Written by Kerry Brown.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was fond of using a simple drawing of what he called a `duck-rabbit’. From one angle, it looked like a rabbit’s head. But when an observer looked at it a little longer the ears came to resemble beaks, and the whole picture looked like a duck facing upwards. The `duck rabbit’ figured in his work as a good representation of ambiguity. It could stand perfectly well for two wholly different things.

Chinese elite politics has always been frustratingly opaque because of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) continuing addiction to secrecy and strategic concealment. All the old adages from Sun Tzu’s `Art of War’ about hiding true ability, misleading and subverting seem to have been internalized and become the life blood of the Party from its early years as a maligned guerrilla force to its time now when it seems to be firmly in power.

But under Xi Jinping, the concealment, if it can be called that, has reached a new level of sophistication. Now it is not that things are hidden in the dark. Even seen in broad daylight, they carry two meanings. We are in the age of ambiguity. Xi and the true nature of his power sit at the centre of it.

Is Xi Jinping an autocrat, sucking up power around him, purging enemies through the anti-corruption struggle, making imperial style visitations on the state media and commanding obedience while constantly keeping his Premier in the shadows? Perhaps. But if we accept this interpretation, then it means that almost four decades of institution building and moving away from rule of man to rule of law by the Party are being rapidly undone.

If this is the case, too, it seems remarkable that figures in the upper levels downwards of the Party have proved so acquiescent. Is it really in their interests to see the Party undermined in this way, and reshaped into a personal political fiefdom rather than a broad, united, social one? The whole point of the Dengist reforms from 1978 was to ensure that the Party maintained its power by becoming better at governing itself, and would never return to the nightmare Maoist years of near total worship of one man. Can all that effort simply ebb away in a couple of years?

If we do think a bit about these points, then there is another interpretation on Xi’s seeming accrual of powers at the moment that might work. This is that a large proportion of the Party elite collectively knew, several years ago, that it was entering a period of great threat and potential turbulence, and that there was wide awareness of the ideological slackness and lack of discipline amongst the membership, with concomitant collapse of faith even in the administrative abilities, let alone the message, of the CPC. This posed a true existential and imminent threat to the CPC.

In that context, the choice of someone with the right communication skills and networks to give the Party the best bet of making it though this era was paramount. The Communist Party of the USSR, after all, collapsed after 74 years in power. In 2023 the CPC will reach this crucial goal. It does not want to go the way of its erstwhile Russian counterpart. Ensuring leadership was unified, strong and clear in its messaging was important.

Interestingly, Xi Jinping in almost everything he says speaks as and for the Party. It is as though his use of his personal biography, his deployment of a more individual voice, are simply tactics to convey messages supportive of the Party mission to raise China to a rich, strong and powerful nation. In this framework, Xi himself doesn’t matter. It is not about him. It is all about him being the servant, the tactical object as it were of the Party collectively, to get it through the era of potential real danger. The leadership style is one he has assumed with Party support. It is a useful part of its weaponry.

The Party is the emperor in China, not any one individual. If Xi Jinping is an emerging autocrat, then he would be working fundamentally against the Party’s collective interests. He would, in many ways, be ensuring that it was about to enter even more precarious territory than it already inhabits. For all the talk about Xi being the new Mao, there is one massive issue with this interpretation. Mao died; the Party survived. In the end, despite the calamities of the Cultural Revolution visited upon it, it prevailed. Returning to Maoist policies on leadership would mean returning to failure. For an organization used to success, this would be immensely perverse – and unlikely.

As of today, therefore, despite the theatre and the increasing control and concentration on the figure of Xi, I would still wager that the Party put him where he is – and the Party can take him away. His style of leadership is part of a Party-wide strategy to ensure that control is maintained in very hard times with falling growth and rising social and international complexity.

We may even find out one day that this role was designed for him even before he came to power. In any case, however ugly the domestic politics of China is becoming, with suppression and rising contention, the great goal of national rejuvenation is in sight. If that starts to fade, Xi may well find that it is not Mao Zedong who he most resembles, but the now largely forgotten Hua Guofeng. For the moment, however, he is serving the Party well.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London. His political study, `CEO China – The Rise of Xi Jinping’ will be published on the 20th April by I B Tauris. Image Credit: CC by L.C. Nøttaasen/Flickr.