Features | Politics | East Asia

5 Questions About Xi Jinping, Answered

Drawing on insider accounts, Mu Chunshan delves into the mysteries of Chinese politics under Xi Jinping.

5 Questions About Xi Jinping, Answered
Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

To understand China’s diplomacy, you need to understand Chinese politics. Diplomacy is an extension of domestic politics; misunderstand the internal machinations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and you run the risk of misinterpreting China’s foreign policy. This is particularly true now, as the interaction between China’s internal affairs and its diplomacy has only intensified since President Xi Jinping took office.

Take the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) Beijing set up in the East China Sea in November 2013, several days after the Third Plenum. That important CCP meeting made the major decision to establish two new bodies: the leading group for overall reform and China’s National Security Commission. That decision can be considered a direct prelude to establishing the ADIZ.

Just as you can’t discuss Chinese foreign policy without considering domestic politics, you can’t talk about domestic politics without talking about Xi Jinping. Outside of China, Xi is the subject of endless conjecture. In this analysis, I try to answer five major questions about China’s internal politics based on what I have learned as a journalist and long-term observer of China’s development.

Question One: Are Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang rivals or partners?

This question arises because many have noted that while there has been a flood of propaganda about Xi Jinping in China, much less attention is paid to Li Keqiang. The difference is especially evident in comparison with Wen Jiabao, Li’s predecessor and a media darling.

The first prime minister of China, Zhou Enlai enjoys a very high reputation – he is even more popular than Mao Zedong. Ever since Zhou, the term “prime minister” has had special connotations in China. Nearly everyone in China hopes the sitting prime minister can be as capable, charming and resolute as Zhou Enlai was, which puts a great deal of pressure on China’s top leaders.

Like many observers, I also used to think that there was a secret competition or even a “media war” between Xi and Li. I was confused by the surface narrative promoted by the media.  But I’ve come to realize that Xi and Li are basically partners whose willingness to cooperate overweighs their disagreements. After Xi took office, the CCP stepped up its efforts to “run the state with groups,” establishing important organizations like the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group and the Military Reform Leading Group, in addition to the previously mentioned Leading Group for overall reform and China’s National Security Commission. Li Keqiang is second-in-command in almost all of these groups – the notable exception is those involving military affairs. Far from shrinking, his power seems to have expanded from his main responsibilities for economic affairs. That suggests that Xi and Li have a tacit understanding not only on the subject of reform and the economy, but in almost every area.

At the First World Internet Conference, which was held in China recently, Li spoke in place of Xi, who was traveling overseas. This underscored his status as second-in-command of the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group. By the same token, Li met the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently, when Xi Jinping was not in Beijing.

So how to explain the disparity in media attention? One Chinese government official told me that Chinese leaders have reached a consensus that it is necessary to highlight the authority of Xi Jinping to meet calls for a “strongman” who can solve the difficult problems China faces in implementing reform and anti-corruption efforts. In addition, I think Li Keqiang may simply be a more understated character than his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, just as Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s predecessor, was more low-key in style than Xi is.

Question Two: Who are Xi Jinping’s most trusted advisors?

The answer here is generally a matter of conjecture. Some possibilities: Li Xi, Xi Jinping’s schoolmate and currently the governor of Liaoning Province; Ding Xuexiang, Xi Jinping’s secretary and the deputy director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee; or Wang Huning, a the head of the CCP Central Policy Research Office. Each of these men fits the bill.

However, Xi Jinping recently announced major measures regarding anti-corruption, propaganda, armed forces and security. The announcement offered some additional hints regarding Xi’s inner circle. In my view, Xi Jinping’s comrades-in-arms include Wang Qishan, the Secretary of Political and Judiciary Commission under the Central Committee; Lu Wei, the director of the Office of Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group; General Liu Yuan; and Li Zhanshu, the Director of General Office of the Central Committee (who is also responsible for the operation of China’s National Security Commission) .

Wang Qishan’s role is evident. Without him, the anti-corruption campaign in China would stall, and the public would not have such high hopes for Xi Jinping.

Lu Wei is a low-key operator who is young and capable. After many years at Xinhua News Agency, Lu was placed in charge of propaganda in Beijing. Lately, he has become the person who runs China’s internet. Under his governance, Xi has successfully gained a man-of-the-people image on the internet and the “Big Vs,” as the most influential voices on China’s microblogs are known, have been quieted – exactly what the government needed. There is every reason to believe that Lu has earned Xi’s appreciation.

Liu Yuan is Xi’s powerful assistant in the military. Although the Chinese government has never disclosed the relationship between the two, Hong Kong media reports that Xi supported Liu in the fight against Xu Caihou, the former vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. It was even rumored that Liu Yuan would play an important role in the PLA’s Disciplinary Inspection Committee. Both Xi and Liu are the children of Party elders, meaning that they share a “red gene” and loyalty to China and the CCP.

Finally, Li Zhanshu is responsible for the overall planning of all activities attended by Xi and for Xi’s personal safety. Li is always part of the entourage for Xi’s overseas visits, clear evidence of his importance.

Question Three: Does Xi have any real political opposition?

In contrast to Western politics, the CCP brooks no visible factions within the Party, a rule since the time of Mao Zedong. Any obvious faction would quickly be labeled as “sectarianism” and targeted for criticism. In other words, in theory a Party member (no matter what level) should only be loyal to the Party as a whole instead of to a certain individual.

On the surface, then, high-level Party politics show no sign of disharmony. The public was utterly unaware of Bo Xilai’s imminent downfall as late as March 2012, when the annual National People’s Congress ended. It was not until Wen Jiabao criticized Bo’s signature “Chongqing Model” at his press conference that people realized Bo’s time was up. Bo Xilai’s case was handled as a criminal offense. Although it is almost universally believed that Bo’s downfall was associated with a political struggle, nobody can offer strong evidence to prove that Bo was Xi’s political opposition.

Nevertheless, it is certain that Xi has faced resistance and real opposition. Xi once openly remarked that “The reform has entered its hard time and deep end” and “The anti-corruption situation is still complex and severe” – indications that these projects face an uphill political battle.

That is exactly why the Chinese government has been building up Xi Jinping’s authority through the media – Xi needs unity within CCP as well as popular support. A Chinese official told me, “They [the opposition] are tough, so Xi has to be tougher than them.”

And who is the opposition? Just look for the “big tigers” – Xi will not let them rest easy.

Question Four: Does Xi really hope to go beyond previous leaders and become a “new architect”?

Referring to Xi as China’s “new architect” is a media invention. This phrase has been acknowledged by neither Xi nor official papers. This label only appeared on the website of People’s Daily. If the CCP really wanted to call the president the “new architect,” it would do so via a headline in the official People’s Daily newspaper.

Two years ago, Hu Angang, a professor at Tsinghua University, published an article in the People’s Daily saying that China uses a “collective presidential system,” something different from both the democratic system of the West and traditional Communist centralization. In the Chinese system, power is shared among the members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Decisions on major issues are made by taking a poll. Hu’s boldly expressed opinion has since had high-level acknowledgement.

We can take the appearance of the term “new architect” as the government’s way of flying a kite to test public reaction. This makes it a good time for other media to follow suit in spreading the term, because this is not only risk-free but also helpful — coining a “new concept” about Xi Jinping will attract attention from around the world.

It is important to remember that Xi has only been in office for two years, and has at least eight years of work ahead of him. During this period he will be as much a horse trader as an architect, as he gradually centralizes power that was previously in the hands of other standing committee members. However, there is no sign that Xi will destroy the “collective presidential system” by depriving other PBSC members the right to be equally involved in decision-making. It would be impossible for Xi to completely subvert the political machinations at the top of the CCP, which have matured in the 20 years since the time of Jiang Zemin.

I have no doubt that Xi Jinping is a man with a sense of his historical role, and that what he does will not only be valuable for China today, but also helpful to China’s future development. China needs to change, and Xi Jinping has been chosen by history to push through reforms and fight corruption. It is essential that someone do it.

One Chinese official agrees with this view, saying that Xi Jinping will play the role of a strongman who will help China develop more smoothly, more safely, and with less risk. According to this official, it will take at least five years for the term “new architect” to be officially accepted.

Question Five: What do Chinese people think of Xi Jinping?

Think about Putin: Despite pressure and sanctions from the West, he maintains a high approval rating. When meeting with Putin last year, Xi Jinping observed that he and Putin have similar personalities. And some of Xi’s actions enjoy the same popularity in China as Putin’s do in Russia.

Most Chinese people support Xi Jinping because they see him as a different kind of leader — Xi presents his charming wife at diplomatic activities; Xi allows the internet to show cartoon images of himself; Xi has the moxie to topple other Politburo members; Xi is prepared to be tough against the U.S. and Japan.

With the rapid development of China’s economy, what Chinese want has been changing. They seek international recognition and integration. Xi Jinping is satisfying this psychological need while fulfilling economic demands. Under Xi, China and even the Chinese people seem different than they were before.

Some people may worry that Xi he is restoring a “cult of personality” reminiscent of the Mao era. A government official I spoke to dismissed this as ridiculous. He argued that the media is far too sophisticated for that today. People today enjoy freedom of choice among open and diverse ideas; there is no room for a cult of personality. The official assured me that nobody in the government wants to restore a cult of personality, but it is necessary to establish Xi’s authority.

There’s no doubt that the media has gone a bit overboard in propagandizing Xi Jinping recently. The outside world tends to over-interpret this media coverage, with the potential for miscalculations about China’s future development. It might even lull Xi himself into a false sense of security. Avoiding those outcomes requires thinking objectively about internal affairs and diplomacy.