China Policy Institute: Analysis


Chinese Communist Party

Mao, Zhao and some “what ifs?”

Written by Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

I am always interested in counterfactual and other sorts of “what if” forays into speculation. I have often played the “what would Mao make of today’s China” game. Early in this century, for example, I wrote a “Letter from Nanjing” for the TLS that pondered the way that a revivified Chairman might have responded to perusing the bookshelves of a local bookstore that sold guides to opening one’s own bar or café, Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism, and other works that would have been deemed inappropriate titles in the early decades of the PRC (and were verboten throughout the Soviet bloc then as well). More recently, I penned an op-ed for the South China Morning Post, linked loosely to this being the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution and fortieth anniversary of Mao’s death, asking what, if he were to come back to life, Xi Jinping’s most famous and infamous predecessor would think of China’s current leader. Continue reading “Mao, Zhao and some “what ifs?””

China: (not) talking about a revolution

Written by Mark Beeson.

Fifty years ago on May 16 the Cultural Revolution began. Don’t expect this event to be given much attention in China itself, though. The reality is that despite Mao Zedong’s continuing iconic status, his successors in China’s ruling elite don’t know quite how to deal with his legacy.

It’s not hard to see why. During the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961, which was intended to modernise China’s economy through industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture, tens of millions died, mainly as a consequence of famine.

Mao was eventually criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe. It was this threat to his legacy that led him to unleash the Cultural Revolution.

Both of these profoundly important historical episodes are studiously ignored in China today. The rather imposing national museum in Beijing, for example, contains absolutely no reference to the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact that it also led directly or indirectly to the deaths of another million or so.

What is most striking about this period in retrospect, however, is not the current collective amnesia on the part of the governing elites in the Communist Party of China, but the fact that it completely overturned social values that had endured in China for thousands of years.

True, dynasties had collapsed before. But not even the Boxer or Taiping rebellions in the 19th century had inflicted such upheaval, and certainly not on such a scale.

One of the distinctive features of the Cultural Revolution, depicted in graphic detail by Ji Xianlin in The Cowshed, was the role played by the young Red Guards, who were the stormtroopers of Mao’s counter-revolution. Confucian-style respect for learning, the elderly or the traditional social hierarchy were overthrown as part of a convulsive bottom up social movement that delighted in humiliating and torturing perceived class enemies.

Ji details the horrors that were inflicted on him and many of his colleagues at Peking University by his former students, suddenly elevated and empowered by Mao’s megalomania. Public beatings and humiliation became a frequent part of the punishments inflicted on possible “capitalist roaders” and class traitors.

Many of the young people who played such a prominent and spiteful part in these ritualised “struggle sessions” would become victims of the revolution themsleves. Some were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasantry. Others became the victims of factional warfare within the red Guards themselves.

Only now are some of these stories being told, despite the profound impact it had on both the young and the old during this period.

The leadership of the CCP still finds this period acutely difficult to deal with. Despite some acknowledgement that Mao may have made errors, his portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square. Current president Xi Jinping has embraced some aspects of his legacy.

Worryingly, Xi has also concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Xi has also begun to revive some elements of Maoist ideology in order to legitimise the CCP’s continuing political dominance – which lacks any other sort in authoritarian China.

Yet a collective failure to acknowledge or confront the realities of the Cultural Revolution means that important historical lessons go unlearned by subsequent generations. A fundamental lack of political maturity, combined with an absence of real self-criticism or internal debate, are reasons why totalitarian regimes have always been so brittle and at risk of a “Ceaușescu moment”.

It is this potential for social upheaval, to which China is historically especially prone, that helps to explain why the current administration goes to such extraordinary lengths to control social media and internal political discussion. The broadcasts of outlets like the BBC will likely be interrupted if they run stories on the Cultural Revolution today.

None of this means the CCP’s dominance is likely to disappear anytime soon, though. On the contrary, the CCP has become a pivotal vehicle for career advancement and the cultivation of vital political and business connections.

Ironically enough, the capitalist roaders have ultimately triumphed in China and are now frequently prominent and wealthy members of the CCP itself. Mao must be revolving in his mausoleum.

It is this paradox that lies at the heart of the CCP’s current difficulties about how to deal with Mao and his legacy. A more pluralistic and open society – like Germany, for example – might recognise and understand that awful things can happen, learn the lessons, and then move on. No such debate is possible in China without raising very difficult questions about what exactly the CCP is actually for, and why it should remain in unelected power.

The next time I apply for a visa to visit China I may be reminded of the pervasive and rather paranoid reach of China’s security services. Perhaps we will see some “spontaneous” expressions of outrage in response to this post.

And yet any society that needs to exercise that degree of social control to maintain its preferred collective identity and official historical narrative looks anything but secure.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Soft Power on the Defensive: The Contradictions of Chinese Foreign Policy

Written by James F. Paradise.

China’s soft power offensive has not been fully effective. One reason is that many outsiders find it difficult to buy into Chinese values because of political repression, cultural chauvinism and bad pollution in China. Another reason is that some activities in the military and economic spheres are starting to give China a bad reputation. This is creating a situation in which the hard power activities are starting to undermine the genuinely good soft power activities. That’s a serious problem for the Chinese government as it will make the quest for international friendship and support more difficult.

Many of the criticisms of China are overblown and have more to do with the diminishing power of the United States in the world than China itself. Creation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example, is more likely to be a good thing that helps overcome the shortfall of infrastructure finance in Asia than be a source of trouble as has often been suggested by the U.S. which tried to persuade its allies not to join the institution before offering its grudging “support” while remaining a non-member along with major powers Japan and Canada. Like other new institutions or initiatives that China is launching, which it typically bills as “open and inclusive” such as The Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the AIIB can be thought of as a kind of “soft balancing” instrument that will contribute to global public goods.

Similarly, many of the concerns about cultural and educational activities seem exaggerated. Rather than fretting about an insidious design of the Chinese to take over the world, many foreigners are happily studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes across the globe, enjoying Chinese concerts or art exhibits in North American or European cities or are busy making friends at Chinese universities while they are studying Chinese history or economics. Mainly those who worry about the “other” or are experiencing extreme psychological discomfort from changes in the international balance of power are getting worked up about the spread of Chinese culture.

More serious are some of the activities occurring in the hard power sphere. These include the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the modernization of the Chinese military, which has included the addition of China’s first aircraft carrier to its arsenal. Articulating concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, which also include the deployment of missile launchers and fighter jets on one disputed island, one U.S. admiral indicated that China might be trying to attain “hegemony in East Asia,” which is probably what it is trying to do.

Other concerns are being expressed by Western executives in China who claim that the Chinese business environment for international companies is becoming less hospitable because of things like “forced technology transfer,” anti-monopoly investigations and difficulties in obtaining business licenses for some activities. Descriptions of the anti-trust investigations include words like “aggressive” and “ruthless,” and note that foreign businesses say they are being targeted. Yet another area where concerns exist is with the expansion of Chinese companies overseas. There, they have been accused of resource exploitation, harsh working conditions, payment of low wages and failing to promote local workers to managerial positions, none of which are good for China’s international image. So bad have some of the activities been that China has even been accused of being “neo-colonialist,” an extraordinary description given China’s long solidarity with developing countries.

Whether or not China’s activities can be justified can in some cases be debated. One could argue, for example, that other countries have created ADIZ’s so China should be allowed to do so also or that other countries, such as Vietnam, have done land reclamation in the South China Sea so why shouldn’t China (at least this disclosure puts China’s actions in greater context)? And what is wrong with China vigorously enforcing its anti-monopoly law? Isn’t this something the U.S. should be doing more of? And don’t forget that China is a developing country in some respects and may need to protect its infant and strategic industries (provided doing so does not violate World Trade Organization law) in the same way that the U.S. and the United Kingdom did when they were in an earlier stage of their development before they “kicked away the ladder.” As for claims that Chinese companies are riding roughshod over the environment and their employees in developing countries, there may be some truth to that, but China is learning and trying to correct its mistakes. And anyhow, China is not the only country whose companies have sinned (or experienced problems) in foreign countries.

Regardless of whether one accepts these arguments, and much could be said on both sides of what are very complicated and nuanced issues, the fact is that some of China’s actions are generating fear and concern in some foreign countries. Evidence for this comes from a Pew Research Centre survey that found in 2015 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and only 38 percent had a favorable view, a reversal from 2012, the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when 40 percent of Americans had a unfavorable view and 40 percent a favorable view. Among the issues that Americans were concerned about to the extent that they rated them as very serious or somewhat serious were cyberattacks from China (86 percent), China’s policies on human rights (85 percent) and China’s growing military power (82 percent). Other advanced industrialized countries where unfavorable views outnumbered favourable views included Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. Fairly, however, it should be noted that many countries in the world had more favorable than unfavorable views of China, including developed country Australia and even Malaysia and the Philippines with whom it is locked in a dispute over the ownership of South China Sea islands. “On balance, global views of China are positive,” Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 report.

Indications of problems in the Chinese business environment are found in the 2016 China Business Climate Survey Report of The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China that found that 77 percent of survey member respondents felt that foreign businesses in China were “less welcome than before” while only 23 percent felt they were “more welcome than before.” Among the major business challenges identified by survey respondents were “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” and “obtaining required licenses.”

To overcome these anxieties, China needs to take confidence-building actions. On the international side, one thing that it should do is to ensure that it lives up to its “win-win” rhetoric. This would go a long way to allaying fears of Chinese economic aggression and exploitation, and might even enable a more cooperative approach to dealing with thorny Asian island disputes. A second thing that it should do is to provide more global public goods. Provision of more development finance through new multilateral institutions of its creation or support and activities to combat international maritime piracy are steps in the right direction, but there is still a sense that China’s interventions are highly selective and not always well-integrated with multilateral mechanisms. That has given China an image as a “free rider” on some issues and not fully a team player.

A third thing that China should do is to stop bullying countries with whom it disagrees on some matters and taking the position “my way or the highway.” Countries that have suffered China’s wrath or threats, and in some cases diplomatic repercussions, have included the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Norway, after the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and South Korea, whose main opposition political party interim chairman was told by China’s ambassador to the country in February 2016 – after North Korea had done its fourth nuclear test and put a satellite into orbit through a rocket launch – that deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system “could destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul, which had been very good.

Hard-edged statements such as this do not serve China well, nor do the hardball politics that try to deny to foreign powers the right to express opinions on humans rights issues, as they call into question the narrative of China’s peaceful rise and make it appear that Beijing is inflexible and unconstructive which on many issues it is not as it proved when it signed on to United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in March 2016 and made the very sensible suggestion that a peace treaty be concluded to end the Korean War.

On the domestic side as well, China needs to make changes. The main change that it should make is to stop persecuting or imprisoning those with dissenting views or legitimate grievances. Doing this would go a long way to improving China’s image and creating a healthier political system as measured by things such as protection of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House scores and governance standards such as “voice and accountability,” “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism” and “rule of law” that the World Bank measures through it’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” Another thing that China could do is to tone down the military discussion and imagery, which as anyone who has watched Chinese television knows, is quite pervasive, which is a problem because it feeds Chinese nationalism which is not a friend of soft power.

Making some of these changes will not be easy for China as China has its own political traditions dating back thousands of years and its own national interests that on some issues, especially ones which it regards as “core,” diverge from those of others. Not making them, however, will mean that some foreigners will find unappealing – and even objectionable – some Chinese practices and that its hard power activities will “crowd out” its legitimate soft power activities which will make it harder for China to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. This does not mean that China has to do things “the Western way.” But it does mean that when China does things its way, it has to improve on the West on matters such as environmental protection, respect for human rights and so on. This is a formula for great success; only time will tell whether China is the benevolent and enlightened power that it often presents itself as.

James F. Paradise is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

Confusing Public Diplomacy and Soft Power

Written by Barry Buzan.

There is little doubt that in relation to its size, wealth, and culture, China underperforms in the area of soft power, is conscious of that weakness, and wants to improve its performance (Li, 2008). Soft power is about the non-coercive ability to change the preferences of others, to make them want what you want purely by the force of attraction and persuasion (Nye, 2004). It is about economic and especially cultural power, in contrast to the hard power of military capability.

It can be understood in terms of Wendt’s (1999) argument that social structures can be held together by three different means: coercion, calculation and belief. Of these, belief produces by far the most stable and efficient social structures. Hard power holds social structures together inefficiently and temporarily by force. Soft power works by calculation (it is to my advantage to behave in this way) and by belief (it is good, or right, to behave in this way).

The Chinese government understands, rightly, that it needs soft power both to increase its status abroad, and to possess a more balanced power profile to compete with the West. It also needs it to defend its own culture and ‘Chinese characteristics’ from being subverted and replaced by Western cultural values. What it does not seem to understand, or at least cannot seem to find a way of dealing with, is that soft power comes mainly from civil society. Although governments can do some things to generate soft power, especially on the calculated, economic side, they can do little on the cultural side, which is where the real, durable effect of soft power works most strongly.

Indeed a good case can be made that when the government is the major player, this works systematically against the effectiveness of soft power. People everywhere rightly treat governments, both their own and others, with suspicion. Governments are self-interested players with well-known propensities to lie, deceive and manipulate. When the government is the main face of a country’s soft power, that soft power will be taken by outsiders mainly as propaganda, and sometimes actively opposed.

Soft power comes from the unmediated voice of civil society which does not attract such suspicions. No clearer example of the link between effective soft power and civil society can be given than the widespread admiration that many people have for American society even while they dislike or hate its government. American popular culture is hugely influential all over the world despite the many reservations that people have about the US government and many of its policies. That popular culture carries American values of individualism, consumerism, capitalism and religion far and wide. The government does not have to do anything other than get out of the way to make this happen.

The problem for China is threefold: 1) China’s government does not in itself have a good image to sell abroad; 2) the Chinese government appears to be afraid of the civil society that its highly successful economic reforms have created; and 3) because of its totalitarian traditions, it does not know how to get out of the way.

The poor image of China’s government abroad has many roots. Most obviously, China’s strong opposition to democracy makes it something of an outlier in Western-global international society (Jones, 2014). The CCP’s firm commitment to its own authoritarian rule creates a gap not only with the West, but also with most other big powers other than Russia. While the government is admired for its economic accomplishments, its sometimes aggressive foreign policy behaviour, and its repressions of both minority peoples and its own civil society, give it a bad image abroad.

People have not forgotten that this is the same CCP that during the 1950s, 60s and 70s went to war with Vietnam and India, subjected its people to the horrors of the great leap forward and the cultural revolution and in 1989 ruthlessly destroyed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Not surprisingly, many outsiders are disinclined to trust it.

The Chinese government’s fear of the Chinese people is communicated abroad both by its repression of a wide spectrum of civil society voices and by the priority it gives to domestic security, and this adds to its poor image. The insecurity of the CCP, and the high priority it gives to its own survival has huge consequences both for China and for the world. Domestically, it drives a continuous and self-damaging need for coercive control over China’s civil society that undermines the country’s legitimate aspiration to generate soft power commensurate with its size and cultural weight.

The CCP’s suppression of independent civil society voices and activity stifles exactly that part of China’s society that is essential to the generation of soft power on a global scale. The party thus cuts off a key source of the international status and respect that both it and China want (Schell and Delury, 2013: 396-9). China spends as much or more on domestic security as it does on external defence (Shambaugh, 2013: 3, 58). Wang and Minzner (2015) show in detail how, since the domestic and international turbulence in the communist world in 1989, the CCP has securitized domestic political stability, and constructed a massive domestic security apparatus to enforce its control.

It is highly revealing that the first priority of the PLA is still to defend the Party not the country (Harris, 2014: loc. 850). As Shambaugh (2013: 3, 14-18, 309-11), like many others (e.g. (Shirk, 2007: 53), argues, the deep insecurity of the CCP, and the priority it gives to domestic over foreign policy, generates close links between domestic and foreign policy in China. The international consequence of this is that regime security dominates national security, pushing the government to look tough abroad in order to defend itself against nationalist criticism at home. None of this does any good at all for the external image of China’s government.

The third problem is that China’s government does not know how to get out of the way. Instead, it is trying itself to generate soft power by the use of public diplomacy, in the process confusing the two. Its attempts to generate soft power by state action mainly fail or are counterproductive, and reveal that the CCP does not understand the difference between soft power emanating largely from civil society, and public diplomacy and propaganda by the state (Shambaugh, 2013: 207-67).

There is a place for public diplomacy, and even for propaganda, but these activities are not the same as soft power, and can easily be contradictory to it when the government is itself view by outsiders with suspicion. This has been the story of China’s Confucius Institutes, many of which have become targets of protest because they are seen as being too closely associated with the Chinese state, and therefore threatening to the academic independence of the universities that accept them. China needs to get used to the idea, as the US has done, that outsiders make a sharp differentiation between the Chinese party/state on the one hand (which mostly they do not like very much) and the Chinese people and culture on the other.

China’s potential for generating soft power is huge, but it will not be realised until the government realises that this is not something that can be done by the state, and gets out of the way of its civil society. China’s leadership has to make up its own mind about what it wants. If it wants mainly to retain a very tight leash over its civil society, then it will not be successful at generating soft power and will have to forego the benefits of having that kind of power. If it wants to have soft power it will need to find some way of changing its domestic security equation so as to allow a wider range of voices to speak within China and to the world.

Barry Buzan is a Professor Emeritus at the LSE. One of his latest publications is Wilson, Peter and Zhang, Yongjin and Knudsen, Tonny Brems and Wilson, Peter and Sharp, Paul and Navari, Cornelia and Buzan, Barry (2016) The English School in retrospect and prospect: Barry Buzan’s an introduction to the English School of International Relations: the societal approach Cooperation and Conflict, 51 (1). Image credit: CC by Wojtek Gurak/Flickr.


Harris, Stuart (2014) China’s Foreign Policy, Cambridge: Polity.
Jones, Catherine (2014) ‘Constructing great powers: China’s status in a socially constructed plurality’, International Politics, 51:5, 597=618.
Li, Mingjiang (2008) ‘China Debates Soft Power’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2:2, 287-308.
Nye, Joseph (2004) Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, New York: Public Affairs.
Schell, Orville and John Delury (2013) Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, London: Little, Brown.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Shirk, Susan (2007) China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Wang, Yuhua, and Carl Minzner (2015) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Security State’, China Quarterly, 222, 339-59.
Wendt, Alexander (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

China, Soft Power, and the Politics of Attraction

Written by Todd H. Hall.

Possibly no concept to emerge from the field of international relations in the past several decades has been quite as influential within policymaking circles as that of “soft power.” And the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been no exception to this trend. No less than the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the PRC, Xi Jinping, has espoused the need for China to increase its soft power.

Speaking before a study session of the Politburo in 2014, Xi Jinping reportedly “vowed to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world.” Precisely, he stated that “China should be portrayed as a civilized country featuring rich history, ethnic unity and cultural diversity, and as an oriental power with good government, developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity and beautiful mountains and rivers.” Doing so, he proposed, “raise China’s overall cultural strength and competitiveness.”

Joseph Nye, the original father of the concept, tells us soft power is attractive power”. When others are attracted to us—our culture, our values, or even our policies—they will look up to us, follow us, even adopt our desires and values as their own. Nye has done the field a great service by pointing to the ways in which power is not simply limited to “hard forms” such as a military coercion or financial rewards. He may have also done the world a great service by channeling the energies and resources of various countries—including the PRC—into more peaceful arenas of competition.

It is amazing, however, how thoroughly the concept of soft power has gained traction despite the lack of any clear evidence as to what the actual returns of being perceived as “attractive” are. Certainly, we can mark the attractiveness of various states and their cultural products in international polls, flows of tourists and exchange students, box office returns, or even online video views.

But to what extent is such popularity a political resource from which states can actually reap tangible benefits, let alone one states can wield to specific ends? Popularity is fickle and fleeting, and at times seeking to maintain “attractiveness” can run counter to the very policy goals states may wish to accomplish. Indeed, recent efforts by the PRC to improve its position in the South China Sea show how easily soft power can be damaged by the pursuit of other perceived national interests.

Charm offensives may leave behind few results when their architects begin appearing more offensive than charming, and those who seek to the pull the levers of soft power may, in their time of need, find them to be quite soft. Correspondingly, it may be that the primary stakes in play are not related to any actual power that soft power provides but rather the gratification and domestic legitimation that comes from being able to point to markers of one’s own international appeal. Regardless, soft power is something that many states, and the officials of the PRC in particular, desire to have.

Putting aside the questionable value of having soft power, how could a country like the PRC actually go about attaining it? Much of the discussion coming from official sources, think tanks, and popular commentary in the PRC treats Chinese culture and values as inherently attractive; the problem is articulating them well, conveying them in the right way, making sure they are well presented and delivered in an enticing manner. Enhancing PRC soft power, in other words, is a matter of better messaging, PR technique, or packaging.

In contrast, many commentators outside China—including Joseph Nye and, in possibly one of the more thorough treatments of Chinese soft power, David Shambaugh—have argued that the narrow nationalism, the censorship and heavy hand of the state that stifle creativity, and the authoritarian nature of the political system are major impediments to PRC attaining soft power. Put differently, in this latter view, there is something inherent in the PRC’s political system and political values that renders soft power outside its grasp.

This focus on the PRC traits and behaviour overlooks, however, the timeless adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If we take seriously the idea that soft power is attractive power, we must also ask what makes certain actors or states on the international stage appear attractive. Beauty, desirability, attractiveness—these are not inherent attributes but rather judgments based upon subjectively or intersubjectively generated standards. Bluntly, one is attractive to the extent one appeals to others’ tastes.

The debate about the sources of or deficits in PRC soft power—particularly in the realms of policy and political values—thus implicates deeper disagreements regarding the normative standards that determine what deserves acknowledgement, recognition, status, and admiration within international relations.

By claiming that certain actors do or do not have soft power we are, in fact, asserting that certain standards or values have inherent—or at the very least, broad—appeal. This thus camouflages real political debates about values in the clothing of “practical” discussions about increasing soft power, with the purported tastes of some nebulous international audience as arbitrator. Such sleight of hand may be true soft power.

Todd H. Hall is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. One of his latest publications is Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage, Cornell University Press, 2015. Image credit: CC by John6536/Flickr.

The true nature of Xi Jinping’s power

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.

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