Trans-Pacific View

On the Couch in Beidaihe: The Political Psychology of China’s President Xi Jinping

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Trans-Pacific View

On the Couch in Beidaihe: The Political Psychology of China’s President Xi Jinping

Insights from Dr. Kenneth Dekleva.

On the Couch in Beidaihe: The Political Psychology of China’s President Xi Jinping
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Kenneth Dekleva Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Psychiatry-Medicine Integration at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas and Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the U.S. Dept. of State from 2002-2016  is the 152nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” The views expressed are entirely Deklava’s own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Assess the impact on Chinese President Xi Jinping of Xu Zhangrun’s recent critique, “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes.”

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of media reports in the West, arising from Professor Xu Zhangrun’s recent monograph “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” implying that China is under strain and that this reflects negatively upon President Xi’s political hold on power. While this monograph stems from a proud tradition among Chinese intellectuals, in this case issuing a “Memorial to the Throne,” Western audiences have selectively highlighted certain points in Xu’s treatise while ignoring an understanding of Xi’s political psychology and how it might shape his response to the criticisms posed by Professor Xu’s publication. Doing so runs the risk of a rush to judgment, and of not understanding the policy implications inherit therein.

Xu’s monograph reflects Xi’s and the CCP’s allowing criticism to emerge into the open, following a period of increased clampdown on civic discourse. Its publication is remarkable and paradoxically reveals Xi’s confidence and strength. Observers have also tended to neglect the last part of Xu’s treatise, in which he writes, “What matters for China and the world is that this particular Grand Ship of State continues to catch the wind in its sails as it peacefully steers a course on the way to continued political normality.”

Xu doesn’t stop at his critique of Xi. He lambastes U.S. President Trump and speaks of Trump as having “a personality amplified by bloated self-regard and the lifetime habits of rapaciousness. The result is a person possessed of a prideful quasi-imperial mindset that is coupled to heinous vulgarity  ̶  a kind of shyster who boastfully promotes themselves while sullying everything in the guise of loyalty. Dealing with new problems within the framework of an out-of-touch mindset while nonetheless exuding supreme confidence, he inevitably makes the mistakes of the willful.” The publication of such pejorative language regarding President Trump in the tightly-controlled Chinese media is striking and without precedent.

Xu’s monograph has received a careful reading by Xi and the elite of the CCP, while they spend their annual retreat together in Beidaihe. But just like Chinese intellectuals and the Western media, Xi and the CCP are likely to cherry-pick the ideas from it which suit their policy needs, focusing upon the current transitional period in U.S.-China relations, and how this impacts Xi, the CCP, and the achievement of the Chinese Dream.

Highlight Xi’s political psychology and how it plays into his current political decision-making. 

Xi has become the most powerful leader in China since Mao. Yet caution is warranted in over-reliance upon Xi’s background as a “princeling,” as this loses sight of his adaptability regarding policy challenges and confuses status with his abilities and psychological resilience. Xi exudes strength and discipline, as exemplified by his support of anti-corruption investigations, and by his paramount control, concentration of power, and role in the various Leading Study Groups, National Security Council, as well as chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. Xi’s blending of narratives with respect to his personal story of post-traumatic growth, articulation of the Chinese Dream, and linking these to the CCP’s primacy, has allowed him to achieve significant power. Notably, “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined in the CCP’s constitution during the 19th National Party Congress in 2017, and term limits were recently abolished, allowing Xi to stay in power beyond his [10-year] term.

Western observers have tended to underestimate Xi, most famously in a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable, in which he was deemed to be of “average intelligence.” It may be more worthwhile to heed the praises of Xi by other world leaders such as Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, who saw Xi as “impressive  ̶  a Nelson Mandela type of person.”

How does Xi shape the Chinese Dream, and how might it evolve?

Xi has utilized soaring rhetoric in championing the Chinese Dream since 2012, as “the greatest dream of the Chinese people since the advent of modern times.” Xi stated that it would occur by the 2049 centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and allowing for the building of a prosperous, socialist, harmonious, and democratic society. And Xi has explicitly linked it to policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as “Made in China 2025,” an initiative to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry, and to innovate in areas such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

Having so enumerated the Chinese Dream, and nurtured its social, political, economic, and psychological expectations, Xi can ill afford to backtrack. For Xi and the Chinese nation, “rejuvenation” is the polar opposite of “humiliation.” To shun the Chinese Dream at this point would not only be regressive, but it would make both Xi and the CCP lose legitimacy, a luxury neither can afford. Xi and the CCP leadership can be expected to somewhat constrain their rhetoric  ̶  an appeasement to both their Chinese and Western critics  ̶  and Xi (an avid reader of Chinese classics) might consider borrowing a phrase from the American writer Delmore Schwartz, who wrote, “in dreams begin responsibilities.”

What are potential policy implications of President Xi’s next steps?

Xi has always shown adaptability in coping with personal and political challenges. Aside from governance issues, including economic reform, quality of life, and corruption, his most profound challenge lies in managing the U.S.-China relationship. During 2017, Xi borrowed a page from Trump’s playbook, believing that the establishment of a personal relationship could achieve China’s strategic objectives. To Xi’s bitterness, this has not come to pass. Xi’s personal investment with respect to the recent Trump-Kim summit has not borne fruit in the area of trade, with China and the United States now locked in an escalating trade war — which has the potential to hurt both countries economically. Xi is likely to patiently reassess the U.S. political situation with respect to the trade war following the U.S. 2018 midterm elections.

Xi has had to adapt to a world different from that of recent Chinese leaders. Xu’s Tsinghua colleague Yan Xuetong speaks of a “bipolar” world of heightened “chaos and disorder.” Such ideas – clothed in the narrative of the Thucydides Trap – have gained increasing credence. But the variable which most perturbs Xi and China’s leadership has to do with – according to Professor Yan – “how to deal with Trump’s unpredictability. Because he essentially makes decisions according to his own, there is little continuity between these decisions, and it is very difficult to predict.” So, we may well see a shift away from Xi’s earlier embrace of a personal relationship with Trump, and increased reliance upon the policy expertise of Politburo colleague Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  And Xi may quietly return to precepts – articulated by him in a 1990 interview – in which he recommends that one “light a small fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning and now and again pour some more cold water in, so that the kettle does not boil over.”