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From Hu’s the Boss to Xi’s in Charge: A First Season Recap of China's Still-New Leader

A year after the arrival of China's new president on the world stage, it's time to ask if he's achieving his twin goals of being the new Deng Xiaoping and not the new Mikhail Gorbachev.
President Barack Obama walks with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China on the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013. (PHOTO: PETE SOUZA)

President Barack Obama walks with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China on the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013. (PHOTO: PETE SOUZA)

Twelve months ago, Xi Jinping became part of a Chinese leadership lineage that began with Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping and includes Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. So this seems a good time to sum-up some things we’ve learned about him and discovered or re-learned about the opaque world of Chinese elite politics since last November.

We knew only scattered facts about the president before his rise, such as that he had held a variety of important government posts, including briefly serving as party secretary of Shanghai, had visited the United States in 1985, and was the son of Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002). This last fact shaped a lot of speculation, since the elder Xi had been part of the Communist Party before 1949, held high positions early in the Mao years (1949-1976), been purged during the Cultural Revolution, rehabilitated under Deng’s watch, and aligned himself with liberal rather than hardline factions toward the end of his life. Those skeptical early on about the likelihood of the younger Xi moving in bold liberalizing directions tended to emphasize that, as a “princeling” (a descendent of an important early revolutionary), he would want to preserve the status quo, while those who expected him to be more progressive tended to focus on things like the positions his father took as a party elder.

Now, while there is still plenty of room for speculation and counter-speculation, we have more to go on. Enough, at least, to, in the time-honored tradition of bloggers everywhere (and, of course, The Late Show With David Letterman), offer up a Xi Jinping’s First Year Top 10 List. In it, I’ll emphasize comparisons, contrasts, and connections between China’s past and present and between China and the U.S. Some points will be obvious, while others may strike—at least non-specialists—as surprising.

Will Xi’s time in power see a substantive shift in U.S.-China relations? We don’t know yet, but his first year has seen a trend toward symbolic overlaps continue.

01. Chinese and American leaders continue to be chosen in radically different ways. To use a neatly contrastive phrase I first heard employed by Richard McGregor of the Financial Times, while American presidents are elected, Chinese ones are selected (by a small group of elders). There’s little suspense in the Chinese process. An illness or a last minute factional struggle could keep the chosen one from coming to power, but even then there would be no doubt about the party affiliation (Communist), ethnicity (Han), and gender (male) of the person who would take his place.

02. Chinese political transitions have become more routinized and predictable.Both Mao and Deng had not one heir apparent but several, all but the last of whom was purged, demoted, or died before taking power. Hu and Xi, on the other hand, were designated early on as the likely successors to the men who came before them. And then rose to the top spot just as expected.

03. China’s top leaders now take power via a ritualized multi-stage process that begins a 10-year term. Both Hu and Xi were installed as head of the party at one plenum and confirmed as president at a second one. They then presided, as Xi just did, over a third one devoted to policy issues that in a sense tells us what the newest leader’s platform will be.

04. A Chinese leader’s key slogans, as well as platform, are announced after rather than before he takes power. In the U.S., Hu’s call for a “Harmonious Society” might have been part of his campaign slogan, but he didn’t talk about it until after he had been president for several years. Xi, in a relatively precocious move, began speaking about the “Chinese Dream” before his Second Plenum, but not until after he was made head of the party

05. It’s high time to stop asking, as the South China Morning Post did yet again November 4, whether Xi “is a reformist or not." He’s clearly interested in pursuing social and economic reforms. The Third Plenum includes calls for changes in the “one-child policy” (allowing more couples to have second children) for example, and for farmers to get more control over their land.

06. The “is he a reformer” question was never a good one to pose in either/or terms. Deng linked the word “reform” to that of “revolution,” which meant it, too, became invested with sacred significance. As a result, his successors have had no real choice but to express support for both “reform” and “revolution.” The better question to ask from the start would have been what kinds of reforms Xi would promote and what kinds he would resist. Xi seems ready to be bolder than Hu on the economic and social front (doing more, for example, to make the economy responsive to market forces), but to follow Deng, Jiang, and Hu in holding the line against political reforms (flagged by the expansive of the state’s security apparatus and by this past year seeing an uptick in the detention of moderate civil society activists).

07. Xi would like to be seen as a second Deng. He has used phrases associated with that leader’s late 1970s calls for reform and opening to the world, and he has made a symbolically resonant visit to Shenzhen, a city closely tied to Deng’s economic vision. And neither Xi’s rethinking of social and economic arrangements nor his clampdown on dissent and free speech undermines analogies with Deng, who was both a proponent of market reforms and the man in charge when Democracy Wall protests were curtailed more than 30 years ago and the June 4th Massacre carried out in 1989.

08. Xi’s celebration of Deng doesn’t mean that he’s distancing himself completely from Mao. If questions about Xi being a “reformer” shouldn’t be asked as though they were either/or ones, the same goes for those about his connection to Mao and Mao’s legacy. Yes, Xi’s erstwhile rival, Bo Xilai, now disgraced and in prison, was tightly associated with Maoist symbols and songs, but this hasn’t stopped China’s new leader from quoting Mao approvingly in speeches. This isn’t really surprising. It isn’t as if Deng completely distanced himself from Mao, who was officially assessed during Deng’s time in power as having been right 70 percent of the time, wrong 30 percent. Last January, Nicholas Kristof, in a piece answering “yes” to the “will Xi be a reformer” question, said he expected to see the giant Mao portrait in central Beijing taken down from its spot of honor during the new leader’s tenure. That could happen, of course, but so far what we’ve actually seen Xi do is allow Mao’s native province of Hunan to move forward with high profile plans to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Mao’s birth.

09. Xi definitely does not want to be remembered someday as China’s Gorbachev. Some foreigners think of how much Deng and Gorbachev had in common, but in China, it’s the contrasts that tend to be stressed. What’s emphasized is that Gorbachev presided over the fall from power of Russia’s Communist Party and saw Moscow go from being the capital of a big and influential country to a smaller and less important one. Deng, by contrast, kept the Communist Party on top and sealed the deal to expand Beijing’s reach by bringing Hong Kong under its control. Others may long for a Chinese Gorbachev to emerge, but recent Chinese leaders have been haunted by the specter of the Soviet one. Xi’s references to the Soviet Union’s implosion being an object lesson of what not to do shows that this is still the case.

10. In spite of all the many Beijing-Washington contrasts, when it comes to style, Xi’s first year carried forward a long-term trend of convergence in appearances between Chinese and American leaders.When Nixon met Mao in 1972 and when Carter and Deng met in 1979, the Chinese and American leaders wore totally different sorts of clothes and had totally different titles. By the time Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton met, however, they were both referred to as “president” of their countries, even though the former was also head of China’s Communist Party. In addition, since Chinese leaders had by then begun to only rarely don “Mao suits,” Jiang and Clinton dressed very similarly. Will Xi’s time in power see a substantive shift in U.S.-China relations? We don’t know yet, but his first year has seen this trend toward symbolic overlaps continue. As journalists such as Christina Larson have noted, Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, has been playing a role more like that we expect of a first lady than her predecessors when accompanying her husband on diplomatic trips. And the highpoint of Xi and Obama’s first American summit was not a policy breakthrough or joint communiqué but photo ops that showed the two men eschewing coats and ties to walk around in their shirtsleeves. This was a signal to anyone who was interested that while they came to power via dissimilar routes and the systems they head remain a study in contrasts, they are on the same page when it comes to sartorial symbolism in formal and informal settings alike.