It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally. As his time in office nears, Xi is evincing signs of being a narrow nationalist on foreign policy and of having a penchant for police actions in dealing with domestic frictions. Hence, his rise could signify that the long struggle between Maoists and reformers that characterized China’s “reform era” is now ending. That era’s replacement could be something more like the struggle that characterized the early years of the People’s Republic, when social progressives who believed in Marxist theories of social emancipation struggled against anti-Japanese (and anti-American) nationalists who were more taken with Lenin’s theories of political control. Xi is clearly in the latter camp, siding with order and power over social progress, and he may lead China in a very unpleasant direction.
Foreign policy is where new Chinese leaders tend to make their mark quickly, given the small number of people involved compared to domestic policy. Thus it’s also the area where the question of who’s in charge in Beijing really matters, and the fine art of Pekingology remains important. Vice president Joe Biden came away from an August visit praising Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic.” Biden is probably right. But Xi’s strength and pragmatism do not necessarily augur well for those fearful of a rising China.
The first time that Xi’s “strong” dark side emerged publicly was in 2009 when on a visit to Mexico, he told local Chinese, “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do but point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution, we do not export poverty and hunger, and we do not interfere in the affairs of others. So what is there to complain about?”
Xi’s “three did nots,” as they have become known, have won plaudits from the country’s nationalists, including the authors of the vitriolic 1996 book The China That Can Say No. These nationalists express hope that Xi will be the first leader since Mao who is willing to stand up to the West. In early September, Xi told students at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training academy in Beijing, that “two overriding objectives—the struggle for both national independence and popular liberation, which is to say the realization of both state power and popular wealth—have always been closely related. The former has always been the basis of the latter.”
Domestically, the same strongman style was evident in Xi’s support of the head-cracking Bo Xilai’s tenure in Chongqing. Another princeling who is also certain to join the ruling Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, Bo wiped out organized crime in the city with an indiscriminate 2009 sweep that ignored due process. Visiting the city in late 2010, Xi effused that the “hair-raising struggle to ‘combat triad gangs and extirpate evil criminals’” was “deeply popular” and praised the local security apparatus for “taking the lead” to root out the problem. His promotion of the “Chongqing model” has been sometimes interpreted as a return to Maoism. Instead, it is better seen as a return to the nationalist police state, more Chiang Kai-shek than Mao Zedong.
In mid-July, Xi was despatched to Lhasa to preside at the “celebration” of the sixtieth anniversary of the “liberation” of Tibet. In stark contrast to the conciliatory and humane policies of former party chief Hu Yaobang, whose visit to Tibet in 1980 marked the last chance for a real reconciliation with the region, Xi’s visit was a study in domination. An overwhelming police and secret-service presence swamped the city, and nary a Tibetan was seen on the official podium. The city was in total lock-down and Xi was flanked by military and security personnel everywhere he went. He even brought his own water for drinking, cooking and bathing, according to Chinese media reports, so afraid was he of being poisoned. Xi made no attempt to mix with ordinary Tibetans and instead delivered a hard-line seventy-minute speech attacking the Dalai Lama and stressing the importance of the massive military presence in the region.
What is behind this “blood and iron” Xi? Conventional wisdom holds that this son of a CCP moderate—Xi Zhongxun, who suffered under Mao—Xi is a reformist. Indeed, his career in the south coastal provinces showed that he was keen on economic reforms and administrative effectiveness. But the reform era is over, and those debates are past. The debates now are between the Marxist progressives, many of whom earned their spurs within party organizations and in poor inland areas, and the Leninist nationalists, many of whom, like Xi, moved up through technocratic positions in government, usually in wealthy coastal areas. The Marxist progressives care most about social equity and party ideology, while the Leninist nationalists care most about national power and party discipline. Xi clearly falls into the latter group. He cares little for the issues of “social harmony,” “people-centered development” and “scientific development” that have absorbed the attentions of the two Marxist progressives who have been in charge since 2002 (Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao). Instead, his focus is on state power, exerted both domestically and internationally.
For the United States, while Biden’s brand of goodwill is appropriate at the diplomatic level, foreign-policy planners need to consider the growing possibility of a more confrontational foreign policy under Xi Jinping.
Bruce Gilley is an assistant professor of political science at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government and the author of The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy.