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The Xi Vision

The new general secretary did not leave the Chinese people or the rest of the world wondering for long. Speaking at a press conference shortly after the new leaders made their appearance at the Great Hall of the People, Xi outlined his priorities. He spoke of the need to address the endemic corruption that plagued the Communist Party and to ensure that the party served the people. Fighting corruption would soon become the signature issue of his first years in office.

The essence of Xi Jinping’s vision, however, was his call for the great revival or rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Reflecting on China’s five thousand years of history, Xi referenced the country’s “indelible contribution” to world civilization. At the same time, he acknowledged that efforts by successive Chinese leaders to realize the great revival of the Chinese nation had “failed one time after another.” The rejuvenation narrative is a well-understood and powerful one in China. It evokes memories of the country as the Middle Kingdom demanding tribute from the rest of the world; China as a source of innovation, creating paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass; and China as an expansive, outward-facing power, with Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He commanding a naval fleet of more than three hundred ships and sailing throughout Asia to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Left out of the rejuvenation narrative, but etched deeply into the minds of many Chinese, are those periods of Chinese history that evoke shame, such as the one hundred years of humiliation (1849‒1949), when China was occupied and invaded by foreign powers, or the periods that remain the black holes of contemporary Chinese history, in which the Chinese people suffered at the hands of their own government, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

During his tour of “The Road toward Renewal” exhibition at the National Museum of China just two weeks later, Xi again underscored the theme of China’s rejuvenation, calling it “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” The site of Xi’s speech at the National Museum was not accidental. While much of Chinese history is marked by revolutions, political and social upheaval, and discontinuities in leadership and political ideologies, the museum celebrates the ideal of continuity in Chinese history. Quoting from both Mao and ancient Chinese poets, Xi used the museum as a backdrop to make clear the linkages between an imperial China and a China led by the Communist Party.

In the following months, Xi elaborated further on his vision for the country. He equated his call for rejuvenation with the “Chinese Dream” (Zhongguo meng). For Xi, the Chinese Dream was premised on the attainment of a number of concrete objectives: China should double its per-capita GDP from 2010 to 2020; it should have a military “capable of fighting and winning wars”; and it should meet the social welfare needs of the people. There also should be no doubt concerning the country’s ideological future: Xi declared, “The selection of path is a life-or-death issue for the future of the CPC. We should unswervingly uphold socialism with Chinese characteristics . . . the superiority of our system will be fully demonstrated through a brighter future.” To this end, a robust Communist Party at the forefront of the political system was of paramount importance. Xi was also careful to distinguish the Chinese Dream, rooted in collective values, from the more individualistic American Dream, noting that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation “is a dream of the whole nation, as well as of every individual,” and that “only when the country does well, and the nation does well, can every person do well.”

Not all Chinese shared Xi Jinping’s particular understanding of the Chinese Dream. Some argued that the Chinese Dream was a dream of political reform or constitutionalism, in which the Communist Party would not be above the law but instead would be bound by it. Others said that it was a dream to better Chinese society through improvements in food safety or the quality of the environment. And still others, drawing on the American Dream, called for individual dreams and pursuits to be respected. Over the course of his first year in office, Xi began to incorporate some of these other elements, such as opportunities for better education, higher income, and a cleaner environment, into his dream narrative. Yet it remained at heart a call for a CCP-led China to reclaim the country’s ancient greatness.

Xi is not the first modern Chinese leader to use the theme of rejuvenation to remind the Chinese people of past glories in an effort to bind them to modern China. Deng Xiaoping talked about the “invigoration of China,” and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Over the course of more than three decades as China experienced a dizzying period of economic and political reform and opening up to the outside world, all of China’s modern leaders sought to build a China that could reclaim its place as a global power.

Yet in seeking to realize this common vision, Xi and the rest of the Chinese leadership have parted ways with their predecessors. They have elected a way forward that largely rejects the previous path of reform and opening up: instead there is reform without opening up. In a number of respects, the leadership has embraced a process of institutional change that seeks to reverse many of the political, social, and economic changes that emerged from thirty years of liberalizing reform. The Chinese leaders have also shed the low-profile foreign policy advanced by Deng Xiaoping in favor of bold initiatives to reshape the global order.

These dramatic shifts reflect in large measure a belief on the part of Xi Jinping that China at the time of his ascension was at an inflection point. The post-Mao era of reform and opening up had yielded significant gains: double-digit growth for more than two decades, and international admiration for China’s economic and other achievements. Yet as Xi rose up through the party ranks, he also had a front-row seat to the mounting challenges facing the country: the Communist Party had become corrupted and devoid of an ideological center, the provision of public goods had fallen dramatically behind society’s needs, and even the economy needed a new infusion of reform. In the eyes of Xi, nothing less than dramatic, revolutionary change could save the party and the state and propel China forward to realize its full potential as a great power.

Xi’s Inheritance

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese leadership had just begun the process of recovery from the political strife, social upheaval, and economic impoverishment that marked much of his quarter-century tenure. Xi Jinping himself had experienced some of the worst of Mao’s excesses. In the early 1960s, his father, a leading revolutionary figure and former vice-premier of the government, was branded a traitor and jailed for his bourgeois background. Soon after, fifteen-year-old Xi was “sent down” to a remote village where he labored for several years on an agricultural commune. Rather than feel bitter toward the Communist Party for his family’s difficulties, Xi became determined to join the party, applying for membership multiple times before finally being accepted in 1974. And in 1975, when Premier Zhou Enlai set out the Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and military) to begin the process of revitalizing China’s economy and society, Xi Jinping began his own journey alongside that of the country. He returned to Beijing that same year as a worker-peasant-soldier student to study chemical engineering at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious academic institutions. Xi’s university education during this time, however, was still shaped by Mao’s revolutionary impulses, with significant periods of time devoted to learning from farmers and the People’s Liberation Army, as well as studying Marxism-Leninism. (Only in 1977, with the reintroduction of exams for university entrance, did academics begin to reclaim a more dominant place in Chinese university life.)

The deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976 were followed by a brief and bloodless power struggle that resulted, by 1978, in the ascension to power of Deng Xiaoping. Deng and his supporters cemented the Four Modernizations as the direction of the country and initiated a wholesale reform of the country’s economic and political system—a transformative process that Deng would later call “China’s Second Revolution.” In the early 1980s, the Chinese leadership began to relax the tight state control that, in one way or another, had defined China’s economic and political system since the 1950s. In the economic realm, this signaled the beginning of a transition from a command to a more market-driven economy. Deng devolved significant economic authority to provincial and local officials, removing political constraints on their economic activities and diminishing Beijing’s ability to influence the development and outcome of these activities. China also invited participation from the international community in China’s economic development through foreign direct investment and trade. By 1984, the government had opened up fourteen port cities along China’s coast to foreign investment in special economic zones. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the state began in earnest to dismantle many of the state-owned enterprises, which had been the foundation of the urban economy, to encourage the expansion of private and cooperative ventures, and to energize the rural economy through the development of smaller scale township and village enterprises. The result was dramatic: average growth rates that exceeded 8 percent annually for more than two decades—elevating hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and earning China significant respect internationally.

Jiang Zemin, who assumed the position of general secretary of the Communist Party in 1989 and president of the country in 1993,10 further elevated the role of the private sector in the Chinese political system, actively welcoming successful businesspeople into the party for the first time. China’s turn outward to the rest of the world also expanded. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and Jiang, along with Premier Zhu Rongji, encouraged the country’s state-owned enterprises and other economic actors to “go out” in search of natural resources to fuel China’s continued economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese relocated throughout the world for work and study. By 2008, China’s reputation as an economic heavyweight was established and further burnished by its strong standing in the midst of the global financial crisis.

Changes in the economic realm were matched by reforms in the political sphere. A collective leadership and more institutionalized succession process replaced the highly personalized nature of governance at the top of the political system; significant political authority was devolved from central to local officials; and China embraced assistance, policy advice, and financial support from the international community. Moreover, as the government retreated from the market, it also retreated from its traditional role as social welfare provider, encouraging private, nonstate actors to fill the gap in areas such as education, medical care, and environmental protection; in the mid-1990s, Beijing allowed the establishment of formally approved and registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), enabling the rapid development of civil society. The advent of the Internet also elevated the role of civil society in Chinese governance. Despite maintaining controls over certain types of political content, by the mid-to-late 2000s, the web had become a virtual political space, with greater transparency, political accountability, and rule of law (in which Chinese citizens used the Internet to investigate crimes, seek justice for victims, and even push to overturn wrongful convictions) than existed in the real political system.

The era of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao (2002‒2012) also marked the beginning of a more concerted public diplomacy effort. The leadership proclaimed China’s “win-win” philosophy and worked hard to reassure Beijing’s neighbors and the rest of the world that China’s rise would be peaceful and, as its fortunes grew, so too would those of its partners. In summer 2008, Beijing hosted a world-class Olympic Games that earned accolades internationally and cemented the reputation inside Chinese political circles of the senior official who oversaw preparations for the games, new Politburo member and rising political star Xi Jinping.

The continued strength of the Chinese economy throughout the global financial crisis also introduced a new element into the country’s foreign policy. Increasingly there were calls within China for the country to assume its rightful place on the global stage as a world leader, capable of shaping international norms and institutions. As the United States struggled to climb out of economic recession, senior Chinese economic, military, and foreign policy officials argued that the decline of the United States and the rise of China—long predicted to occur at some time during the twenty-first century—had begun. China’s military, the beneficiary of double-digit budget increases for more than a decade, started to grow its ambitions alongside its capabilities. By the late 2000s, the Chinese leadership had progressed from rhetorically staking its claims to maritime sovereignty in the East and South China Seas to using its military prowess to realize them. Sitting at the helm of a small group of senior officials overseeing these moves in the South China Sea was Xi Jinping.

China’s economic and foreign policy triumphs notwithstanding, by the time of Xi’s ascension to power, there was also a growing sense within the country that significant contradictions had emerged in the political and economic life of China. The Communist Party had lost its ideological rationale and, for many of its more than 80 million members, the party served as little more than a stepping-stone for personal political and economic advancement. Corruption—an issue that Xi put front and center as he moved up the party ranks—was endemic throughout the party and the economy. And while three decades of “go-go” economic growth had brought significant economic benefits to the Chinese people, Beijing had failed to attend to the need for public goods such as environmental protection and healthcare. The social welfare net, dismantled along with many of the state-owned enterprises, had not been fully replaced, and, critically, distribution of social welfare benefits had not kept up with changing work patterns: more than 200 million migrant workers, who toiled in the city’s factories or construction sites, could not legally live, receive medical care, or educate their children in the cities in which they worked. The number of popular protests in the country rose to more than 180,000 by 2010. Even the Chinese economy, while still posting growth rates well beyond those of any other country, began to slow. A few outlier economists in China and the West sounded alarm bells about structural weaknesses. Investment-led growth was taking its toll, contributing to skyrocketing levels of public and corporate debt. And for all its impressive economic gains in low-cost manufacturing, China had little to show in the way of innovation or the development of the service sector, the markers of the world’s advanced economies. By the time of Xi’s ascension to the top job, despite a number of noteworthy economic and foreign policy achievements, the Hu Jintao era had become known as the “lost decade.” Xi Jinping took power determined to change China’s course.

Charting a New Course

In a 2000 interview in the Chinese journal Zhonghua Ernu, Xi Jinping then governor of Fujian Province, shared his perspective on leadership. A new leader, he stated, needed to “continue working on the foundations” laid by his predecessor but at the same time “come in with his own plans and set an agenda during the first year.” He likened leadership to a relay race, in which a successor has to “receive the baton properly” and then “run it past the line.” More than a decade later at his first press conference in 2012, Xi reiterated the baton analogy, stating that the responsibility of the party leadership is to “take over the relay baton passed on to us by history” to achieve the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”

In receiving the baton, however, Xi and his team have set out to run the race differently from their predecessors—with a distinctive new strategy and at an accelerated pace. They have moved away from a collective leadership to elevate Xi as the preeminent leader, deepened the role of the Communist Party and state in society and in the economy, and sought to elevate China’s role in world affairs. Not everything is new. Some of the initiatives, such as the heightened attention to corruption within the Communist Party and more assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas, reflect impulses and tendencies that emerged during the latter stages of Hu’s tenure (2007‒2012) or even before. Yet Xi and the rest of the Chinese leadership have amplified these efforts in ways that have transformed China’s domestic political landscape and its role on the regional and global stage. (While provocative actions by China and other claimants in the South China Sea were commonplace, for example, Beijing’s massive land reclamation and militarization of the islands in the South China Sea did not begin until 2014.) In describing China today, dean of Peking University’s School of International Relations, Jia Qingguo, suggested to me that Xi Jinping had ushered in the third, thirty years of contemporary Chinese history—crystallizing my sense that Deng’s “second revolution” had drawn to a close. Xi Jinping’s “third revolution” was underway.


Excerpted from THE THIRD REVOLUTION: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. Copyright 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.