The transformation of Xi Jinping is happening before our eyes. With the insertion of Xi Jinping Thought into the Communist Party’s constitution and the possibility that a quarter-century consensus on two-term leaders will be ended, it’s clear that China will be living with Xi for a long time to come. When trying to make comparisons, it’s Mao that comes to mind most naturally (not least as the term Lingxiu, last used for Mao, and before that for Chiang Kai-shek, is being revived for Xi). Vladimir Putin is another parallel. But let me offer another: the former French president, Charles de Gaulle.
In many ways, de Gaulle and Xi were very different leaders. De Gaulle was a defender of a democratic France, whereas Xi Jinping Thought explicitly rejects liberal politics. But the similarity lies in de Gaulle’s concept of une certaine idee de la France (“a certain idea of France”) with une destinee eminente et exceptionelle (“a lofty and exceptional destiny”). This view of the nation is echoed in Xi’s vision. Mao Zedong’s idea of China was of class-based revolution, whereas Deng Xiaoping’s was of economic transformation. Xi’s appears to be about how China is felt by its citizens, and perceived by foreigners. He’s trying to put forward a “certain idea of China” – powerful, culturally unique, and a power with which other countries must reckon, or regret the consequences.
WATCH: Xi Jinping Thought enshrined in the party charter
Of course, there was one other element of Gaullism that is echoed in Xi thought, and the clue is in the name: de Gaulle himself. De Gaulle essentially proposed loyalty to himself and his ideas as equivalent to patriotism. Xi’s name, along with his projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, have been placed in the party constitution, making opposition to the Communist Party essentially equivalent to opposing Xi. De Gaulle refused to take up the presidency in 1958 unless the entire system was changed to give him maximum power, reducing the power of parliament. Xi has sought, and gained, centralised power as a response to a society which he thinks may fall apart from internal tensions. This recalls the way de Gaulle once reflected: “How can one rule any country that has 246 different types of cheese?” De Gaulle also mistrusted even supposed allies; the Americans despaired when he took France out of the Nato high command, and he repeatedly vetoed Britain’s attempts to join the EEC (the predecessor to the European Union). His foreign policy was his own; idiosyncratic and based on a powerful idea of his own rightness when it came to the fate of France.
But de Gaulle is remembered as a great Frenchman not because he took on so much individual power, but because of what he did with it. First, by becoming a dominant figure, he actually managed to strengthen French democracy, which had failed before the second world war and was threatening to fall apart in the 1950s (when a military coup was a real possibility – Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal, about an assassination attempt on de Gaulle, was not entirely invented). Second, he understood where France’s vulnerabilities lay. He was brought to power in part because of support from the pieds-noirs, the French settlers in Algeria who could not bear to let that French colony go. “I understand you,” de Gaulle said, before turning round and giving Algeria its independence. It was a deeply controversial act, but probably one that saved France.
Xi also runs a proud country with a long civilization that is unsure of its place in the world and purports to care little about what foreigners think of it. Like de Gaulle, he has made domestic politics co-terminous with his own thinking, and has removed or weakened rivals on his way to power. Unlike de Gaulle, he won’t allow liberal politics to thrive. But can he make the other de Gaulle gesture and surprise the world by reversing positions on a key interest?
WATCH: Xi Jinping’s principles of foreign policy
Right now, China’s external politics is still shaped, as France’s was, by the memory of war and conflict in the region. Disputes over the East and South China Seas, for instance, draw on long unresolved conflicts dating back to the 1940s, and the continuing defence of North Korea stems from the war of the 1950s. De Gaulle made a bold and risky move by facing down nationalist voices within France, but he had the standing to do so because of his own impeccable nationalist credentials. Xi now embodies the party state. He could do a de Gaulle and use this status to push back against his own nationalists. In doing so, like de Gaulle, he might find that he had created new goodwill that makes China’s international standing actually stronger than more conventional gestures of force could achieve. Even le General might have doffed his cap at such a shrewd move. ■
Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival