Rather distressingly, the most successful in recent example was Mao Zedong, and his Cultural Revolution waged against the wishes of the Party with misguided support from amongst the population. This is hardly the sort of template a modern ruler of China would wish to reinvoke.

But getting the public onside in the fight against the ‘enemies within’ – the corrupt, larcenous networks around figures like Zhou, with their awesome greed and vast embezzlement of state funds – is one of Xi’s best bets. Their loyalty is critical as more of the implicated people around him start getting edgy and move to protect themselves. Ominously, reports last month that the ancient Jiang Zemin and the recently retired Hu Jintao had started to warn Xi to tone things down show that within the Party’s inner sanctum, up to a point everyone is implicated, and every campaign potentially is a threat. Appealing direct to the people is something Xi has to somehow do. Thus the street appearances of recent months, and the possibility there was really some truth in that odd tale of him taking a taxi ride last year incognito. Even if not true, this symbolizes the ways in which Xi needs to break free of the tight controlling cordons around him and start appealing to the wider public. And the only way he can do that is through the personal appeal of his language and the way he can create a loyal link with the public all around him.

As Igantieff says, ‘You aren’t entitled to [the public’s loyalty]. You earn it from them every day. You earn it by being who you say you are and by showing that you are on their side.’ This search for authenticity is hard enough in any political culture. In one as restricted and restrained as China’s currently is, it is dizzyingly difficult. But clearly the route to finding loyalty is to close the power gap, to show to people that you are on their side. ‘You can’t’ Iganatieff states, ‘succeed unless the people who elect you believe you are in it for them.’ And of course, when you were never publicly elected in the first place, finding some means of knowing how you can like with the public and get their support becomes hard.  Xi’s search for an authentic link with the public is a necessary but treacherously hard one.

Xi’s great internal task in the coming months and years is not so different from someone like Igantieff. ‘You need to fit policy and your personal story into a convincing narrative,’ he writes. ‘The story you need to tell is how to strengthen the common life, how to stand together against the forces of inequality, envy, division and hatred that are ceaselessly pulling our societies apart, and how to defend the eternal proposition of all progressive politics that we must share our fate and live in justice with each other.’ Canada or China. Democracy or authoritarian dictatorship. Failed pretender to Canadian leadership or successful winner of Chinese Communist Party succession planning. Whichever of these, you couldn’t put the shared challenge of politics in the modern era more clearly than in Ignatieff’s words above. And if Xi gets the narrative right and forges loyal links with society, then people like Zhou Yongkang truly don’t stand a chance. But it is a pretty massive mountain to climb, and in the process Xi may well be reforging politics as it is currently done in China.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Associate Fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, and head of  the EU-funded Europe China Research and Advice Network. He tweets @Bkerrychina