As a sent-down youth in the early 1970s during the Great Cultural Revolution in China, Xi Jinping during his almost decade-long exile from Beijing, applied to join the Communist Party ten times. Only in the last did he succeed in getting accepted.
This is one of the few clues to what we might refer to as Xi’s inner life – a moment when he showed choice and agency and indicated his real disposition. The second was the choice made in the early 1980s to move from a career then in the military (from 1980 to 1982 Xi was private secretary to a member of the Central Military Commission, Geng Biao) to the civilian side of administration. That forced him from the comfortable élite circle in the capital once more into a kind of second internal exile back to the countryside and unglamorous provincial government. The final clue is the language that he used as a provincial leader working his way upwards in the 1990s in the coastal province of Fujian. Interviewed by the official Xinhua news agency at this time, he stated that "politicians should only be doing politics".
On the surface, this seems like an uncontroversial statement. But at a time when commercial opportunities in the newly emerging non-state sector were opening up almost everywhere, and where the normal habit was for cadres to "jump into the sea" (the term used for those going into business and leaving officialdom) or to use their position to make vast amounts of money on the side, this was a far more maverick opinion. If there is a one sentence summary of Xi’s philosophy, and the belief he has stuck with, this is it: Politicians do politics.
Of course, politicians everywhere can be said to do politics. But the kind of politics they do depends on the environment they are active in. The distinctive feature of the People’s Republic today is the dominance in terms of organised political life of the Communist Party. That is the entity you have to work in, if you want to work at all in this field.
Not that the Chinese Communist Party is a static, unchanging entity. The Party of the second decade of the 21st century is a different entity than the one that existed in the era of Mao. It has fundamentally changed. So when we talk about Xi Jinping being a new Mao, the statement fails to take into account these completely different contexts in which each wielded power. Mao exercised authority almost independently of the Party. He was able in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 to stand against it and oppose what he claimed were its bureaucratic and self-interested ways. He very nearly brought it to its knees, clearing out a whole generation of fellow leaders and pitting the military against it. The Party in Mao’s time was an organisation that had almost no institutional structure, held congresses very infrequently (none for instance between 1956 and 1969), and had almost zero internal governance. That was why Mao was able to undertake this kind of destructive campaign. There was nothing stopping him from doing so.
The Communist Party is now completely different. For a start it has 88 million members (under Mao, the maximum was about 7 million). It has had four decades of at least some institutionalisation, including a number of top leadership transitions, regular congresses held every five years, and a series of additions to Mao Zedong's "Thought" as its main ideology, introducing an element of intellectual competition. The Party in Xi’s era might still be imperfectly structured, but its structure has much more complexity than it did under Mao. This complexity is the most striking feature of its current identity.
Xi’s relationship to this organisation he tried so hard to join over four decades ago, and which he has been a faithful follower of ever since, is the most critical one in his life, and utterly central to his politics. Xi does not have a separate identity outside of the Party. He works, lives, and has meaning within it. It is a relationship so close that it is hard to pick apart. One could also say that Xi is part of the Party. That is very different to the relationship that Mao had. There the Party almost depended on him, rather than the other way around. It was an increasingly unequal relationship.
Is Xi starting to develop an emerging dominance that harks back to the Mao era? Is he trying to become as independent and autonomous an actor as Mao was? Is that what the constitutional change at the National People’s Congress this year portends, even though it relates to a state position: a Xi as leader over and above the Party, not in the midst of it?
If this is Xi’s aim (and at the moment it is too hard to say definitively that it is) then it could prove a treacherously difficult path to travel. After all, for all Mao’s might, in the end we have to remember that his project failed. The Party as an institution survived him and continues to this day. Mao’s politics of class struggle and contradictions ended on 9 September 1976, the day of the Chairman’s demise. Why would Xi try an approach that had already been proven unworkable?
What is different now is the country that the Party he leads is in charge of. China today is economically, militarily and diplomatically operating on a different level from that which existed prior to 1976. This extraordinary transformation is something the CPC gives itself credit for. It is naturally enough also something it claims fresh legitimacy from to rule. Xi Jinping’s politics has mostly been about articulating this grand national narrative of a country for the first time in modern history winning the battle of modernity and rejuvenating itself, and doing so because it has a unified, stable and sustainable single comprehensive political party at its heart. Under Xi, the singularity and unity of the Party, and its dominance of political space, has become an asset, not, as it once appeared, a liability.
Were Mao to have had such an extraordinary national situation, then it is unimaginable where his powers might have ended up. Xi, however, operates within a story where the Party he leads and its strategic role as China marches towards its moment of renaissance - marked from 2021 onwards when the first Centenary Goal is realised - is irreplaceable. It is asserted, by him and colleagues around him, as an irrevocable part of realising the “China Dream” – final realisation of a great, powerful, strong country. In Mao’s China, Mao was almost like a god. In Xi’s country, the nation and its flourishing have become the object of worship. Mao’s glory was direct, Xi’s borrowed from the nation he heads. This is a completely different dynamic. It is the crucial one within which to locate Xi. The boy who tried ten times to become a member back in 1973 is now in charge of making the organisation he was so desperate to join back then a sustainable, permanent force. That more than anything else makes clear that Xi is a Party servant. And no new addition of titles or honorifics will change that fact.