Xi Jinping, the face of rising China, is the strong leader it needs
Chi Wang says momentous changes in China’s recent history have, in each case, taken place under the stewardship of a powerful leader. With his vision and firm rule, Xi is just the man to take the country forward in its quest for rejuvenation and global influence
China is gearing up for its 19th Communist Party congress, during which President Xi Jinping will solidify his leadership and present his ideas for the future of China. What should be seen as a simple administrative formality – after all, there is no doubt that Xi will continue in his role as China’s head – has garnered immense global attention. The world is watching, not because they think something unexpected will take place, but because China, and Xi in particular, is worth watching.
The idea of the “coming collapse of China” has been around for decades. Each time a warning is sounded, it has proven to be premature. China has demonstrated time and again that it does not fit the mould Western scholars have tried to put it into. China has not gone the way of the Soviet Union or developed into a democracy. Its economic growth has continued and its global influence has only grown.
The Chinese Communist Party has shown resilience and a unique ability to adapt to changing domestic and global situations. The Chinese, perhaps more than anyone, know that no dynasty lasts forever. Chinese history is full of imperial dynasties coming and going as they lose the “mandate of heaven”, which in today’s terms might be referred to as “party legitimacy”. China’s leaders witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and how it led to Russia’s diminished global clout. The Communist Party has learned from history and, instead of succumbing to the same mistakes, continues to reinvent itself as needed.
When Mao Zedong founded his new nation in 1949, he claimed to be putting an end to the past humiliations the country suffered. To break from that prior victimisation, Mao replaced Confucianism with a Chinese version of communism (commonly called Maoism) and forged a new identity for the Chinese people. After the death of Mao, and in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people faced an identity crisis. Instead of trying to revive Maoism as the party platform, Deng Xiaoping pegged the party’s legitimacy to economic growth. At the same time, he promoted ideas of nationalism.
Deng’s promised growth has been achieved and is no longer a sufficient goal for the Communist Party, if it is to retain legitimacy, especially with the slowing economy. China is now facing the consequences of growth, such as pollution, corruption and income inequality. China is also adjusting to its new role in the world as a global power and influencer. It is entering a new period of its history and, as the past has shown, the party needs to adjust accordingly.
China now has what is arguably its strongest individual leader in recent history at the same time it is asserting itself as a global leader. It does not seem like mere coincidence that large changes in China’s trajectory as a country coincide with strong leaders. Whether for good or bad, the communist revolution, as well as the succeeding chaos of the Cultural Revolution, are synonymous with Chairman Mao. China’s economic reforms and opening up are forever linked to Deng. The question then becomes: is Xi the right leader to move China forward?
Xi understands the need for China to redefine itself and establish its place in the world. His own personal background in many ways parallels that of the country. Xi is the son of a revolutionary who was then sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. From there, he began his rise through the government ranks to ultimately become China’s leader. His personal growth matches that of China. Having achieved so much after facing such difficulties, Xi aims to project strength, both in his own leadership and in the way China, as a country, interacts with the world.
In this time of change, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign endeavours to restore trust in the Communist Party while his own leadership strives to serve as a unifying force pushing the country forward. Xi himself is seen as a man of integrity with a strong vision for China’s future. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” envisions a strong, rejuvenated nation that has regained its central role in the world. Xi places the Communist Party, and himself, as promoters of that dream and has initiated ambitious plans to see that dream come to fruition. The “Belt and Road Initiative”, for example, serves the dual purpose of creating more global markets to stimulate the slowing Chinese economy while at the same time expanding China’s political influence and global reach.
In our globalised and social-media-saturated world, more eyes than ever are watching and commenting on the world’s leaders. This places an intense spotlight on Xi – an experience that his predecessors did not have to deal with. Xi has cracked down on dissent and directed China’s media and propaganda networks to control the narrative about himself and the party. He has also carefully cultivated his public image. Xi created a media sensation when he casually waited in line to buy pork buns and adopted the nickname “Uncle Xi” (Xi Dada). His own personal integrity is seen as a strong contrast to those caught up in his anti-corruption campaign. With Xi’s stylish celebrity wife, Peng Liyuan, accompanying him on foreign trips as a true first lady, they have placed themselves alongside other modern presidential couples.
Xi, not the collective leadership of the Politburo, is the face of the Chinese government, both domestically and abroad. The 19th party congress is likely to reconfirm that fact. With a China today that is vastly different than the China of the past, the country requires strong leadership with a plan to move it into the future. Xi is just such a leader and his vision will hopefully see a China that continues to flourish and grow.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation