Much as in the early days of former President Hu Jintao’s reign, the question of whether or not Chinese President Xi Jinping is a political reformer has been a popular dinner table topic among students of China. Those oft-cited reasons for the “Xi is a liberal” argument tend to revolve around Xi’s personality and policy: his family pedigree and political style, as well as select economic and institutional reforms ushered in under his reign.
For starters, Xi Jinping has endeared himself to China’s liberal commentariat through his family pedigree. On a personal level, his father, Xi Zhongxun, had been a champion of Deng Xiaoping’s economic “reform and opening” from the very start. Xi senior served as governor of Guangdong Province – the seat of China’s very first “special economic zones” and the forefront of Deng’s economic transformation project. He was not only an advocate for economic reform but also relatively liberal politically, being a vocal supporter of China’s reformist leader of the 1980s, Hu Yaobang. At the party meeting that led to Hu’s downfall in 1987, Xi senior was reportedly the only senior leader to speak up in support of Hu, as a result of which Xi was soon forced into semi-retirement. That family connection from the previous generation has lived on to this day, as Xi Jinping reportedly remains close friends with Hu Deping, the eldest son of Hu Yaobang and a leader of China’s liberal-minded “princelings.”
Xi’s choice of destination for his symbolic first domestic travel as general secretary, too, signaled his commitment to stay faithful to this family lineage. He chose to revisit Guangdong Province in a carefully orchestrated act of political cinema intended to emulate Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “Southern Tour.” This was done in stark contrast with his predecessor, Hu Jintao. When Hu first came to power, he publicly tied himself to Mao-era party orthodoxy by traveling to such Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sanctuaries as the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army and two other cities that once served as CCP’s headquarters (before its ultimate triumph in the Chinese Civil War).
Moreover, in terms of Xi’s political power base, he appears to have forged a new coalition with the party’s relatively more liberal Communist Youth League faction, which is headed by Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Li Yuanchao. In early 2013, in a break with existing practice, Xi appointed Li Yuanchao, a mere Politburo member, as China’s vice president and designated him as the second-in-command of the party’s four “leading small groups” on foreign affairs, national security, emergency response, and major decisions. Li was also upgraded from an ordinary member of the Politburo to a de facto standing member, when Xi allowed him to chuxi or both attend and vote in standing committee meetings.
In continuing this collaboration with the party’s liberal wing, Xi has elevated Premier Li Keqiang to deputy chair of the two powerful organizations created at the party’s recent Third Plenum: the National Security Commission and the Leading Small Group for Comprehensive Deepening of Reforms (LSGCDR). The appointments endow the premier with newfound influence on portfolios such as security policy, rule of law, “party construction,” and party discipline and inspection (anti-corruption).
In the same spirit, in January 2014, Xi upgraded the “National Politics and Law Working Conference” to the “Central Politics and Law Working Conference.” The conference by tradition would have been chaired by Meng Jianzhu, the internal security chief (a now Politburo-level, or top 25, position). But this time Xi himself presided over the conference, while flanked by two other deputy chairs of the LSGCDR. This composition of the presidium indicates that the politics and law portfolio (or weiwen, stability maintenance) may have been reassigned to fall under the LSGCDR’s supervision, on account of the group’s stated authority over “democratic and rule of law reform” and “social institutional reform” matters; whereas it was once thought that this portfolio would be assigned under the National Security Commission as a matter of “internal security.”
If this interpretation is true, then on balance, any attempt to rethink solutions to stability maintenance portfolio should be considered a step in the right direction. This is especially true if it involves moving away from finding solutions in strengthening law enforcement (to stifle existing societal discontent) and instead toward finding solutions in designing institutional changes (to reduce causes of societal discontent). Xi himself affirmed this new thinking during his keynote at the aforementioned conference, when he argued that “protecting people’s rights (weiquan) ought to be the foundation of stability maintenance (weiwen).” Of course this process, too, will likely be subjected to the same “two steps forward, one step back” pattern that many students of China are all too familiar with.
These initiatives have been supplemented by a series of economic liberalization initiatives introduced at the CCP’s Third Plenum in November, which promised gradual retrenchment of the Chinese state’s visible hand in the market. These include greater restraint on the government’s use of economic stimulus, liberalization in the financial sector, reining in the real estate bubble, and mitigating the Chinese economy’s overcapacity problem.
On the other hand, in spite of these seemingly more liberal signs, Xi Jinping has also shown a more authoritarian side. The party-state has been compressing the space for liberal activists and journalists. The arrest of moderate liberal civil society activist Xu Zhiyong (founder of the “New Citizens Movement”) and the exile of Peking University economics professor Xia Yeliang are but two high-profile examples of Zhongnanhai’s continued intolerance of political dissent. In terms of freedom of the press, Beijing has now made a number of arrests of ordinary citizens for allegedly spreading rumors over Weibo (China’s Twitter clone), as well as imprisoning Chinese journalists who have drawn the party-state’s ire. Most recently, Beijing has been expanding its reach by threatening non-renewal of foreign reporters’ journalist visas, conceivably as a way to incentivize greater self-censorship from the foreign press in the future.
Moreover, Xi has also espoused the “60-year consistency thesis” on numerous occasions. In short, this is the position that the Communist Party’s recent 30 years (after the reform and opening) must not be used to negate the achievements of the first 30 years (of Maoist radicalism). Indeed, in December, Xi stuck with party orthodoxy and evaluated Mao as “a great pioneer of Chinese Marxism and a great national hero.”
One then returns to the original question: Ought we to consider Xi Jinping a liberal reformer? Perhaps he is closet liberal? Logically, one may still hold on to the “Xi is a (closet) liberal” narrative by dismissing those discouraging signs as Xi’s way to cover his political flank. That is to say, Xi may be protecting his liberal agenda by balancing it with authoritarian means – to domestically “out-conservative the conservatives” and internationally “out-hawk the hawks.” Indeed, this is a possibility hinted at by Bao Tong, one of the most senior former officials-turned-dissidents, who suggested that Xi is essentially following Deng Xiaoping’s path but applying Mao Zedong’s style.
But true as this explanation may still turn out to be, it is ultimately unsatisfying – because it is practically unfalsifiable. One can use the logic to justify virtually all draconian measures by apologizing that they are undergirded by benign long-term intentions – that they are conservative means to liberal ends. Moreover, one can also easily reverse the logic to argue (though perhaps less convincingly) that Xi is merely using liberal rhetoric to sugarcoat his true conservative agenda.
Perhaps a useful approach out of this conundrum is to find a probable baseline historical analogy that the Chinese leadership may be working from in their mental map. Toward the end of the 1970s, a new Chinese leader with unquestionable Communist Party bona fides came to power. There was wide consensus within the party that it was in crisis and that the existing system of Maoist leftism was not sustainable. Supported by a relatively liberal henchman, this leader presided over a range of significant economic reforms, while raising hopes that significant political liberalization would soon follow. However, after the initial euphoria, that leader pursued only minor political changes that ultimately fell under the rubric of piecemeal administrative reforms (xinzheng gaige), without ever seriously touching the political structure (zhengzhi gaige). While he was happy to pursue reforms under the banner of pragmatism over dogma (shishi qiushi), ultimately he and his fellow party elders drew a line in the sand when they unveiled their so-called “four cardinal principles” (sixiang jiben yuanze), which stated that the CCP’s leading role in Chinese politics and its professed Marxist-inspired ideology must remain untouchable under all circumstances.
That leader, needless to say, was Deng Xiaoping. Compared with Deng, Xi Jinping, too, reigns over widespread consensus within the party that corruption and inequality have reached explosive proportions. Xi, too, appears willing to consider implementing select reforms to respond to calls of the civil society, but the CCP leadership seems firm on the principle that the party alone, not any other organized actor, has to be the agent implementing them. (Indeed, as in the case of Xu Zhiyong, the party has gradually been implementing the reforms proposed by China’s civil society while imprisoning the very nongovernment activists championing them.)
Fortunately for Xi, his hold on political power is both more direct and came earlier than Deng’s. Deng faced limitations on his grasp of power: Early on, he had to combat Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng for power. Even after winning the power struggle, Deng still ruled only indirectly, as he never formally served as the CCP’s general secretary or China’s president or premier. In contrast, Xi’s reign has seen virtually unprecedented institutionalization and centralization of power into his own hands, in significant part through the newly created National Security Commission and LSGCDR.
All things considered, the jury may be still out. But one can only hope that, with the benefit of hindsight and more centralized political power at his disposal, Xi can use the rare gift of this “unipolar moment” in Chinese politics to move beyond the experience of the 1970s and 80s.
Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University and a recent Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. An earlier version of this paper appeared on the Banyan Analytics Brief.