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. [Source]