Zhang Lifan is not alone in professing a certain sense of wonder at the speed with which Xi Jinping, the 59-year-old leader of China’s Communist Party (CPC), has consolidated his power and authority in the one year since he took office.
In the months since his crowning as the CPC General Secretary following the Party Congress of November 2012, Mr. Xi has exuded a level of confidence and control not seen in Chinese politics in more than two decades since the days of “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping.
“The differences between Xi and Hu Jintao [his predecessor as President and General Secretary] have been there for all to see,” Professor Zhang, a Beijing historian who has written extensively on the political history of modern China, said in an interview with The Hindu .
“Even in the way they speak. Hu Jintao speaks like he is a man speaking at someone else’s home. But Xi is like a man speaking in his own home.”
Professor Zhang attributes Mr. Xi’s rapid ascent to power to his unique political background. Unlike Mr. Hu, Mr. Xi comes from an elite political lineage. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was an influential Party elder, who started out as a Red revolutionary who fought alongside Mao Zedong, and later rose to become a top leader and associate of Deng’s in the 1980s. He was purged by Mao in the 1960s, imprisoned and suffered abuse, before being rehabilitated to become a top Party leader.
The children of many of the elder Xi’s contemporaries, who grew up together during the turbulent days of Maoism, saw their families experience similar fates. Today, the second Red generation — or hongerdai as they are known in China — occupy the highest positions of power in Chinese politics and industry, colloquially referred to as the “party of Princelings” or taizidang — a clutch of families that command special political capital within the CPC.
They include the children of former Party elders who rose to the top along with Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, such as Bo Xilai, another prominent “princeling” who climbed to the top of the party before his fall from grace last year over a scandal. Children of revolutionary leaders have also made their mark — and fortunes — as China’s economy soared, heading China’s most powerful banks and State-run corporations.
Zhang Lifan has closely followed their changing stories over the turbulent past six decades of the People’s Republic from a unique vantage point. A historian by training, he spent many years at the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He subsequently left the academy to become an independent and outspoken commentator. His father, Zhang Naiqi, was an eminent activist and pro-democracy politician, who was purged during the anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s.
In the past few decades, he has watched his contemporaries — many of whom witnessed similar horrors inflicted on their parents by Mao Zedong’s foot soldiers — rise to the top of China’s political system.
Their Red background, he says, will inform their decision-making, and likely emerge as both an asset and a liability.
“I come from the same political environment and time as the Princelings,” he said. “They want to have a strongman to lead the CPC out of today’s troubles. They are reluctant about diluting their political control, but they know they need economic growth to enhance their legitimacy. But they are facing a dilemma, because they know liberalisation of economics will lead to social and political democratic demands.”
Mr. Xi is already demonstrating “authority we did not see in Hu’s era” by centralising decision-making. Only on Monday, Mr. Xi was chosen by the Politburo to head “a leading group for overall reform” that will set policies for economic and political reforms. Under Mr. Hu Jintao, however, economic responsibility was shared with the Chinese Premier or head of the government, Wen Jiabao.
“What is happening is that power is being moved out of the Politburo out to other institutions, such as the reform leading group or the newly established national security commission, to give Xi greater authority,” Professor Zhang said.
While Mr. Xi’s “political capital” may, in a sense, hence emerge as an asset, enabling more nimble and centralised policy planning, Professor Zhang said it is also a liability when it comes to the issue of political reforms and bringing much-needed checks to the untrammelled power at the top of the party.
“The princelings are like a family, so they worry about the party’s interests the most,” he said.
“If you look at the anti-corruption campaign, there is such a concern about external supervision that they are attempting to solve the problem only within the system. What the princelings are trying to be”, he added, “is both the referee and the player in a game”.