Centennial Speaker Series Session 7: Will the 21st Century be China's?

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, Harvard University; Director, Harvard-Yenching Institute


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction@RichardHaass

The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas

Elizabeth Perry discusses China, its role in the world, and how emerging great power competition could shape the 21st century.

This meeting is the seventh session in CFR’s centennial speaker series, The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas, which features some of today’s leading thinkers and tackles issues ​that will define this century. 

This event series was also presented as a special podcast series, “Nine Questions for the World,” in celebration of CFR’s centennial. See the corresponding episode here.

HAASS: Well, thank you, and good morning still to, I expect, most of the people. Hope everybody is well and of good health.

I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I want to welcome everybody to what is the seventh in our speaker series on The 21st Century: Big Challenges and Big Ideas. And the idea is to do a series that’s specifically tied to our hundredth year, our centennial year, but also to feature some of the leading thinkers around the world on some of the biggest and most important subjects in the world.

We have done just that today. We have Elizabeth Perry, and Professor Perry is the Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at this startup university called Harvard. She also there is the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

She’s written more books than most of us have read. And she really is one of THE—capital T, capital H, capital E—experts in this or any country on the history of China, particularly contemporary China, and connecting the dots between contemporary China and its history of the—and its modern history since the Communist Party has dominated its political, economic, social, and cultural life.

Professor Perry and I will have a conversation for half an hour, plus or minus, and then we will turn to you, our members, to ask whatever questions you have. I want to make clear at the beginning that she and I are going to focus a lot on China qua China, a little bit less on U.S.-Chinese relations, though, obviously, we may get—we will get to that to some extent and if you all have questions on that.

But I really thought this is a rare opportunity to go a little bit deeper into what’s going on inside China and its implications.

So, Professor Perry, first of all, thank you for not just being here today but, really, thank you for your contributions to our understanding of one of the most important countries in the world, and we are thrilled to have you today.

PERRY: Thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here.

HAASS: OK. So let’s start with this—the individual who leads China, Xi Jinping. How are we to understand him? And to call him a populist or an authoritarian populist, to use, you know, some of the jargon that traffics in our world, is that, one, accurate and, two, is it sufficient? Or does it also either leave things out or distort?

PERRY: Well, to call him populist, I think, is partially accurate. Xi Jinping is someone who was sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and then returned to that area, a very impoverished area in the northwest of China, where he seems to have identified to some extent with the plight of the impoverished peasantry. Went back to be a grassroots leader there and attempted to do things to improve the plight of the peasants in that area.

So I do think it’s fair to say that he has a certain sympathy for the commoner in China, for those who have been left behind in the spectacular reforms of the post-Mao era, and a populist in the sense that he likes to be perceived as a man of the people who goes down and eats in an ordinary dumpling restaurant and can hobnob with ordinary Chinese rather than being an elitist.

On the other hand, of course, he sent his own daughter to Harvard University for her education and he likes to be taken seriously by the global elite as well. So a populist, yes, but someone who also is very concerned for his own reputation and China’s reputation in the world.

HAASS: So two initiatives that he’s associated with, the first one was his anti-corruption campaign, more recently, what goes under the heading, I think, of common prosperity—I don’t know if that’s a good translation or not but, obviously, this move against some aspects of inequality—to what extent then is that simply Xi Jinping—and so let me say this. Let me clarify it. It’s, obviously, not mutually exclusive. To what extent is that him reading the Chinese people and say, these would be good things for me to do in order to strengthen my position? Or to what extent are they intrinsically genuine from his point of view and intrinsically called for?

PERRY: I think both of those things. I think he does read among ordinary people a disgust with corruption that had become quite pronounced in recent years, and I think he also has a kind of instinctual identification with those who resent the billionaire class, if you will.

But I think those are also things that he believes are truly necessary in order to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party. You know, this year is not only the centennial of the Council on Foreign Relations, but it’s also the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party.

HAASS: I was afraid you were going to go there, and I was hoping others wouldn’t notice that. But go ahead. (Laughter.)

PERRY: And as the party has reached its hundredth year, the party leadership is, naturally, concerned about what kinds of things it needs to do to ensure that it has a long lifespan ahead. The leadership, including Xi Jinping himself, have, clearly, read very closely the history of the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism across Eastern Europe, and are no doubt convinced that corruption and inequality were part of the reason for that collapse.

A major reason for the collapse was that the communist parties themselves weakened, and as one scholar put it, they, basically—the state sold its own assets to its party members. And so selling the state is something that Xi Jinping, perhaps, inherited and wants to reverse this sense that those who have a connection within the Chinese Communist Party can enrich themselves and, at the same time, infuriate the ordinary population.

So I think it’s both a sense that this is how many people in China feel and a sense that analyzing what caused the collapse of communism in Europe leads one to feel that anti-corruption and egalitarianism are critical to the future of the Chinese Communist Party itself.

HAASS: You mentioned as a youth he went into the village, if you will, into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. What do we know of two things? One is his takeaway from the Cultural Revolution. Like, because he could have seen it as a necessary purification process or he could have seen it as a moment where China got dangerously out of control where things went way too far.

So I’m curious and, more broadly, his view of Mao Zedong. Lots of people say he’s the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Would he find that comparison a favorable one? Would he find it one that would make him uneasy?

PERRY: Oh, I’m sure he would find it a very complimentary one. On the other hand, there are many ways in which he differs greatly from Mao. You know, one could say that the Chinese revolution has kind of two traditions, or at least the Chinese Communist Party.

One is the more mobilization mass line movement that Mao embodied. The other tradition is a more Leninist tradition of tightly-controlled party organization hierarchy and the like. And, in my view, Xi Jinping, although he speaks very favorably of Mao and, obviously, has studied Mao and his approach quite carefully, in my view, he much more closely resembles Mao’s nemesis in the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi, who was then president head of state at the same time that Mao was chairman of the Communist Party.

And one could say that Mao and Liu represented these two traditions of Chinese communism—Mao, the mobilizer, the one who was not afraid of stirring up chaos and having protests in the street that he knew, in the end, would redound to his own increased power—Liu Shaoqi, the control freak who always wanted to make sure that the Chinese Communist Party was in charge and who was not entirely averse to mobilization but only highly-controlled mobilization that would never spin out of control.

Liu is associated with a number of anti-corruption campaigns both before and after the Communist Party took power, and although I doubt that Xi Jinping would like to have himself likened to Liu Shaoqi, he reminds me much more in his operating style of Liu Shaoqi’s operating style.

But I think he also has made a serious effort to learn from Mao and being more of a kind of man of the people, more at ease, and going out among the populace and at least presenting the persona of someone who’s a little more in touch with the ordinary common folk of the rural areas.

HAASS: Have we ever heard him specifically—he being Xi Jinping—comment on Deng Xiaoping? Because Deng Xiaoping seems to—if not be quite erased seems to be increasingly absent from history the way the Chinese depict it and I assume that, shall we say, is no accident, that the reformist tradition, however you want to describe Deng Xiaoping, is, clearly, seen as the other pole that Xi Jinping has very little interest in pursuing.

PERRY: Yes. He rarely references Xi Jinping, although he does refer to his policy as socialism with Chinese characteristics, which was the way in which Deng Xiaoping described his reform effort. And so that has remained very much at the core of the way in which the Chinese Communist Party describes itself.

But if you go into the museum in Beijing—the National Museum—it’s quite striking how the Deng Xiaoping era is really downplayed. Mao, of course, makes major appearance. But Deng Xiaoping much less than one might have expected and, of course, those museum exhibitions are very, very carefully curated.

So it’s not an accident, I think, that the Deng Xiaoping reforms are being downplayed and I think that also helps to—it helps us understand a bit his mindset, which I think is a mindset but, on the one hand, is quite supportive of many of the post-Mao policies but, on the other hand, is really very uneasy with the kind of “let some get rich first” philosophy of Deng Xiaoping, of growth at all costs, full speed ahead, get the economy going, and then at some future point we’ll make sure that nobody’s left behind and worry a little bit more about the social justice implications of what we’ve just done.

So it’s not that Xi Jinping overtly disavows that post-Mao reformist effort, but he, certainly, seems to feel that the time has come for something of a reckoning and a rebalancing within the economy and within society at large.

HAASS: So let’s go to where you just, basically, opened up. I’m the nonexpert observer. You’re the expert observer. But if I look what’s going on—from what’s going on at home, what went on in Hong Kong, the treatment of Jack Ma and others, the heavy-handed approach to firms that wanted to list on other exchanges—what this seems to me to be saying is it’s a politics first—that this is not going to be a China in which economic growth any longer is going to be the paramount pursuit.

Is this simply a reaction to the fact the economy was slowing and that he thought the only way to maintain control—the party’s role, his role—was to tighten things up because economics couldn’t provide the justification? Or is there something else going on here?

PERRY: I think it’s more than that. I think the fact that he led a major anti-poverty campaign before he began this common prosperity effort suggests that he believes not only in greater political control but also in some kind of what we might call social justice or some concern for decreasing the tremendous income gap that had arisen in China under the reform era.

We saw some of that effort to rebalance under the previous administration—Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao—and even before them under Jiang Zemin with a “Go West” campaign there has been an awareness on the part of the top party leaders that this growing income gap and growing differentiation between the city and the countryside, the educated and the uneducated, was a real problem for the future of the Chinese Communist Party.

But I think Xi Jinping is the one who most aggressively has embraced that view, and even though some aspects of the anti-poverty campaign may be a little bit suspect, it’s not clear exactly how successful it has been or how successful, at least, it will be in the long run. But, nonetheless, I think there’s no question but what—it indicates his own commitment to an economically more egalitarian society.

So I think, you know, the current effort is not just to go after the billionaires and put them under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party but part of this larger effort of redressing the imbalances that had developed within Chinese society.

HAASS: Let me ask the question in a slightly different way. Is it fair to say that Xi Jinping seems to want the benefits of a more open society and a more open economy without having either, and that he’s made somewhere along the way a calculation that—you might call it a cake and eat it calculation—that he can exert greater control over the economy, the state, greater control politically, yet China can still grow sufficiently in order to be competitive? Has he thought it through in those ways?

PERRY: Well, I don’t know for sure what his thinking in this is, but I think that’s not an inaccurate characterization and I think it’s one that extends to the realm with which I’m a little more familiar and that is the universities. The Harvard-Yenching Institute that I direct has partnerships with twenty major Chinese universities and research institutes.

And, you know, this policy of greater control has, certainly, extended to higher education and the research institutes in China, and I think it is a calculation that at least for the kinds of knowledge that China needs in order to do well in the knowledge economy of the 21st century that that can be compatible with tight party control.

So certain level of openness, yes, but not an openness that can lead to political criticism. And, you know, it’s a calculation. I think the truth is we don’t know exactly what level of an open economy we really need to produce the kinds of things that societies feel are important for their development and what the tradeoff is between greater freedom of expression and technological innovation.

And so what’s going on, I think, in the Chinese universities is a very interesting experiment as well and it’s one that evidences a kind of deglobalization in recent years. Just a few years ago, in order to do well as an academic in China you needed to publish in international fora, you needed to publish in English, and so forth.

Now the universities are all changing their calculations under pressure from the Ministry of Education, and I’m told that at the major universities now to be promoted you have to show that you’ve published more than half of your portfolio in Chinese, at least in the social sciences and in the humanities. Not an altogether bad thing but a calculation that it may be possible for China to be producing knowledge rather than just always importing it from the global academic market.

So I think, you know, it’s a very interesting time, and as I say, I think we don’t know for certain exactly what the right balance is between open freedom and innovation. And so China, I think, will give us some sense of that, going forward.

HAASS: Fair enough. There was a recent piece just, I think, a few days ago in Foreign Affairs, our magazine, about—with the provocative title “The End of China’s Rise,” and at the risk of doing a disservice to the piece, essentially, said the era of high growth is over. You’ve got environmental degradation that’s serious—water, land, all sorts of public health problems. Demographic, both shrinkage as well as the ratio of those who are working age to pre- and post-working age, is moving in the wrong directions. Obviously, with Evergrande we see the debt issues.

Is that fair to—is that a fair characterization or mostly fair characterization that, if you will, the period where the slope was high in China’s rise has ended? And if it is mostly correct, what does that mean? What are the consequences for China—for Xi Jinping, for China, and might—let me just introduce one foreign policy thing. I don’t know if there’s a Mandarin phrase for it.

But could we, basically, expect the Chinese equivalent of “wag the dog”—if things aren’t going as well at home, that someone like Xi Jinping might be tempted to look to foreign policy, to foreign accomplishment, to compensate for a lack of things domestically to point to as a way of justifying his rule? Is that something we should be worried about?

PERRY: I think one would be very foolhardy to discount the enormous challenges that exist within China. At the same time, I think one would be quite foolhardy to discount the possibility that the Chinese authorities are not, A, both acutely aware of these problems, and, B, capable of coping to some extent with them.

We, certainly, are not going to see the same kind of economic explosion in the future that we’ve seen in the first few decades of reform. It’s, simply, impossible to keep growing at that level and we’ve already seen a major slowdown in the trajectory of China’s economic growth. So no question about that.

The inequalities that I mentioned earlier are very serious and a real concern to the regime. The environmental degradation that you just mentioned is a major issue in the public awareness within China. There is a lot of unhappiness, of course, at what the COVID crisis has created within China as well. There are—the demographic issue is very serious and will linger, of course, for a long period of time, this imbalance due to the one-child family policy so that we have few young people now in China being saddled with responsibility for an ever older group of seniors.

And so these problems are very, very serious and one, as I said, would be ill advised to discount them. But they are problems that, you know, China is facing, the rest of us are facing in various different ways, too. The aging crisis across Asia has been a huge problem, of course, for Japan, South Korea, countries in Europe as well. The inequality problem is one, and environmental degradation and effects of global warming and so on we’ve seen in our own country. Tremendously important.

So I—you know, I think China is probably going to do about as well at coping with these problems as the rest of us. You know, as to whether it’s likely that these problems will cause a greater militarization or a greater or more militaristic foreign policy, I do worry about that.

I think they’re—one of the things, you know, that particularly concerned me is the close connection between the Chinese Communist Party and the extremely wealthy capitalist class in China, which Barrington Moore, in his analysis of fascism, suggests is the recipe for fascism.

You know, many of us looked at China and said, oh, well, you know, why is China not democratizing? It has a new bourgeoisie. Barrington Moore said bourgeoisie equals democratization. But Barrington Moore actually also said there is such a thing as a revolution from above where you have a capitalist class that is closely associated with the regime, and he talked about the origins of fascism in Japan and Germany.

China, of course, doesn’t have the German Junkers or the Japanese Samurai, but it has had the “red capitalists,” those who are kind of aristocracy of the revolution who are very closely associated with the party, and I think that also can be a recipe for a militaristic foreign policy.

So from that point of view, I actually think there may be something positive about this attack on the billionaires in China and making those who have profited so handily by their connections with the party feel a little bit insecure.

But I think, you know, for the most part, the militaristic kinds of expressions that we’ve seen in the history of the PRC have been not so much a desire to compensate for domestic problems as to either mobilize people domestically or to send an international lesson.

So if we look at the Taiwan Straits crisis right now, China is sending, what, fifty or more war planes a day to buzz Taiwan. I mean, if we think about the Taiwan Straits crises, historically, during the Mao era that—those Taiwan Straits crises in 1954-55 and then again 1958, many have argued that were, largely, an effort not only to scare Taiwan but also to mobilize the Chinese public under Mao. So ’54, ’55, just before collectivization, ’58, just before the Great Leap Forward.

If we look at the post-Mao period in the mid-1990s—1995, 1996—you had another Taiwan Straits crisis. That time it was really to kind of scare Taiwan. Lee Teng-hui, then president of Taiwan, had given a speech at his alma mater, at Cornell, about democratization of Taiwan. And today, too, I think that crisis is really to scare Taiwan—both to scare the Taiwan businesspeople, who have been doing very, very well; if the Chinese economy is facing roadblocks—the Taiwan economy recently, of course, has been going great guns with its semiconductor industry and Foxconn and so forth. So, in part to scare them, and to scare countries like Lithuania and so forth from getting too cozy to Taiwan.

So that’s a long way of saying I wouldn’t—I don’t think there’s a simple answer of these kinds of foreign militaristic ventures being a “wag the dog” cover-up for domestic problems within China. But I do think there is a real connection between a domestic agenda and an international agenda.

HAASS: I have two last questions, but I just wanted to follow up one thing on Taiwan. To what extent, though, is Taiwan sui generis? And the emphasis that Xi Jinping seems to be placing on Taiwan long before even the planes started buzzing suggests that he sees it as important for his legitimacy and for his tenure and his legacy, because Taiwan has not become more provocative, if you will, in moving towards independence in recent years; if anything, less so. As recently as this week Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan, specifically, again, in Foreign Affairs, wrote a piece where she said they were not going to be adventurous. So I don’t see the recent increase in tensions in any way provoked by Taiwan. So to what extent might be—simply be, if you will, derived from Xi Jinping’s sense of that this is important for his either place in history or for what he wants to do now?

PERRY: I think that’s very possible. I do think he would love to be able to deliver to the Chinese people something equivalent to Deng Xiaoping delivering Hong Kong back to the motherland. If he could deliver Taiwan back to the motherland that would be an enormous contribution as far as the Chinese Communist Party and probably as far as many ordinary Chinese are concerned. So I think that’s—I think that’s a real consideration.

HAASS: Let me ask you two last questions. Term limits for the leader of China have gone by the wayside, and the question, I guess, I have for you is, one, why do you believe that Xi Jinping felt that was both necessary and desirable? And second of all, is he now in a trap? Given the anti-corruption drive and everything else, has he now reached the point where he has so concentrated power that he can’t afford or risk giving it up?

PERRY: I do think he’s in a trap. I think he created a lot of enemies through the anti-corruption campaign such that he can’t easily step down. And on the other hand, I think he probably also views himself, just as Putin did or maybe our own former president as well, as the only person who could really properly save his own country. And so I do think he feels he has a mission and that it’s good not just for him and his self-preservation but also for China for him to remain in power.

You know, it’s—this, however, is the thing that he did that I think has most caused him problems as far as popular opinion is concerned, at least among the intelligentsia in China. I don’t have a sense of how popular or unpopular it is among ordinary people. But, certainly, within the university community, even those who had been quite sympathetic to Xi Jinping and in particular to his anti-corruption drive were deeply offended by the decision to remove term limits on the president that the National People’s Congress passed back in 2018.

And since then, there has been a real suspicion of him and a kind of, I would say, sort of collective depression on the part of many Chinese intellectuals about the possibilities of any kind of future political liberalization.

Even those who don’t really want to see electoral democracy, necessarily, in China, nevertheless, prefer a more open society and are, I think, quite offended by this decision. But I do think it was partly one that he felt was important for his own survival and partly one that he felt was probably best for China’s future as well.

HAASS: But even presidents who abolish term limits cannot reach immortality. So the day will come when Xi Jinping, either one way or another, loses his health and he can no longer continue or passes on. Has he set the stage for a succession crisis?

Essentially, is it possible that his legacy will be what comes after him and that China could enter a prolonged period of uncertainty? What came to mind, I was thinking, was the equivalent of a Khrushchev and the secret papers after Stalin, that you can, basically, set—that he could be setting in motion a real competition for whether what comes after him is something more of the same or a major reform period. I mean, what is your sense of what comes afterwards?

PERRY: I do think he’s opened the door to a succession crisis. This, of course, is the Achilles’ heel of any authoritarian regime, and it seemed that China had solved that problem with the imposition of term limits and retirement-age requirements. And so the rolling back of those things and the deinstitutionalization of a succession program is very serious, I think, for the future stability of China.

You know, I had mentioned earlier that, to me, Xi Jinping seems more like a Liu Shaoqi than a Mao Zedong. During the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi was known as China’s Khrushchev because he was accused of revisionism, of following in the Soviet Union’s footsteps.

You know, I think, ironically, that Xi Jinping could be setting the stage for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party precisely by now having undone that very important set of reforms that Deng Xiaoping helped to put in place to institutionalize a succession pattern in the PRC. And, particularly, if he stays in power for a very long period that could be particularly problematic.

There are some who felt that the frequent turnover of general secretaries in the Soviet Union was one of the things that helped to save it because with each turnover, each so-called succession crisis, you had a new general secretary who had to promise welfare and various other kinds of things in order to survive in those intraparty disputes.

But to the extent that there really is no factionalism to speak of within the Chinese Communist Party, then counter intuitively, perhaps, that may not speak toward stability but, rather, toward future instability, that without having to fight against some kind of opposition that you lose a certain flexibility, adaptability, understanding of what the populace needs and that it can lead to an atrophy of the Communist Party that puts it increasingly out of touch with ordinary people and their demands.

So I think it’s—this, in my view, was a very negative decision on the part of the NPC to abolish those term limits on the presidency and I do think it presents a lot of concerns for future stability in the PRC.

HAASS: If that were to come to pass that would, clearly, come under the chapter heading of the ironies of history.

Dr. Elizabeth Perry, thank you so much. Why don’t we now, Kayla, turn to a few questions from the CFR’s members?

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from John Holden.

Q: Thank you very much. This is John Holden with McLarty Associates, formerly Peking University.

Liz, it’s great to see you. Wonderful conversation. My question is what are the mechanisms or institutions that the party relies on for negative feedback and ideas for course corrections? Another way of putting it is who can tell Xi Jinping that he’s wrong?

PERRY: Very nice to hear from you, John. And the Chinese Communist Party certainly has lots of mechanisms for gauging public opinion or what now increasingly is known as public sentiment—the conditions that lead to public opinion, if you will.

It, of course, very carefully monitors social media. It has still retained its old letters and visits system where ordinary people can submit letters or visit their local government offices to submit petitions.

It uses popular protest as another mechanism for understanding negative feedback, trying to figure out what are the grievances that make people so unhappy that they’re willing to actually go out in the streets and protest.

So there are a variety of ways, I think, in which the regime maintains a fairly good understanding of what public opinion, at least that is publicly expressed, has to say. But within the higher levels of the party now, that give and take of different viewpoints, different policy positions, different arguments, seems to have been greatly reduced, and I think that’s, potentially, a real problem, going forward, that if you have a standing committee of the politburo that, basically, are simply yes men to the top leader rather than representing, perhaps, a youth league faction or a military faction or a Shanghai gang, developmental faction, whatnot, and instead, all of them are trying to play to the top leader, that that presents a real problem for having negative feedback of that sort at the very highest levels.

So although there are lots of mechanisms for understanding negative feedback from the populace at large, it would appear that at the highest levels the ability of people to disagree with the top leader and present alternatives has really diminished.

HAASS: Can I ask a slight follow-up on that? What is the perceived lesson among Chinese leaders, and can they talk about it, of the one-child policy? In any way is it recognized that it was an error and is it seen, if it was, as a personal error? Any institutional lessons from that?

PERRY: Yes, I think it is recognized as an error and—but I don’t think it’s recognized as an error that the party attempted too much to interfere into people’s private lives, which might be the lesson that you or I would take from this, but instead that the scientists kind of miscalculated and that the scientists should have listened a little bit more to the demographers who had been warning about some of the deleterious effects that could develop. And there was too much effort on kind of the technical side and not quite enough effort on the more social science side of this, I think, is the general conclusion within China.

They, certainly, know that the party has engaged in a number of disastrous policies in the past. The one-child policy is an example of that. The Great Leap Forward, resulting in tens of millions of people. Although you can’t speak or publish freely about the Great Leap, nevertheless, it’s well known that it was a major disaster and that, again, the tech—certain technocrats within the government also got it wrong because they were giving the top leader the kind of information that he wanted to hear.

So there is that recognition. But there also is a general distaste in China—this was true in imperial China and contemporary China—for so-called factions and a desire for uniformity and for agreement and consensus and so forth that, I think, also provides a kind of cultural ammunition maybe against the messiness of political disagreements and the representation of different interests, and the overt clash of both regional and economic interests that we would take as normal and desirable and part of a healthy kind of political system. And I think the Chinese system has never really regarded those kinds of interests as a positive kind of interest to be reflected in the give and take of a messy political debate.

So in that sense, Xi Jinping has, I think, a certain kind of power by moving toward a more unitary China, a China that seems less riven by factions and in which there’s greater agreement on what the common interest or the China dream should actually look like.

HAASS: Thank you. Kayla?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Joanna Shelton.

Q: Well, good morning, and thank you very much for this very interesting discussion. I’m Joanna Shelton with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

I’d like to go back to your point or the question about the elimination of term limits and the preparation of a successor. My question is, how did Xi engineer this change? I mean, I realize he had purged many, if not most, of his opponents through the anti-corruption campaign and other means.

But could you please elaborate on how he could engineer such a drastic change in these political guardrails that were put in place to prevent a repeat of the disasters that China saw under Mao? Thank you.

PERRY: If I could answer that question, I probably would be general secretary. (Laughter.) I’m sorry to say that I do not claim any special knowledge to the internal workings of Xi Jinping and his colleagues.

You’ve raised a very good question and, you know, I think all of us were a bit surprised that he was able to do it seemingly with so little, at least, public resistance. He had already made major changes in the military lineup. He had, as you pointed out, already attacked major figures through the anti-corruption campaign, and he, clearly, felt that he had now gotten rid of any kind of factional opposition to his own leadership.

So but, you know, how exactly he was able to engineer that feat, I think, remains behind closed doors. At least, it’s not obvious to me. You know, I think many of us underestimated his political acumen when he became general secretary and many of us didn’t see him as a potential political reformer or, at least, I never viewed him as that.

And I did expect that there would be some kind of anti-corruption effort because of the popular anger toward corruption, and I assumed that any kind of anti-corruption campaign would be partly a campaign to eliminate the top leaders’ factions.

But I did not expect that he would so successfully, so swiftly, go after so many top figures in the Communist Party and—or that this campaign would go on and on and that it also would be choreographed at the same time with other aspects of the Chinese bureaucracy, most notably military, public security, and so forth, to make sure that his people were in position.

So, clearly, he had, you know, far more political sophistication and strength than I had anticipated. But how exactly he did that, I’m sorry that I can’t really enlighten you. But it is, obviously, a major question that, once the archives open how many decades or centuries from now, historians may be able to tell us.

HAASS: We’ll wait for the Chinese Bob Woodward to tell us.

Kayla, the next one, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mahesh Kotecha.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m just a financier so please forgive me in advance if my question is not brilliant. I’ll try to be, at least, intelligent.

My question is while, obviously, the political skills of the general secretary are impeccable, it seems, are there chinks in the armor that you can see, and where are those? The attack against the rich, the entrepreneurs who have created such wealth and innovation, it seems to me that could be an Achilles’ heel. The military is, of course—you mentioned the leadership changes there. And then the public security you mentioned. The intelligentsia, that’s what—you say there’s disappointment over there as to the end of the term limits. So where—could there be a palace coup kind of brewing in the improbability of such a thing in China?

PERRY: It seems to me—again, of course, I have no special knowledge of this. It seems to me rather unlikely that there is a palace coup brewing right now. But I could imagine in the future, as Richard was pointing out, if Xi remains in power for the long run and there really is no succession plan, what happens? Isn’t he, in fact, opening himself up to this kind of challenge? Which I think is very, very possible.

I do think one of his weaknesses, and it’s one that intellectuals in China are fond of pointing out, is his relative lack of education. Although he claims advanced graduate degrees, they—his basic college education went the way of the Cultural Revolution.

And so he’s very different from a Mao Zedong in that Mao, although Mao, of course, was happy to present himself as a rough earthy peasant in his mannerisms, nevertheless, Mao had a very good education, a classical education. Was a poet and a calligrapher and had an ability not only to identify with the ordinary people of China but also to present things in ways that were quite striking.

And I think that Xi Jinping lacks that kind of—his lack of education is, perhaps, a problem in terms of thinking flexibly and thinking in a kind of big picture, although he supposedly is—has thought for the new age in China. It’s not clear what this new thought is really all about. And I think that is one of his real weaknesses.

I mean, I would think that, of course, as a university professor who thinks that education is important for political leaders. But I think it’s one not only that intellectuals in China make fun of the fact that often—not often, but periodically he’s reading a speech and he stumbles over the Chinese character and mispronounces it and thinks it’s a different character, and so forth. And this is the source of great merriment among Chinese intellectuals.

But I think it’s a more serious problem than that in that, particularly, if he’s going to stay in power for a long time he probably has to have an agile way of understanding that changes in both the domestic and the international environment are going to require changes in course for the Chinese Communist Party as well, and I do think that that may be something that he’s ill prepared for.

But, certainly, he’s, presumably, made plenty of enemies through the anti-corruption campaign, through the reorganization of the bureaucracy, through centralizing all kinds of previously more decentralized powers unto himself. And so one could imagine in the future if his position becomes more precarious as he ages and becomes less strong that this would encourage those kinds of elements to oppose him.

So I do think there are worrisome signs on the horizon for Xi Jinping and for the Chinese Communist Party.

HAASS: You know, kind of—I think we have a chance for—time for one last question and answer.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from Manjari Miller.

Q: Professor Perry, thank you for a very informative discussion.

My question is about the purges in the anti-corruption campaign. You said they’re continuing, and I’m thinking of Fu Zhenghua, who was just recently purged. So my question is, do you get—do you have a sense of whether there is any awareness among ordinary Chinese about the fact that these political purges are taking place at the same time as the anti-corruption campaign? And or are these purges done in a way where these figures are carefully selected and designed to appeal in terms of their purge? So Fu Zhenghua, for example, was known for his brutality.

PERRY: I think they are selected for popular consumption. But I do think there is a widespread appreciation of the fact that this campaign has both political and economic targets and—however, you know, it’s quite interesting work that my colleague Wang Yuhua, together with Bruce Dickson, has done suggests that in the areas where the largest numbers of officials have fallen to the anti-corruption campaign there is also more popular questioning of the Chinese Communist Party. After all, if we have so many officials who are so corrupt, isn’t there a problem with this party?

So I think there are some problems with the anti-corruption campaign, not only as it has affected the elite but also as it has affected popular opinion as well. It’s only so far that you can purge a party without people wondering how come it demanded such a thoroughgoing and unending attack. So I think it also has its own built-in problems.

HAASS: The dilemma of purging a political party.

Professor Perry, thank you so much for explaining so much today. It was a rich conversation and we are all indebted to you.

I want to thank our members for joining today’s virtual meeting. The video and transcript of this meeting will be posted on CFR’s member services portal and the audio will be released in the not-too-distant future later this year as part of a podcast series that will include all of the conversations in this series.

So, again, let me thank Elizabeth Perry for today and for all of her thoughtful work, and thank all of you for joining us.

PERRY: Thank you so much.


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