Professor Kerry Brown on the rise of Xi Jinping: Power and politics in modern China

Interview with Professor Kerry Brown conducted by Lauren Dickey

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Source: Wikimedia

Lauren Dickey: What made you write `CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping’?

Kerry Brown: This is the second in a trilogy of books on power and politics in contemporary China.  The first book, `The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China’, which came out in 2014, was simply about the leadership succession between Hu Jintao who was leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 2002 to 2012, and his replacement, Xi Jinping, and then the group of leaders around Xi who had risen to power at the same time. In that book I was trying to map out the dynamic way in which networking occurs in elite politics in China and, in a sense, trying to get as far from possible away from the notion of factionalism and the sort of neat boundaries that sometimes gives to analysis of Chinese elite politics. This second book looks very closely at Xi himself. During the past four years of his presidential tenure, which constitutes a third of his time in office, we have now had time to see the kind of leader he has become and are approaching something of a record in power. So we should now start to have a good idea of what he wants from power, how he is exercising it, and what sort of China he is trying to bring about. The third book, to be published next year, deals with China’s role in the world under Xi.

Does anything about Xi and what he has done since 2012 surprise you?

I guess the ways in which he has been able to accrue power and be so visible and dominant have been a surprise. Most analysts would agree that Xi sounds and looks like he is in charge in ways that his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, never really did. Xi speaks and acts like he knows what he is doing, he has a grand vision and he is willing to push people to achieve that. The real signature feature of his period in office, the anti-corruption struggle, has also been deeper and more extensive than previous similar inner party purges. It was a real surprise for instance, that he did allow for former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang to be formally indicted, expelled from the Party and then imprisoned in 2014. This had never happened before at this level.  Though what we also have to remember are the first words he said when he emerged as Party Secretary after the Congress in November 2012. He gave a list of issues he wanted to address including the distance between the Party and the people, the level of greed and larceny in society etc.. So in a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised; he has done what he said he would do. It shows politics in China is the same as everywhere else. The most unsettling and shocking thing politicians can do is to actually carry out what they promised when they were lobbying for power! We usually expect the opposite.

Is Xi `the new Mao Zedong’?

It is popular at the moment to say that Xi is a Maoist. Yu Jie, the U.S.-based dissident journalist, wrote a book in 2014 simply calling Xi `China’s godfather’ and arguing that given their experience of the 1966 Cultural Revolution, Xi and other leaders of his generation only understand the politics pertaining to class struggle and Maoist-style worship of contradictions. It is understandable that a Chinese leader would seek to draw at least some legitimacy from being linked to the founding father of the regime, who remains an admired figure in China. However, the Mao Zedong of contemporary China is the same as it has always been – the Mao that died in 1976. There is no point of anyone trying to emulate or replace him. I think what Xi has done, is to try and affirm that there is a definite link between China before and after 1978 when ‘Reform and Opening-Up’ is usually said to have started.  Were Xi to try to deny this linkage and say there was a complete difference between China before and after 1978, that would really create ideological and political issues, because it would imply that everything from 1949 to 1978 was a mistake, including the unification of 1949 and the industrial modernization facilitated by the USSR in the 1950s. Xi has therefore gone out of his way to stress that they are two periods of the same project, the same set of aspirations, both focused in different ways on trying to achieve China’s modernization. Xi himself has said that without Mao, there would be no modern China. So don’t expect this group of leaders to turn their backs on Chairman Mao, nor to stop dropping him into their speeches and activities when they get the chance.

Do you think that Xi is an autocrat?

Xi looks and sounds powerful, and as I explain in the book, there are ways in which he certainly does have significant influence. But power is a dispersed thing, even in the People’s Republic, where so much seems to come down to the aspirations and ambitions of the Communist Party. The Party itself is a complex entity now, its membership much more diverse than in the period of Mao or even of Deng. It is like a state within a state, and we underestimate its internal potential divisions and fragmentation at our peril. I would argue that it is the Party, not Xi, who is the autocrat as, in some ways, it is Xi’s key mandate to make China’s one party rule sustainable; he is the servant of that mission, not the architect of it. Additionally, a lot of the policies his government is pursuing were already clear before Xi’s rise to power in 2012. The internal cleansing of cadres and the rectification of their behaviour through the anti-corruption struggle, for instance, was already prefigured in the appointment of Wang Qishan as head of the graft-busting body in early 2012. Even in the era of Hu Jintao and the years of massive, double digit growth when everything the Party touched seemed to turn to gold, there was a sense that the larceny, greed and unruliness of party officials was becoming a serious threat to the Party’s long term stability. I think that under Xi we are seeing an attempt to make it more efficient as a political force, and restore at least some of its moral mandate. I do not believe that Xi could exercise the kind of all-embracing rule that Mao did. That was for another age, and another time. Xi has tactically chosen certain areas, and seeks dominance in them. Only in that sense is he Maoist – a master of guerilla warfare by stealth and concealment!

What are the most important challenges for Xi’s China?

This is a treacherous period for China’s development. I think this was known some time ago. The transition to middle income status for any country is a tricky one, and almost always is attended by thorny political reform issues, not just economic ones. So since 2012 the main issue has been moving away from investment and manufacturing more towards a consumption, service sector led model. The issue with China is that this needs to be done at a scale and speed, which is unprecedented. Many things could go wrong. Unlocking what Premier Li Keqiang calls the `inner sources of growth’ within, rather than outside China is a major part of what the country is now trying to do. But the idea introduced in 2013 at the annual Plenum meeting that China now embraced full marketisation has, so far, been only partially achieved. Xi’s China is trying to create this unique partly socialist, partly capitalist model, unlike any we have seen before. The current consensus is that to really develop further, it will need to introduce stronger rule of law, greater accountability by the government, and political competition – i.e. multi-party entities, public participation in decision-making, and having the Party relinquish some of its privileged status in society. These are precisely the things that Xi and the leadership around him have said they will not countenance. Perhaps they will in the event of a crisis where the choice will be between the Party falling or it maintaining some form of negotiated power. This is the question no one really knows the answer to at the moment – just how pragmatic the Party will be when some kind of crunch comes. Historically, taking the hard line and never compromising, for instance during the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, fulfilled its objectives and meant that the Party never had to cede space to organized political competition. However, that tactic won’t work forever. In the next few years, therefore, we will see the Communist Party of China rewrite the laws of modernity, and either be a one Party developed state with the world’s largest economy, or suffer the sort of challenges that the USSR and others did. We will just have to wait and see.



Lauren is a first year PhD researcher in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore. Her research explores Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy toward Taiwan with an update of classical deterrence theory. Beyond cross-strait relations, she is also interested in Chinese foreign and defense policy and East Asian security issues. She is a fluent Mandarin speaker and a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to King’s, she was a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter @lfdickey.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. Previously, he was the Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He led the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) funded by the European Union from 2011 to 2014. Professor Brown is also presently an Associate Fellow on the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London. His main interests are in the politics and society of modern China, in its international relations and its political economy.

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