‘The No. 1 is Key’: Xi Jinping Holds Forth on the Art of Leadership

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 15

Source: Channel News Asia

In the past month or so, Chinese official media have published scores of articles containing President Xi Jinping’s homilies on the art of leadership (lingxiuxue) and in particular, his views of the personal qualities needed to govern 1.3 billion people. These reports are based not only on Xi’s pronouncements since the 18th CCP Congress of late 2012, but also on speeches and essays made and written by the 61-year-old leader when he served in Zhejiang Province and the Shanghai municipality from 2002 to 2007. Given Xi’s increasing tendency to present himself as a paragon of flawless leadership, he and his entourage seem intent on erecting a personality cult that is geared toward boosting the already formidable authority of the General Secretary, President and Commander-in-Chief.

Xi’s Theory of Leadership

At the 17th Party Congress of 2007, Xi was chosen as Hu’s successor by former president Jiang Zemin and former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, partly due to widespread perceptions that the former party chief of Zhejiang was a team-player and not a forceful or charismatic leader (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], September 23, 2013; Frontline magazine [Hong Kong], February 1, 2010). Since taking office at the 18th Party Congress, however, Xi has surprised observers by publishing a large number of Maoist aphorisms that play up the qualifications—and perquisites—of a strong top leader. Like Mao Zedong—and in sharp contrast to reform-era leader Deng Xiaoping—Xi has reiterated that “the quality and ability of number one [yibashou] is the key” to the success of the party and state. “The top cadre must set a good example for—and vigorously push forward—the task of implementing the spirit of the central authorities [zhongyang],” he said in 2013. “Whether the train can travel fast depends on the lead locomotive,” he added (People’s Daily, April 29; Fujian Daily [Fuzhou], April 5). When he was party secretary of Zhejiang, Xi pointed out that “the number one cadre’s overall qualifications must be very high.” “He not only has to be professionally competent but also possesses charisma, as well as the ability to bond with his colleagues.” “Unity is the critical issue for building a leadership corps,” he added. “If the ruling team is not united, it will become a terrible mess.” (Zhejiang Daily, November 6, 2003). While Mao sometimes characterized himself as “a fool who dares to move the mountain” [referring to a Chinese parable about determination overcoming insurmountable obstacles], Xi has emphasized the leader’s ability to make decisions under daunting conditions—and to stick to them through thick and thin. Like Mao, Xi places emphasis on determination and perseverance in the face of adversity. After becoming General Secretary, he asked his subordinates to consider three criteria before making decisions: “Whether a policy is correct and feasible—and whether [the officials] have full confidence [in it].” Once a leading cadre is satisfied that a goal or policy meshes with the ideal of Chinese-style socialism, Xi said, “He must take full responsibility for and demonstrate full commitment [to the task at hand]” (Yangtze.com [Nanjing], July 19; People’s Daily, July 1).

It is not surprising that Xi has rejected the trial-and-error approach taken by Deng, which was often summarized as “crossing the river while feeling out for the boulder.” Xi noted that a top leader “should have firm faith and strategic resoluteness.” Whether a leading cadre dares to tackle difficult tasks is intimately linked to “the CCP’s will power in remaining [China’s only] ruling party,” he said (Ifeng.com [Beijing], March 19; China News Service, January 30, 2013). A People’s Daily commentary has thus summarized Xi’s views on lingxiuxue: “We must have one goal; one chain of command and one coordinating authority; one decision and strategy; one [heavy] dosage of firmness and devotion; and one way of thinking” (People’s Daily, April 24). Regarding the tricky task of making Chinese-style socialism relevant to the 21st century, Xi said: “Where is the road? It’s just under our feet.” “Open up a road if you are blocked by mountains; build a bridge if you come across a river,” Xi added. Paraphrasing Mao’s many theories about the indomitability of the human spirit, Xi said: “There is no mountain that is too tall for mankind, no road that is too long for our feet” (CNTV News, June 5, 2013; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], February 23, 2013).

Like the Great Helmsman, Xi has argued that a top leader should focus on the big picture and “allow subordinates to handle concrete policies without interference [from on high].” “The No. 1 cadre’s fundamental job is to point out the overall direction, tackle major matters [of state] and take care of the whole picture,” Xi said repeatedly as Party Secretary of Zhejiang, describing his approach to provincial leadership (People’s Daily, April 29; Guangming Daily [Beijing], January 13). While Xi seems to advocate giving subordinates at both the central and local levels more leeway, he also demands absolute obedience. This is evidenced by his recent talk with cadres in the Central Committee General Office (CCGO), the nerve center of the entire party. Xi pointed out that CCGO officials “must be totally loyal [to the center] and have an extremely high sense of responsibility.” Xi added that CCGO staff “must have a correct understanding of the overall [political] situation, self-consciously obey the overall situation and resolutely safeguard the overall situation” (Xinhua, July 18; China News Service, July 18).

A Departure from Post-Mao Leaders

Among CCP leaders, only Chairman Mao previously held forth at length on a theory of leadership.  Mao most memorably advised that a worthy and charismatic leader “should not be obstructed by evil circumstances: he should dare to fight with heaven, struggle against the earth and cross swords with men” (People’s Daily, December 24, 2013; Xinhua, February 13, 2008). Scattered over Mao’s voluminous works are hundreds of tips on leadership. Being the founder of the party, as well as its main military strategist, Mao believed strongly in a leader’s ability to hit on the right ideology, worldview and policies. “Providing leadership over ideas is the first priority for any top cadre,” Mao told then-close colleague Liu Shaoqi in 1942. Mao also believed that the top leader should only focus on the most essential aspects of governance. “A leader should concentrate on the most important and critical issues, policies and measures,” Mao said, adding that less crucial tasks should be delegated to his subordinates. Moreover, he underscored the imperative of unity, saying that a leader “must have the requisite spirit for uniting all cadres and uniting the entire party” (Qstheory.cn, November 18, 2013; Club.China.com, September 3, 2013).

The great majority of CCP chieftains after Mao were relatively reticent about leadership. Deng Xiaoping was so convinced that the Cultural Revolution and other aberrations were caused by the “personality worship” of Mao that he refused to take top posts such as party chairman, general secretary or premier. In his 1980 lecture on the reform of leadership systems, Deng said that “systems and institutions in the party and state” were much more important than individuals. “If these systems are sound, they can place restraints on the actions of bad people; if they are unsound, they may hamper the efforts of good people or indeed, in certain cases, may push them in the wrong direction,” Deng said (People’s Daily, October 18, 1980; Xinhua, October 18, 1980).

Theory and Practice

Owing to the fact that Deng’s successors—Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and, to a considerable extent, Jiang Zemin—worked under Deng’s shadow, these three general secretaries seldom held forth on the art of leadership. Hu Jintao, who was famous for robotic mannerisms and cautious mentality, also refrained from this dangerous issue. The furthest that the Fourth-Generation leader went was to admonish senior cadres to be “close to the masses,” so as to better bring forth a harmonious society. Hu noted that top officials must “use their power for the people, seek profits for the people and ensure that their sentiments are in sync with those of the people” (People’s Daily, September 26, 2011; Chinese News Service, February 18, 2003). Paradoxically, it was left to Xi to lay down a definitive interpretation of Hu’s leadership traits. While acknowledging Hu’s willingness to resign from all his jobs at the 18th Party Congress, Xi praised Hu for having a “lofty morality and work style as well as an unimpeachable character” (CCTV, November 15, 2012; China News Service, November 15, 2012).

By and large, Xi’s leadership style has lived up to his own pronouncements. Domestically, his relentless campaign against corruption in both civilian and military sectors demonstrates a degree of boldness that surpasses his predecessors, ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In foreign policy, Xi’s tough tactics against Japan and the United States testify that he is as determined as he is ambitious.

However, it is not clear whether Xi’s vintage leadership style will work in a modern, and rapidly-changing, China. According to U.S.-based dissident writer Yu Jie, Xi has been amassing power “because he wants to revive the kind of authoritarian rule that Mao practiced.” (Radio Free Asia, May 7; Deutche Welle Chinese Service, March 25). Moreover, Xi’s aggressive one-upmanship could undermine the unity of the disparate factions and power blocs within the CCP’s topmost echelon (Asahi Shimbun [Tokyo], July 8; Financial Times Chinese Service, March 17). Xi’s arrogating to himself ultimate decision-making powers on the economy could also lead to conflict with Premier Li Keqiang, due to the long-standing tradition that according to the division of labor among Politburo Standing Committee members, the premier is in charge of finance and economics (See China Brief, July 3).

Xi’s track record has indicated that despite his pledges about giving his subordinates a relatively free hand, the supreme leader is often prone to micro-management. Soon after setting up the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLDCDR)—which is arguably the most gargantuan leadership organ in CCP history—Xi pointed out that reform involved “playing the piano with all ten fingers.” This means that detailed, thorough-going guidance and supervision from the top was essential for the successful implementation of policy (News.163.com [Beijing], February 10; China News Service, February 9—see also China Brief, November 12, 2013). Similarly, Xi indicated in an interview with Russian television while attending the Sochi Olympics in January 2014 that reform was “10 percent design and 90 percent implementation.” The idea of “90 percent implementation” reflects his insistence that reform must be calibrated and executed under the meticulous supervision of the party’s top echelon (CCTV, February 8; China Daily, February 8).

In his now-famous December 2012 internal talk on the factors behind the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Xi laid the blame on “traitors” such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. “When the Soviet Party was about to collapse, there was not one person who was man enough to turn back the tide,” Xi said (Ming Pao [Hong Kong] February 16, 2013; BBC Chinese Service, February 16, 2013). Xi seems to have fallen for a romanticized belief in “Great Man Theory,” or the non-Marxist view that history is made and unmade by a handful of geniuses. After all, most of the errors committed by Mao could be attributed to precisely the belief by the Great Helmsman—and many of his colleagues—that a demigod-like leader can do no wrong. In a private talk in 1941, Mao pointed out that “a leader’s task is to draw the proper lessons [from past mistakes]” (People’s Daily, September 14, 2012; Xinhua September 14, 2012). While Xi has impressed friends and foes alike with his super-confident, highly-charged style of leadership, the new number one has yet to demonstrate his ability to learn from the fiascoes created by overconfident leaders in the party’s 93-year history.