Deciphering the Enigmatic Mind of Xi Jinping

“Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” was of course introduced earlier, at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and was duly added to the Constitution of the CCP.

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File Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) talks with family members of Shi Qiwen, a villager at Shibadong Village in central China's Hunan Province, Nov. 3, 2013. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang)

Following excerpts adapted from the authors’ latest book, The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, published by Oxford University Press

The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in October 2022 was a historic occasion. It marked the start of Xi Jinping’s third term as the top leader of China and ended the post-Mao convention that the top leader retires after serving two terms of five years each. For all intents and purposes, it was also the beginning of Xi’s time as leader for life, a development not supposed to recur after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. It was not meant to be historic in other ways. The meeting took place in Beijing, in line with long-standing practices, with all the post-Mao institutions and rules in place. It was reassuringly dull and predictable until the last day.

High drama unfolded at the closing ceremony. Xi’s predecessor as general secretary of the CCP, Hu Jintao, was escorted out of the meeting visibly against his wishes. This was captured on camera and broadcast live, but never shown again on Chinese media. The subsequent ban on the images and reporting suggests that Xi did not intend to humiliate Hu. It seemed like Xi wanted to preempt Hu from doing or saying something that could potentially embarrass him. Xi had his way, though the treatment of Hu almost certainly damaged the image of Xi and the CCP system more than whatever awkwardness Hu might have caused.

The images captured by foreign media survived and provoked speculations outside China as to what happened.1 From television footage, it was clear that Hu, not enjoying the best of health and seated in the front row next to Xi in line with protocol, tried to take a look at a red folder in front of him. This caused concern from his other neighbor, Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu. With a signal from Xi, the official assigned to attend to Hu’s needs took on a new and unexpected role. He escorted Hu out. Other top leaders at the event kept calm and carried on, as if the drama was not happening. Even Premier Li Keqiang, a Hu protégé whose arm was touched by Hu as he left, merely made a slight and awkward acknowledgment. Li kept silent. The contents of the folder are not known. The best-educated guess is that it contains the list of membership of the new 7-strong Politburo Standing Committee, the usually 25-strong Politburo, and the 200-plus Central Committee. They are details to be released later.

The drama, it would seem, centered on the list of Politburo members. Instead of 25 names as expected, it included only 24. The one conspicuous in its absence is that of existing member Hu Chunhua. He is another protégé of Hu Jintao and a leading light of the Youth League Faction. He had previously been widely tipped as a potential successor to Xi. He adroitly avoided the wrath of Xi at the previous Party Congress, five years earlier. He indicated that he was happy to stay on as a member of the Politburo and did not wish to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee. Such a promotion would have encouraged speculation that he would be, or desired to be, a successor to Xi. The modesty of his ambition or his political astuteness saved him. It would seem that Xi had agreed that he could stay on in the Politburo prior to the 20th Congress but changed his mind in the course of it. Hence, the membership dropped by one. It was a decision apparently not shared with Hu Jintao, who reportedly lobbied for Hu Chunhua to be promoted. As Hu Jintao tried to read the membership list, the prospect of an embarrassing reaction from him loomed. This was apparently enough for Hu to be removed from the closing ceremony.

What this high drama reveals is how Chinese politics have transformed under Xi. Fundamental changes, in contrast to minor modifications, have not been made to the formal structure and institutions of the Communist Party or the Chinese Government. But the same cannot be said about how the system operates. In the language of the digital era, Xi has largely kept the hardware of the CCP system in place. He has replaced or substantially upgraded the operating system, however. Let us visualize the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 using terms of the digital age. The party-state system of the Mao era (1949–76) operated under the first-generation operating system, with variations or minor updates introduced over a quarter of a century. This was replaced by Operating System 2 under Deng Xiaoping when he launched the era of reform and opening up in December 1978. Various updates were introduced under Deng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Xi is not content with further updates. He replaced it by Operating System 3, which he brands “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.” With a replacement of the operating system, what could not happen previously, like publicly humiliating a retired top leader, took place unceremoniously. The public demonstration of the dominance of Xi and his “Thought” at the upper echelons of power made the 20th Party Congress truly historic.

“Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” was of course introduced earlier, at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and was duly added to the Constitution of the CCP. When this happened, many wondered about its significance. Was it just a vanity project? Did Xi merely try to outdo his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, in having his contribution formally described as “thought” rather than a long-winded and clunky theoretical addition that means little to most people? Having studied the changes Xi had made to how the Party governed China in his first five-year term, it was obvious to us that it was much more than a vanity project.

When Xi first became the top leader in 2012, he lost no time in making it clear that he took on the leadership of the Party and of China to make changes, not to muddle through, as was becoming the case toward the end of the Hu Jintao decade. Xi is power-hungry, but he also wants to change the Party, the country, and the people. He intends the introduction of his “Thought” to make him at least comparable to Mao Zedong, the only leader with his name associated with Thought in the long ideological description, Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought. In 2017, we knew Xi saw himself as an agent of change and was ambitious, but we did not fully appreciate how ambitious he truly was.

What was clear then was that Xi Thought must be taken seriously, as Xi made it unmistakable that he intended to make himself the helmsman of China’s ship of state, along the line of the Maoist tradition of Mao being “the great helmsman.” This was in sharp contrast to the relatively modest and pragmatic approach of Deng Xiaoping, who merely advocated “crossing the river by feeling for stones” in his era of “reform and opening up.” Deng’s experimental approach required no master plan to guide China in its direction of travel, though he did set limits to what were allowed, codified in the four cardinal principles.3 In Mao’s case, the helmsman knew the navigational direction. The crew (or the Party) and the ship (or China collectively) only needed to embrace and follow the helmsmen, and he would deliver them to the promised land. In reviving this particular “revolutionary heritage,” Xi was going to make Xi Thought the self-updating navigational chart that would guide China’s ship of state to its destiny, encapsulated in “the China Dream.”

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Olivia Cheung

Olivia Cheung is Research Fellow of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. She was educated at Oxford where she was a Swire Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar. She previously taught at the University of Warwick, where she was Course Director for the MA in International Politics and East Asia. She is the author of Factional-ideological Conflicts in Chinese Politics: To the Left or to the Right? (2023).

Steve Tsang

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. He is also a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony's College at Oxford. He previously served as the Head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and as Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. Before that he spent 29 years at Oxford University, where he earned his D.Phil. and worked as a Professorial Fellow, Dean, and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St Antony's College. He has a broad area of research interest and has published extensively, including five single authored and thirteen collaborative books.

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