Xi Jinping

How will Xi Jinping measure up to the Deng Xiaoping yardstick?

David Lampton says under Xi, now pursuing an ambitious agenda some 40 years after Deng launched his reforms, China is reshaping the national strategy of 'peace and development'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 3:30am

Deng Xiaoping cast a long shadow. How can we understand his legacy in ways that inform our assessment of Xi Jinping, without reaching premature closure on Xi's still developing record?

Born 110 years ago, Deng launched the post-Mao Zedong era of reform and opening nearly four decades ago. Today, the outside world and the Chinese people have the information to make a judgment about the content and meaning of his legacy. To an unknown extent, Xi, China's still "new" senior leader, will be measured against the Deng yardstick.

Two elements of that yardstick are leadership strategy and style.

The successful leader must have a strategic vision that addresses the underlying challenges of the era, one that resonates with and can energise the population while not accumulating external challenges faster than they can be addressed. Deng's multidimensional "strategy" emerged incrementally in the period from 1977 to 1985, and became clearer in hindsight. But, importantly, there was a fit between the domestic parts of the strategy and its foreign policy components - domestic directions reassured the outside world and won cooperation, and the external gains in stature and a relaxed international environment made the accomplishment of big things domestically easier.

A central element of Deng's strategy was to redefine his era, from Mao's "war and revolution" posture to one of "peace and development". This change meant that extreme mass mobilisation, class struggle and a revolutionary posture with respect to the rest of the world could be sidelined in favour of domestic policies that utilised China's talents and resources to achieve economic and human development, objectives that enlisted the constructive participation of the rest of the world.

Xi and the Communist Party have by no means jettisoned Deng's "peace and development" formulation, but even before Xi ascended to the top leadership slot, an overlay was added - "under the new situation" ( zai xin xingshi xia). "Under the new situation", as David Bradley explains in China Brief, is a formulation that gives more prominence to: first, China's augmented capacities to protect, indeed advance, its "core interests"; and, second, the perceived threats that China faces in the international realm.

It emphasises, in a way that "peace and development" alone did not, that China can be more proactive, need not be as accommodating, and the concept accepts that China's strength creates external anxieties. This is a formulation that gives added room to run for China's military-security apparatus. This overlay creates more anxiety abroad than did Deng's formulation, though it has its domestic, nationalistic appeal.

Another dimension of the Deng-Xi comparison is the situations they faced - every leader has an agenda that is the sum of the previous era's frustrations and current opportunities. For the Chinese people, after Mao, getting a chance for economic self-improvement and benefiting from the retreat of the party-state from many dimensions of life was enough. Further, initially Deng was pursuing this agenda in a still overwhelmingly rural context and within a comparatively simple social structure, one with almost no middle class.

Xi faces the more difficult task of managing a much more complex and fragmented bureaucracy and society, one in which the beneficiaries of the previous reforms resist policies that harm their interests.

As well, Deng "only" had to exceed very low expectations for dramatic progress when he took over - today, Xi must meet dramatically raised expectations just as economic performance may moderate. It may have been easier for Deng to develop a politically viable strategy than it will be for Xi to do so, even considering that Deng faced the "leftist" beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution when he began.

Attacking corruption is certainly popular in China, but how does one do so in a way that holds the promise of impartial application of rule of law when political connections and party supremacy remain the first principles of Chinese politics?

This brings us to political style. In the Western idiom, Deng's political modus operandi seemingly was: "Do not bite off more than you can chew." He sequenced his reforms over almost 20 years, starting from the politically easiest, using prior successes to build political support for subsequently more difficult moves.

Today, in the wake of last year's third plenum of the 18th Central Committee, and in anticipation of the upcoming fourth plenum this autumn, the agenda is laudable, but vast - 60 points that call for making the market "decisive" in the allocation of resources; building legal and regulatory systems that will create a level playing field between domestic non-state and state enterprises, and foreign and domestic enterprises; and, creating a legal and judicial system that can meet both domestic and foreign demands for a more predictable, just and transparent process. This is a huge agenda, without a clear natural sequence, amid ongoing questions about implementation capacity.

With respect to this agenda, Xi has made himself almost personally responsible for outcomes by becoming the head of most key policy committees. Beyond questions of having a feasible span of control, Deng was always careful to make sure things were working (or likely to work) before embracing them as his own.

So, what can we say at this point? Xi and Deng lived in different eras, they faced distinct challenges, and in many respects those facing Xi are at least as difficult as those Deng confronted. Keeping the party in the saddle in a pluralising circumstance is the central challenge Xi and the party have set for themselves. Deng sequenced major policies and was mindful to balance his political resources with his ambitions.

David M. Lampton is Hyman Professor and director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins-SAIS. He is also former president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations and his most recent book is Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping