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  • China Leadership Monitor

CLM Insights Interview with Steve Tsang

Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung. The Political Thought of Xi Jinping. Oxford University Press, December 2023. 294 pp. ISBN: ‎0197689361

Steve Tsang CLM Issue 80 June 2024
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Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung. The Political Thought of Xi Jinping. Oxford University Press, December 2023. 294 pp. ISBN: ‎0197689361

Insights Interview

What are the core tenets of Xi Jinping’s ideological beliefs? How have they been reflected in his policies after his gaining power in 2012?


There are two main thrusts in Xi Jinping Thought. Domestically, it is to forge one country, one people, one ideology, one party, and one leader. Beyond China, it is to make China great again or to deliver the China Dream of national rejuvenation globally. After Xi came to power in 2012, he established himself as the supreme leader in place of a collective leadership, and he foreclosed any discussion, let alone any planning, for his succession. He requires that the Communist Party undergo a continuing rectification drive, in the name of anti-corruption, in order to purge the party of the disloyal and faint-hearted and as a means to reinvigorate it as a Leninist instrument of control that is loyal to the supreme leader. Since 2017 he has put the party in charge of everything and everywhere in China. He has effectively installed Xi Thought as the new state ideology, the learning of which was first mandated to party members and then extended, through the education system and the propaganda apparatus, to the entire population. He has committed to turn everyone in the PRC into patriotic Chinese, which also means the sharing of the mainstream or Han culture, loyalty to the party, and, in particular, loyalty to the supreme leader. This is manifested in Xi’s forceful policy to transform the ethnic minorities, such as the Uighurs, or the political minorities, such as the Hongkongers, into patriotic Chinese. This process is reinforced by the installation of Xi Thought as the ideological guide for all Chinese people, with no alternative interpretation permitted. In addition, Xi has unrelentingly promoted “national reunification,” with substantially increased pressure on Taiwan to accept “reunification.” This is complemented by a general assertiveness in all border disputes, with China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea being promoted particularly robustly.


Fulfilment of the China Dream globally implies transforming the Western-dominated liberal international order into a Sino-centric, or at least a China-friendly, order with support from the Global South. Hence, Xi traveled far to join the BRICS summit, but he did not attend the nearer G20 summit in 2023. This is to be supplemented when the China Dream is fulfilled and China has taken Taiwan and is widely recognized as a leading power. This is meant to be accomplished by 2050 at the latest.


How did Xi form these beliefs? What influenced or inspired him?


Xi unashamedly borrows without attribution from his predecessors. But among his predecessors, he only recognizes Mao Zedong as a truly great leader. To Xi, Mao is inspirational because of the scale of his ambition, the boldness of his methods, and the transformational nature of his rule. Xi pays no attention to the horrendous costs Mao imposed on the Chinese people, and he sees his mission to be building on the foundation Mao established in order to make China great again. He is not attempting a Maoist restoration. Instead, he intends to surpass Mao.


The real inspirations for Xi are China’s greatest moments in history. In his one-dimensional view, the best of times in human history were when China was the most powerful, richest, advanced, dynamic, and innovative power, whose overall dominance was so munificent that it was admired by all . Thus, pax Sinica prevailed. Xi sees Marxism as an ideological development entirely in sync with China’s history and traditions. He believes that finetuning Marxism to dovetail with Chinese civilization will deliver national rejuvenation. Thus, the ‘Sinification of Marxism’ in Xi Thought is not about adapting an ideology based on European experience into a Chinese context but about making Marxism Sino-centric.


Based on his writings or speeches on foreign policy, what is the intellectual foundation of his foreign policy? In other words, is he more influenced by realism than he is by an ideological worldview?


Xi is both ideological and realist in foreign-policy matters. He is a realist in an unconventional sense. His foremost priority is to keep himself and the Communist Party in power. Regime security overrides every other policy consideration, including his aspiration to make China great again. But when he is confident of regime security, which is most of the time, he is committed to fulfilling his “China Dream of national rejuvenation,” which fundamentally is an ideological commitment. In other words, Xi is normally ideological in his approach to foreign policy unless he senses a backlash that may threaten his and/or the party’s hold to power.


Fulfilment of the China Dream requires transforming the liberal international order that is deemed to be by, of, and for the West into a “democratic” international order that is, in reality, Sino-centric in nature. Xi squares this circle by committing China to forge the “common destiny for humankind” via his three global initiatives, on development, security, and civilization. It is a mistake for Western leaders and scholars to dismiss Xi’s three global initiatives because they come across as rhetorical mumbo-jumbo. They are designed with the Global South in mind, where most countries are autocratic, in need of development, and collectively represent the largest number of UN members and a clear majority of the global population. By proclaiming China “forever a member of the Global South,” Xi is appealing to them to support China’s efforts to transform how the UN and other leading international organizations operate so that the elitist West cannot impose its standards of governance, transparency, and other conditionalities on them. In return, through the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi offers them development loans without conditionalities. Xi’s conceptualization of the Global South draws heavily from Mao Zedong’s three worlds theory of the 1970s. His idea of a Sino-centric international order is based on the traditional Chinese concept of tianxia, or “all under heaven,”  by which China was supposed to have been accepted by others as the world leader due to its power and general superiority.



What kind of ideology shaped Xi’s understanding of the economy? Are his ideas on the economy intellectually coherent and reflective of an appreciation of the complexities of China’s hybrid economy?


Xi is committed to developing what he calls a “socialist market economy,” which means active state steerage of the market to deliver “maximum synergy” between government guidance and market forces, with the goals of strengthening comprehensive national power and regime security. But such a “socialist market economy” is not intellectually coherent and it does not reconcile or strike a balance between the competing demands inherent in China’s complex and unbalanced hybrid economy.


Xi places a priority on making the economy strong and technologically competitive rather than sustaining a high rate of growth or making economic improvements for the common people. He focuses on picking and grooming national champions in advanced industries, not on improving the general education of the labor force or supporting domestic consumption as drivers of the economy. He favors the state-owned sector over the private sector, but as an important exception, he also offers patronage to Huawei, a national champion in the private sector, because it is seen as being devoted to advancing regime security. His commitment to social redistribution is skin-deep, as reflected in the common prosperity program that emphasizes forced philanthropy and that dismisses “welfarism.” Xi’s approach to foreign investments and economic integration is fundamentally utilitarian, with China’s interests being placed first.



Despite his professed fealty to orthodox communism, Xi’s speeches are filled with references to the Chinese classics and not to references to works by Marx or Lenin. How do you explain this puzzle? Does traditional Chinese political philosophy have a stronger influence on Xi than does communism?


Xi Jinping unambiguously proclaims that he is a Marxist. However, he does not refer much to Marxism. He is at best a poor Marxist, one who does not accept either the eventual “withering away of the state” and the basic socialist principle of “from one according to ability and to one according to need.” When Xi refers to Marxism, he really has Leninism in mind. He is the most devoted Leninist in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. For him, Marxism means putting the party in charge of everything, with no exceptions and in perpetuity. His references to China’s past, both in terms of history and philosophy, are based on his belief that under the right leadership, the Chinese people were the greatest in the world. Hence, he refers to the China Dream rather than the socialist or Marxist dream. He does not see Chinese Marxism as universally applicable. What matters to Xi is how Marxism (in reality Leninism) provides the ultimate modern instrument of control to enable the leader of China to marshal all the resources at his disposal to re-create the greatest moments of glory in Chinese history. Xi never uses the ti-yong or essence-application formulation but his fusion of Chinese tradition with Marxism amounts to a modern rendition of this conceptualization popular among reformers in the nineteenth century. China’s great tradition constitutes the ti, or the base, while Marxism or Leninism is the yong, or the instrument to make China great again.


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