Xi Jinping: China’s ‘Chairman of Everything’
China’s President Xi Jinping has been incorporated into the communist party’s constitution, during the 19th party congress. This puts him at a far higher level than China’s previous two leaders, on a par with Mao and Deng Xiaoping, explains Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom of UC Irvine
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Chinese Communist Party held it’s 19th Party Congress last month. And President Xi Jinping received a resounding confirmation for a second five-year term. But many senior officials in the administration were replaced. In addition, Xi Jinping has now been elevated to the status of the party’s founder, Mao Zedong, by the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People of Beijing. This means his ideas and thoughts will be enshrined into the party’s ideology. President Xi Jinping opened the congress with the following statement.
XI JINPING: China will uphold the values of peace, development, cooperation and win-win progress, adhere to its foreign policy of safeguarding world peace and promoting common development. It seeks to develop friendly cooperation on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence and to establish a new type of international relations of mutual respect, fairness and justice, cooperation, and win-win progress.
SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about this and much more with me is Jeffrey Wasserstrom. He has been traveling to and writing about China for 30 years. He is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC, Irvine. And he has written five books, including “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” which was first published in 2010 and is now coming out with a third edition this spring, co-authored this time with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Jeffrey, I thank you so much for joining us today.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: I’m delighted to be on.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Jeffrey, there are many things for us to talk about, and I hope we have the opportunity not only this time but to have an ongoing conversation about China. But I thought for this introductory interview with you we could start with the connection between the Chinese political system and what exactly the relationship between the Communist Party of China and the government of China is that Xi Jinping will be leading.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Yeah, I think that’s very important because even though it’s become conventional to refer to him as President Xi Jinping, his power really derives first and foremost from being head of the Chinese Communist Party. He became elevated to head of the Communist Party late in 2012, and then was sort of anointed further as president the following March. So here he’s just starting his second term as Communist Party leader. And that’s really, as I said, where the power resides.
Xi Jinping himself, the pattern has been for the leader of China to take on these two roles of general secretary of the party and then also president. This is just a format that’s evolved in the last couple of decades. But Xi Jinping actually keeps gathering new titles. He’s the first one recent really to be referring to himself as commander in chief. Geremie Barmé, an Australian China specialist, has taken to calling him “the chairman of everything” because it’s just getting too hard to keep up with all of his titles.
And that reflects the fact that he’s been more of a strongman leader who stands out from everybody else than his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who were much more sort of first among equals and there was a sense of China being run more by a committee with one person who was very powerful. But Xi Jinping is much, much more powerful. And that is what is symbolized by his thought being raised to the status of kind of sacred text and being inserted into the constitution of the country.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now the Communist Party has decided that Xi Jinping’s name would be added and enshrined in the party ideology. What does this mean?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Well, I think it’s important to see that while any leader of the Chinese Communist Party’s powerful during his lifetime or his time in power, there are some who take on a much more long-lasting power. So Mao’s name was written into the constitution. Deng Xiaoping, the other leader who stands out from among the others, his name was added into the constitution related to his thought, but that didn’t happen until after he died.
So, Xi Jinping to have this elevation during his lifetime, and it’s already being seen by things like universities that want to stay on the right side of the government and have to stay on the right side of the government are now devoting whole centers to analyzing Xi Jinping’s thought. So while other leaders have had ideas associated with them take on a kind of sacred power, Xi Jinping, it’s his person that’s now being invested with that kind of sacrality. And so I think that matters a lot. It’ll matter in the sense that even when he steps down, if he steps down after another five years, which would be the norm, he would still be, as long as he lived, somebody whose name was enshrined in the constitution. So I think that there’s a sense of longevity.
There’s also a sense that he’s claiming that this is the start of a new era. And what that suggests is we always talk conventionally, people who follow China, talk about the Mao years that lasted from 1949 till 1976, and then a second period post-’49, the reform era that began in 1978 or ’79. And then we would put in brackets and then have a hyphen with no end point to the reform era, which Xi Jinping was saying in this very long speech he gave was: Now that’s over, and a new era has begun. And one that potentially would be as consequential for the country, he would hope, as the Mao years were that first 30 years and then the era associated with Deng Xiaoping, that second 30 years.
And he’s defining it that what Mao did was help make China strong and independent again, what Deng did was to raise the economy, and it was a period that saw dramatic growth, and this is a claim that this is gonna be the period when China reclaims its position as a globally central power and is clearly the leading power of its region. And that’s what he’s claiming when he talks about it as a new era.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, given the founding history of the Republic of China and the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s ideology being that of a Socialist, a Marxist, a Maoist, and Xi Jinping’s ideology is so dramatically different from that era, would Mao Zedong be turning over in his grave?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Well, it’s funny, I was gonna correct you. You said, “the Republic of China.” So the Republic of China was actually founded in 1911. And then the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. But I’m glad you said that, because actually the Republic of China, which eventually came under rule by the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, who was Mao’s great rival, was defeated in 1949, then the Republic of China became Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China became the mainland.
So one way to think about Xi Jinping is he’s continuing many things that Mao believed in and that Deng believed in, including rule by a party that monopolizes power, intense interest in the sort of idea that China was laid low by imperialism, and that the Revolution was needed to put an end to a period of being bullied by other countries. So those two parts of the package are still there. You could say that he’s a good Leninist, but he’s not necessarily a good Marxist in the sense that the talk of class struggle that was so central to Mao is not something that’s really part of the Xi Jinping idea.
But what Xi Jinping is doing is he’s a Leninist, but he also has sort of traditionalist values. He’s saying that China’s classical tradition and Confucianism is something to be celebrated. Mao was very critical of Confucius, said Confucian ideas had held China backwards and made it feudal. But actually Mao’s great rival Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist Party, who had his Leninist side as well, was a Leninist but also a Chinese cultural traditionalist. Chiang Kai-shek elevated Confucius to the status of a national saint.
So, you can say that there are some things that Xi Jinping says that Mao would smile on: The idea of making China strong and respected in the world. But there’s some things that would make Mao roll over in his grave, but would please Chiang Kai-shek if his ghost was looking down. And others have noted this as well that if Mao and Chiang Kai-shek came back to life not knowing what had happened since their deaths, you can imagine seeing Confucius venerated on the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek might have thought that his party had somehow come back into power.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, Xi Jinping’s, one of his first meetings after the congress big meetings that is noteworthy is meeting with Tim Cook, he’s the CEO of Apple, and of course with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. What does this tell us about Xi Jinping’s approach to governing and his leadership and his thinking?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Well, it’s a fascinating meeting in a sense. I think it’s a disturbing meeting. I mean, both the meeting and the way in which Xi Jinping was treated with such kind of enormous respect when he came to the United States by the tech giants. And even Mark Zuckerberg, whose flagship enterprise is banned in China, has been very solicitous of Xi Jinping, trying to get into the China market. And was said to have asked Xi Jinping at the White House when they were seated together to give a name for his daughter.
And it’s one thing to sort of deal with China. In many ways we need to deal with the Chinese government. The United States and other countries have these entwined economies. But I think to go overly deferential about this, to sort of play up is not something that’s useful at this point in time. I think it’s important to be able to maintain a distance to be able to speak critically and to realize that the China market’s important, but so at the moment is it’s still important for China to have interactions with foreign companies and not to do this in too much of a deferential way. And Zuckerberg has been particularly egregious in this regard.
It does suggest, one of the great ironies of the moment with Xi Jinping is that, and we saw this, he want to Davos and he talked about how he believes in globalization. He believes in globalization in some areas, but not in others. Of China being a tech leader and being involved with international tech, but not opening its internet to the inflow of ideas that it views as in any way challenging. So, Xi Jinping has tightened up censorship controls. They began to tighten before him, but then they’ve been ratcheted up even more. And there were even announcements about how serious he went about keeping that while he was meeting with these heads of tech companies talking about the importance of an interconnected world. So it’s a really troubling moment. And that’s one of the great contradictions.
I mean, another about Xi Jinping is for him to be out of a Marxist Party and not seem to care that much about equalizing wealth or about class struggle. But equally, or perhaps more, of a contradiction now is this talking up globalization and talking up Chinese universities being connected with the world, but then trying to limit very, very carefully what comes in. I think part of the vision of the Chinese Communist Party now is universities where state-of-the-art science is done, but the kind of critical thinking that could lead to new ideas about how society could be organized or sort of critical stances toward how the government … is completely shut down. And that’s just not what a great university does. A great university has to have openness to different ideas. So, when there’s a celebration of what’s going on in Chinese universities in areas like tech and science, but this whole idea of censorship and control of ideas is left out of the picture, I think that’s really problematic.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, one of the issues that Xi Jinping raised in the congress is the issue of housing. We all know that housing in city centers in China has been a huge problem for ordinary people, particularly because it’s been so unaffordable. Places like Beijing and other major cities, the prices have skyrocketed to prices equal to some of the major cities in the Western world. Do you think that this is a move in the right direction? And will it gain the popularity that he’s hoping to achieve by addressing some of the social problems here?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: You put your finger on a good point. But I think under Deng Xiaoping or one of the things defining that period was this idea of some people will get rich first. Then the idea was that if the economy really booms, if you aren’t getting a piece of the pie, your chance may come next. In the last few years, and again from before Xi Jinping but during Xi Jinping as well, the Communist Party’s been realizing that there’s a growing number of people who feel that if the boom passed them by, they may have been permanently passed by, that it won’t necessarily be their turn next. So there has been an effort to at least pay lip service more again to issues of basic social welfare that were largely set aside during the boom times. And that’s one of the moves that Xi Jinping is making to try to maintain a degree of popularity.
The other thing he’s doing is carrying out a very high-profile anti-corruption drive in which some people who’ve gotten very wealthy and flaunted their power are being brought down. And I think that plays well to a large group of people within China. It’s being done selectively. Those close to him and those tied to him by family ties are not suffering at this, are not being targeted. But I think for a lot of people there can be a sense in China, “Well, at least some of the people, at least some of the bullies, at least some of the people who taken advantage of their official positions and gotten rich while the rest of us have been struggling.” I think that does play well. That people see that as in part a return to a period when the party cared more about those kinds of things.
How far he’ll go with issues like housing, it’s hard to know. I mean, I think this is something that he feels he needs to make some at least gestures to. And I think there are other areas where especially the economy has slowed down. If it keeps slowing down, as seems likely, I think the government will have to keep making more moves in that direction. I mean, it’s good that at least attention is being put to that. But it doesn’t seem to be the center of his agenda.
The center of his agenda is to try to, I think, distract people from these kind of materialist concerns by focusing on a very nationalistic message about having made China great again or making China great again, to use a variation on the American term that’s all too popular right now.
SHARMINI PERIES: In the last five years, we’ve seen Xi Jinping taking a more active role internationally. He’s been going to Russia. He’s been traveling to the United States. He’s been making a lot of headway at international meetings and at the United Nations. Playing a very popular role internationally in terms of taking leadership. Do you think this will continue? And could you also comment on what China’s role has been in terms of foreign policy and foreign trade policy and whether that’s been a good one under the leadership of Xi Jinping?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: I think it’s clear that he sees China having a greater role in the world. His Belt and Road initiative was also enshrined in the constitution. And this is an idea of a China that’s trying to re-establish some of the ties that historically it had with other countries via the Silk Road but also new kinds of Silk Roads and belts. So ways to connect China with neighboring countries and all the way into Eurasia and Africa and the Middle East.
What remains to be seen is what that will really mean and whether as the classic Silk Road was something where flows went in multiple directions. Will this just be kind of the exporting of Chinese overcapacity to other places? Will it be China pressuring other countries into deals that maybe in the long run aren’t very good for them? And also, some of these deals that aren’t gonna be very good for the world in terms of climate change, even while at the same time he’s defending the Paris Climate Accords.
And I think that is probably his best moment is the stepping up and making clear that China still believes in the Paris Climate Accord at a time when Donald Trump was questioning and pulling back. But we should give him credit for that. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that there’s still all kinds of enormous pollution problems within China and the potential via these big infrastructure projects done outside of China that some of it will be just kind of taking polluting enterprises outside of China while looking better at home.
I think there’s all kinds of things. I think the fact, yes, he is traveling more. He is presenting himself more in the way that on the international scene more like we expect from the leader of a leading country. He knows how to play to international audiences. I think it’s just important to keep our eyes on the ball when it comes to how exactly that kind of softer image or sort of cosmopolitan image goes along with somebody who’s doing some very tough things in other regards.
There was a tougher statement made by a Chinese leader, not Xi Jinping, about how there would be more measures taken against not just foreign states that host the Dalai Lama, but any institutions abroad that host the Dalai Lama. This is an effort to assert beyond China’s borders a kind of nastier version of the Communist Party rule. There was an effort made successfully to block Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong from speaking in Thailand where pressure was put, and the Thai government blocked him. Now the Thai government might have wanted to keep an activist from coming into Thailand anyway, but there does seem to be pressure from the Chinese government. And there was a Hong Kong bookseller who was involved with books that Beijing didn’t like because it referred stories about the leadership. And he was nabbed from within Thailand under very mysterious circumstances, but seems to be by Chinese people working under orders from the Chinese authorities. So there are these unpleasant examples of reaching beyond China’s borders that go along with the sort of high-profile diplomatic trips.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jeffrey, I thank you so much for joining us. There’s obviously so much more to talk about, even under this purview of China’s role in the world, and what it’s doing in places like Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. A very resource-hungry nation in many ways of how it represents itself in other parts of the world, how it manifests itself in other parts of the world. And I would love to take all of that up with you in another segment in the near future. I know we are limited in terms of time today, but I hope you join us again.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: I’ll be happy to come back, thanks.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.