Will Xi Jinping follow in the footsteps of his reformist father?

The president has not shown whether his loyalties lie left or right, but tributes to the family patriarch might hold a clue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 4:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 4:53am

Like father, like son. If the proverb rings true, it might provide some insight on a question vexing many China analysts: is President Xi Jinping a leftist or rightist?

The answer will show which direction Xi wants to take the world's second largest economy. Some analysts have been heartened by the fact that Xi has constantly trumpeted reforms and chose Shenzhen, the cradle of the country's open-door policy, as the place for his first official visit.

However, others were dismayed when Xi began to quote Mao Zedong more often than Deng Xiaoping and adopt old-style Maoist tactics in recent months. The latest example is the "mass line" campaign, which requires officials go through rounds and rounds of "criticisms and self-criticisms", one of Mao's favourite tricks to force officials to swear loyalty and strengthen his control.

Amid the left-or-right debate, the leadership launched a series of high-profile activities earlier this month to commemorate the centenary birthday of Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, a respected communist elder and a former vice-premier.

Usually, such commemorations are observed with a single event. But the tributes to the senior Xi, who died in 2002, have gone far beyond that, with ceremonies held in his hometown and the key places where he worked. In addition, the nation was given a TV documentary broadcast in prime time, an official biography, postage stamps bearing his portrait, and lengthy articles written by his relatives carried on state media.

Topping it all off, the president and his family members joined hundreds of current and former leaders and their children at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday where the senior Xi was praised for his "revolutionary career and achievements".

The campaign appears to be serving two purposes. The first is straightforward - to highlight the president as the right successor to the party leadership by reminding the people of the senior Xi's "great contribution to the founding of the People's Republic".

The second is more subtle. To an unusual degree, the commemorative events have focused on the elder Xi's stint as party chief of Guangdong province. He held the position for less than three years but has been credited for battling leftist elements and pushing for the then impoverished province to open to reform and economic developments, beginning in April 1978.

He has been portrayed as liberal minded with one official noting his calls in the National People's Congress for rules to protect dissenting views.

At one commemorative event, the elder Xi was also praised for making neither the "leftist" nor the "rightist" mistakes, and for keeping both in check.

That is unusual praise for a Communist Party elder. Indeed, the history of the party and the People's Republic has been rife with battles between the right and left wings within the leadership, conflicts which have brought China to the brink of collapse numerous times.

The elder Xi was a victim of many such clashes throughout his life. He was in and out of jail during the years of his political exile between 1962 and 1978, the victim of prosecution by leftist officials under the auspices of Mao.

One poignant recollection in one of the articles focuses on the moment the elder Xi came out of incarceration and saw his children for the first time in years. So much time had passed that he could not tell Xi Jinping and his younger brother apart.

The fact the elder Xi chose to retire and live in Shenzhen for the final 12 years of his life has also been interpreted as indicative of his political leanings.

If the younger Xi is keen to follow his father's example - which the commemorative events appear to show - he needs to send a clearer message on his true political colours.