China Power

Another Look at China’s Leaders After the 2015 Plenum

Where does Xi Jinping fit in China’s political spectrum? And what does this mean for the rest of his time in power?

Another Look at China’s Leaders After the 2015 Plenum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Angélica Rivera de Peña

In 2009, during a visit to Beijing to research intra-party democracy, a Chinese analyst I spoke to characterized the difference between the leadership of Jiang Zemin and that of then-President Hu Jintao as the same as that between “a Republican and a Democrat in the U.S. system.” He explained: “Jiang is the Republican, and Hu the Democrat. One is pro-business, the other pro-poverty relief and supports farmers.” It was a contentious, but striking, analogy. For all the obvious issues about drawing such a parallel, it did alert me to the task of trying to think about leadership differences in China in a more innovative way.

Now that the Communist Party has held its most recent plenum under Xi Jinping, where does he fit into this leadership spectrum? Pro-business, or pro-poor; pro-establishment or an outsider? What meaningful descriptive categories can we give a Chinese elite leader like Xi to understand him better?

If we accept that since 1949  there have been five key “leadership generations” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that gives us the figures of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping to concentrate on. We can look at this collection of core leaders in two ways: in terms of their own character and political personality, and in terms of the policy behavior during the time they were active.

In terms of political personality, we can divide the five into extroverts and introverts. This is not primarily about their psychology, about which we can at best speculate, but more about the ways in which they behave toward power. Mao Zedong, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping can be described as leaders keen not just on accruing positions of power to themselves, but on using a very personal way of speaking. In effect, Mao, Jiang, and Xi deploy their personalities as a political tool. For this reason they can be described as “power extroverts.” They were not keen to hide their powers, but to flaunt them. They believed in the role of charisma in politics.

Deng and Hu were far more self-effacing political figures. In Deng’s case, he even seemed to go out of his way to avoid occupying formal power positions. He served as Vice Premier until 1982, and then as Chair of the Central Military Commission to 1989. But he was a much more elusive political personality than Mao, his predecessor. Hu’s illusiveness comes through in different ways. He did have the main formal positions of power, but he did not deploy charisma. Hu never referred to his personal biography in his speeches, and he could never be accused of personality politics. Perhaps that was the reason why Deng reportedly so favored Hu in his early career and chose him as the heir apparent even as Jiang was General Secretary. Deng and Hu were in some ways quite similar in their political behavior and personality.

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One can supplement this division between extroverts and introverts by using a temporal framework that divide politics in the PRC since 1949 into periods of policy activism and policy consolidation. Mao’s era was abnormal in this respect, almost continuously using mass campaigns (16 from 1951 to 1976) and yearly changes in policy. After his death, however, things changed radically. Spurts of policy activism started to be followed by longer periods of policy implementation and consolidation. Under Deng, the years from 1978 to 1982, when the opening-up reforms were announced and the first measures implemented, were highly active. So were the years from 1998 to 2001 under Jiang, which saw massive changes to state-owned enterprises, admission of entrepreneurs to the Party, and negotiation for Chinese entry to the World Trade Organization. Hu’s whole period in power could not be characterized as particularly dense in policy initiatives and changes. Instead, he largely implemented the measures Jiang had sponsored. Under Xi, things have changed once again to activism.

All of this helps us characterize Xi in two ways – as one of the political extroverts of the last 65 years, alongside Mao and Jiang, and as someone presiding over a period that has so far seen high levels of policy activism. Witness the latest example of this, the reform of the one-child policy at this year’s plenum. If the pattern holds, though, policy activism in China is relatively short lived–at least it has been since 1978–and is followed by a period of consolidation.

In addition, political extroverts have so far been followed by their opposite: more introverted figures. Perhaps this might help in the vexed question of who precisely might appear as a potential successor to Xi in the next half decade or so: Look for a consolidator, and an introvert. That would fit the approximate pattern of at least the last four decades.