As Xi seeks to challenge Mao and Deng as great reformers, his handling of the current economic crisis will define his legacy.
The last few years has seen the rise of ‘ultra-nationalists’ in Asia such as Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Even in this curated list, Xi Jinping has emerged as the most forceful nationalist. Riding on a strong economy, he has established his paramountcy not only in China, but also in the Asian realm. Even Vladimir Putin has been forced to play a second fiddle to Xi in the Eurasian peninsula.
Ever since Xi’s ascendance to power, the concept of “collective leadership”, made necessary after Mao’s death, has taken a backseat. Under President Xi, membership of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the party’s supreme decision-making body, has been cut from nine to seven. He has moved forward with reforms to change the fundamental structure of the CPC. As he completes 3 years of his presidency, he has become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, and is challenging Mao’s numero uno position through his purges and policies. As a result of a conscious brand building exercise, Xi’s personality cult has outgrown that of the system and CPC. And if China is able to successfully muster itself out of the current economic crisis, then his image will be further boosted.
Xi’s power grab was long in the making. Not satisfied with being just a nominal leader, like his predecessors, he started out with the anti-corruption campaign, targeting both low lying flies and the elite tigers, the most prominent victims being Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. Many of the high ranking CPC members were proteges of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. The campaign sent out a clear message — he was not to be taken as a lame duck President. Even Premier Li Keqiang has been virtually sidelined in major policy decisions. It’s “Dada-Xi” all the way.
Xi Jinping is presiding over a critical period in the Chinese political landscape. Faced with a slowing economy and volatile stock market, he has come down heavily on dissenters. The new National Security law vehemently regulates the functioning of foreign NGOs, in a bid to suppress criticism and opposition over environmental pollution, political liberty etc. The law further includes economy as a critical component of the national security apparatus. His grand vision: the four comprehensives are crafted with a strategy to help the country realise his version of “Chinese Dream”, and help in national rejuvenation of the middle Kingdom. His book on governance of China throws some light on his vision for China, Asia and the world. He talks of an Asian Century, and how it is the responsibility of the Chinese nation to lead and help the continent realise this vision, in sync with the ‘China Dream’.
Xi Jinping has stood up as a man of reckoning, both at the domestic stage as well as international front. His aggressive foreign policy caught many of its neighbours napping, especially Phillipines and Japan. He has challenged US preeminence not only in the Asia Pacific region, but also in Eurasia. His OROB and AIIB initiatives caught the world by storm, and pulled off a diplomatic coup d’etat when trusted US allies such as UK, Australia signed up for it, despite strong US protests.
US-China relationship is at a very peculiar situation right now. Even though Xi talks about “Great Power” sharing system, he is working towards undermining US influence in Asia. Under Xi, China has challenged United States on all fronts. Not satisfied with being a small regional power, he has advocated for greater economic prosperity and integration as the basis to challenging US led economic world order.In the military arena, cracks are already emerging in US’s alliances in Asia. Japan’s revision of its Pacifist Constitution is a case in point. And Obama, who has had far greater success elsewhere, has failed in developing a coherent ‘China Policy’, and how to deal with a rising China. Managing China will remain a big task for the upcoming new President, and a critical election issue in US.
Xi Presidential term expires in 2022, just a year after the Party celebrates its 100th anniversary. The question lingers about what after Xi Jinping? Xi is trying to cement his legacy, and stay influential well after 2022. He is likely to hold on to the chairmanship of the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), Central Military Commission (CMC) etc. His recent promotion of 10 generals reaffirms the fact that he doesn’t trust previous President’s appointments, especially in the military sector and wants his trusted allies to surround him in decision making. Many of his former subordinates and colleagues from Shaanxi have done well and are occupying important positions after Xi’s rise.
There are chances that he will not vacate the Presidency in 2022, and continue for a 2nd term, and even if he does vacate, the successor will have to report to Xi Jinping. Jiang Zemin serves as the perfect precedent. Xi Jinping has taken upon himself to be the saviour of the Chinese nation, and help it in achieving great success. In recent times, the difference between the party and the government has blurred to a minimum. And he very astutely realises that legitimacy and credibility is of the utmost importance in the current political scenario, and as such, even if the government falls, he and the party should be able to stand tall among the ruins.
Photo: Kevin Poh