Path Not Preordained: A Profile of China’s Xi Jinping

By Kenneth Dekleva

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva is a former physician-diplomat with the U.S. State Dept. and Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center and senior Fellow, George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.  He is the author of two novels, The Negotiator's Cross and The Last ViolinistThe views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, State Dept., or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

In 2000, Xi Jinping, the then relatively unknown (outside of China) Governor of Fujian, gave a rare interview to a Chinese newspaper. In this interview, Xi spoke of his philosophy of good governance, his traumatic childhood experiences, his closeness to the people, and his legacy as a son of Xi Zhongxun, one of China’s first generation of Communist leaders and a close associate of Mao since the Long March of the 1930s.

After his father was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, Xi – only 14 at the time – was expelled from high school in Beijing and then arrested by the Red Guards, who accused him of crimes. He was threatened with execution — “we can execute you a hundred times” – and Xi later wrote, “to my mind there was no difference between being executed a hundred times or once, so why be afraid of a hundred times?” Spared, he was instead “sent down” to the countryside in Shaanxi, where he spent seven years living among the peasantry, digging latrines, and performing hard manual labor.

In 2012, after being elected President by the National People’s Congress,  Xi spoke of the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation, as “the greatest dream of the Chinese people since the advent of modern times.” Xi stated that this dream would occur by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and would allow for the building of a prosperous, socialist, harmonious, and democratic society. He also stated, “in the future, the Chinese nation will forge ahead like a gigantic ship breaking through strong winds and heavy waves.”

His soaring rhetoric is in contrast to his more restrained language from the 2000 interview, in which he stated, “Do not try to do the impossible, do not strive for the unobtainable, do not rest on the transient, do not do what cannot be repeated.”

Central to Xi’s vision, which he stated in 2012 and has more extensively elaborated on since, is the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP]. However, it also links the dream to 5000 years of Chinese history and to the national aspirations of the Chinese people.

In January 2017, Xi delivered the opening plenary speech at the Davos World Economic Forum, the first time that a Chinese leader had done so. He spoke of the need for better global development, innovation-driven growth, fair and equitable global governance, ‘win-win’ cooperation, and the value of multi-lateral organizations and initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Trans Pacific Partnership. The symbolic importance of Xi’s ‘coming-out’ speech cannot be overstated. Xi presented China (and himself) as a leader – but not as a ‘disruptor’ – among nations in projection of economic power and values: in his mind, China’s proper place within the international community.

These vignettes reveal different sides of China’s leader, who many consider to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. While Xi is no stranger to U.S. policymakers, he remains – even after five years in power – an opaque and seemingly-inscrutable leader. In part due to such misunderstanding, tensions between China and the U.S.  have escalated.

Understanding China’s political actions, especially in light of the upcoming 2017 CCP 19th National Party Congress, requires a careful analysis of President Xi’s marriage of narratives with respect to his personal story of post-traumatic growth and resilience, his articulation of the Chinese Dream, and other competing collective ideologies involving Maoism, nationalism, and Confucianism. Xi’s use of such different ideologies and philosophies is deliberate, precise, and yet subtle. In doing so, he realizes that solely appealing to the CCP’s history and legitimacy lacks the collective appeal necessary to shape the future of the China.

Many excellent published profiles of China’s Xi Jinping – by experts such as Evan Osnos, Kurt Campbell and Robert Blackwill, Randal Phillips, Professor Kerry Brown, and Professor Willy Lam – describe him as “China’s CEO,” a godfather-like figure, “redder than red,” or as China’s most powerful leader since Mao. But other analyses, including a 2009 U.S. Embassy Beijing cable leaked to the media, have tended to see Xi as more Machiavellian, less intelligent (“of only average intelligence”), and driven largely by self-interest and ambition.

Both analyses of Xi’s political behavior may be mistaken and could lead to a lack of predictive power regarding China’s actions and intentions. Perceptions of Xi can easily suffer from bias – forgetting that his path to power was difficult, uncertain, and not at all preordained. He was barely selected to the Central Committee in the late 1990s and to the Politburo in the early 2000s, suggesting that he is not, nor has he ever been, a mere CCP ‘apparatchik’ or Party politician.

A careful reading of Xi’s writings, interviews, and speeches offers analysts a treasure-trove of material, which can – if carefully assessed –reveal the many faces of Xi Jinping and his remarkable resilience, leadership qualities, inner psychological strength, and psychological sensibility. In 1990, Xi wrote about his childhood experiences in Shaanxi: “I grew up in the seven years I was in Shaanxi. I learned two important things. First, I had the opportunity to understand what real life looks like, what is right and wrong, and who ordinary people are. These were experiences for life. Second, I had my self-confidence built up. As they say: the knife is sharpened on a stone, people are strengthened in adversity. Seven years of hard life in the countryside developed me a lot. When later in life I have encountered challenges, I have thought about the village, and that then I could do something in spite of hardships. When later I have come across problems, I have never experienced them as big as then. Every man is to find his own strength.”  It is precisely those psychological qualities which define Xi and his singular role in 21st-century Chinese political life.

Xi’s keen sense of organization, discipline, and deft management of domestic policy has also played a significant role in China’s ongoing political and economic restoration. Xi is a conservative pragmatist, cautious to a fault, who described his economic philosophy in a 1990 interview as, “to light a small fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning and now and again pour some more cold water in, so that the kettle did not boil over.”

Xi’s powerful sense of renewal of China’s pride and place in the world, and the strong social, emotional, and psychological appeal that this has for the Chinese people, accounts for Xi’s high political popularity ratings, but he has taken a political risk by appealing to primitive, powerful nationalist passions embraced by the Chinese Dream. As a leader, Xi respects strength, discipline, and control. He exudes it, as exemplified by his unwavering support of [Politburo Standing Committee member and Secretary, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection] Wang Qishan’s anti-corruption investigations, which have taken down over 200,000 party leaders (including powerful Politburo members such as Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang), and by his paramount control, concentration of power, and role in the various Leading Study Groups, National Security Council, as well as Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.

Xi’s management of domestic policy has required attention to significant challenges such as economic reform, social control, and Party discipline.  Regarding the latter, Xi has shown authoritarian traits in his absolute emphasis on the primacy (and legitimacy) of the CCP, control of the internet, and his support of crackdowns on human rights and civil discourse (including in Hong Kong). In this sense, Xi is a true CCP loyalist, who brooks no quarter.  Xi, like Deng and his successors, fears chaos.

Xi personally experienced the chaos and trauma of the Cultural Revolution. And similar to all Chinese leaders, the tragic history of the mid-19th-century Taiping Rebellion (in which 20-30 million Chinese perished) is seared into his psyche. He has also taken major political risks by emphasizing reform and modernization within the restive People’s Liberation Army (PLA), while attempting to restrain its growing military prowess within the South/East China Seas. Xi has managed such matters expertly, especially after the deterioration of relations with several ASEAN nations (e.g. Philippines, Vietnam) following China’s political and military actions during 2010-2013.

Xi has never lived or studied abroad (although his daughter is a graduate of Harvard University), but he has travelled extensively, showcasing his charm, grace, and excellent diplomatic abilities. Along with his equally-famous wife Peng Liyuan (a renowned singer and retired PLA General), he has projected China’s soft power and a welcome appeal, especially compared to his predecessor Hu Jintao, who was seen as dull and pedantic.

Xi has – so far in his tenure – expertly managed relationships globally, through a personal, gracious, and dignified style. Xi’s nuanced relationship with former President Barack Obama allowed for successful summit meetings in 2013 and 2015, in spite of the very real tensions created by China’s military actions in the South China, its 2014 cyberattack of the Office of Personnel Management, and challenges regarding trade.

Xi’s skillful management of complex relationships with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi come to mind, especially given that China and India went to war in 1962 (and are currently caught up in tense cross-border relations), and that China and the USSR nearly went to war in 1969. But challenges remain, and even Xi may grow weary when faced with a historically-complex, nationalist-charged relationship with Japan and its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or with China’s role in helping to resolve an increasingly dangerous, volatile nuclear crisis involving North Korea and its petulant, aggressive leader Kim Jong-un (whom Xi has yet to meet).

Xi’s background as a ‘princeling’—the children of powerful communist leaders who participated in the revolution—has certainly impacted his entire personal professional life. But overreliance on such a label loses sight of Xi’s adaptability regarding domestic and foreign-policy challenges. It also confuses status with ability and psychological resilience. Part of Xi’s strength comes from an emphasis on filial piety, as well as closeness to the land (“the yellow earth”) and its people. Xi has written that “ordinary people are like our father and our mother. As you love your mother and father, you should love the people, be of use, and create a good life for everybody.”

Such character traits, born of both individual and collective adversity, are both remarkable and oddly appealing. Such a portrait presents Xi – who has been referred to as “smiling on the outside and hard on the inside” – as a man of the people and of the soil. As Xi has stated, “when you are close to the grass roots and close to the people, no storms from any corner of the world can blow you down or make you surrender.” This reflects Xi’s truest and greatest strength as a political leader, and a concatenation of psychological character traits rare among 21st-century leaders.

The Equilibrium Shifts Toward China

While President Donald Trump has – early in his new term – played gracious host to President Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, their cordial relationship masks multiple areas of tension between China and the U.S. Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison have written extensively about the Thucydides Trap, in which a rising power such as China collides and enters into conflict with an existing power such as the U.S. Such a rationale would likely make sense to the current U.S. administration, in a world divided into ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’

But what many miss is the already-changed equilibrium in China’s favor. An America beset by political dysfunction and inclined to withdraw from multilateral institutions and alliances, whose recent pivot to Asia has reversed, and an America in retreat from its worldly commitments, has de facto already shifted the equilibrium towards China. Political observers and extensive media commentary suggest that the real ‘winners’ of the 2016 U.S. election, given the U.S. intelligence community’s finding of extensive Russian interference, are Vladimir Putin and Russia. But such a view may be deceiving. The real winners are China and its paramount leader, Xi Jinping. But such a change in equilibrium is most delicate, and Xi’s January 2017 Davos speech – in its careful embrace of multi-polar, international institutions– hints at his awareness of such a dynamic.

Whether Xi – and China’s Communist Party, military, and political elites, not to mention a new generation of increasingly-nationalist Chinese citizens, many of whom have studied abroad – will demand yet more from the international community regarding political and economic expectations, is a critically-important question as China approaches the 2017 19th Party Congress, which will outline Xi’s agenda forward, as well as offer hints with respect to his successor in 2022.

To truly understand China’s President Xi Jinping is to accept his quintessential Chinese qualities, resilience, and psychological strength, and to conceptualize Xi not as merely another Mao or ‘Red Princeling,’ but rather, as his father’s son. For Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s closest comrades and founders of modern China, veteran of the Long March and survivor of Kang Sheng’s 1930s purges, the youngest Vice Prime Minister in China during the 1950s, and (along with Deng Xiaoping) a leader of reform and ‘opening up’ during the late 1970s, was also, in his own manner, “impressive.” In summary, observers of Xi Jinping might thereby appreciate the qualities that bind together father and son for, in the words of Wordsworth, “the child is father to the man.”

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