To the outside world, China seeks to project a picture of monolithic unity behind President Xi Jinping’s highly centralised leadership. However, media tropes point to a greater scrutiny of his role and leadership style, especially during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Reports have surfaced alleging delays in reporting facts, conflicting instructions and tight censorship. Observers have drawn parallels between Mr. Xi and his powerful predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, perhaps a tad unfairly to both the iconic architects of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
A timeline of change
Mao presided over the founding of the PRC in 1949. He consolidated his leadership during the Long March in the mid-1930s. Despite his many detractors, he remained the undisputed leader of China until his death on September 9, 1976 even if, towards the end, it was the Gang of Four, led by his wife Jiang Qing, which had usurped power in his name. Mao banished his adversaries frequently, whether it was Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, or even Deng Xiaoping. Mao’s reign after the founding of the PRC lasted 27 years. By comparison, the 67-year-old Xi Jinping has been at the helm for just under eight years.
Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who never held the posts of either Head of State or Head of Government, changed China’s economic destiny with bold and far-sighted policy shifts, ushering in the Four Modernisations of agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology. The open-door policy, beginning the late 1970s, enabled China to emerge as the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment and a trade behemoth.
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Deng generally favoured a collegial form of decision-making in consultation with a clutch of senior leaders – the Party’s “Eight Elders”. Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both successive General Secretaries of the CPC, were for long Deng’s “left and right hands”, but when they were perceived as deviating from the CPC’s line, they were packed off ignominiously by the party elders led by Deng. From 1990 until his death in 1997, Deng’s only title was that of the Honorary Chairman of the Bridge Association of China. Yet, he remained the unquestioned leader, wielding great power even in his dotage, long after his successor Jiang Zemin had assumed the top posts.
Spotlight on Xi
The history of the CPC suggests that Mr. Xi wields less power than either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. He perhaps evokes more fear than respect on account of his ruthless anti-graft campaign that has brought down even high-ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals and Politburo members. In the consensus-driven system of the CPC developed after the Cultural Revolution, it was not uncommon to target the gofers of rivals, but top Party and PLA leaders were generally considered inviolable to avoid retribution when fortunes changed. In contrast, Mr. Xi has put behind bars “tigers” such as PLA Generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, political heavyweights such as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and Sun Zhengcai, besides thousands of “flies” — venal lower-ranking cadres. The question is not whether but when disgruntled forces might challenge Mr. Xi’s leadership.
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Since reining in the pandemic in China, the Chinese economy has had a head start, but it is clearly not out of the woods. Economic hardship could spark off public dissent and harsher security measures. Moreover, a military confrontation with the United States leading to a “loss of face”, however limited the engagement, is a risk that Mr. Xi can ill afford. Indignation could lead the Chinese people, nurtured on hubris, to quickly direct their ire against a leader who has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s advice, so well captured in the abbreviated aphorism, “hide our capacities and bide our time”.
Having steered through a constitutional revision in early 2018 that permits him to stay on in power beyond two terms, no doubt Mr. Xi would wish to preside over not just the centenary celebrations of the CPC in 2021 but also the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the PLA in 2027.
The run-up to the PLA’s centenary harbours potential for instability and conflict, especially in relation to China’s avowed goal of reunification with Taiwan. Any use of force by China could drag the U.S., and perhaps its allies too, into the maelstrom, a view supported by the recent passage of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act by the U.S. which seeks to inter alia strengthen Taiwan’s de facto independence.
Contrary to tradition, Mr. Xi has no anointed successor. When he assumes the mantle again beyond the 20th CPC Congress in 2022, he will thwart the ambitions of an entire “sixth generation” leadership. The only leader after Deng to have an extended stint was Jiang Zemin who was General Secretary from 1989-2002, President from 1993-2003 and Chairman of the CPC’s Central Military Commission (CMC) from 1989-2004. Jiang had clung on to the CMC post well after the baton had been passed to Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the CPC and President of the PRC. He survived after loosening his grip on power perhaps because he did not ride roughshod over other influential power centres. By comparison, Mr. Xi is “riding a tiger”.
A recently leaked internal report of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank affiliated to the Ministry of State Security in Beijing, purportedly warns China’s top leadership of a rising tide of anti-China sentiment in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the worst since the Tiananmen incident of June 1989. The leak may point to internal churnings or it could well be meant to convey that China remains undaunted. The analogy is also reminiscent of China’s short-lived isolation after Tiananmen.
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The hope, that an economically rich and prosperous China would gradually become liberal and democratic, has been belied. Whether the current U.S. pressure on China for its controversial policies towards Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan will induce change remains to be seen.
For now, the face-off continues and demands for accountability for the outbreak are mounting, testing Mr. Xi’s leadership. The alienation by China of a sizeable section of the international community and public criticism of Mr. Xi, including in the Chinese social media, suggest that the sun may have reached its zenith.
Sujan R. Chinoy, a China specialist and former Ambassador, is currently the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal