Ding Xueliang: We May Expect A Lot Of Surprises From China's President Xi Jinping
Heng Shao, the Forbes, 08/29/14
“Crossing the river by feeling the stones” was Deng Xiaoping’s approach to economic reform. But it can also capture the essence of China watchers’ attempt to grasp the true intention of President Xi Jinping.
Reform-minded or leftist? The next Deng Xiaoping or the next Mao Zedong? To say nobody has a good answer isn’t too much of an exaggeration. If the former, then why the revocation of Mao-era language or the tightened control over the media and dissidents? If the latter, then why the maiden trip to Shenzhen, or the relentless clampdown on corruption?
Ding Xueliang, a professor of PRC history and contemporary Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, attempts to find clues to Xi’s motivation from his younger and formative years. The exposure to Mao-era tactics has left its deep imprints on the president’s approach to handling challenging issues such as corrupted officials, Ding argues, but that isn’t equivalent to intending to become a paramount leader with unrestrained power.
Ding also suggests that the corruption clampdown come to a temporary halt to avoid economic damages. See below for our conversation.
When President Xi Jinping first took over, few fathomed that he had the weight or resolve to bring down a former Central Committee Standing Committee member (Zhou Yongkang) or a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (Xu Caihou), not to mention both. But now the tables seem to have turned. In what ways, if any, have China Watchers’ opinions of Xi changed in light of these events?
I’d say China watchers have been constantly surprised by Xi. Bringing down Xu Caihou was quite a shock. Getting rid of former Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai was already a big surprise because it was very, very difficult.
China watchers overseas have become more critical of Xi because they believe he’s handling politics in the Mao fashion, going down the route of power struggle and purges. But that doesn’t mean he’s trying to become the next Mao Zedong.
When analyzing Chinese leaders, we have to know the type of information they were exposed to when they were in their younger, formative years– the books they read and the environment where they grew up in, for example. These elements would determine what skills and strategies would come to their mind when the leaders face a certain challenge, such as wide-spread corruption.
Xi is part of the 50s generation – he was born in 1953. I’m from the same generation. Our characters are pretty much fixed by the time we are in our mid-20s (The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to 1976). The way he handles problems has the marks of that era, for sure. Bringing down Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou followed a quite mature procedure/strategy that developed in Mao’s times: first they’d make the decision to tackle this person, and then they’d collect the evidence, after which they’d determine what kind of evidence is suitable for public release and what not. These are all procedures well practiced in the Mao era, though not so much in Deng’s times. When you’re dealing with the bad guys, the most effective strategies are really, Mao’s strategies. Nobody has more strategies than Mao Zedong when it comes to power struggle.
But that doesn’t mean Xi is trying to become the next Mao Zedong. I wouldn’t say that’s the case. Who can be Mao Zedong in today’s China? Nobody, because Mao Zedong only existed in a particular time of China’s history, under particular conditions. Mao Zedong could have the entire country read only one book. Can Xi Jinping do that in today’s China, in this age of the internet? No.
If Xi Jinping stays on as the president, I think his approach to politics and policies will begin to reflect more of the positive influence from his father. Of course his father Xi Zhongxun was never for a multi-party system, but he was quite tolerant of intellectuals and genuinely cared about the suffering of the mass. I hope Xi can pick up these good legacies. Xi Zhongxun also emphasized on intra-party democracy. If Xi Jinping can introduce democracy within the Party in his second term, that would be quite good of a legacy to leave behind.
President Xi Jinping differs from the previous two presidents in that he’s a “second generation red”- his father played a key role in the Chinese revolutionary war. How will this particular identity affect his perspectives on policy or perception of power?
We can assume Xi’s intention is good when it comes to policy-making – his father’s generation fought hard for the country, so Xi’s generation would want to preserve the legacy.
Yet the identity itself has less bearing on Xi’s approach to governing than the era he was brought up in. Xi Jinping and former president Hu Jintao differ the most in that Hu received traditional education all the way till his adulthood. However our generation, including Xi, never received any formal education because of the Cultural Revolution. We were exposed to very little bureaucracy and prescribed orders in our teenage years. The good thing about this is that our generation has an open mind – be careful here, having an open mind is not equivalent to being liberal. Being open-minded means being willing to try out unconventional approaches. For that reason, we may expect a lot of surprises from Xi Jinping.
The corruption crackdown has swept through China like a raging fire, but few expect it to be sustainable. How and when will this round of anti-corruption come to an end?
I believe at the moment, they are looking for ways to draw a conclusion to the crackdown, at least temporarily. And I believe that would be the right thing to do. It wouldn’t end well if it were to drag on. China does not have a transparent political system. Neither the court nor the media is independent. For these reasons, the anti-corruption system (the Central Disciplinary Commission and its sub-branches) is the only tool that the leadership can rely on for tackling corruption. But if such a system is given too much power, it will become corrupt in itself. Just imagine, when your entire political career and even life are at stake, of course you’d be willing to pay bribes to be spared an investigation.
Corruption clampdown in China is always cyclical; it functions somewhat like elections – if you’re in a multi-party system, the incumbent candidates would know that an election is within sight, and they wouldn’t be re-elected if they do something out of line. That’s what keeps them from misbehaving. The Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou cases will be enough for warn those at the lower echelons that there is a boundary to things they can do, and that they’d be punished if they go beyond that boundary. Isn’t that part of the purpose of the anti-corruption campaign?
There are more urgent matters than corruption to deal with. The most important task facing Chinese leaders is economic development. Anti-corruption to a certain extent is good for economic growth. Most certainly, reform cannot be pushed forward without first removing some of the entrenched power figures, such as those in the oil and gas sector or on the National Development and Reform Commission.
But anti-corruption can also create barriers to economic development. Many government officials are now too timid to take care of their day-to-day business because they’re afraid they’d be reported – for example, on an occasion where you need to treat someone to a meal for a project.
Chinese media reported that the fourth plenum, to be held in October in Beijing, would center on legal reform. Can we see that as taking a step forward at real reform?
As of now, I have not seen any sign that the fourth plenum will address the issue of the transparency or independence of the legal system. I think what “legal reform” means in the context of the upcoming fourth plenum is cleansing the security apparatus previously controlled by Zhou Yongkang. That would include the courts, detention centers, police force, the armed police, and the city administrative bureaus, etc.
Under Zhou’s rule, the police force has turned into mafia-like entities at many places. If they can clean that up, so that the security apparatus will in fact do things according the rules itself has created, that would be an incredible achievement in itself. The purpose of the security apparatus is, still, to protect the interest of the regime. But on the bottom line, the means to serving that purpose has to be legal – “legal,” in its least, means falling within the Chinese legal framework that the government has devised itself. The trouble right now is, the local security apparatus often doesn’t follow orders from above.
A first step can be improving the quality of those in the legal system – for example, set rules for what kind of tests must be taken for what level of position, and what legal training is to be given, and follow those rules. There must be professional standards for those in charge. This is a relatively easy goal to reach. An internal study has shown that those within China’s security apparatus have the lowest education levels and the least credentials. It’s just that the results were never announced.
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