Bruce Dickson on Xi Jinping

The above photo is from the 18th Chinese Party Congress in November 2012.

Bruce Dickson is professor of political science and international affairs and chair of the political science department at the George Washington University. His latest book is The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival (Oxford, 2016). He was interviewed by Seoyoon Choi '19 on Nov. 7, 2017.

What is the political significance of the “Xi Jinping Thought,” the enshrinement of Xi’s philosophy and legacy that was newly added to the Chinese Constitution at the 19th Party Congress? How could its nationalistic overtone affect the future of political liberalization in China and popular support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

Xi Jinping Thought is significant in two ways. First, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who had held the position of General Secretary before Xi, were not mentioned by name in the Constitution, and the slogans that were identified with them were added at the end of their tenure. Therefore, having Xi Jinping Thought added to the Constitution at the midway point shows Xi’s higher status. Second, the other two slogans that carry the name of former party leaders are Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. Since “Thought” is semantically higher and more important than “Theory,” Xi Jinping Thought implies greater significance than Deng Xiaoping Theory. In addition, the full phrase of Xi Jinping Thought is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Deng Xiaoping originally crafted the phrase “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which captured the beginning of the reform era. Now Xi has usurped that phrase and added the words “New Era” at the end. In a variety of ways, Xi Jinping Thought symbolizes how much authority he has obtained at such an early part of his tenure in office.

The nationalistic overtones, clearly meant to resonate with society, are likely to have a negative impact on political liberalization. The party in general has been tightening up control and retreating from political liberalization. This process began with the 2008 Olympics. It has accelerated under Xi and is likely to continue now that he has had a rather triumphal reappointment as general secretary.

Almost every study on Chinese public opinion, including ones that I have done, shows remarkably high levels of support for the regime. It is difficult to study public support for Xi Jinping himself, however. Unlike in the United States where public opinion polls can measure approval ratings for the president, surveys in China cannot ask about specific leaders by name. Xi’s popularity and his impact on public opinion are among the biggest unknowns in the study of Chinese politics.

President Xi Jinping has not named a successor, and none of the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee will be eligible to succeed him at the 20th Party Congress. If Xi breaks with tradition and stays on for a third term in 2022, will he face strong opposition from the elites?

Xi would likely face opposition because many elites have seen the benefits of the regular rotation of leaders. Having Xi challenge the system and break the precedent would be reason for other elites to resist. Whether they will be successful in resisting him is a different story. Because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emphasizes maintaining a united front in terms of their public appearance and is unwilling to openly discuss policy differences, it may be difficult for elites to directly challenge Xi or rally support for their cause. Xi’s challenge becomes a real concern for the leadership because the system of regular rotation was designed to prevent exactly this type of conflict. In the previous system, the party did not need to wait until a leader died or was overthrown in a coup in order to find a new leader.

In light of the developments of the 19th Party Congress, would you say that the era of collective leadership in China is over? Why did the rules and procedures painstakingly constructed in the post-Mao era fail to prevent the dismantling of collective leadership?

The leadership under Xi is clearly not the collective leadership that we have seen in the past. As Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations put it, Xi is not the first among equals; he is just first, and everyone else is a very distant second. It is remarkable that Xi has been able to achieve so much in such a short period of time, which reflects the limits of our understanding of the informal ways of politics in China. But he clearly has been able to undo much of those informal ways. His success is partly due to the recognition that collective leadership increasingly meant weak leadership. Initially, many people may have been in favor of a more vigorous, assertive top leader such as Xi. But Xi’s leadership has exceeded what people had expected or wanted.

It is interesting to note that so far, the rules of the game technically have not been broken. The two key constraints on leadership succession in China have been age limits and term limits. In this party congress, the age limits held, and everyone who was over 68 retired. However, Xi’s successor was not identified. It is not required that a successor be identified. But most observers believe that Xi Jinping has no intention of retiring in five years, as the norm of having a two-term limit would require. Although these limits are not codified in the party constitution, they have been heavily covered in the state-run media. In addition, the state constitution includes a formal legal limit of two terms. Both the age and term limits have applied to party and government positions. The age limit has been defended in this party congress, and the term limit has not yet been broken. But the concern now is that Xi intends to stay in power beyond his two terms of office.

“Xi Jinping Thought” mentions the pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as one of Xi’s chief policy objectives. Against the backdrop of reinforced nationalism and military strength, how will Xi pursue the new form of international economic cooperation under China’s leadership?

The BRI has not received much attention in the U.S., although it has gained popularity in other parts of the world. The lack of attention is largely due to the fact that beneficiaries of the BRI are not in the U.S., or really in the Western Hemisphere. But the BRI is a direct challenge in a variety of ways to U.S. leadership in other parts of the world. The BRI, according to its plans, will benefit countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, Middle East, and even parts of Europe. Because China is prepared to spend billions of dollars on large infrastructure projects, which many countries are in need of, China is in a position to increase its involvement in many countries. The question will be whether the BRI will actually build goodwill and benefits for the Chinese government in the long run or cause resentment toward China among the recipient governments and their people.

The BRI is a set of very ambitious policies that is in part motivated by domestic economic considerations. China has already exhausted the number of infrastructure projects within the country, such as high-speed rail, port facilities, and energy grids. But China has companies that are highly experienced in building infrastructure projects, so it is now finding foreign markets for those projects.

The U.S. is also retreating in a variety of ways, and China is stepping in to fill that void. On the one hand, the presidents of the two countries, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump seem to have a good personal relationship. But their governments are taking aggressive actions against each other. How these dynamics play out will in part influence how successful the BRI is and to what extent the U.S. will attempt to maintain its influence in areas where China is now increasing its involvement.

How sustainable is the use of anticorruption campaign for political purposes, such as for purging Xi’s rivals? Is this campaign producing diminishing political returns for Xi?

When the anticorruption campaign first started, it was very popular because corruption is one of the most unpopular issues in China. When people began to see a decline in the number of banquets and the number of officials driving around in limousines and wearing expensive watches, it had very tangible, immediate effects. But over time, it has become more apparent that there is a political agenda behind the campaign. The campaign is not merely about eradicating corruption, but it is also limiting potential or real rivals to Xi Jinping. In addition, at what point do you declare victory in this anticorruption campaign and move on? Does the constant supervision and investigation become the new norm? If you suddenly declare the campaign over, then those corrupt practices would quickly resurface again.

The only way to actually make anticorruption strategies effective in the long term is to establish an anticorruption agency that would be independent of the party’s control. But the party is unwilling to have organizations outside of its control. The CCP faces an inherent tension between wanting to have internal control over the behavior of party officials and recognizing that the party itself can be corrupted. The CCP does not want an independent agency because it does not want to be accountable to any other organization. The existing institutions for investigating corruption are effective in campaign mode but are not very effective in routine work.

How does the outcome of the 19th Party Congress affect U.S.-China relations? Given that Xi and his allies have solidified their authority in the Politburo Standing Committee, will China’s policy toward the U.S. become more consistent with Xi’s personal views?

The fluctuations in U.S.-China relations are often beyond the control of a leader in either country. When Nixon visited China back in 1972, the diplomacy involved Nixon and Kissinger on the one hand and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on the other. There was no public opinion to speak of, and no government agencies were involved in the beginning. U.S.-China relations have now become much more complicated and diverse, with numerous different stakeholders and interests, whether in the areas of trade, security, or cultural exchange. Even when individual presidents have wanted to seek a more cooperative relationship, they have not always been able to cultivate one. When the leaders wanted to pursue a more aggressive position, they usually faced opposition. Leaders in both countries are wary of the other side and do not want to appear dependent on the other; but they recognize that in different ways that the two countries are interdependent. The leaders are not willing to let the relationship fully unravel. Nonetheless, they have a hard time cooperating with the other for fear of appearing soft on the other country.

Now that Xi has further centralized his authority, he may be able to pursue a more cooperative relationship if that is what he wants. On the other hand, if Xi wants to pursue a more “China Dream,” nationalistic program, it will come into conflict with President Trump’s desire to “Make America Great Again,” which is an equally nationalistic set of policies designed to promote American interests in trade and security. Despite what seems to be a friendly relationship between the two presidents, they have laid out policy agendas that may not be very complementary.

China has apparently returned to one-man rule. What are the potential pitfalls of having such concentration of power in one leader? Are there any upsides?

The pros and cons of one-man rule are the flipside of each other. The main benefit of one-man rule is that decisions can be implemented quickly if they the leader has enough authority. The downside is that it is very difficult to prevent policy decisions that are inefficient or harmful. Chairman Mao is the best example of this. His leadership was clearly one-man rule in the way that China had never seen before or seen since, and yet he is mostly known for disastrous policy initiatives, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These programs devastated the country, economically and socially. Xi is not quite of that stature, and it is not clear that he has any policy agenda in the way that Chairman Mao had.

One-man rule places the responsibility entirely on the leader, so Xi Jinping will be accountable for any negative outcomes of his policy decisions. So even for Xi, a collective leadership would seem to have benefits. But anyone in a decision-making position feels frustrated when decisions do not get implemented in the manner intended, due to opposition, bureaucratic slack, or other reasons. But if China resorts to a pure one-man rule, then we better learn what Xi Jinping Thought is because it will be a better guide to future policies.

It appears that in terms of political leadership Xi has established fool-proof authority, at least in the short term, with the anticorruption campaigns and by packing the Politburo Standing Committee with his allies. Is the Chinese economy as fool-proof and stable in the short-term? How vulnerable is the Chinese economy to external shocks or implosion that could bring down popularity for the party or Xi himself?

The potential vulnerability of the Chinese economy is one of the biggest concerns for the CCP because so much of the popular support for the party depends not only on overall economic growth, but on whether personal incomes are rising and people can see themselves living a more comfortable life. If there were a dramatic downturn -- for example, if the bubble burst in the real estate market or if the growing debt accumulated by the local governments led to some dramatic failure of financial institutions -- that would have a potentially devastating impact on the economy. For the past 25 years, China has only known relatively fast growth, and the idea that the economy could slow down or reach a period of stagnation, like in Japan, is completely unimaginable to many people.

For the past five years, China’s leaders seemed to have reached a deadlock between people who were concerned about the slowing economy and wanted to use stimulus policies to pump money into the economy to boost GDP growth and create new jobs and those who were focused on domestic consumption to stimulate demand. The growing local debt as a consequence of stimulus policies is not sustainable in the long run. There are people who argue that China needs to make a transition from an infrastructure and foreign trade-based economy to a consumer-driven economy. In addition, the economy would need to scale back on excess capacity and heavy industry and become less dependent on exports. Debates between these two different positions have been ongoing, and it is unclear where Xi stands. Most of his advisors seem to advocate restructuring. With the newly consolidated leadership, Xi may be able to further the efforts on restructuring, but there has been very little progress on restructuring in the past 10 years despite continued debates.

A few days after the conclusion of the Party Congress, China and South Korea renormalized relations. Many observers speculated during the one year of tensions that the main reason Xi has to take a hardline stance on the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue was due to the 19th Party Congress. Xi now has to emphasize nationalism more than before in order to maintain his one-man rule, but that stance is not very compatible with having to cooperate with the U.S. and South Korea on the North Korean issue. How could Xi compromise his nationalistic stance to achieve China’s foreign policy goals?

The timing of the decision to renormalize relations with South Korea may have been due to the fact that the 19th Party Congress is over. But Xi also may have calculated that the decision had to be made before President Trump arrives, so that South Korea does not completely lean toward the U.S. for support or attempt to balance the U.S. and China against each other, as South Korea did in the past. Of the major Asian countries, the U.S. relationship with South Korea is probably the least secure because the new South Korean president is a liberal leader who is willing to negotiate with North Korea about resolving grievances. President Trump has been dismissive of that idea. President Trump’s visit to South Korea was planned to be relatively short, compared to his visits in Japan and China. Despite China’s criticism of South Korea about the deployment of THAAD and China’s attempts to use its economic leverage by cutting off trade and preventing Chinese tourists from travelling to South Korea, the strategy failed. THAAD was installed anyway. It may have been a strategic move on China’s part, not in terms of Xi Jinping personally but in terms of greater foreign policy strategy, to renormalize relations so they can focus on other strategic issues.

Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

By Dong Fang [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *