If power was derived solely from formal titles, then China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, would be pre-eminent among the five generations of leaders since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. But that the most prominent of his successors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, were never officially president is revealing.
Power in China is never where people think it ought to be. It is often concealed. Politics has no obvious rules for the Communist Party, even to this day. It is a game involving subterfuge, a lot of ruses and a considerable amount of duplicity.
Xi’s announcement of the abolition of the two-term presidential limit is seen as further proof of his hubris and appetite for power. Yet before accepting this narrative too swiftly, we should recall the context in which he operates. The founding father Mao Zedong led a China where the average life expectancy in 1949 was 32 years. It was a country emerging from two decades of civil and international war. Ten per cent of people lived in cities. The rest lived in rural areas that had remained largely unchanged for centuries. Malnutrition, illiteracy and destitution were common. Mao led a party that was unable to oppose him. Through the Cultural Revolution from 1966, he nearly destroyed the ruling outfit.
Such dominance would be impossible to replicate today, for the simple reason that the country has been transformed. More than 60 per cent of its 1.4 billion people live in cities. China has 24,000km of high-speed rail, and trains travel at more than 300km an hour. Britain has less than 100km of such infrastructure and the US none at all. China is the world’s second-largest economy, and under Xi it is likely to pass per capita levels of $13,000. That qualifies it for middle-income status.
The changes between Mao’s China and Xi’s extend to its international role. In 1966, China was not a member of the United Nations and had only one ambassador abroad, in Egypt. Its borders were largely sealed. Trade happened, if at all, via Hong Kong, then still under British rule.
Xi’s China is the main trading partner to more than 120 countries and regions. It is the world’s largest exporter and the second-largest importer, and runs a $1trn annual trade surplus in goods and services with the rest of the world. Mao only visited one other country (the USSR) in his life. Xi has been to almost 50 since being appointed leader in 2012.
Xi Jinping was born in Beijing in 1953 (the first Communist Party head to be born after the Second World War). While Xi was still a child, his father, vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, who fought alongside Mao in the Chinese Civil War, was arrested in 1962 and imprisoned until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
Having been exiled to the countryside by Mao for “re-education”, Xi sought unsuccessfully to return to Beijing in the early 1970s, but had to continue working in a production brigade. After his tenth attempt to join the party in 1973, and what he has described as a “rebirth”, Xi won a place at the capital’s prestigious Tsinghua University, where he studied chemical engineering.
He has since become the country’s most pivotal leader since the man who imprisoned his father. At the Communist Party congress in Beijing last October, “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined in the Chinese constitution.
The confident, dynamic China that Xi leads is the secret to his power. It is a country that for the first time in modern history is strong, wealthy, and, most crucially of all, has acquired status. That China’s rise has unsettled so many in the region and further afield is, in the view of many Chinese, a positive change. They are no longer the underdogs. Their time in the sun has arrived.
Xi and his predecessors, for all their differences, share one common trait: fervent nationalism. For them, the Communist Party has a moral mission – to rectify the injustices visited on China at the hands of colonisers, and ensure that it never again becomes vulnerable or a victim. Deng Xiaoping made the defining strategic choice: to unleash market forces in the quest for growth.
Xi occupies the leadership at a time when the struggle of the past seven decades is coming to fruition. China’s moment of rejuvenation is imminent: a key event being the centenary of the party’s foundation in 2021. At that moment, the country will announce to itself and the world that it has finally won the battle for modernity – on its own terms. Xi is the man who can harness this emotionally mobilising message. He is the lucky leader of a country that, for the first time in centuries, is enjoying a windfall.
This is why there will be no opposition to the abolition of presidential term limits. As Xi would say, were he asked to defend the move (which he won’t be): the change is for the country, not for him. He is the humble servant. But the country he serves is immense and powerful. And that’s what supports and nurtures him.
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute. His book “The World According to Xi” (IB Tauris) is published this month.
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left