In the months since China’s Party Congress in October, protests around the country in November, and the sudden withdrawal of the ‘zero-COVID’ policy the following month, the ruling Communist Party of China is looking to course correct, says Joseph Torigian, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program and an Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at the American University, Washington D.C., who researches the elite politics of authoritarian regimes and is currently visiting India.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has been able ‘to get away with these shifts’ in policy given his ‘dominant’ position in the party, he adds, and has maneuvered the Chinese system to avoid pushback at the elite level. Xi’s third term is unlikely to see a fundamental change in worsening China-U.S. relations. While China will be concerned about pushing India too far in the direction of the U.S., it will also want to make India’s relationship with the U.S. costly. Edited excerpts.
How do you assess Xi’s current position as he starts his third term, and following the recent ups-and-downs we’ve seen in China from his clean sweep at the Party Congress, to the protests in November and the sudden rollback of zero-COVID?
Around the time of the 20th Party Congress, many outside observers were very sceptical about China’s future. They looked at the ideological and security focused language that surrounded the congress and the promotion of individuals with very close ties to Xi Jinping. Outside the halls of the congress, China’s economy was suffering from zero-COVID and the real estate crackdown. Beijing was facing poor relations with many key powers.
But in the months since, we’ve seen some pretty significant course correction. The economy is doing better. Xi has launched a global initiative to improve China’s reputation. What these changes tell us is that it’s dangerous to predict the future of China based on current trends. It also tells us that Xi is still a politician capable of manoeuvre and tactical flexibility. That doesn’t mean the reasons for why the CCP has struggled to manage China’s economy and foreign policy will go away. It just means that Beijing pursues multiple, somewhat conflicting goals at the same time, and will integrate strategy and tactics in ways that are somewhat hard to predict.
Last year, things looked pretty bleak for Beijing. The November protests and the toll of zero-COVID seemed like the most challenging time for Xi since he came to power. How was he able to come out politically unscathed?
That’s a great question. I think the answer is that Chinese politics is not a popularity contest. As a Leninist party, it’s an organisational weapon, and one of its key principles is to firewall the top leaders’ authority from the exigencies of political exchange. Xi has an impressive Machiavellian toolbox, which includes a special relationship with the military, access to compromising material, the right to decide when meetings are held and on what topics, and an ideological apparatus that equates him with the Party. So that means even when Party leaders might be unhappy with Xi’s actions, they share an understanding that the system risks collapse without a core leader that can make final decisions. So, counterintuitively, that sentiment of circling the wagons, rallying to the leader, whatever you want to call it, has been especially strong at moments of crisis, like the Great Leap Forward, or the months after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Having said that, we also have little insight into how popular Xi actually is among people that could potentially matter. What we see as policy dysfunction might fit a different logic among the halls of Zhongnanhai. As for Xi’s clean sweep as you put it, he was already quite a dominant leader before the 20th Party Congress. But the issue is that people would still sometimes wonder whether there was any daylight between him and[former] Premier Li Keqiang. So by selecting individuals with whom he has very close career ties, that lowers the likelihood that people on the outside will wonder if there are two so-called headquarters in the party centre.
The conventional wisdom says Xi has taken a risk by conflating the party with himself, as opposed to the past collective leadership model, as he bears not just the rewards but all the risks. On the other hand, has he in a way protected himself by doing so?
We keep seeing these assertions that because Xi Jinping is the top leader, that means that policies are associated with him, and therefore he can’t move away from them. But at the same time, precisely because he is such a dominant leader, he can get away with these shifts. Zero-COVID was associated with him, but when it was decided that they were going to move away from zero-COVID, they did, and it didn’t really have any impact on Xi’s authority.
This is something that we’ve seen countless times in Chinese history. For decades, China talked about the United States as the prime enemy. Then overnight, it was decided that Nixon was going to go to China, and it didn’t really have any impact on elite politics in terms of Mao’s authority. So, to have someone who is clearly the dominant leader allows them to pick and select policies that some people might dislike, but then also to shift away from them without there really being any serious repercussions. That’s one of the things that the Chinese see in their system as a relative advantage.
What do the last three years, from the outbreak of COVID in Wuhan and the initial missteps, to zero-COVID’s early success and then its messy, exit, tell us about the system? Do they reflect resilience or weakness?
When it comes to something like zero-COVID, there were reasons for the Chinese to take pride in their system, but there were also pretty obvious pathologies at the same time. The cover up at the beginning very clearly had something to do with how the Party works. But then the ability for the Chinese State to achieve something like zero-COVID was really a sign of enormous state capacity. If COVID hadn’t transformed, then the narrative that they used to justify zero-COVID might have proven more powerful over the long term.
Ultimately, they lost because the virus proved to be too wily, and it took them a long time to lose. Part of the reason for that was they were probably in a position that they felt stuck - that if they did move away from zero-COVID, despite all of the problems with it, that the healthcare system would collapse and that there weren’t enough people vaccinated. At the end, it reached a point where they had to select the better of two very bad options. And despite a very rough few months, they’ve come out on the other side now, and the economy is proving better than people had suspected. So there were certainly some very significant problems with how COVID was handled, but I think Xi Jinping can make a case, at least within the party, that his ability to hold things together, despite that kind of a challenge, was something that he deserves credit for. At least that’s the narrative that they’re pursuing, despite the obvious problems with it, especially among people who suffered terribly among the lockdowns.
What explains why we haven’t been able to discern any kind of elite pushback to Xi despite all of these recent problems?
If you review what people were saying about Chinese politics in the past and compare it to what actually happened based on new evidence that’s come to light since, it’s hard to overestimate just how badly outside observers performed. I want to emphasise..it’s because Leninist regimes are inherently opaque systems. One of the reasons that Westerners get it wrong so often is that people within the system were getting it wrong too. Even at the very top echelons, there’s often only a very vague understanding about what’s really going on.
Zhao Ziyang, the pro-reform General Secretary in the 1980s, once said that, in the Chinese system, people say one thing to your face but and something completely different behind your back – even remarking that this problem was at the very heart of their politics. So what is going on right now in China is hard to say, but at the same time when we look to history, where we have a better grasp, we see certain continuities in the system that make it very, very hard for someone to oppose the top leader even if they dislike the policies that are being enacted. That’s because your immediate concern isn’t whether policies are good or bad, but protecting yourself. The goal is to intuit what the top leader wants and bring it to them better than anyone else, or at most carefully push your policy goals within the confines of the established Party line, not punish the top leader because you want to replace them. That’s because factional behavior is dangerous not just for you but the entire system. So it’s at moments of regime vulnerability that you want to be the most careful politically because that’s when the top leader is the most worried but also because if there was a power struggle it could bring down the whole house of cards together.
Moreover, with regards to Xi Jinping, we also don’t know whether the criticisms of him that we were able to see were representative of views at the very top of the political echelon. There’s probably a selection effect that the people who are most likely to talk to outsiders are the ones that are most sceptical about Xi Jinping. And Xi has run a tight ship with regard to information control, precisely because he believes that factions and open political warfare within the party are dangerous.
Is Xi now unchallenged in a way that even Mao and Deng, who faced rivals, weren’t?
We often see in the media that Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Some even claim that Xi is more powerful than Mao because, allegedly, Mao faced other members of the first revolutionary generation who had their own status and prestige. But I personally think this view is based on an outdated understanding of Chinese history.
We used to think that the Mao era was marked by competing ideological lines and that the chairman was beset by opponents to his revolutionary model. But the historical evidence we now have unambiguously shows that Mao’s power was truly awesome, and for that generation of revolutionaries rejecting Mao would have meant rejecting themselves. Certainly sometimes Mao’s deputies misinterpreted his vague goals, or they emphasised certain things that Mao wanted but not others. But if Mao’s power was not absolute, how in the world could he have launched the Cultural Revolution? When the Cultural Revolution started, even then people were criticising themselves because they thought they were not adequately understanding what Mao wanted even as they faced the carnage around them. It was that kind of power.
As for the immediate post-Mao era, we used to think that Deng Xiaoping ushered in an era of collective leadership and party institutionalisation to prevent the appearance of a new strongman. But that assessment too is increasingly challenged by historians. Deng was the kind of person who would refuse to hold Politburo Standing Committee meetings to prevent other leading figures like Chen Yun from even having a chance to speak. But Chen was someone who even though had policy differences always prioritised Deng’s authority, not pushing for his own agenda. During his tenure Deng made multiple unexpected, often deeply, unpopular choices without consulting his comrades. And Deng crushed incipient calls within the party for stronger institutions, because he saw the CCP’s relative advantage in the decisiveness of a leader-friendly system.
Xi Jinping shares many of the features that made Mao and Deng so powerful, but he differs from them in two key ways. The first is that Xi Jinping is both involved in the day to day decision making and he’s the centre of authority, while Mao and Deng, although the supreme authority, often stepped back from the day to day minutiae of running the country. The kind of concentration of power we’ve seen under Xi Jinping probably creates some pathologies, but you could make the case that it’s intended to avoid the very serious problems that the “two line system” under Mao and Deng presented, especially with regard to succession politics.
Second, in terms of differences, Xi lacks the awesome power that Mao and Deng enjoyed as members of the revolutionary generation. So that means that although Xi’s power is extraordinary, he is still more vulnerable than Mao or Deng ever were. In terms of policy debates within the Xi Jinping leadership model, we don’t really know how they work, to be honest. Absolute power can manifest in different ways. When Mao in the 1950s was the leader, precisely because he was so dominant, people felt comfortable coming to him with different opinions because they wouldn’t be construed as challengers to his. Of course, Mao became increasingly hubristic and it reached the point where people would refuse to talk at meetings because they were so frightened of him.
For now, we do see some capacity for course correction within the system today. We don’t know why that is the case or whether that will change like it did in the past. Presumably, people who are very close to Xi might feel comfortable cautiously raising different opinions. A lot of this has to do with personal political skill. But also, even if Xi sees the world through blinders, the world is still on the other side of those blinders. I don’t want to essentialise the pathological implications for the concentration of power, even though I’m sure theydo create some problems for him.
Will we see an evolution of the way Xi governs, now that he has his own people in place?
We can look at what pressures he will face, but we can’t predict how they will play out because there is too much contingency. Why do I say that? I say that because to answer your question we have to have a sense of the personal dynamics among Xi and his deputies, which is the hardest thing for people on the outside to see. Xi himself is likely unsure – how much space he gives to someone like [Premier] Li Qiang, and for how long, will depend on how effective Li Qiang is at managing his leader.
We’ve seen throughout Chinese history that one of the core problems of the CCP is exactly that – how extraordinarily difficult it is for a deputy to successfully navigate their relationship with their patron. We’ve seen over and over again how an absolutely loyal deputy still loses the confidence of the top leader – both in the Mao and Deng eras. Often, that was because of unforeseen events, like student protests. So we should be cautious about predicting the future of elite politics.
Your question of course also gets into succession politics. Presumably, Xi Jinping will want to pick whomever comes next. But everything that Xi Jinping has done so far suggests that he only thinks the system works with a “core” leader. But how do you test a protégé and help them build up their authority without risking the “two headquarters” problem?
On the foreign policy front, we’ve seen a flurry of diplomatic activity from Beijing at the start of the third term, from the new Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI) to the unexpected Saudi-Iran deal. What’s driving this?
After the 20th Party Congress, the party leadership had more bandwidth to focus on the outside world. They clearly saw a need to address China’s worsening reputation, which had suffered for a whole host of reasons. Broadly speaking, many of the initiatives are intended to improve Beijing’s relations with the Global South, Europe and Russia as competition with the United States heats up. We’ve seen some success. A lot of what Beijing says is popular outside of the West, and as the recent Emmanuel Macron trip showed, even in Europe, there is some desire to constrain the competitive elements of the relationship.
You also follow Russia very closely. How do you see the Xi-Putin relationship, as well as their similarities and differences?
They have a lot in common. They both come from families with a history of devotion and sacrifice for the regime. Similar experiences taught them the value of a strong polity. In 1989, when Putin was a KGB operative in Dresden, he saw the East German state collapse around him. When he tried to contact his superiors, he was told that Moscow was silent.
In his early years, Xi Jinping drew similar conclusions about the need for a strong state that works essentially like a cage. In 1989, during the protests in Tiananmen Square, his immediate frame of reference was the Cultural Revolution. As the students were protesting, he talked about how there is no such thing as pure democracy, that when people are allowed to do whatever they want they just bully each other and pursue their own interests like during the late Mao era.
So, Putin and Xi are statists, and they think that you need to have a Leviathan to control people. They both see attacks on their history as Western plots to delegitimise them. They both see Western democracy promotion as an attempt to achieve regime change. They both see traditional values as a bulwark against instability and they see the West as tearing itself apart with cultural debates. They both believe authoritarian regimes are better at managing modern challenges. They both want their countries to regain a lost status. They both don’t see Western democracy as real - just a way for special interests to dominate. They don’t support a single form of authoritarianism and they don’t really formally export their own model. Even their legitimation narratives are similar. Vladimir Putin talks about how, during the1990s, the regime was at risk of collapse, and he arrested those centrifugal forces, while Xi Jinping talks about how “reform and opening” created problems that could only be resolved with a strong leader and more discipline.
Having said that, Putin and Xi are not the same person. Putin is much more willing to take risks than Xi. Xi is, generally speaking, more cautious. Putin has often criticised the Bolsheviks, even blaming them for the creation of Ukraine, and the Russian Federation prefers to ignore the October Revolution. Xi Jinping, even though not a dogmatic person, I think is still a true believer, and the source of meaning in his life is the Chinese Revolution, which was of course inspired by the Russian one. Putinism is very far from Communism, to put it mildly. Finally, I think Xi still sees some benefit to maintaining some constructive ties with the West, even as he seeks to control those ties to China’s benefit.
On U.S.-China relations, is there a sense that Beijing is resigned to, and preparing for, the relationship continuing on a confrontational path?
I think Xi Jinping is someone who has always believed that the United States would never tolerate the rise of a Communist country in the international system. But even within that context, the PRC clearly finds American behaviour as increasingly aggressive. That sentiment was further exacerbated by Washington’s reaction to the balloon incident and how the U.S. has characterised China’s relationship with Russia. But most seriously, China and the U.S. both believe that the other is trying to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, which is the biggest challenge. Both sides will occasionally try to prevent the relationship from deteriorating too much, so there will be ups and downs, but for structural reasons, and unexpected events like the balloon, it’s hard to imagine a fundamental change anytime soon.
Some see Taiwan as a priority for China and central to Xi’s agenda of national rejuvenation. Is there evidence to suggest a new approach on Taiwan under Xi or has his approach been in keeping with his predecessors?
It’s unambiguous that the Taiwan issue is a deeply personal and emotional one for Xi Jinping. This is someone who talks about a legacy bequeathed to him by his ancestors not to allow any Chinese land to escape from Beijing. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that authoritarian regimes will use force when they think they can get away with it. Nobody really knows what the PRC will do.
Having said that, Xi Jinping is someone who spent a lot of time in Fujian and Zhejiang, and among the Chinese leadership probably has a relatively good understanding of the Taiwan issue. Xi Jinping is also someone who has the power to tell people within the system who may disagree with him that if trends are in China’s favour, they can continue to wait. As long as Beijing feels that it is less costly to move later, they will likely do that. Also, Xi Jinping is someone who does not want to be the leader who buries the Chinese Communist Party, and a war in Taiwan that goes in the wrong direction could be extremely dangerous. He’s not someone who wants to risk something like that. I think the danger isn’t that an invasion is imminent, unless the calculations I just described change, but that China could feel a need to create risk for the United States to warn off Washington, and then an accident happens. And when the political atmosphere is charged in the way that it is right now, something like that could be very dangerous.
Given the abiding focus on the U.S., is China now looking at other relationships, including with India, largely from the point of view of relations with the U.S.? Is that going to inform how China engages with India?
Looking at the Cold War, China has historically seen the subcontinent through the lens of geopolitics with regards to the United States, but also Russia. What’s changing now is that the competition between the United States and China is intensifying at precisely the moment that leaders in New Delhi are drawing conclusions about Beijing following the Galwan incident. The future remains to be seen, as China will be concerned about pushing India too far in the direction of the United States, but also will want to make India’s relationship with the U.S. costly.