Xi Jinping the Moralist: Assessing Continuity versus Innovation in Reform

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 8

General Secretary Xi Jinping

Since assuming leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping has spoken most about two themes. The first of these is the issue of corruption and rejuvenating the party’s moral mandate to rule. The second is to promote the “China Dream,” a vision of the country’s internal development and international role. In both cases, Xi has faced challenges about ensuring that neither message be interpreted as criticism of the previous decade of leadership under CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. In both cases, however, there also have been clear expectations of seeing something fresh in the new leadership. In the last few months, observers have witnessed rhetorical and presentational positioning, but only a few modest concrete signs of practical policy change—e.g. more austerity for Party officials and some government restructuring at the National People’s Congress. The question is how to interpret these presentational changes and what real meaning they might have.

Although Xi’s anti-corruption rhetoric might seem to be a veiled criticism of Hu and Wen and the ways in which malfeasance by officials increased during their period in power, he is protected by having historic form. It is an issue that, in retrospect, almost figures like a campaign slogan in material he sponsored or wrote before 2007. Writing for the party theoretical magazine Seeking Truth while he was in charge of Zhejiang Province, Xi stated “To be an official, you have to serve the people with your heart, not aim to get rich” (Qiushi, October 4, 2004). Morality, he had declared in this article, was the basis of politics. Deploying a range of lofty terms like “interest,” “good will,” “moral benefit” and “trust.” He wrote “The basis of development and progress has at its heart moral purpose.” That, at least, sets out the philosophical basis.

This abstract language has, since Xi came to power, been translated into something more concrete. Xi seems to be practicing continuity by adopting some of the customs brought in by Hu and the “consensus-led leadership” from the early 2000s. So during a study group meeting of the Politburo on January 2—a custom started early in the era of Hu Jintao to go with the idea of a “learning Marxist Party”—Xi was reported as saying that “the party should improve reform policies by learning from people’s practices and demand that achievements benefit more people in a fairer way” (Xinhua, January, 2; People’s Net, December 26, 2002). Adopting another of former-President Hu’s innovations, addressing a plenary session of the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission at the start of each year, on January 22, Xi stated “[The party] must have the resolution to fight every corrupt phenomenon, punish every corrupt official and constantly eradicate the soil which breeds corruption” (Xinhua, January 22). At the same meeting, he added “Power should be reined in within the cages of regulations.”

This language has been backed up by some mapping of symbolic space. Again, however, there are continuities with the Hu period. On the final day of 2012, Xi visited Luotuowan, a village in Fuping County, Hebei. Copying Hu Jintao’s visit to Xibaipo in the same province on December 5, 2002, Xi declared the central government would “help the poor.” The only difference to his predecessor who had also lambasted corruption and moral failure in the CCP was the more personal register Xi was reported as using: “I am deeply unhappy and sometimes indignant over the cases [in which] funds earmarked for poverty alleviation are intercepted, embezzled or diverted for other purposes.” Standing in a province where he had spent formative years of his career in the early 1980s, Xi stated “The reason why I have come here is to see for myself the reality of poverty stricken areas in the country and think about what the Party and government could do next” (South China Morning Post, December 31). This differs from Hu’s rhetoric, which largely resisted use of the personal pronoun and never referred to any personal experiences or personal position. Instead, in his main set-piece declarations—including the speeches commemorating the 30th anniversary of special economic zones in December 2008 and marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China—then-President Hu strove to achieve a highly impersonal, “scientific” abstract discourse.

The second theme Xi has used heavily in the last few months boils down to appeals to a national mission for China to reacquire its lost greatness, returning it to its rightful place at the center of the world. Talking to the military in March, Xi had entreated officer of the People’s Liberation Army to maintain their total loyalty to the CCP and to contribute to the construction of the “China Dream” (Xinhua, March 12). A day later, he said in more detail what this “dream” might be: “To make the country affluent and strong, the nation prosperous and the people happy…To actualize the Chinese dream we must take the China path.” Hu never used the term “China dream” so here the discontinuity is more striking. He did, however, use the term “historic mission,” stating to an army meeting in 2005 that “all comrades of the military should correctly understand the situation and resolutely perform the military’s historic mission in the new century” (People’s Daily, March 14, 2005). The “China Dream” as a phrase seems to go a little beyond “historic mission” and, in this sense, the suggestion Xi is more willing to play a nationalist card might have some truth in it.

Symbolism always has been highly important in Chinese politics. The leadership transition over the last few months in China, however, has revealed the fact that the symbolic resources are limited. They either visit Shenzhen to reinforce commitment to Dengist reforms or visit the countryside to show the leadership is at one with the farmers. Either a leader speaks of dreams or of a Chinese renaissance. Xi also has hit upon the quandary of how to connect the Maoist past—about which there is still so much soul searching—and the post-1979 era as well as both eras’ clear contrasts with statements that “without Mao there would be no new China” (Xinhua, March 17). In some ways, the process by which the leadership transition has happened shows that continuity trumps other considerations and that the sort of space to mobilize and introduce new policies within this consensus-driven machine is highly limited.

The only ways in which one can detect a Xi-ist manifesto for public mobilization and policy innovation are in three challenges set out in March. These challenges were to turn the people’s aspirations for a wonderful life into concrete measures and administer the country properly; to continue to promote reform; to help the CCP supervise itself and guard against corruption (Xinhua, March 17). All of these were geared toward creating “a moderately prosperous country in all respects”—another objective carried over from Hu and Wen. All of these objectives have their roots in measures already supported in the previous decade. They can be found in the administrative reform agenda set out by Hu Jintao in his 17th Party Congress speech in 2007, the support for continuing reform in his speech in Shenzhen in 2008, and the intra-party democracy measures from 2005. So far, the only specific measures, however, have been gestural. For example, Xi has cut down on official entertainment; although this measure only continues the cut down on official international travel that was brought in after 2008. The National People’s Congress also saw some reforms of government ministries, with the rail ministry finally subsumed into a transportation super-ministry. Again, however, slimming down the central bureaucracy has been standard practice since Zhu Rongji’s premiership in the 1990s.

Xi also declared “We must start with specific things and ensure their implementation,” talking of the need to reject extravagance, formalism and bureaucratism (Xinhua, March 17). On the core reform issues set out in the World Bank and Development Reform Commission China 2030 report released last year, however, there has been no sense of where this leadership stands. The leadership remains silent on the issues of support for private business, tax reform, ideas about liberalizing the renminbi and China’s capital account, and a sense of how to achieve greater popular participation in decision making by strengthening the role of the national and local congresses. One could argue that, so far, at best, they have created the atmosphere for thinking about another set of reforms. The language about attacking corruption, for instance, implies that some of the vested interest and inequality around state-owned enterprises might be in the offing. Beyond this, however, there has been nothing dramatic.

This cautiousness and reticence from the CCP elite is something to which observers should have become accustomed. The crisis at the end of the Cultural Revolution—both in the legitimacy of the party and of the ruling elite after their wholesale humiliation under Mao—meant in many ways that change was forced and became the guiding impetus behind Deng Xiaoping’s reforms from 1978, even though these were linked to statements and ideas articulated earlier in CCP history. That life-and-death moment was duplicated in 1989, though the uprising only reinforced for the ruling elite that they needed to continue with the market reforms rather than end them. No major crisis exists now, but rather a sense of complacency and hesitancy. Discussions of different kinds of reforms have been ongoing over the last decade, but the Hu and Wen period was bereft of anything bold like the Zhu Rongji- and Jiang Zemin-led attack on state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s or expulsion of the military from commercial operations. Hu and Wen’s historic legacy probably will be more about their preventing any major disasters rather than embarking on a major positive reform. Xi and his premier, Li Keqiang, sound like they want to be more ambitious than this.

The dislike of mass mobilization and charismatic-led politics was articulated well by Wen Jiabao in 2012 at the National People’s Congress when he talked disdainfully of the Cultural Revolution. It was also something that lurked behind the political attack on Bo Xilai (“Beijing Post-Bo Xilai Loyalty Drive Could Blunt Calls for Reform,” China Brief, March 30, 2012). Even so, more effort on public communication and reaching out to the people has been a theme of Xi’s since he stepped out from behind the red curtain at the 18th Party Congress as general secretary in November last year. The most one can say about his performance is that he cautiously has set out the rhetorical space for more mobilization over the last few months. On the final day of 2012, propaganda overlord Liu Yunshan stated the key challenge was “whether a party can maintain its flesh and blood ties with the people directly” (Xinhua, December 31, 2012). Xi has picked themes in a sort of retrospective election campaign to get the support of broad constituencies in China—corruption and fulfilling national greatness. In a sort of eerie reflection of democratic electoral politics, having campaigned in poetry, Xi now has to govern in prose. The objectives set out in last year’s China 2030 report—which after all was approved right up to the level of the new Premier Li Keqiang—clearly and unambiguously articulate the sort of issues that Xi’s prose now needs to address. Xi has shown in the last few months that, in a political culture so constrained and hedged in with different constituencies, power blocs, networks and factions, the one card he might have in his hand is mobilization through better public communication. To really capture an increasingly cynical public’s imagination, there will have to be bold moves that have real policy impact and go beyond the language of inspiration. Xi, however, seems unlikely to reach this point for a number of years, and the evidence of his relatively shallow links with intellectual communities or policy innovators with real experience only reinforces this sense (“All the General Secretary’s Men,” China Brief, February 15).