When Xi Jinping emerged as key leader of the Communist Party of China on 15th November 2012, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in central Beijing, watching the events on television while waiting for a friend to come by. The last few weeks before his final appearance at the head of a group of six others at the Great Hall of the People that day had been febrile and at times bewildering. There had been talk of coups, assassination attempts, and even Xi himself, during a two-week disappearance, being injured or worse.
For all the drama, the most significant event that day was not so much what happened, but what didn’t. Xi made a quick, curt statement as he stood on stage. Everything had occurred in an orderly way. He had been granted not just leadership of the Party, but of the Central Military Commission. In the following weeks, a kind of procedural quietness descended once more on Beijing. There were no signs of any lingering dissent in the Party elite, and no clues to any resentments or anger by those who were perceived to have been side-lined by the happenings on 15th November.
In hindsight, it was not so much who emerged as leader that day (in the end, this was not much of a surprise) but what Xi said in his few comments that has had enduring impact. The man, rather than the message, have received more and more attention in the intervening years. Much media coverage of Xi in the build up to the 2022 Congress where he is likely to be appointed to a third term is about him and his style of rule, as though these were deeply personal decisions and upon which he had key impact on. A case in point is the Economist podcast series on `The Prince’ which sets out these arguments for Xi the all-powerful autocrat and the commanding political influence of his age.
Greatness, richness and harmony: Xi’s 2012 manifesto
Xi however had a manifesto he presented in 2012, albeit in a very abridged way. And this manifesto was clearly a result of a long process of discussion and consensus building within the complex networks of the Party itself rather than something that belonged solely to him. The key points of that manifesto were that China was on the cusp of a huge historic opportunity, to be a great, rich country; that the Communist Party was essential to the delivery of this; and that it could no longer continue being beset by corruption, narrow self-interest, and poor to non-existent self-discipline. Xi spoke of the increasing gap between the people and the party and government. Indeed, he almost seemed to apologise for this. He made clear that serving the people was now the key. He talked of a great nationalist mission, and of a country that was close to fulfilling its desire to being once more powerful and important. And he referred to the desire by people for a better life, and a better environment, and a more harmonious world.
In many ways, Xi has stuck close to that manifesto in the decade since. Granted, his original words were very general, and gave a great deal of latitude to how they were interpreted. But on the specific point of defining better the Party’s style of rule, and making it more politically and socially effective by dealing with its deep internal discipline issues, Xi kept his word. An anti-corruption movement began the next year, one which has continued to the present day. Officials were cut down to size, the most obviously venal removed from power, and an ethos of public service with Chinese characteristics imposed.
Adamant in an ever-changing world
What has most changed Xi’s world view is not how this programme has proceeded in China, but how events in the outside world have unfolded. Relations with the US, in particular as China grew larger and stronger, were never likely to be easy. At least with Obama there was a more orthodox dialogue, even though the tectonic plates started to shift when his presidency made it clear their core area of geopolitical interest was now Asia Pacific rather than anywhere else. The big changes began with the onset of Trump, and the emergence of an America more unpredictable, capricious and inward looking. The COVID19 pandemic of 2020 exacerbated already existing faultiness which had started to appear from 2017. Xi’s fundamental worldview is a nationalistic one, where China’s needs and interests are uppermost. Everything since 2017, from the Trump trade wars, the international response to huge repression in the Xinjiang region and the management of Hong Kong, to the pandemic itself and arguments about the origin of that, have only made this nationalism starker and more apparent. It is not so much that Xi has moved, more that the outside world has changed in ways which were unexpected and which have made China and Xi’s position much more defined and differentiated.
In 2022, the continuation of Xi’s rule is, to some extent, as much a recognition of the very isolated and exposed place China now occupies in the world as it is to his own position domestically. It is interesting to speculate about whether a more calm, predictable international environment might have made his pathway to extending his time in power harder, and allowed for some kind of succession process. The Communist Party, which he and all his colleagues serves, is institutionally risk averse. This year their response to volatility in Washington and seemingly endless uncertainty in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East is to create their own predictability by sticking with the leadership they already have. That might be a huge mistake. But for China today, in a world of bewildering change, one of the great ironies is that a country once seen as being amongst the hardest to second guess has become far more predictable, seeking within itself at least some reliability and stability while the outside world is infected by often bewildering and worrying crises and changes.