Xi Jinping: China’s Undecided ‘Decider’
Image Credit: REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

Xi Jinping: China’s Undecided ‘Decider’


The Diplomat has published two excellent and thoughtful responses (here and here) to a piece I wrote last month asking whether the Legalist thought of Han Feizi – “China’s Machiavelli” – is a significant influence on Xi Jinping’s political views, and, if so, how.

Crucially, my interlocutors seem to differ on the overall thrust of Xi’s policies. As I will argue below, such disagreement is only possible because Xi’s administration really has been inconsistent. This, in turn, is because his primary objective has been, and so far remains, establishing his own autonomy as an independent decision-maker not beholden to existing interest groups. Achieving this autonomy of the Ruler, not any specific set of policies, is the Golden Rule of Legalism that Xi seems to have taken to heart.

Between Mao and Deng?

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Among other insights, Franz-Stefan Gady points out that we should ask ourselves just why a figure with, at minimum, an “ambiguous reputation” (if not an “infamous” one) can be quoted as a solemn authority by the country’s leader. Has China’s history of “radical political reform” made the sometimes harsh realism of Han Feizi’s writings more publicly acceptable?

This position is bolstered by the fact that Han Feizi’s most prominent supporter in PRC history was none other than Mao Zedong, who praised the ancient philosopher as a progressive foe of Confucian traditionalism, and used him to justify the Cultural Revolution. In concrete policy terms, no other leader in PRC history has so closely paralleled Mao’s disruptive takedown of entrenched intra-Party bureaucracy as has Xi, with his ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Both find support in the Legalist view that “putting fear into the officials” is the sine qua non of good rule. That sentiment always finds fans among the masses, all the more so when its expressions are dramatic and unexpected.

Jin Kai, on the other hand, points to real similarities between a Han Feizian or Machiavellian approach to “theory” and late twentieth century developments in official Party ideology. The pragmatic sensibility underlying Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that “practice is the only standard to test truth” has, indeed, been echoed in Xi’s policies since taking on the mantle of China’s second great “Architect of Reform.” His gradual promotion of rule of law mechanisms and ideas such as how the Party must be more “open-minded” also seem to point in a Dengist direction.

The Silent Majority

There is thus a tension here. Is Xi’s adoption of “Legalist” maxims and related policies radically novel, or a sign of continuity with an existing reform agenda? And, related to that, which of his PRC predecessors can he be reasonably compared to?

The sheer range and scope of Xi’s activities complicates any attempt at a definitive answer. In addition to his signature anti-corruption campaign, ongoing legal reforms, and important economic initiatives, Xi has (to some observers, paradoxically) simultaneously revived Party ideological activism through “mass-line campaigns,” “self-criticism,” reinvigorated censorship, and other such mechanisms.

On the whole, there is no doubt that many of China’s Westernizing liberals are feeling excluded from these moves, and that some neo-Maoists are cautiously hopeful (though their own websites are also being censored). Yet the greater part of Chinese political opinion lies between these two extremes; this is true not only within the Party, but for the populace as a whole. In other words, the vast middle remains undecided on substantive goals.

If you were a recently-appointed Chinese leader trying to establish independence from the interest groups and personal alliances that put you in office, where would you look for support? It is precisely this undetermined middle – those open to endorsing any political program that seems to reflect their own interests and, broadly, those of the state as a whole – that offers a potential base of support outside of existing factions.

Executive Authority

Thus, looking beyond his administration’s various and mutually opposed rhetorical strategies, we should see one unifying theme: the political claim that Xi himself represents the interests of “the People.” Naturally, he makes no claim to do this outside of the mechanisms of the Communist Party and the PRC state. But throughout his many innovations – from personally chairing a majority of the all-important Party “Leading Small Groups” to targeting elite factions’ financial and political capital – he is establishing the precedent that the General Secretary’s office is “where the buck stops.” In fact, he has thrust that office into the national consciousness in the most literal sense possible.

There are those who see in these moves a repetition of Mao’s cult of personality. But it is important to remember that Mao’s authority reached its apex well after he stepped down from all active state roles. Indeed, the high (or low) point of his Cultural Revolution was deposing his successor as State Chairman, Liu Shaoqi. Xi’s attempt to establish autonomous authority as General Secretary and State President, by contrast, depends ultimately on strengthening his ‘role-based charisma’, not personal mystique.

Even Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, who does see Xi’s status as approaching Mao’s, explains that their key shared characteristic is having been “chosen” as a leader by their Party fellows. This necessarily implies that future leaders could be chosen in the same manner, not that Xi has been given an absolute mandate.

He has, however, clearly been given a mandate to rethink the role of the General Secretary in the overall structure of Party and state governance. This institutional reform should be seen as closely tied with his difficult-to-pin-down ideological profile. His main decision so far is just to be the one who decides.

The Decisionist Sovereign

Any number of insightful political thinkers from ages past could be cited for the proposition that autonomous decision-making ability is the baseline for all political success. Han Feizi, in particular, made this a core theme; he advised that “though the ruler is wise, he hatches no schemes from his wisdom, but causes all men to know their places.” Rather than developing a full-fledged personal platform of specific (and thus debatable) goals and policies, the ruler must “be silent.” Yet he will ultimately chose among the views proposed by his subordinates, and they are all keenly aware of this fact.

Machiavelli infamously wrote that it is better for a Prince to be “feared rather than loved.” Interpretations of this idea range so far as to defy summary. Was he being cynical or satirical, was he subtly implying his support for republicanism, or was he simply being authoritarian? Looking past these abstract categories, what is crucial is to imagine the institutional implications: He goes on to defend this principle “since men love as they themselves determine but fear as their ruler determines.”

In other words, the key is to make the ruler the determining political actor, not one whose policies are determined by others. This baseline requirement is shared by Han Feizi and Machiavelli, as well as by such disciplinary successors as the controversial 20th century German jurist Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt, who currently enjoys some popularity in Chinese scholarly debates, defined sovereign authority “not as the monopoly of domination or coercion, but as the monopoly of decision.” For him, the ultimate survival of a state, or a statesman, relies upon freeing political decisions from economic, ideological, personal, factional, or even moral interests. That is the only way to ensure responsiveness to “concrete” challenges.

Mastering the Situation

Of course it requires neither political genius nor advanced theory to realize much of the above. Even George W. Bush famously referred to himself as “the Decider.” Yet, equally famously, others in fact determined much of his administration’s policy.

For Xi, who has taken office at a time when China is facing momentous challenges, avoiding a similarly passive fate is far more important than implementing any particular policies. That is why he has been so radical when it comes to changing the institutional balance of power, but so slippery when it comes to articulating substantive goals for the long-term. Rather than deciding on a final set of Maoist or Dengist policies, Xi is attempting to turn the General Secretary’s office into a comprehensive point of origin for policymaking in general (a reversal of the Jiang-Hu trend). As Han Feizi wrote, if “you cannot find the solution to critical problems, you have no business worrying about unimportant ones.”

After decades of factional infighting, uncertain ideology, and stalled political reform, many Chinese see no more pressing question at the moment than the one Lenin referred to as “Who [rules] Whom?” Clearly, Xi is ready with one possible answer.

Ryan Mitchell is pursuing a Ph.D. in Law at Yale, where his research focuses on political philosophy and international law. He is also an attorney admitted to the State Bar of California.

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