Assessing China: Internal Politics and Peripheral Relations

Thursday, April 9, 2015
Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters

Professor of Law, Fordham University

Evan Osnos

Staff Writer, New Yorker

Bonnie S. Glaser

Senior Adviser for Asia, Freeman Chair in China Studies and Senior Associate, Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Fordham University's Carl Minzner and the New Yorker's Evan Osnos join Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to discuss China’s political reforms under President Xi Jinping. The panel additionally considers the Chinese Communist Party’s relationship with political and religious dissidents in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

GLASER: We are going to talk about President Xi Jinping’s vision for China, his governing style, and the responses of various segments of Chinese society to his policies. And to discuss these issues, we have two outstanding experts.

First, I should tell you that I’m Bonnie Glaser. I’m a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and—Strategic and International Studies.

But of course, more importantly, our speakers today: To my right is Evan Osnos, and he has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008. He is also a fellow now at the Brookings Institution. And he’s the author of “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” which won the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction. And to my far right is Professor Carl Minzner, who’s a professor of law at Fordham Law School and is among the world’s leading experts on Chinese law and governance. And Carl is currently writing a book on the direction of legal and political reform in China.

So we’re very pleased to have both of our speakers today to talk about Xi Jinping’s vision for China, his governance style. And so we’ll talk for about 30 minutes among the three of us, and then of course we’ll open it to all of you in about half an hour.

So let’s start by talking about Xi Jinping the man and his vision for China. Now, shortly after coming to power Xi Jinping articulated the Chinese dream of national reunification. And he’s launched an intensive anticorruption campaign, snaring more than 100,000 flies and tigers, as the Chinese say. He clearly has little tolerance for dissent, and he is pursuing a much more aggressive censorship campaign than his predecessor.

So let me start with you, Carl. What is Xi Jinping seeking to accomplish?

MINZNER: Well, I think it helps to remember that I—for Xi Jinping himself, he sees himself, I believe, as a fundamentally transformative historical figure. I believe in his view, in 2012, when he acceded to office, he saw the Chinese Communist Party as facing a set of existential problems: spreading corruption within the political apparatus, a loss of faith within the political system, and also a leadership that had become weaker and weaker.

So Jiang Zemin was less—was just clearly weaker than Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Jintao was yet weaker than Jiang. And that was the sense that the leadership itself was hemmed in by strong economic interests, as well as factional politics. And behind all of these, I believe he felt—sort of saw the specter of the Soviet Union, which is: if we fail to address to internal threats that the party itself faces, we will—we may fall as well.

And so all—if you think about it in that perspective, all of what he’s taken—what he’s—the policies that he’s pursued—the anticorruption campaign, the new ideological narrative for China, the power—the effort to strengthen power in himself—all of those are aimed at reviving the Chinese Communist Party so that it can carry out what he sees as the fundamental mission of reviving the Chinese nation.

OSNOS: Yeah, you know, I’m—I absolutely agree with Carl’s view on that. I would say a couple of things.

One, I’m struck by how incomplete our portrait of Xi Jinping was before he came to office. You know, we tended to describe him as somebody who was an able steward of the status quo. He was somebody who was going to really be the inheritor of things that had come before him. And he has proved to be, exactly as Carl said, somebody who presents himself and I think is seeking to be a transformational figure.

So what does that mean? Well, it means a few things. I think the one piece of this that I would add to Carl’s vision of what Xi Jinping puts in the foreground is the economy. And in some sense, Xi Jinping came to power at an inauspicious moment if you’re somebody who needs to be an economic policymaker, which after all he does. After 30 years of growth, after 30 years of a model that had succeeded, they were facing this clear transition point. How was he going to move from this export- and infrastructure-driven model to more of a consumption-led model, and ultimately something that would be able to promote innovation?

And in some sense, that fundamental—and I think you could argue that that would be the overriding objective—that that fundamental objective then becomes the basis on which everything else flows. So, for instance, one of the reasons why you have to beat back your political opponents is so that you can achieve deep changes in the economic system. One of the reasons why you need to resist, for instance—fundamentally, you have to in the end protect the Communist Party, but one of the ways you protect the Communist Party is by making sure that the economic system continues to function.

GLASER: Great.

Well, you know, Xi Jinping is often described as a strong man. And invariable some—invariably, people say, you know, he’s the strongest leader Deng Xiaoping, and some even say since Mao Zedong. But other experts say that this is really an overstatement, that collective leadership is not completely dead in China. And so another scenario is that Xi Jinping has the backing of his Politburo colleagues to implement these far-reaching changes in the economy, the government and the society that are so essential for the Chinese Communist Party to maintain his rule.

So how do you see it? And how powerful is Xi Jinping? Let’s start with you, Evan.

OSNOS: Yeah, I tend to divide it into formal measures of power and informal measures of power. Oftentimes when we say as a shorthand he’s the strongest leader since Mao or the strongest leader since Deng, it actually doesn’t really tell us very much because you can be very strong on Monday, and on Tuesday if you’re out of power people say, well, the signs were clear. (Laughter.)

What we do see is this very determined effort to create and to adopt and, in some sense, co-opt the structures of authority. So he has accumulated, by one measure, at least ten different titles—not only head of the party, head of the military, head of the state, but also head of very important committees in the party—and also, in effect, by changing the way that the security portfolio was organized. There’s nobody on the Standing Committee today who has the power of Zhou Yongkang, who used to be in charge of domestic security, with so much personal authority. Xi Jinping is in effect in control of the courts, the police and the secret—and the secret police. So this is an enormous realm of the bureaucracy that he has carved formal authority over.

Where does he not have power? Well, when it comes to informal measures of authority—like, for instance, does he have revolutionary gravitas—he simply can’t. You know, he was born after 1949. He inherits from his family some very important elements of political DNA, but he doesn’t fundamentally have what his—what Deng Xiaoping could have had.

So I’m cautious to say that he is, in fact, the most powerful leader. What I would say is I think he’s the most forceful or most authoritarian leader that we’ve seen, certainly since Deng and perhaps since Mao.

MINZNER: I generally agree with that. I think that—I mean, I would—I would—there’s one interesting point, which I think Evan brought up, is that the basis of Xi Jinping’s power is quite different from what you saw before. I mean, Mao and Deng both had what Evan mentioned, the revolutionary credentials. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had something different. They were—they came about—they came into power as a result of being appointed by Deng. And so they were—their legitimacy in some ways derived from we have gone through the norms, we’ve been designated. And it’s coming about from—you know, they didn’t have as much power as Mao or Deng, but the power that they did have derived from the fact that they had been appointed.

Xi is in a different situation. And I think one of the things he’s trying to do with the—with a cult of personality and also now with the fear associated with the corruption campaign is that this is his effort to, this is how I’m going to build my legitimacy as well. And so he’s kind of grappling for something to sort of—that’s going to be the basis for why people should respect him.

GLASER: Mmm hmm.

So let’s talk about the reaction of different elements of society to Xi Jinping. We look at the middle class, the bureaucratic apparatus, the rank-and-file of the military, the security services, maybe even the minorities, whatever areas you’d like to talk about. Is Xi Jinping as popular as he appears to be? Let’s start with you, Carl.

MINZNER: So in terms of the reaction of different—I mean, there are some groups that I—military, I have—I have—I don’t really have any idea about that. But from some of the other groups, you—there is a split in opinion about Xi Jinping.

Certainly from the liberal activists that I talk about, they are very, very, very depressed and very concerned. Some of them will tell me things such as, you know, back in sort of the late Hu Jintao era, we would sort of have these discussions where we would, remember back to when Jiang Zemin was in power? Boy, things were pretty good back then. Now they’re telling me, well, we thought weren’t so good under the late Hu Jintao era and the stability maintenance, the weiwen apparatus. Now we’re thinking, maybe that was actually not so bad. (Laughter.) You know, the power wasn’t at least being extended into the schools in the same way that it is now, et cetera, et cetera.

Among many people in the bureaucracy, I’m sensing a real paralysis, like a fear of—the rules of the games are changing, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’m worried about being on the wrong side of things. And so that’s translating into a real caution.

And then among society at large, you hear different things. So some people, you know, think Xi Jinping’s pretty great. You know, he makes the trains run on time. You know, he’s taking—he’s a man of action. He’s getting things done. And perhaps you’re taking down a niche the people who had power and wealth, and it’s kind of interesting to sort of watch from the sidelines to see that happen. So there’s a real mix of opinion.

OSNOS: I think there’s—to take one area, like the military, there’s a natural instinct for us to imagine, well, he’s got to be encountering resistance within the security services. He’s doing a lot of—he’s going after generals. He’s going after entire patronage networks. That’s got to be engendering some kind of antibodies of some kind. And I think generally speaking that’s true.

But what’s interesting to me—and you would know more about that, Bonnie; I would be interested in your thoughts—but I do think, if you go back and you look at his biography, one of the things I was struck by as you go back and sort of build year by year through his time as a provincial administrator in Fujian and then later in Zhejiang, one of the things he was most attentive to—and this was written about in the PLA press—was cultivating the local commanders of military units. So he would go—he would make sure, for instance, that when they had a budget request, that it was—that it was cleared and that they got the equipment they wanted. He made sure, for instance, that officers who were retiring were given comfortable jobs, the jobs that they wanted. He made sure, for instance—just the small things that would indicate that as a civilian leader he was conscientious.

If you go back and you look at various points along the way, he was described as the son of a general, somebody who clearly understood the PLA. This was not an accident. This was very smart political planning, knowing full well—as his father would have taught him, being a revolutionary leader—you will never be able to have security and stability at the top unless you have control over the—over the branches of the military.

One other thing on the subject of sort of broader reactions. I talked to a pollster in Beijing—you know, you’re not allowed to do straight-ahead favorability polls in Beijing, but you are in some sense able to form a composite index of how people—how satisfied people are. And what he said was that by and large we can say that he’s popular for two reasons. One is the economy—sorry, one is the anticorruption campaign, which is very clearly a populist gesture. It shows—it satisfies one of people’s principal concerns. The other one is nationalism. You know, he has rallied people around the flag by talking about protecting China’s territory and interests.

The big question mark is the economy. People say, we don’t yet know what’s going to happen. And so, for a lot of elites, that means that they’re hedging. They’re putting their money abroad, and other things.

GLASER: Well, let me ask you on the anticorruption campaign. It is certainly true that Xi Jinping recognizes that corruption is endemic within Chinese society—that it is preventing things like innovation, as you talked about earlier, that even in the military, people who have bought their ranks. And the problem is, of course—affects people everywhere in China, whether you’re—it’s your education for your children or getting your parents into a hospital and getting medical care.

So we know that this is popular. But to what extent is it aimed at really forging support for Xi Jinping and the party? To what extent is it really aimed at getting rid of his political enemies and putting his own people in power as we look towards 2017 and the next Politburo Standing Committee?

OSNOS: I would say it’s both. I mean, it’s very clear. You would have had to be completely out of touch as a political leader to come into power in 2012 and not realize that corruption was an absolutely imminent threat to the legitimacy of the party. I was living in China. Over the course of eight years, I watched the corruption issue become the number-one thing people complain about at the dinner table. You couldn’t get your kid into school, you couldn’t get your parents into the hospital, things like that.

It is worth noting—you know, this is an anecdotal piece of evidence, but when I was back in Beijing in February I went to see a scholar who was—who was going on and on about how terrific the anticorruption campaign was. And I said, well, is it being felt on the local level? He said, well, I can tell you I’m still trying to bribe the school to get my kid in. (Laughter.) So—

GLASER: But was it working? (Laughter.)

OSNOS: Well, it wasn’t working and he was frustrated. He couldn’t figure out exactly who to go to.

So I—but I think—you know, the point being that there was a—he had to beat back corruption into a manageable level. But at the same time, if you’ve got eight people in a room and you know they’re corrupt, you go after the four who are your political opponents first. And I think that’s—no question that that’s what he’s been doing.

MINZNER: Totally agree. Yeah, I think that’s it.

GLASER: Well, let’s move to one of your areas of expertise, Carl, in—Xi Jinping has talked about ruling the country according to law. And there are plans, obviously, to reform the legal system, including making prosecutors and judges more independent. But at the same time, I was just reminded by a group of very senior Chinese scholars who visited the U.S. last week that the subject of constitutionalism remains taboo. There’s a tightening of ideological control, more aggressive crackdown on protesters and dissidents.

Many of our listeners in the audience here today may have read in the—in the media there’s been a lot of coverage about the arrest of five feminist activists, and this took place on International Women’s Day. China was celebrating the country’s first draft law on domestic violence, and here you have these women who had been operating for quite some time essentially not bothered by the leadership and the apparatus of the—of the police, and they were campaigning for greater legal protections. So how do you explain these contradictions?

MINZNER: This is—this is a—this is a really interesting question. I think certainly every time people talk about sort of the legal developments in China, we often use the term “law.” So whether you’re talking about—there’s an argument in the legal circles, do you translate it into rule of law or rule by law? But I think it’s interesting; as soon as you use the term “law” in English to talk about these developments, you instinctively being to import certain terms—certain connotations that are associated with this term in English—bottom-up or independent/autonomous concepts that we associate in English with the term “law.”

But there another term that’s affiliated, that’s associated with some of these concepts that’s often overlooked, and that’s the term “order.” I think if you sort of gravitated—if you think about the concept of order—top-down, rationalized, centralized rule—I think that gets you much more toward the concept of where Xi Jinping’s trying to go, and I think it also starts to get away from the potential contradictions. On the one hand, you can understand, thinking about that, why you would crack down on dissent, including the feminist protesters. It also leads towards the issue of why you would perhaps strengthen the courts and the disciplinary apparatus as institutions that you’re trying to sort of strengthen in order to give you two levers to push against the local officials in order to sort of contain some of the corrupt behavior that Evan was talking about.

OSNOS: Yeah, I’m struck here—I absolutely agree with this—the notion of order as an important principle for this government I think is—we have to bear that at the center of our sort of focus.

One of the key people in this government is Lu Wei, who has been overseeing efforts to reinvigorate control of the Internet and, sort of more broadly speaking, in the propaganda apparatus. His quote last year was that order means freedom. And in a sense, that is an organizing principle for the way this government sees the future, because without order there can be, in his view—in Xi’s view, and more broadly his government’s view—there can be no freedom.

So, as a result, what you see is in realm after realm the attempt to consolidate, to—you know, they saw chaos within the system. You know, that’s the irony, of course. So they looked at the legal system and said there’s chaos at the local level, meaning people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And so this is an attempt to remove that.

GLASER: Chinese leaders are evidently fearful of instability. Do you think that these fears are well-founded, or are they simply based on paranoia? What are the main threats, really, to stability in China? Is this demands for greater autonomy in Tibet, is it the alleged terrorism activities in Xinjiang, is it protests calling for direct elections in Hong Kong, or is it loss of faith in the Communist Party, or all of the above? (Laughter.)

MINZNER: I actually—ironically, I think that the—this is a little hard to explain—but I think that the greatest threat to China is also the—sort of the seeming apparent strength, which is to say currently there’s no alternative—there’s no alternative institution or no political alternative. No institutions—the party has successfully deinstitutionalized everything outside of the party itself.

And on the one hand, that’s a great source of stability. But it’s also a reason why there’s this possibility that at any moment you don’t know what could all of a sudden mobilize large numbers of people. It could be the PX—the sort of petrochemical factory that sort of blows up and sort of instantly galvanizes a large number of people to sort of start moving in a particular direction. It could be the fact that you have the Chai Jing, the documentary sort of, bang, goes viral and you’ve got 300 people—300 million people viewing it within two or three days.

You don’t know what thing could blow up, and that’s what they’re worried about. And in some ways—so I don’t think it’s the—I think the stuff—the minority, the Hong Kong issues, I mean, they’re out there. But I think this is the viral thing that the Chinese authorities are really worried about. And ironically, it’s sort of a problem of their own causing because there’s no other institutional channel for these pressures to flow. So if they let up, something might happen. And that’s what they’re worried about.

OSNOS: Yeah, that’s—it’s true that I think they look at dynamics and they look at the technologies of unrest in a sense that, if you go back over the last decade, nobody would have predicted that the self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia would have brought about the fundamental reformation of the region. And I think the Chinese would say the same thing. They wouldn’t say—you know, in Ukraine it wasn’t the same thing that it was in a whole variety of other places.

So what they try to identify are these patterns, and one of the patterns is the idea of a charismatic person or an organization that seems to be going from ideas to enacting them. And so, wherever that is, even when it can seem to us on the outside to be almost cartoonishly small and unthreatening, to them it is the seeds of potential disaster. And so that’s where you get this mismatch between the level of the threat and the response to it.

GLASER: Xi Jinping is trying to define what it means to be Chinese. And in doing so, he clearly draws from different periods in Chinese history. He’s invoked Confucius and other Chinese philosophers, as well as Mao Zedong. So why is Xi Jinping promoting Confucian values? And why is he explicitly opposing Western values? And are there risks in doing so, including alienating peoples along the borders—who reside along the borders who do not identify with being Chinese?

Start with you, Carl.

MINZNER: So I think part of it is going to—something that Evan had mentioned earlier is that I think Xi Jinping himself looks at—one of the threats, one of the problems that he sees, the systematic issues, is the idea that perhaps the party itself—there’s a loss of faith. What do we stand for? And so you need to find something that you are supposed to represent. I mean, sort of many of the Communist slogans had become nothing more than rote recitations that really nobody believed in. A harmonious society? And what they’re grappling for is to find something else to base their what do we stand for. And that’s the look back to the past. That’s the effort to perhaps bring in something from Confucianism, the—you know, the best parts of Chinese culture. They’re grappling for that.

I think you hit on what the—one of the dangers, which is, if you start to redefine China in that respect, you start to create problems with the people on the borders who sort of fit less well into your national narrative—whether it’s Christians in Jiujiang, whether it’s Uighurs in Xinjiang, or whether it is sort of young Hong Kongers who may not feel—they may identify more as a Cantonese identity and don’t want to accept, you know, national education. And I think that’s where you’re seeing some of these tensions blow up.

OSNOS: It’s interesting, when you go back and you look at Xi’s biography, it’s a reminder that there was a period of time when socialism had content, in the sense—had ideological content. And that was the world in which he came up. So I mean, we take as an article of faith now that if you join the party—for many people who join the party—I think all of our—we would have friends who fall into this category—it’s for professional reasons. It’s because it makes sense organizationally. It creates opportunities for you.

Xi Jinping grew up in a world in which this was a noble calling. You know, his father joined the revolution at the age of 14. And I think for Xi it’s about bringing back the party to a period when it seemed like it was the affirmative answer to questions, not just the party of no. And the hard part, of course, is what are you going to fill that void with? And in filling that void, you are also then closing off—necessarily closing off parts of life that people have become accustomed to.

People have gotten used to the idea over the last decade and a half that you can choose what it is you want to believe in. You know, if you want to be a Taoist, Buddhist, Kabala practitioner, God bless you. (Laughter.)

MINZNER: Qi bless you.

OSNOS: Yeah, Qi bless you. (Laughter.) And I think—I don’t know where that goes, because that’s a harder—it’s harder to take things away from people than it is to give them something.

GLASER: You know, one question that I’ve heard some American scholars talk about is whether Xi Jinping will see himself as having enough time in his likely two five-year terms to achieve the goals that he wants to achieve. Now, he could step down from the presidency. He could remain secretary general of the party. Of course, this has been a while since we have seen any leader in China do that. But do you think that it is possible that he is going to remain sort of the lifetime leader in China who believes that he must be the person who leads China into its new greatness, that he must rejuvenate the Chinese nation, and that simply two years in power’s not enough?

OSNOS: I think it’s too soon to know. I can tell you that in Beijing, everybody is talking about what happens, which is quite telling in and of itself.


OSNOS: You know, that everybody is saying, what happens after 2022—I mean, which is—whatever it is, it’s a long way off. People weren’t saying that about Hu Jintao.

The one other piece of this that I think is interesting is when you put this many people in prison, you create a problem for yourself down the road. Not only have you broken some of the unbroken—unwritten rules which protected people at your level, but you also have created a lot of grudges out there. And that’s hard to deal with.

So at this point, I don’t see any indication of any effort formally to do anything beyond the 10-year term. But he will have to figure out now to negotiate his departure.

MINZNER: I totally agree. I think that, you know, the fact that we’re asking this question right now is almost an indication of how much the rules of the game have changed. Like, somebody could be in power until—we don’t know, but we’re thinking about it. And that’s an interesting reflection of how much things have changed.

And I think the other point that Evan made, which is once you start to build up a lot of power and responsibility in yourself, it gets a lot harder to step back as that putative time when you’re supposed to leave begins to dawn. So that may be a difficulty for him.

GLASER: All right, one last question and then we’ll turn it over to the audience.

You mentioned earlier, Evan, that Xi Jinping has put himself at the head of at least 10 important advisory and decision-making mechanisms. He’s said to have a very small “kitchen cabinet” of advisers. My sense from talking to people in China, including think tank experts as well as officials, is that there’s this sense of fear of providing Xi Jinping with the wrong advice.

So, for example, on Taiwan, he served in Fujian. People assume he understands Taiwan. And there is a reluctance to want to provide him with analysis and policy recommendations because people say he has his own ideas, and people are afraid to tell him something that he doesn’t want to hear.

So the decision-making process is certainly different than it was under Hu Jintao. There seems to be little room for disagreement. And is this really a formula for success?

MINZNER: I mean, on the one hand you could understand why somebody might do that. You want to be decisive, you want to break through, you felt that the prior leadership was too weak; I’m going to make the decisions. So you can understand that that’s an idea to break through.

But I think there are at least two risks. One is you end up doing the wrong thing. So China currently is embroiled in an effort to promote soccer. Maybe that is a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing. I don’t know. (Laughter.) But we’re now really going to promote soccer in China. And the second is the—what you flagged—which is the yes men, the idea that maybe a casual remark made by the top leader about weird architecture starts to spiral in particular directions, not because the central leader himself necessarily wanted it to go in a particular direction, but because the people below now feel that we must implement or I just want to use his words in a particular direction. And I think that can be risky.

OSNOS: There is at the moment, frankly, a culture of fear that has grown into the political system at multiple levels. And what you’ve described at the—at the elite advisory level I think is reflected as well down on the—on the sort of bureaucratic front lines.

And what you hear from people in—whether they’re doing business in China or they’re trying to organize non-government activity, is that the system is slowing down because people are afraid to make decisions. You know, the bureaucrats are afraid to approve the permit because they don’t know if that will then become ammunition against them if an opponent decides to file a complaint, for instance, about corruption.

And there is something else at work, which is that—and this was pointed out to me by historians in the course of sort of researching and thinking about Xi Jinping—one of the ancient patterns in Chinese politics is that when the emperor goes to war with the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has a way of demonstrating its displeasure. And one of the ways you do that is by slowing down.

And I think the fear, the risk—this is probably—I would say perhaps the greatest risk that Xi faces, is that he has staked his success on being a transformational figure, on breaking through these vested interests. But if the system in its sheer inertia and strength is able to resist, then he has significantly undermined his own authority.

GLASER: OK, great discussion.

We’re now going to invite the audience members to join our conversation. And so please wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. Stand and state your name and your affiliation. And, if you can, keep your questions or your comments concise so that we can allow as many members to speak as possible.

So first question over here, Ambassador Chang.

Q: Julia Chang Bloch of the U.S.-China Education Trust.

I wonder if you can comment further on how the current anti-West campaign fits into Xi Jinping’s grand strategy for himself and China. And particularly, do you have any updates on the ban on Western textbooks at Chinese universities? Because I understand that there has been some backstepping—backsliding, I should say. And also, about the—I think there is also a backlash against their stoppage of Gmail and the VPN.

MINZNER: Yes, so I think that there are—there are two elements to the—sort of the anti-Western. One is the fear of Western political ideals. I think that’s—that is a—that’s sort of a longstanding component that periodically gets played up, and you’re seeing that.

I think there’s another element here, too, which is slightly broader, and that’s what’s reflected in this fear of—I think that’s the flipside of the effort to promote—you know, to re-identify or reimagine the ideological bases for the Chinese—the Chinese party in classical Chinese terms. I think that—then, if you’re doing that, then the flipside is maybe we have to be more careful about Western stuff. And that’s what’s playing into this new campaign.

This was—this was a central order that came down in January. Liu Yuanchan (ph) is running the—there’s a sort of a central committee that’s working on that. That was what played into the comments of the Education Ministry.

I think we’re in very early stages of seeing where this is going to come out. I’ve heard exactly what you mentioned about the pushback. I think many of the top universities are saying, well, wait a minute. So I’m not sure how far this is going to go. I think there’s going to be a push-and-pull dynamic. But I think this is early stages.

I’m a little worried because I think, in 2011, before you got the full-blown move against social media, there was a yearlong process where the state itself, the party state itself, was working out what they wanted to do with respect to social media. And it was only a year later that you started to see the full-blown implementation. I think we’re early. But I have heard stuff about the comments that you mentioned, about the pushback, and I will be interested to see how it plays out.

GLASER: OK. Katy Oh, here in front.

Q: Katy Oh from Institute for Defense Analyses. Excellent panel. I usually don’t compliment, but this was really fascinating. (Laughter.) And sense of humor of Evan, really appreciated.

GLASER: Glad it’s met your standards, Katy.

Q: And we hardly touched on the external relationship. So Xi Jinping has been very cool towards North Korea, very warm and affectionate toward Ms. Park or President Park of South Korea, and very calculating and cold manner towards Japan, creating whole new regional strategic dynamics. So what is your reading of Xi Jinping? Is this good for his overall great leadership image, or he’s actually creating unnecessary tension dividing South and Japan and U.S. and all these things?

OSNOS: You know, I would be interested in hearing Bonnie’s view on this.

Very briefly, I would say that you’ve seen him testing out different kinds of regional policy over the course of the last couple of years. There was a period, of course, when he first came in where you saw him asserting Chinese interests more forcefully around the region. It produced some brushback. They—produced blowback, which forced him in a sense to have to recalibrate what they could do.

Frankly, I don’t see a coherent regional foreign policy at the moment, and so it’s hard for me to say that I think this is being done with a 10-year time frame rather than being—responding to individual crises.

GLASER: I think he has been testing out some different policies towards Japan.

I think on North Korea he actually has been fairly consistent. There has not been any love for Kim Jong-un, for the nuclear policies of North Korea. But I wonder that, if Kim Jong-un does go to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Moscow, if we will start to see some steps taken by China and by Xi Jinping to improve that relationship with North Korea. I don’t think that he would necessarily invite Kim to come to Beijing first, but I do think that there is a potential of Xi Jinping—excuse me, if Kim Jong-un begins to improve relations with other nations, that China would then step up. But at the—I also think that he believes that being tough on this nuclear issue with North Korea is necessary for Chinese interests.

As to a broader regional strategy, we’ve seen evolution, as you say. We’ve even seen a change from the Periphery Diplomacy Conference that was held in October of 2013 and then the Foreign Affairs Work Conference that was held just over a year later. So I think there is a recognition if you alienate all of your neighbors at the same time, and then of course you have tensions even with the United States, that it’s not necessarily in China’s interests.

OK. Over here on the left.

Q: Larry Korb, Center for American Progress.

To what extent does the experience of the Soviet Union and the collapse still motivate them?

MINZNER: I think it’s absolutely fundamental. I mean, I think that is actually one of the main motivating factors. I mean, Xi Jinping had—you know, it was in your—probably in your New Yorker article, too, about the Gorbachev—I mean, he—at the very—there was not a—there was we—the Soviet Union fundamentally lacked somebody who was willing to stand up and, you know, defend the party, and he sees himself as that’s the role that we’re going to be in.

I think it’s also, you know, they look at the—what happened in Eastern Europe. They look at the penetration of Western ideas in sort of the later—the later Soviet—they look at that as a loss of faith. That was a fundamental problem, and they are essentially grappling with how do we address that, how do we prevent that from happening to us as well.

OSNOS: Yeah, I was struck, you know—there’s been a number of studies done over the years. The party’s done constant studies of what happened to the Soviet Union. And Xi Jinping wanted one more, in fact, and I was told when I was in Beijing about a scenario in which he dialed up one more study. And one of the conclusions that he’s reached over the course of this process is the—is the personalization of history, which is consistent in some sense with how he sees his own role in China, that you can and you should assign responsibility to individual actors for their failure and for their success. But when it comes to understanding the Soviet Union, he places blame squarely on Gorbachev’s shoulders.

GLASER: OK. Dick Solomon.

Q: Thanks. Dick Solomon, RAND.

I want to pick up on a couple of points that have been made, but put it into context. Last night there was a terrific thing on NPR about Qin Shi Huang and the building of the Terra Cotta and all of his megalomania, and that is the image of authority and leadership. And talk about how much time does he have to—does Xi Jinping have to work with. Qin Shi Huang did it in, what, 35 years, his transform. Xi Jinping’s exposure to authority is Mao and his megalomania. My assumption is, by the way he’s accumulated power, he’s also headed in a direction of doing what may end up looking like overreaching on megalomaniacal kinds of projects. But today you’re dealing not with a peasant society, but with a mobilized society. And you see the party straining to try to control the expression of public opinion, yet we know from talking to (cadre ?) how much they feel public.

My question, which is kind of pie-in-the-sky, is, based on your own experience and judgment, 10 years from now, is a one-party system, with this mobilized society continuing to grow economically, is it a sustainable situation? And you could imagine different outcomes. In 1989, there was the other touchstone development apart from the collapse of the Soviet party. That was Tiananmen, which is the pressure from below. That led to a split within the leadership. How do you see, 10 years from now, this situation? Is it going to be chaos? Will the culture or the society accept authoritarian leadership? Is it going to split?

GLASER: Or are we going to see the coming crackup of China—(laughter)—which was The Wall Street Journal’s title to the article that David Shambaugh wrote, although not quite what his argument was. But do you want to start, Carl?

MINZNER: Oh, you want to go first? I’m thinking about my answer to that. (Laughter, laughs.)

OSNOS: Well, you know, again, I knew you’d ask the easy question. You really gave it to—(laughter).

I mean, this is the question, right, is whether the set of tools that he has picked up is a plausible response to what he’s facing. I would say a couple of things.

What we’re seeing at the moment is this fundamental collision between the enormous and complex and various forces that have been unleashed over the course of the last 40 years, which have been essential to China’s rise, whether it’s creativity or, you know, I use the word “ambition.” But these—all of these elements are the energy, and on the other side of that is this focus which has now been redoubled on order. You’re not going to be able to put those—that enormous energy back into its box. You couldn’t afford to because it would also undermine China’s continued growth.

So it then becomes incumbent on the state to figure out how do we adapt, and they have done it before. I mean, if you look at 1979, it was the greatest act of philosophical gymnastics that we’ve seen in modern political history. How did you take yourself as the Communist Party and still call yourself the Communist Party and turn around and allow the economy to go in the direction it did?

At a certain point, if this is what Xi Jinping—the thing that I think is interesting is if Xi Jinping responds to a period of peace and stability the way he has over the course of the last two years, how will he respond when a moment of genuine crisis emerges? And it’s impossible to expect that over the course of the next eight years he will not face a crisis either within his own borders or outside the country. And that’s the moment when I think we will see whether or not he has the authority and the flexibility to be able to figure out how to get through it, because if the only answer is to look to history, to say I revert to the classics, I revert to the recent classics, whether it’s Mao or his father, those tools are no longer adequate for actually addressing contemporary problems of a complex society. And that’s what worries me, is what happens in a moment of crisis.

MINZNER: I’ll pick up on that, because I think that’s actually—you hit—both of you—I agree with Evan, and I think that raises a really important question.

What happens at the moment of crisis? Currently, there are a couple of things we’ve seen. One, there’s zero intention on the part of Xi Jinping to build institutions outside the party itself. At the same time, we haven’t seen any inclination to resort to Maoist-style social mobilization. And that’s been one of the—one of the reform-era norms, that we don’t do that. That’s not been broken yet. But I worry—that’s one thing that I worry about, if you hit a moment of crisis.

We were talking a little bit earlier about the bureaucracy slowing down, people—you know, the bureaucracy being like, well, I don’t want to, I’m just not going to act. In my worst-case scenario, that’s the thing I worry about, is that if you—if you hit a point where Xi himself felt I can’t get things done and I don’t want to step aside because I’m worried about the enemies that I’ve built up, at some point might that last norm begin to break? And you start thinking, the appeal to the youth, the appeal to the migrants, the appeal to people who feel left out, might at some point somebody start to think that is a logical choice? And I would worry about that for precisely the same reasons that Evan mentioned.

GLASER: Interesting. OK, another question. Young woman here in the white.

Q: Hi. I’m Ruth Hutcheon (ph) from Central News Agency, Taiwan.

As Bonnie say, that President Xi seems very confident regarding the dealing the Taiwan issue, and for less space for other suggestion. I just wondered if you have any comment there. Is he going to have any further approach to try to influence the election in Taiwan in the coming future? Thank you.

OSNOS: Yeah, I was in Taiwan earlier this year. I was stuck by the fact that, you know, there is all of this talk that the election may introduce some turmoil into the relationship. I think if Xi Jinping is ranking the areas where he wants things to be calm and stable, it would be the relationship with Taiwan. Will he try to influence the election? I honestly have no idea. But I think it’s one of the few places on which he feels like we’re not at this moment heading for crisis, so—you know, and I’m not sure what he would do to try to change that.

GLASER: I would just add that I think in 2012 that the mainland certainly tried to influence the elections in Taiwan, including encouraging businessmen who live on the mainland just to go back and vote. But of course, the mainland has a very big toolbox to use to influence Taiwan. This doesn’t necessarily mean military coercive measures. It could be more carrots. But they’ve become, I think, somewhat more sophisticated. But I would certainly agree with Evan: there’s growing concern about the potential for the return to power of the opposition DPP in Taiwan. And so I think that the mainland will try to shape that outcome if they can.

OK, in the back row.

Q: Excuse me. Priscilla Clapp.

Looking at the western border, in recent weeks it’s become clear that Chinese-Burmese relations are fraying at the edges right now because of Chinese support for the rebellion and the insurgency in Kokang. And there’s also been some border incursions in other parts of the border, people coming across from China and trying to claim land in Burma. It’s causing a lot of concern and resentment inside Burma, and the very top leadership is wondering whether this is a concerted effort on the part of China to destabilize things on the eve of their elections because they see Chinese hand behind other things that are happening inside the country. And I’m wondering, you know, Xi Jinping has a broader sort of long-term policy towards Burma to sort of run the new southern Silk Road through there, and it doesn’t make sense for China to be making enemies this way with Burma right now. Could it be that Beijing really doesn’t control Yunnan?

OSNOS: Hmm. (Laughter.)

MINZNER: I’m an—I’ll pass on the foreign policy. (Laughter.)

OSNOS: You know, I would say, I was—I was—you know, Priscilla and I, we talked about Burma when I was there a couple years ago, about China’s relationship with it. The thing that struck—that was noticeable when you go to Naypyidaw and you ask people about their relationship or really if you talk to people around Yangon about their relationship to China, there was a huge amount of antipathy. And so many of us in the U.S. had assumed that this relationship was sewn up. Ten years ago, it looked like it was heading in that direction. And if anything, I think this is a reminder that there are, in fact, a lot of pieces that remain unresolved before the Silk Road project can come to fruition. It was one of the issues that I heard over and over again in Beijing recently, that people say this is—this is a concept; this is not a plan yet.

GLASER: OK. Over here, Jin Ki (ph).

Q: Oh.

GLASER: Oh, all right. Well, you’ll be next.

Q: Yeah. I’m sorry.

GLASER: (Laughs.)

Q: John Negroponte.

I guess we’re edging up to China’s global role, and I just—notwithstanding your earlier comment about not wanting to talk about foreign policy, these things have got to be interrelated. So what about their global role? And—which I think is the fundamental question for the United States and for United States foreign policy. Do they have hegemonic ambitions? Do they have an appetite for greater power? And specifically, also, as their military observe the economic growth of the country, are they themselves going to look around comparatively at the kinds of toys and equipment that other countries purchase for their militaries, and is this going to—does the appetite grow with the eating?

MINZNER: OK. If you want, I’ll throw out—I’ll throw out one. But then, please, I want Bonnie and Evan to correct me.

I mean, my impression is that the—that there are a couple elements when you’re talking about China’s global footprint. On the one hand, there are the specific regional issues—South China Sea, you know, disputes with Japan—that China’s being dragged into. There are also economic interests that, you know—trade, sort of oil routes to the Mideast, imprint in Africa—that China is increasingly being dragged into a more global role because of domestic interests that are causing them to have more engagement with those—with those countries. And that’s something that’s forcing China to have a—have a broader global role, and I think it’s kind of grappling with what are we supposed to—what is that role supposed to look like. This is not something that they’ve had a lot of prior experience with.

Then there’s another component, sort of the media and the Times Square—there’s influence, there’s spending that’s going on abroad—you know, the billboards in Times Square, these full-page advertisements in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post. Some of that is—that is—they feel pressure to splash out to demonstrate something back towards—back in China. There was somebody who was telling me that, you know, these—sort of the big Xinhua offices in New York—maybe it was in New York, I heard—I forget where I’ve read this—but that, you know, it’s for visiting delegations that are coming from China to sort of have parties there. It isn’t—you know, people, I think, in the United States look at this and think, oh, this is—this is a dangerous, you know, expansion of Western—of Chinese power. Some of it is—there is—it’s a—it’s prestige diplomacy for an audience back home.

OSNOS: I would say a couple of things.

One, I would recommend, if I can plug a Council project, there is a report on China’s grand strategy that’s been produced recently which is superb, and my own contribution was de minimis so I’m not flacking any of my own work here. But really just to—and a lot of the—there are folks in this room who contributed to it, and I think it lays out some of these issues incredibly well.

You’ve seen even very recently with the developments around the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank a concerted and organized and, frankly, well-executed attempt to create a parallel set of institutions to the institutions that the United States has led and that have defined the global order for the last half-century. So in—just looking at the reality that we’re encountering today without trying to speculate about long-term ambitions and intentions, I think we see clearly the beginning of a new chapter. This is the chapter we’ve talked about in the future tense for a long time. It’s now upon us. And then the harder question is, how does that conflict with our own interests?

One of the reasons why this story, which I think people here have followed, but you know, as you remember, the Chinese have proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is essentially a parallel or a rival organization for the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. The United States didn’t want other countries to join, and they have now done so one after another, leaving us in the position of having to figure out, are we going to continue our opposition to it or are we going to gradually join or do some version of either option. This is the first step of a series of things that I think we’re going to see.

I’m not—what I—the reason why I hesitate is that I don’t at this point see that China has anywhere in its bandwidth, that Xi Jinping has anywhere in his ability to—when he’s prioritizing issues, the idea of asserting an affirmative Chinese agenda abroad in explicit—he’s not unsophisticated—in explicit confrontation with the United States is not something he needs to do. But I think what you see is this—is this expanding conception of what China’s interests are. You’ve seen it over the course of the last 10 years. China’s interests now extend to the idea that they should be able to have alternative multilateral organizations.

So then it becomes—now the question is sort of coming home to us: How are we going to respond to that? Do we ultimately accept it? Do we adapt to it? Do we reject it? I think it’s—the moment has—in a sense, the decision that we’ve all been talking about for a long time now faces us.

GLASER: Terrific comments, and I would just add that I would summarize China in this era as really seeking respect. And this is particularly a message that Xi Jinping gives, I think, to many foreign leaders and to neighbors, to the United States. You know, China lived in an—in an era over the last century and more of, as the Chinese like to say, suffering at the hands of foreigners and this century of national humiliation. They believe they are stronger, and the time has come to right the wrongs of the past.

And I think the focus is more regional than it is global. I mean, to some extent it is a message to the United States as well. And even though our president has not embraced the—Xi Jinping’s definition of core interest and respect for Chinese core interest, even as we seek to achieve a new type of major country or whatever relationship, but nevertheless, you know, Xi Jinping I think still continues to use this term even though we don’t accept it, right? So it’s still about respect for China’s core interest, its sovereignty and its national security interests, including of course stability at home.

So I think that it’s particularly regionally focused because the Chinese now want to build this—it’s almost a reinvigoration of a past Sinocentric order. So it’s a signal to all the countries of the region: We will give you the economic largesse, all of these carrots—the Asian Investment—Infrastructure Bank, the One Belt, One Road policy that Xi Jinping has talked about. But at the same time, we expect from all of you in return that you will not take any steps that will damage Chinese security interests. And that’s what China means by win-win cooperation.

Yes, over here.

Q: Tashi Rabgey from the Elliott School of International Affairs.

And I have a question about Xi Jinping’s broader political worldview, and I think with all the, you know, sensationalism of the anti-corruption campaign that tends to get overshadowed. And I work on a project to reframe the Tibet issue through the governance framework. It’s a project that involves State Council DRC researchers. And we were really interested to see in 2008—or, sorry, 2013, the emergence of language around governance in the Third Plenum—after the Third Plenum. And I’m wondering if you could comment on what you think of Xi Jinping’s forthcoming, you know, work on all of that, his thoughts. Does it matter? Does the new analytical vocabulary mean something in terms of his search for a basis of his rulership?

MINZNER: So on—just on the governance component, I mean, I think they’re—I think they are serious about we need to sort of rebuild centralized governance in order to get a better hand on local problems. I haven’t looked specifically at Tibet, so I don’t know how this language is playing out there.

Just on the Tibet side of things, one of the things that I find interesting to play around with is the idea that, to the extent—the extent that Xi Jinping is going back to tradition—and you start going back to Confucianism, behind the scenes also going back to Buddhism; there’s sort of—there’s signals being sent on that side—that can create problems with Uighurs. That can create problems with sort of 16-year-old Hong Kongers who sort of identify with, you know, sort of a Cantonese-based identity. But I’ve always wondered what happens on the Tibet side, because there is a bridge there that doesn’t exist that at least the center is going to try to play, which is I would imagine that some people would start to look to Buddhism as a bridge that, you know, if you’re trying—if the center is trying to get a handle on Tibet issues, you could start to play that as a chord, as something that you could use to try to say, well, maybe we can relate to you in particular way. Doesn’t address the Dalai Lama issue, but I wonder if that—if they’re going to be experiments that would be reaching out to folks in the Tibetan sphere on that particular topic. But I’d be interested in talking more to you on that.

GLASER: OK. Ambassador Keith.

Q: Thank you. Jim Keith with McLarty Associates.

I wanted to, if I could, come back to this question of party legitimacy and stability. The conventional wisdom, I believe, is that the party’s decided that it needs to deliver the economic goods, and that’s its—essentially its credential. Dangerous if—in particular if bourgeois liberalization is not good, but efficient allocation of resources by the market is good, you’ve got some built-in tension there that we are starting to see play out and might see more. The Third Plenum laid out a pretty clear path forward on the economic side, perhaps even bolder than is appreciated on the outside of China. Do you have opinions on a plan B, you know, given that this is kind of the credential that the party’s reaching for? If it’s not working, what do you throw at the problem?

OSNOS: The worrisome plan B is that when things don’t go as well as you hoped, then you rally around the flag. And then that gets us into foreign policy.

And what’s interesting to me is that when you see already that one of the assets in favorability that Xi Jinping can count on at the moment is that in the gestures of foreign policy and sort of nationalist impulses, that he’s been rewarded with public acclaim. That means that if some of the other pieces of that puzzle don’t pan out, then that’s where you revert.

But at this point, we don’t—we don’t hear much about a plan B, which is problematic in itself, I think.

GLASER: OK. I think we have time for one more question. And just before we take that question, I want to remind all the participants that this meeting has been on the record. So one last question?

OSNOS: That didn’t embolden somebody to ask something provocative. (Laughter.)

GLASER: I guess not, so I’ll have to ask the last question.

How do you assess the likelihood that Xi Jinping is going to be able to achieve what we’ve talked about as his vision? And let’s assume for the time being that he’s only there for these two five-year terms, and that would come to an end in 2022. And so what do you see as the indicators that we should look for that things are going well or that things are not going well?

MINZNER: I mean, I think, to phrase the question in terms of, like, what are we going—what would we—what’s the—what are we going to end up with, potentially, at the end of another eight years, I think that you’re going to see some of the underlying fundamental pressures that China’s been confronting over the last two or three decades, I think they’re going to come to a head. I don’t—you know, sort of I’m not going to go down the David Shambaugh, things are going to—but I think something—I think something is starting to break loose. I think there has been—you know, when people talk about where China has come from over the last two or three decades, you talk about the mobilized society. You talk about the increased demands. I think the breaking of the norms that’s taking place under Xi Jinping are a reflection of the system is finally having to grapple with some really first-order questions, first-order political questions. And so I think it’s—this is starting to come out, and I think that you’re going to see sort of a deeper and deeper grappling with these issues.

Unfortunately for me, I’m somewhat pessimistic. Since I haven’t seen over the last 10 or 15 years a move towards institutionalization outside of the party, I really worry that you do face this crisis moment, and then you go in a different direction. So I guess if you’re just asking me what do I expect over the next eight years, that’s kind of where I come out. I’m pessimistic, but I sort of hesitate to say, well, this is what’s going to happen on this particular year.

OSNOS: I think, if you look at the list of economic and social reforms that he’s proposed in a series of important moments, many of those are achievable, partly if you are meaning—so, for instance, you know, can you expand the one-child policy, in effect, to a two-child policy? Sure. That’s the kind of authority he has. Can you beat back the power of state-owned enterprises? Can you force them to give up greater dividends? You can probably do all of that, given the combination of his political authority and the kinds of preparing of the battlefield that he did for a very long time by establishing his relationships within the system.

What is much harder to do, and what I think remains—I see no pathway for him to achieve this—is to streamline and impose what is, in the end, an antiquated system of controlling what people think and read and do. In the end, that is just not something that you can do in 2015. So if—and ultimately, you know, seven years ahead. We forget sometimes, you know, the iPad didn’t exist five years ago. This is—what’s going to—what he’s going to be contending with in five years or in eight years is a level of integration and an expectation of availability among—particularly among the younger generation of Chinese, who continue to travel, continue to read everything they can. That’s going to become a harder and harder thing to control. And if that’s, in fact, a pillar of the strategy, that’s not a reliable pillar.

GLASER: Well, it’s been a terrific conversation. I’m sure we will come back and have future meetings where we can talk about how Xi Jinping and China are evolving in the future, and we’ll convene more of those here at the Council. Please join me in thanking Evan Osnos and Carl Minzner. (Applause.)

MINZNER: Thank you. Thank you. Very nice. It was excellent. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

Southeast Asia

President Biden addressed several areas of concern at the ASEAN summit.

Global Governance

The planet is on fire, the pandemic smolders on, and the global recovery is faltering. The G20 was created for just such challenges, and the Rome summit offers it a chance to rise to the occasion. 


The coup in Sudan shows that the military members of the transitional government were never truly committed to implementing democracy in the manner sought by protesters who forced Omar al-Bashir from power in 2019.