China: The Superpower of Mr. Xi

Feng Li/Getty Images
President Xi Jinping, Central Discipline Inspection Committee Secretary Wang Qishan, and Premier Li Keqiang, Tiananamen Square, Beijing, September 2014

In the almost one-hundred-year existence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), its current general secretary, Xi Jinping, is only the second leader clearly chosen by his peers. The first was Mao Zedong. Both men beat out the competition, and thus secured a legitimacy their predecessors lacked.1 Why was Xi chosen?

The Beijing rumor mill had long indicated that the outgoing elders were looking for a “princeling” successor, that is the son of a senior first- generation revolutionary. Princelings, it was apparently felt, had a bigger stake in the revolution than most people, and thus would be the most determined to preserve the rule of the CCP.

Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a respected vice-premier and member of the CCP Central Committee known for his moderate views, but he fell afoul of Mao in 1962 and was purged, then was rehabilitated and returned to high office after the Chairman’s death. Xi Jinping thus has the additional legitimation of being “born red,” as Evan Osnos put it recently in The New Yorker.

Doubtless this heritage partly accounts for Xi’s evident self-confidence, but another factor could be the toughening he underwent as a young teenager, fending for himself in the face of hostile Red Guards and thereafter working in the countryside for six years. According to an official biography, “he arrived at the village as a slightly lost teenager and left as a 22-year-old man determined to do something for the people.” Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin, who had the benefit of studying in the Soviet bloc and then rising through the relative stability of the industrial bureaucracy, and Hu Jintao, who started in the industrial bureaucracy and then made his way up the ranks of the Communist Youth League, Xi had no such protective carapace in his early years. That background could explain why Xi has been taking far greater risks after becoming general secretary than either Jiang or Hu did. What is widely accepted among China hands is that Xi is the most powerful leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, with a developing personality cult.

Xi is not primus inter pares like Jiang and Hu; he is simply primus. In his recent book, Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a veteran observer of Chinese elites, explains that since taking over as general secretary in November 2012 and president of China in March 2013, Xi has centralized power under his leadership to an extraordinary degree, creating and chairing the new Central National Security Commission, which has jurisdiction over the army, the police, and all foreign-related and national security agencies, along with chairing the Central Military Commission, which comes with his job as CCP general secretary. In a move that surely undercuts the regime’s…

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