In Fire and Ashes, a searing 2013 account of shifting from the domain of academia to being a politician in Canada, Michael Ignatieff discussed how politics is more often than not a tale of grasping luck when it comes along, rather than about any particular practical or technical ability. He referred to the stories by ancient Roman author Cicero of the ways in which Fortuna, goddess of fate, would shift from one position to another, changing the careers of politicians in an instant. Success was a question of simply being in the right place at the right time; things wholly down to chance, rather than planning wisely and working diligently.
Xi Jinping has been described as many things: Powerful, autocratic, confident, nationalistic. One seldom sees him described with the rather more prosaic word “lucky.” Of all of the attributes Xi might have, however, it is this which is perhaps the most accurate.
There are three reasons for this, and 2017 has given an opportunity to see them all. The first is that his leadership is occurring as the story of China’s modern development is reaching its climax. The unification of the country was achieved under Mao Zedong; its economic growth and the most spectacular era of wealth creation under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. They have bequeathed Xi a country wealthier, more powerful, and more prominent than at any time in its modern history.
The costs China has had to pay to reach this position have been daunting. But the worst of these happened under former leaderships. It was back then that the most savage choices were made – the decision to relinquish Maoism, for instance, and embrace elements of the market, as was done under Deng. Xi has faced no dilemmas like these. He took stewardship of China when the tough economic changes were already well progressed, and when the most pressing threats to one Party rule had been seen off from 1989 onward. Xi’s main responsibility has not been to rewrite the script of national mission and renaissance he is taking part in, but to simply continue acting in plot lines started by others. He has done it well, granted, but that is all he has done.
The second stroke of luck is that, in the era of Xi, the United States has decided to elect a president who illustrates daily its decline of confidence and political reach. Donald Trump has contributed more to Chinese soft power than 600 Confucius Institutes and hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditure on Chinese propaganda. His attitude toward free trade deals, the environment, and multilateral diplomacy has opened up spaces of influence for China that were unimaginable even a few years ago.
It is true that from a very early stage Xi’s leadership showed an awareness of the need to tell China’s story more proactively to the rest of the world. Xi also made the clear link between management of domestic issues and associated global ones. Xi’s 2017 speech at the Davos World Economic Forum was the most powerful, tangible taste of “globalization with Chinese characteristics,” a concept that would have been scoffed at until only recently. Now, the idea is being looked at with increasing interest as well established actors in Western liberal democratic contexts start showing deeper doubts about their own stability and sustainability. The West’s self-generated perplexity, which has made these moves by China so effective and impactful, however, was none of China’s work, though it has been very much to China’s gain.
The third lucky point for Xi is that no leader of modern China has had such a lack of viable elite competitors around him. Mao had to deal with rivals, real and imagined, throughout his career, and he treated them with a mixture of guile and brutality. Deng needed to contest with formidable opponents of over-rapid marketization like Chen Yun. Jiang had to deal with the residual influence of Deng, and Hu with the residual influence of Jiang! But for Xi, his immediate predecessor did him the grace of disappearing almost the moment Xi was appointed party secretary in November 2012. Indeed, the only viable opponent in Xi’s generation – Bo Xilai – disappeared conveniently from the scene before Xi had even been elevated, thanks to a wholly unexpected series of events sparked by Bo’s wife’s involvement with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Had Bo not gone in this way, it is hard to imagine that Xi would have moved so swiftly into such a dominant place as he subsequently did.
These three massive pieces of luck have been the source of Xi’s unique status and power: the prosperous and powerful position of his country after 70 years of development, most of it under other leaders; the chaotic situation in the rest of the world, and particularly in China’s key strategic competitor, the United States; and the almost complete lack of viable domestic elite competitors. With luck like this, perhaps anyone could have ended up looking dominant, as long as they got the top slot.
But as Cicero’s fable made clear, fortune twists and turns. Good runs of luck come to an end. In the past, leaders in China talked of an era of strategic opportunity. That might be translated into the more down-to-earth language of an era of luck. As of 2017, Xi was the luckiest Chinese leader in modern history. But it is likely that some time soon — maybe in 2018 — we will see that luck ending and Xi needing to really demonstrate authentic leadership. At that moment, and only at that moment, can we speak about just how powerful he is.