When Xi took over as general secretary of Communist Party in 2012, western media portrayed him as a ‘compromise candidate’ with little qualification to run China.
Ahead of the eighteenth Party Congress in 2012, it was increasingly clear that Xi Jinping—who had been vice president since 2008—would take charge as general secretary of the Party. This was perhaps surprising if one considers Xi’s own past. When Xi was nine years old, his father, Xi Zhongxun, former head of the Communist Party’s propaganda division, was expelled by Chairman Mao because of his disloyalty. Until then, Xi had grown up a ‘princeling’ in ‘Zhongnanhai’, the enclave of influential Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. This was part of a sweeping ‘Cultural Revolution’ launched by Mao with the ostensible goal of purging Chinese tradition and Western capitalism to promote and preserve communist China. During the Cultural Revolution, when Xi was fifteen, his father was sent to prison and Xi was one of the nearly thirty million ‘sent-down youth’ who were forced to work in the Chinese countryside for ‘re-education’ as part of Mao’s ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement. He ended up in a remote village of the Shaanxi province where, Chinese state media often claims, he lived in a cave dwelling for nearly seven years. According to Xi himself, these seven years were transformative. ‘When I arrived at the Yellow Earth at fifteen, I was anxious and confused,’ wrote Xi in 1998, by which time he was a rising star in the Communist Party. ‘When I left the Yellow Earth at twenty-two, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.’ Over twenty-five years, Xi rose through the ranks of the party leadership by performing well and keeping his disagreements to himself. His early career began in the northern province of Hebei, a relatively poor region, but he transferred quickly to the wealthier provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. These regions were vital to Deng’s ‘opening up’ policy, which saw China integrate with the global economy, and they would be important to Xi’s career. It was here that Xi would learn about globalization and market reforms. Because of his known anti-corruption credentials, Xi was soon whisked off to Shanghai in 2007, which was then in the midst of a corruption scandal. He dealt with the matter so effectively that he was catapulted to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) central leadership that very year, and quickly became vice president of the country in 2008. Xi rose up the ranks as a clean, pragmatic, and pro-growth leader. According to a cable leaked by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a well-connected Embassy contact referred to Xi, who was then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Vice President, as ‘exceptionally ambitious’, ‘confident’ and ‘focused’, and stated that Xi has had his ‘eye on the prize’ from early adulthood. ‘Unlike many youth who made up for lost time by having fun [after the Cultural Revolution],’ the cable added, ‘Xi chose to survive by becoming redder than the red.’ It was these qualities that would come to define general secretary Xi.
The China dream
When Xi did take over as general secretary in November 2012, the expectations from his government were limited, and Xi himself remained somewhat of an enigma. Local newspapers painted him as a leader connected with the masses, who was ‘amiable and easygoing.’ The Western media portrayed him as a ‘compromise candidate’; as someone who had little real qualification to run China other than the fact that he belonged to the ‘princeling’ class and had few detractors. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, wrote in 2012 that Xi was likely to have the same goals as all other Chinese governments since the Mao era: ‘to sustain the political pre-eminence of the CCP within the country.’ There were signs that Xi himself was averse to being seen as overly ambitious. In an interview in the year 2000, Xi said, ‘You always want to do something new in the first year, but it must be on the foundations of your predecessor. It is a relay race. You have to receive the baton properly, then run well with it yourself.’ However, the twelve years following that interview had apparently changed Xi’s worldview quite significantly. One of Xi’s first public appearances as head of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was his visit to the National Museum of China in Beijing along with the new Politburo Standing Committee on 29 November 2012. Once there, he stood in front of a prominent art display titled ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’. This display sits beside another famous showcase: ‘The Century of Humiliation.’ The story this display tells is one that every Chinese student learns early on in their education: In the mid-nineteenth century, China was humiliated by a series of outsiders, beginning with Britain, and then Japan. ‘The Road to Rejuvenation,’ on the other hand, narrates the victory of the Communist Party and its ideology—marking a return to the prosperity of the Chinese nation. It was here, at the end of the visit, that Xi Jinping spoke of the ‘China Dream’— otherwise known as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Xi described the China Dream as achieving the ‘Two Centenaries’. First, the economic goal of China becoming a ‘moderately well-off society’ by 2020, the hundredth anniversary of the CCP; and second, the goal of becoming a fully developed nation by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the PRC.
Rise of ‘Dada’ Xi
To ensure that China could again find its rightful place in the world, Xi would have to undertake several structural reforms. Given that Xi’s economic or political views were never widely published, opinions on his possible policy choices would vary widely. One op-ed for the The New York Times went so far as to argue that Xi would ‘spearhead a resurgence of economic reform…and probably some political easing as well.’ While this may seem naïve in retrospect, Xi himself sent some positive signals. One of his first visits as head of the Communist Party was to Shenzhen in South China, which was once a remote fishing village and is now a thriving industrial region. The city is widely considered a shining symbol of China’s embrace of market reforms. Here, he called on the country to ‘tackle tough issues’ and ‘break free from the barriers of vested interest.’ The symbolism was not lost on anyone: Shenzhen was part of Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1992 ‘Southern Tour’, which sought to rally support for market-based reforms following the tumult of Tiananmen Square. Many believed that Xi was signalling a willingness to undertake the economic reforms that his predecessors did not have the political courage to manage. On political reform, Xi once again gave reason for optimism. In December 2012, Xi declared that ‘no organization or individual shall enjoy privileges beyond the constitution.’ He was giving voice to the popular angst against corruption that had plagued the Communist Party, a fact that even Chinese leaders were publicly acknowledging. In 2012, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published an anti-corruption bluebook, noting that corruption in China touches ‘virtually all corners of society, from the economic, political and judicial fields to the social, cultural and educational ones.’ Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2012 ranked China as the eightieth most corrupt country out of 176. In January 2013, Xi Jinping publicly pledged to tackle this challenge by prosecuting both ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’—in other words, high-ranking party officials and lowly bureaucrats alike. Xi understood perfectly well that corruption was undermining the legitimacy of the Party, and he was driven to change this reality. More importantly, some argue that the anti-corruption narrative was also a useful tool to purge political rivals. Xi’s ascent to the top job took place against the backdrop of corruption and espionage charges against Bo Xilai, the former governor and Communist Party chief of Chongqing province, who had been in line for an appointment to the National Standing Committee. Soon after, Xinhua reported that Jiang Jiemin, the powerful head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), had been removed from office on suspicion of serious disciplinary violations—Chinese doublespeak for corruption. The official whose purge received most attention was Zhou Yongkang, the ninth most important member of the Chinese government and the country’s chief of security and intelligence until his retirement. Not surprisingly, what all these men had in common was their challenge to Xi’s power. By the end of 2012, Xi had purged thousands of party officials and acquired some extremely powerful positions for himself, including head of the Party and the military. In March 2013, he would also emerge as President of the Chinese state—merely a title, considering that he had already installed himself as head of several bodies overseeing the economy, military, internal security, foreign policy, internet governance, and so on. The Chinese press had taken to calling him ‘Dada’ Xi—or uncle Xi. This was a sign of exceptional reverence for any Chinese leader and an indication of Xi’s consolidation of power.
This commentary originally appeared in The Print