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«A Pragmatic Approach to Power Chinese Leadership Under President Xi Jinping An Interview with Christopher K. Johnson In this interview, Christopher ...»

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Johnson | Chinese Leadership Under Xi Jinping

A Pragmatic Approach to Power

Chinese Leadership Under President Xi Jinping

An Interview with Christopher K. Johnson

In this interview, Christopher Johnson discusses some of the earlier formative experi-

ences that may have shaped the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s political beliefs and policy

preferences. Johnson’s measured analysis of Xi’s approach to power and the Chinese

Communist Party (CCP)’s dependency on public approval provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the CCP. The interview concludes by examining Xi’s rela- tions with other leaders in Asia, including President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

Journal: Perhaps we could begin by discussing some of the earlier formative experienc- es that shaped Xi Jinping’s leadership style. What is Xi’s approach to policymaking and which core principles guide his political beliefs?

Johnson: On Xi’s formative experiences, there are two tone-setting aspects. First, he grew up during the 1950s in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, so there was a certain headiness in that experience. Going from basically nothing to sitting in the Imperial Palace must have been quite an experience for Xi. Obviously, that’s also where Xi formed a lot of the critical bonds that he still enjoys with princelings, primarily, but with others as well.1 So, the 1950s was crucial—a lofty and exciting period that Xi references regularly in his speeches.

“Princeling” is an informal term that refers to the descendants of influential senior communist offi- 1 cials in the Communist Party of China.

Winter 2016 [31] Policy Forum Secondly, I think the corollary to his experience growing up in the Zhongnanhai com- pound is the purge of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, and being “sent down” to the coun- tryside during the Cultural Revolution.2 Being a “sent-down youth” impacted Xi in a variety of ways. The major lesson for him was that Chinese politics is a risky business.

Xi understands that if he is going to play the political game, then he better fight hard and come out on top. Xi also understands that he is operating in a system with no—or at least very few—rules, which I think guides a lot of his actions. We see this, for exam- ple, with the anti-corruption campaign, where the goal is to keep all of his opponents or detractors off balance. Xi keeps a perpetual-motion machine constantly churning.3 After spending five years as understudy to former President Hu Jintao, one of the chief lessons Xi took away was the following: don’t be too deliberative, otherwise the others will coalesce against you.

Journal: It is difficult to talk about China under Xi without noting his anti-corruption campaign. In your assessment, would a campaign of this size and scale be possible with a different leader?

Johnson: I doubt it. Xi seems to have mobilized resources in a unique way. There were anti-corruption campaigns under former leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, but they were campaigns with defined start and end points. One could argue that those campaigns were more political because they were designed to help the leaders consolidate power, especially given that both leaders ran their campaigns relatively early on in their tenures. Frankly, I think a lot of officials thought that Xi’s campaign was similar in that respect; many officials assumed that if they kept their heads down and waited it out, then the campaign would end once Xi successfully consolidated power. Apparently, there are still people who think the anti-corruption campaign will come to an end at some point, but I don’t see that happening. If anything, anti-corruption efforts seem to be ramping up yet again. For example, look at what’s happened in the financial sector over the last couple of weeks.4 We have also recently seen the detentions of major stateowned enterprise (SOE) chiefs.

Xi’s campaign is more pervasive, certainly in the military, which I think would have been the challenging part. When Jiang Zemin effectively forced the military out of business in 1998, large compensation was given, not too many arrests were made, and The term “sent-down youth” (zhiqing) refers to the young individuals who were sent to the rural 2 countryside as part of Mao Zedong’s “Down to the Countryside Movement,” which aimed to root out the bourgeois mindset. Approximately seventeen million youth, including many in current Chinese leadership, were sent down as a result of this policy.

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign began after the conclusion of the 18th National Congress of the 3 Communist Party of China in November 2012. Under Xi’s guidance as general secretary, more than 100 high-ranking officials and 100,000 people have been indicted for corruption.

In the wake of the stock market’s tumble this past the summer, the government cracked down on 4 traders suspected of fraud and irregularities. In November 2015, authorities detained Xu Xiang, who runs the hedge-fund Zexi Investment, for suspected insider training and stock-price manipulation, which served as a clear warning to other financial industry professionals.

[32] Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs Johnson | Chinese Leadership Under Xi Jinping so on. However, one could argue that, even after these efforts, corruption still prospered under Jiang Zemin. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, for example, were both his close supporters. So, either Jiang Zemin knew about their corruption and tolerated it, or he didn’t know about it—both of which are fairly damning. Xi Jinping has definitely taken a more severe approach regarding anti-corruption efforts in the military. He has also taken a different approach in the security services. One could argue that what makes Xi’s campaign unique is that he is doing a lot of the damage in the most sensitive areas.

Journal: In terms of the anti-corruption campaign, what is Xi’s endgame?

Johnson: I think Xi is trying to accomplish a couple of things. A challenge right now is that folks want to distill the anti-corruption campaign down to one or two motivations, painting the campaign as either purely crass and political with Xi as a megalomaniac like Mao, or as an attempt to ultimately establish the rule of law in China. My view is that it’s much more complicated and nuanced. For one, Xi’s motivations differ by the level of the target. Certainly at the so-called “tiger” level—the high level officials—the campaign is pretty political, so we don’t see many friends of Xi being wrapped up at the high levels.5 At the “flies” level—the mid-and-lower-level officials—I think his motivation is very different. The campaign at this lower level is designed to end practices that are alienating the Party from the public. One of the key messages of the anti-corruption campaign is changing the so-called “ugly face of the regime,” which includes shakedowns for licenses (or whatever else officials might need), the selling of hukou, and the public security bureau’s harassment of the people. All low-level forms of graft are problematic for the regime, and the campaign is, in part, a classic Chinese tactic to convince people that the emperor is great, and that it is actually the local officials who are evil and corrupt.

Yet, the campaign at the “tiger” level indicates that it is more than just pure politics.

The Chinese public likes the blood sport of purging high-level officials, so it is effective. But, targeting all of these senior-level officials, including people in the Politburo Standing Committee, reveals that corruption reaches all the way to the top. At some point the public might begin to think that the entire apple barrel is rotten and needs to be tipped over. Xi must be aware of this risk, so I think this speaks to his greater tolerance for risk than Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin.

Journal: How does Mao Zedong’s legacy live on today in Xi’s China? In what ways do we see the Cultural Revolution linger on in current political practices?

Johnson: I think the legacy lives on in several ways. Xi has been very clear since he came into power that you cannot separate the first thirty years of the regime from what happened afterward. In fact, the so-called Document No. 9 that was released publicly Throughout the anti-corruption campaign, Xi has vowed to target both “tigers” and “flies,” which 5 respectively refers to powerful senior officials and low-level bureaucrats.

–  –  –

in 2013 by the propaganda types in the Party remains a theme that Xi harps on publicly as well.6 Xi fundamentally rejects the notion that Mao was bad, and everything after Deng was good. However, the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth in December 2013 presented a real opportunity if Xi wanted to go “big time” on the Mao cult, but instead he kept it fairly understated. Another subtle example of Mao’s lingering presence occurred when Xi sent a wreath to Maoist ideologue Deng Liqun’s funeral. Deng very diligently went after Xi’s father in the 1950s and 1960s, yet Xi sent the wreath anyway.

So, Xi is very much balancing the factional pieces within the Party.

I think what’s interesting is that China currently has a generation of fairly senior-level officials who have all had some kind of formative experience related to the Cultural Revolution. These officials were scapegoated, sent down to the countryside, or some combination of both. There is a greater sensitivity among those who experienced the Cultural Revolution—academics and officials alike—to signs of reemergence. Given the current atmosphere, many are watching and wondering whether China is heading in that direction.

Some of the “god-king” elements of Xi Jinping’s leadership style do cause people to worry, but their worry is not so much that the phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution is happening again. Instead, they worry that the effort after the Cultural Revolution to prevent such a concentration of power has come under some form of assault. Typically, when a top leader runs into problems politically—if the problems are severe and the leader is powerful enough—then a full-scale assault on the bureaucracy comes next. Based on what did and did not come out of the Fifth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, we are seeing signs of a potential bureaucratic shake-up. And that would certainly have Cultural Revolution undertones.

Journal: When Xi replaced predecessor Hu Jintao in 2012, a flurry of reports attempted to answer the question, “Who is Xi Jinping?” Many scholars predicted Xi would be a reformer, while others remained skeptical. Today, analysis of Xi and the future trajectory of the Communist Party of China (CPC) remains fairly divided. In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about Xi?

Johnson: A huge misconception is that Xi is weaker than he appears. I don’t know if that is actually the biggest misconception, but I would say it is the riskiest misconception. Xi is powerful enough to affect change in the way that he wants. If the analysis is that Xi is weak and manipulated by other forces, then there is an underlying notion that Xi would act in accordance with what others such as the United States want—if only he weren’t constrained by forces like the military or SOE chiefs. That is not correct.

Xi is the force directing a majority of what we are currently seeing in China. I think Document No. 9, also known as “Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere,” is a document 6 first published in July 2012 and circulated within the Communist Party of China. The document warns of seven dangerous values, including Western constitutional democracy and criticism of the Party’s past errors.

–  –  –

the other common misconception is that Xi is a megalomaniac—a power-mad, Maolike figure. My view is that Xi remains a pragmatist at his core, and that his concentration of power is a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.

Journal: How has Xi concentrated and consolidated his power since he became general secretary?

Johnson: There are three key factors. The first is Xi’s ability to exploit his background.

I would argue that Xi’s “princeling” status gives him a unique understanding of the way the Chinese system works, and how to manipulate it. In other words, the princeling status gives him what you might call a “DNA map” that is particular to those who have spent their lives steeped in the system—a network of insiders, particularly across key bureaucracies such as the military, Party organs, and even business. This network is something that recent predecessors like Hu Jintao did not enjoy upon arrival and instead had to attempt to build. Even Jiang Zemin had to build the so-called “Jianghai” group over time.7 Xi’s connections have helped him do certain things right from the beginning, including immediately securing the Central Military Commission chairmanship and establishing leading groups like the National Security Commission and the Comprehensively Deepening Reform Leading Group. The National Security Commission was something that both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin tried to form, but couldn’t accomplish in their tenures. The National Security Commission and leading groups have been a real enabler for Xi’s further concentration of power.

The second factor is decisiveness. Xi has moved quickly. My sense is that Xi was working with a kitchen cabinet group of advisors who had a fully-baked plan by the time he became general secretary. There’s no way anyone could come up with something as comprehensive as the Third Plenum document during the first year in power while also trying to consolidate authority—unless they already had 80 percent of the plan in the can before arriving. Xi’s initial remarks on the day he was elected general secretary clearly signaled the direction that the Party would head.

The third and final element is the coercive toolkit that Xi has developed. There are three aspects to this toolkit: the anticorruption campaign, the mass-line effort, and the stultifying political retrenchment. All three parts have been designed to instill a lot of fear in officialdom in order to make officials believe that they are in an unsteady position.

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