Understanding Xi’s contradictions

September 18, 2015

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

By Cheng Li

Analysts of the Chinese leadership are mistaken to characterize President Xi Jinping in a simplistic, stagnant, and one-dimensional way.

Prior to Xi’s ascent to the top leadership in the fall of 2012, many overseas China analysts described this new party boss as “a weak leader,” “a consensus builder,” a hardcore conservative, “a closet liberal” or even “China’s Gorbachev.” They believed that major changes could not be expected during Xi’s first term because of the great amount of time that he would need to consolidate his power.

What happened during the first few years of Xi’s leadership surprised the world. Xi turned out to be, as China analysts describe, “China’s strongest leader in years,” a dismantler of China’s system of collective rule, and an implementer of “drastic changes.” Xi’s approach to governance is now seen as politically conservative and economically liberal.

But a majority of these analysts has overlooked the paradoxical policy moves that this intriguing and complicated leader has initiated:

  • The overall objective of Xi’s economic policy, as demonstrated by the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee held in the fall of 2013, is to make the private sector the decisive driver of the Chinese economy and to build an innovation-driven economy. However, his continuing emphasis on China’s national champions (namely the flagship state-owned enterprises), tight control over the Internet, and discrimination against foreign IT companies all undermine the vitality of a true market economy.
  • Xi’s politically conservative approach to governance, which relies on ideological oversight, has alienated the country’s liberal intellectuals. But in a contradictory fashion, Xi has called for promoting Chinese think tanks (which consist mainly of intellectuals) and prioritized their development as a national strategic objective. In addition, Xi’s own economic team consists of many U.S.-trained financial technocrats, and he has urged the party leadership to recruit foreign-educated returnees.
  • The Xi leadership is noted for its strong crackdown on groups and individuals inspired by the color revolutions and by what Chinese authorities call the “U.S. anti-China conspiracy.” This was evident in the draft foreign nongovernmental organization (NGO) law released by the National People’s Congress earlier this year. But interestingly, in June 2015, President Xi held a widely publicized meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of the Burmese democratic movement. Xi’s wife, China’s first lady Peng Liyuan, has also been famous for her enthusiastic involvement with foreign NGOs, especially the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on anti-smoking, AIDS prevention, and other social causes.
  • The most astonishing political achievement of the Xi leadership is its bold and broad anti-corruption campaign. In 2013 alone, the Chinese authorities investigated 182,000 officials––the highest annual number of cases in 30 years. By September 2015, the authorities had purged about 120 vice-ministerial and provincial level leaders on corruption charges. But Xi has never linked rampant official corruption with the fundamental flaws in the Chinese political system. Instead, he asserts that the Chinese should have confidence in China’s political system.
  • Under Xi’s initiative, the fourth plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee held in the fall of 2014 was devoted to legal reform. This was the first plenum in party history that concentrated on law. Xi, more than any previous leader, is interested in making the nation’s judicial development part of his legacy. Yet, in 2015, Chinese authorities arrested or persecuted several hundred human rights lawyers and legal professionals on charges of “endangering national security.”
  • In foreign relations, Xi frequently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and significantly consolidated Sino-Russian relations. But what matters to Xi most is the Sino-U.S. relationship, in which the Chinese hope for a new type of major power relations. Xi has also contradicted himself by both claiming “Asia for Asians” and by stating that “the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the United States.” Also, regarding tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Xi has unambiguously sided with his “South Korean sister” Park Geun-hye over his “Communist little brother” Kim Jong-un.

These examples by no means suggest that Xi Jinping is a political opportunist. All political leaders have at times been self-contradictory. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.”

As the leader of a rapidly changing country with contrasting views and values, as well as conflicting interests, Xi Jinping is wise to strike a delicate balance between various constituencies and socioeconomic forces. Arguably, it is Xi’s contradictions that make him a well-rounded effective leader. The increasingly complicated international environment that China confronts also leads Xi to be deliberately ambiguous about his stances and strategies.

Arguably, it is Xi’s contradictions that make him a well-rounded effective leader.

Self-contradictions also suggest that Xi Jinping is not a dogmatic leader, but that he can be flexible. Of course, some of Xi’s contradictions may only be temporary. If Xi hopes to be a great leader in Chinese history, sooner or later he should present a clearly articulated and coherent vision for the country’s political trajectory. It is reasonable for Xi to spend the first few years of his leadership searching for the right sequence for implementing his agenda, maximizing public support, and accumulating political capital. But when the next Party Congress convenes in the fall of 2017, Xi will have to reveal his stance on China’s political institutionalization.

A comprehensive understanding of Xi’s contradictions is instrumental for foreign observers. We should not overstate any one dimension of Xi’s leadership while ignoring others. It is still premature to make a definitive judgment about his intentions, capacity, and historical legacy. It would be a huge mistake to conclude that Xi’s policy decisions—either domestic or foreign—are predetermined.

It would be even more dangerous to assume that a major confrontation or even war with China is inevitable. Of course, China will decide its own path, and Xi will choose his legacy. But policymakers in Washington have a strong influence over China’s trajectory and a huge incentive to ensure U.S.-China relations remain stable. It is in America’s best interest to take Xi’s visit as an opportunity to enhance mutual understanding across the Pacific.

Cheng Li is Director, John L. Thornton China Center, and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy at The Brookings Institution

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