Xi Jinping’s leadership styleChina is not easy to understand. Its ranking system for one is puzzling. China ranks power according to the hierarchical standing in the Communist Party. Four months ago, Xi Jinping ascended to the party’s general secretary, the highest rank among 1.3 billion Chinese people. According to the order of precedence announced in January during the funeral service for military general Yang Baibing, then-president Hu Jintao was named before Xi Jinping. Hu was respected as the country’s highest leader ahead of the ceremonial succession of presidency in March.
Presidency in China mostly exists in name. The president makes legal proclamations and appoints key ministers, but serves as a figurehead as his authority is decided by the National People’s Congress. Still, as long as Hu retained the position, he was honored as the first rank.
Xi Jinping’s profile is also a wonder. Upon graduating from Tsinghua University in Beijing, his first job was within the military, serving as a secretary for his father’s former subordinate Geng Biao, then secretary general of the Central Military Commission, for three years. After that, he joined the Communist Party, serving local political and bureaucratic positions in Zhengding County, Hebei Province, and moved on to Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
But Chinese media claim that Xi has never left the military. He served party positions in military committees while serving in Zhengding and Fuzhou. He also was the first party secretary of the regional military division in Zhejiang and first secretary of the party committee of the Shanghai guard. Therefore, he has long been acting officer throughout his political career.
“Life is like an onion,” said American poet Carl Sandburg. “You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” Trying to peel and parse over China, I too weep from its complicated and enigmatic ways. Still, I cannot stop trying to comprehend China because the future of our country is closely connected to it.
Xi last week assumed the top executive post of presidency. So where does he plan to take China?
Many break down modern China into two three-decade eras since 1949 - 30 years under Mao Zedong and 30 years of Deng Xiaoping. The first 30 years was cold and hungry for the Chinese. But bureaucracy remained relatively clean and the masses were united under the party flag. In the days of Deng, people went less hungry as the economy flourished. But the wealth gap deepened and resentment toward the rich and elite increased because of prevalent corruption. Critics blame Deng for the imbalance of wealth and bureaucratic corruption.
Deng championed a two-hand approach. He said China should grasp reform and opening with the right hand and Communist foundation and autocracy with the left. One group of critics attacks Deng’s right hand. They resent Deng’s push toward a market economy. The other group criticizes Deng’s left that held fast to anti-democracy practices and didn’t allow reform. The group is bitter about minimal progress in democracy and the intractable one-party system.
Xi vowed to lead China toward the “Chinese dream” and the path of the great renaissance age for the Chinese race. During a party address, he said the history before and after reforms should not be contradictory. He said the 30 years of Mao and another 30 years of Deng are separately meaningful to the trajectory of the nation. He is suggesting that Deng’s reforms were possible because Mao firmly planted the socialist foundation. To put it plainly, Mao built China and Deng enriched it.
Xi wants to maintain the best parts of both the Mao and Deng years. He wants to inherit Deng’s economic liberalization and progress while employing the popular Mao approach of relying on public support and loyalty. He would stick to the socialist ideology and communist foundation, but in a lighter or neo-authoritarian form through cleaner and more appealing government for the people.
After his ascension to top post in the party, he began touring local provinces, starting with Guangdong, pledging “no stop to reforms or opening.” Xi mimicked Deng’s famous rhetoric during a tour of Guangdong and other southern industrial cities in 1992 to pitch for economic opening and reform. He sought to connect and muster public support for his campaign in Mao’s style.
Xi rejected the usual authoritarian police car parade and barricade. He removed the red carpet and walked right into the crowd of the masses. He is likely to continue to uphold pragmatic interests of the nation while keeping a close reach with the rank and file. The populace can easily be stirred. They also tend to obey strong and definite leadership.
Xi’s China is likely to become more assertive. It is expected to be more articulate on North Korean nuclear issues. If its interests are undermined, Beijing will likely mount pressure on Pyongyang. It won’t likely easily back down from territorial claims and rows even if they risk a physical clash with Japan over the islets in the East China Sea as well as other neighboring countries in the South China Sea.
Xi sent a loud and clear message to the people at home and abroad when he said the “soul of a strong army lies in the resolute command by the party.” The military therefore must “obey the party at any time under any circumstances.” It must fight when necessary and win.
We have to prepare ourselves for a rise of China to its strongest since the 19th century.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul