The Chinese leadership gets fairly scant media coverage considering that it commands the world’s most populous and second most powerful country. Most of them are bland, unassuming and formulaic, and rarely provide the sort of headline-grabbing theatrics that other dictators offer. China also has a tradition of collective leadership, with power flowing from a committee more than a single person. But China’s new boss, Xi Jinping, might be changing that.
NOTE: The Chinese government, like the old Soviet one, is notoriously secretive and media-shy. It can be hard to figure out what exactly is going on. This provides fertile ground for China-watchers, armchair pundits, and think tank nerds. I am no expert, so take everything here with prudence.
In the past, China was ruled by emperors (or, in those periods when it was fragmented, kings). They had nearly absolute power, and some went down in history as tyrants engorged with a sense of magnificence and incapable of any kind of criticism. Still, Confucian orthodoxy (the guiding principle of Chinese society) teaches that the king is like a father to his nation, and that his duty is to protect his people and regulate the economy (which often just meant performing agricultural rituals to affect the weather). Backed up by a massive state apparatus of bureaucrats, judges and scholars and occasionally influenced by courtiers, eunuchs, empresses, concubines, chancellors, ministers and random old wise men, their power wasn’t always oppressive. And besides, China’s massive hordes of peasant farmers were fearsome when aroused, and a philosophy even older than Confucianism taught that the people owed no allegiance to the emperor if he was really corrupt or ineffective.
When that system collapsed in 1912, China went through a few different models, all of them authoritarian. Even Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, which was supposed to be the national government, reverted to military rule late in his life. Jiang Jieshi ruled as a low-level military dictator vulnerable to advice and kidnapping by his colleagues. Mao Zedong strengthened the authoritarian model when he took over. Although China was now ruled by a “Politburo” of 13 Communist revolutionaries, Mao was basically the emperor as the commander of the forces that overthrew the old government. Other members of the Politburo deferred to his judgment. This led to disaster, as Mao’s quest for a China of the industrial strength of Britain led to economic collapse and famine.
Mao faded from prominence in the ’60s as the results of his “Great Leap Forward” became known, but he struck back with a vengeance. In the Cultural Revolution of the late ’60s, Mao reassumed imperial authority and then some — he crafted a personality cult around himself. Suddenly Mao was the Great Helmsman, the sun, the savior of the people. He was even worshiped at shrines. His quotations became China’s gospel and his birthplace a site of pilgrimage. All those who crossed his path were burned. His chosen successors — first Liu Shaoqi, then Lin Biao — were purged.* Studying “Mao Zedong Thought” became the new objective for millions of students.
This led to all kinds of horrors, from large-scale cultural vandalism to reckless and paranoid purging and severe economic dislocation. Families were torn apart, institutions were desecrated and millions of intellectuals were sent to the farm for forced labor. When Deng Xiaoping took the chair after Mao’s passing, he was keen to break from this precedent. (His son had been pushed off a roof during the Cultural Revolution, and he had been purged only to make a fortuitous comeback.) While maintaining firm control over the Communist Party (and a great deal of influence after his resignation in 1992), he declined to amass personal power, preferring to go back to the tradition of being the dominant figure in a group. He allowed his colleagues, the “Eight Elders,” to give him advice and influence policy. He rolled back the personality cult around Mao (and Communism in general) and abandoned Mao’s tradition of bombastic public appearances. He and his successors retreated into the modern forbidden city of South and Central Lakes (the Chinese government compound next to the old Forbidden City) and guided the country from behind the scenes.
The current party chairman, Xi Jinping, is trying a different approach. He’s moving the government away from being an oligarchy (rule by a small, elite clique) to more of a dictatorship. Since assuming the position in 2012, he’s taken command of more and more portfolios**: finance, the military, cybersecurity, government reform, national security and foreign affairs. This streamlines China’s power structure and redirects more of the decision-making process straight to Xi.
Xi’s also begun to foster something of a personality cult. Newspapers (who are all connected in some way to the party) have printed more and more material on him, twice as much as compared to his predecessors. They focus on his personality instead of just his policies, noting that he likes reading, swimming, martial arts, and Hollywood movies (especially Saving Private Ryan). They publish photo spreads of him with his daughter and wife, Peng Liyuan, who was originally more famous than he — she’s a folk singer associated with the army. A 500-page book has been published of his quotations and speeches.
Xi also seems more PR-oriented than his predecessors. Perhaps inspired by Western politics, he has made trips to poor rural areas and old, grubby neighborhoods in Beijing, accompanied of course by a platoon of handlers and cameramen. He travels in taxis and minibuses and eats simple meals like dumplings and baozi (steamed buns filled with meat). He tries to project an image of a modest regular guy and uses less stilted language than other Chinese politicians. It can be hard to tell how much this strategy works, but it seems to be paying off: he is now referred to as “Xi Dada” (Daddy Xi), Xi knickknacks are being sold on the street, and these people composed a love song about his relationship with “Peng Mama”.
Like every dictator, Xi has spent a good part of his term pummeling threats to his power. Mostly this takes the form of a widespread anti-corruption campaign targeting officials who have grown fat and rich off of ill-gotten funds. Ballers with lavish banquets and gaudy estates help make China the world’s leading market for luxury goods, but they also earn resentment from the simple majority. Mindful that being at the helm of a party full of fatcats might not be a good idea if that party also stands for equality, Xi has restricted apparatchiks’ lavish lifestyles — now officials can only have 4-course meals (plus a soup), and they can’t travel in motorcades that snarl traffic. 200,000 corrupt officials have been stripped of their positions, punished, humiliated, and in extreme situations, driven to suicide. But Xi also takes on any figure who might compete with him, from Bo Xilai, the popular boss of Chongqing (a major inland city), to Zhou Yongkang, the head of China’s security and legal apparatus, both of whom were thrown out of the Politburo (and then the party altogether) on corruption charges. Intimidated generals have publicly sworn allegiance to Xi.
The other prong of Xi’s offensive is against the public. Although he has made cracking down on corruption a priority of his rule, only he’s allowed to do it — ordinary people who complain about it are arrested. A renewed push to round up dissidents and censor the Internet has reaffirmed that the party can only be criticized from within. Careful monitoring of the public sphere is a Chinese tradition, but some hope for a change (or just signs of change) after each leadership transition. Once again, their hopes have been dashed.
With so much power concentrated in Xi’s hands, his policies have become practically synonymous with his country’s, so I’ll leave details of that for future posts. In general (and in line with his populist shtick), he strives to attain wealth and power for China. His slogan (obligatory for Chinese leaders) is “the Chinese Dream,” meaning (probably) economic opportunity, social stability, a pleasant environment — the kinds of things the First World takes for granted that would be nice to raise a family in. He has also tried to project Chinese power overseas: negotiating contracts with Central Asia, Russia and Africa, standing up to Japan, and carving out a sphere of influence in the South China Sea. It is plain that he is a more aggressive leader than his predecessors and tries to tap into Chinese nationalism more.
The days of Mao and Communist China are no more. Xi’s personality cult is a far cry from Mao’s — he isn’t worshiped and his quotations aren’t compulsorily studied. But it’s plain that he stands tall among modern Chinese leaders (literally; he’s 180 cm tall), and his confident, proud personality will have an impact on Chinese policies.
Technically, Lin Biao’s fate is disputed and murky, but there’s a good chance that he was murdered for trying to oust Mao.
A wonky term meaning that he’s taken responsibility of these areas.