CLM Insights Interview with Chun Han Wong
Chun Han Wong. Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future. New York: Avid Reader Press, May 2023. 416 pp. ISBN10-1982185732; ISBN-13-978-1982185732
1. Xi Jinping has been in power for more than a decade. Based on his record and how he has responded to the problems he has faced in the last decade, what do you believe are his core ideological beliefs and leadership traits? Have these beliefs and traits served him well?
Since taking power in late 2012, Xi Jinping has shown a fundamental commitment to entrenching Communist Party rule in China, in particular by upholding its core principles of top-down control and iron discipline. We can trace this, in part, to his background as a son of a revolutionary elder, Xi Zhongxun, who believed that the party’s interests stand above all else. Xi Jinping’s traumatic upbringing during the Cultural Revolution likely also instilled in him a deep-seated desire to prevent such chaos from ever ravaging China again.
Xi has also showcased a shrewdness in accumulating power and navigating palace politics, gleaned through his family’s experiences and through his own experiences during the Mao and Deng years. He appears very economical in how he spends political capital to sideline and purge rivals, while his seeming unpredictability in terms of personnel choices leaves even his supporters never quite sure of where they stand with him.
These traits have served Xi well in terms of consolidating his personal power. In this narrow sense, you cannot argue with the results—he has now entered his third term as paramount leader with no discernable challenger in sight, and he has gone through some major crises with his authority remaining intact. But his obsession with control, in particular, has also frustrated his agenda, with ideology trumping expertise in how the party is tackling some of China’s developmental challenges and with bureaucrats taking things too far in trying to please the boss.
Xi’s emphasis on loyalty and discipline has exacerbated the bureaucracy’s longstanding instinct of managing upwards. Many officials find themselves caught between the difficulties of implementing Xi’s sometimes vague and contradictory edicts and a visceral fear of being punished for failing to deliver on those demands. Some err on the side of aggressive implementation (to avoid being seen as negligent or indolent), while others default to “formalism,” simulating compliance with Beijing by engaging in political rituals that prioritize form over substance.
We have already seen what can happen when officials become too aggressive in implementing Xi’s orders—from the overnight wipeout of China’s private-education sector; to the major power shortages resulting from attempts to slash carbon emissions; to the social and economic damage inflicted by “zero Covid.” We may well see more examples unfold in the future as long as Xi continues to rely on fear as a key instrument of power.
2. The Communist Party in the post-Tiananmen era has relied on Chinese nationalism as a source of public support. How do Xi’s strategy and tactics resemble or differ from those of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao? Has nationalism paid off for Xi?
Fanning nationalistic fervor is an old tool in the Communist Party playbook. Jiang Zemin started pushing patriotic education in the 1990s and Hu Jintao followed suit, with nationalist passions hitting a notable climax during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Xi Jinping took this one step further by championing his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation—putting patriotism front and center in his political platform and tilting the basis for party legitimacy from economic performance to emotional appeal.
The use of nationalism also goes beyond rallying political support for the party. It is a central element in Xi’s push to forge a singular Chinese national identity, a core component of the China Dream. From Xi’s perspective, the party can use this patriotic fervor to better assimilate the ethnic minorities—in areas like Xinjiang and Tibet—and to pacify territories like Hong Kong and bring them more closely in line with his conception of the Chinese nation.
But the full-throated nationalism that Xi encourages also causes problems. Many ordinary Chinese care deeply about their nation’s global standing, and they—like Xi—can no longer countenance a world where China has to play second fiddle and act deferentially toward any other power. Beijing’s distrust of the West is now so prevalent in public discourse that officials worry that being conciliatory or offering compromise can be perceived as weakness. There is a risk that the Chinese leadership might unnecessarily circumscribe its policy options in order to assuage domestic expectations for a strong hand in foreign affairs.
There are limits to juicing popularity through patriotism. Performance legitimacy still matters, and when the party has underdelivered on material well-being or fallen out of step with public sentiment, social instability has flared up. We have seen, for instance, public anger erupt during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly when Dr. Li Wenliang died, and again in late 2022, when frustrations with Xi’s “zero Covid” policies fueled mass protests in cities across China. Xi will be well aware of this threat as he grapples with a sluggish recovery and structural problems in the Chinese economy during his third term.
3. Xi has revived the supremacy of the party in practically all spheres of life in China. What lies behind his drive to give the party more power and influence? What are the upsides and downsides of his obsession with party supremacy? Whereas Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping enjoyed prestige from their revolutionary pedigree and exploits in establishing the “New China,” Xi has no personal legitimacy independent of the Communist Party. His right to rule is inextricably linked with the party’s legitimacy, and his power cannot be separated from the party's political machinery.
Without the party, Xi cannot justify his rise to power as someone whom the system nurtured and tested over decades to validate his leadership abilities; he cannot lay claim to the “glorious history” bequeathed by his revolutionary forebears; and he cannot use the party-state’s many levers of power to control the bureaucracy and govern society. If the party is weak, Xi is weak. If the party fails, Xi fails with it.
From Xi’s perspective, ensuring the party’s dominance is central to his belief that China needs strong, centralized leadership to hold together a vast and diverse nation that is constantly at risk of being pulled apart by myriad social forces. And thanks to the party’s relentless efforts in stamping out political opposition and subduing civil society, the party is indeed the only extant political force today with the capability to govern China. It is therefore axiomatic, as far as Xi is concerned, that “making China great again” first requires making the party great again.
The party’s omnipresence has also caused problems in the economy, where private entrepreneurs are uneasy with, even fearful of, Xi’s socialist sloganeering and the use of state power to subordinate commercial interests. The seeming arbitrary nature with which authorities go after some businesspeople has revived the decades-old fear that, under the Communist Party, there is no meaningful protection of property rights in China—which can be a debilitating concern that clouds business sentiment, discourages private investment, and impedes innovation.
4. Many observers of Xi see a man seized with both insecurity and self-confidence. How does this contradiction manifest itself in Xi’s policies? Where are the sources of his insecurity and his self-confidence? Xi Jinping speaks of China as a resurgent power on the cusp of greatness, but in almost the same breath he warns of heinous foes that threaten his dream. Party officials and state media celebrate Xi as China’s most preeminent leader in generations, but still, they constantly remind party members to uphold his authority as the core of the party leadership.
This contradiction perhaps appears most starkly in areas where the disconnect between aspiration and reality is the greatest. Xi portrays a teleological path to glory with the “China Dream,” but such triumphalist rhetoric jars with his demands for more urgency in closing the gaps with the West and dealing with foreign threats. Xi proclaims that “the East is rising, the West is declining,” yet he constantly reminds officials to adopt “bottom-line thinking” and “worst-case scenario thinking,” as if urging them to harbor a secret doubt about China’s rise and to avoid complacency against a still mighty America. The party lauds China’s economic, technological. and military prowess, but in the same breath it lashes out at foreign containment and takes offense at all sorts of perceived transgressions, no matter how trivial—a phenomenon that a Taiwan-based musical duo lampooned in a song titled “Fragile Heart.”
Having talked a big game, Xi must keep championing an upbeat vision to sustain the party’s emotional appeal as he is negotiating severe governance challenges—all the while managing the credibility gap between his promises and achievements.
At a more personal level for Xi, there is a paradoxical sense of insecurity that comes from accumulating more power. The more powerful a leader becomes, the more he has to lose, and the more threats he perceives. This dynamic puts an autocrat constantly on guard, and we have seen it play out in how Xi has continued to undermine people who might offer alternate power centers—no matter how unlikely. Party investigators have fired shots across the bows of people like Li Yuanchao, Wang Qishan, and Chen Yuan, by rounding up their associates, relatives, and friends. And there will likely be others who go through the same treatment in the future.
The question is, will Xi be able to keep his subordinates on their toes and in check, or might he one day go too far and end up incentivizing would-be usurpers to act against him? It is a balancing act that will continue for as long as Xi remains in power.
5. By becoming ruler for life, Xi has created a potential succession crisis in the next ten to fifteen years. Is Xi’s challenge in terms of succession more daunting than Mao’s? What are Xi’s options to prevent a repudiation of his policies and his legacy after he is gone? Obviously, what happened to Mao’s legacy after Deng came to power must be weighing heavily on Xi’s mind these days.
In some ways, one could argue that Mao had a bigger challenge in managing his leadership transition, given the deep cleavages and bloody infighting within the party during the final years of his life. At present, Xi appears very much in control, with no apparent factions or organized constituencies that can challenge his hold on power.
American sinologist Lucian Pye once said that “no leader, not even a Mao or a Deng, can leave behind statutes that will bind the country to any particular policy course.” This meant, he wrote, that “as long as leaders’ influence ends at the grave, it is natural for them to try to hold on to power for as long as possible.”
We can assume that Xi wants to protect his legacy and ensure that his vision for China can outlast him. The most fundamental element in these efforts is picking the “right” successor. The heir-apparent would have to be loyal, capable, and influential enough to establish himself (and it is almost certainly a him in the male-dominated party) as the next leader and secure his own authority in Xi’s absence. After all, there would be no point in handing power over to a trusted disciple, only to have him deposed shortly thereafter—just as how Hua Guofeng was ushered aside by Deng in the late 1970s.
Given his dominance, Xi enjoys the prerogative of choosing his successor with minimal interference from elders or rivals. But even the best-laid plans can go wrong; leaders may have to rethink their succession plans as circumstances change. Mao and Deng both had to change their choices of heir-apparent twice in the face of political intrigue and crisis. Xi witnessed this for himself and he should be well aware of the risks involved.
I think it is safe to say that Xi understands the gravity of the succession problem. We cannot know for sure what solution he prefers, but it would be reasonable to surmise that he would prefer to pick a successor ahead of time, in order to test him and prepare him, and potentially to replace him if necessary. At the same time, he would be cognizant of the fact that the act of openly designating an heir would immediately trigger a realignment of power dynamics that might chip away at his own authority.
It is difficult to predict how Xi will approach this dilemma. But as outside observers, we should prime ourselves to recognize when Xi starts preparing a leadership handover and to anticipate the shifts in China’s power structure that such a transition might trigger.