Hello. I’m Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is Nine Questions for the World, a special limited edition podcast series.
In each episode, you’ll be hearing me in conversation with some of the best thinkers of our time, as we ask fundamental questions about the century to come.
For those of you who don't know, the Council on Foreign Relations or CFR, is an independent, non-partisan membership organization. We are dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. We're also a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution.
Today’s episode features a conversation that took place on Oct 6th, 2021. I spoke with Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard University, and the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, she’s one of this country's foremost experts on all things China. We spoke about the state of leadership in China, and the unfolding legacy of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. We also discussed China’s future which may well prove to be less certain than many assume. Which then led us to talk about both China’s continued rise but also about the many headwinds and speed bumps that China can expect to encounter. And the possible implications of all of this for the global order. It made for a fascinating and important conversation about a country sure to have an outsized impact on the course of this century.
Here’s that conversation.
Richard HAASS: 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.
Elizabeth PERRY: Thank you very much. It's a real pleasure to be here.
HAASS: Okay, So let's start with 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 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 a 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: The 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 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 are going to go there and I was hoping others wouldn't notice that, but go ahead.
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. 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 is not afraid of stirring up chaos and having protests in the street that he knew in the end would always redown 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 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 Xiaopeng, because Deng Xiaopeng 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 Xiaopeng, is clearly seen as the other pole that Xi Jinping has very little interest in pursuing.
PERRY: Yes, he rarely references, Deng Xiaopeng, although he does refer to his policy as socialism with Chinese characteristics, which was the way in which Deng Xiaopeng 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 Xiaopeng era is really downplayed. Mao, of course, makes major appearance, but Deng Xiaopeng 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 Xiaopeng reforms are being downplayed. And I think that also 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 a kind of let some get rich first off philosophy of Deng Xiaopeng 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 non expert 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 it 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, Jiang Zemin, with the 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 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: But 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 a 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 20 major Chinese Universities and research institutes and 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, and I think the truth is we don't know exactly what level of an open academy we really need to produce the kinds of things that societies feel are important for their development and what the trade off 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 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, with the provocative title, The End of China's Rise. And at the risk of doing a disservice to the piece, it essentially said the year of high growth is over. We'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 to pre and post working age is moving in the wrong directions. Obviously with Evergrande, we see the debt issues. Is that a fair characterization, or mostly fair characterization, that, if you will, the period where the slope was high and 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 let me just introduced 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 shouldn't 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, 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 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 with 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 think China is probably going to do about as well at coping with these problems as the rest of us. As to whether it's likely that these problems will cause a greater militarization or more militaristic foreign policy, I do worry about that. I think one of the things 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. Many of us looked at China and said, "Oh well, why is China not democratized? It has a new bourgeoisie." Barrington Moore said, "Bourgeoisie equals democratization." But Barrington Moore actually also said, "There's 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 Samudai, 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 their 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, 50 or more warplanes a day to buzz Taiwan and 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, and '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 business people 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 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 the domestic agenda and international agenda.
HAASS: Two last questions. I just want to recall 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 plane started buzzing suggests that he sees that 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, when 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 these 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 Xiaopeng 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 a real consideration.
HAASS: Let me ask you two last questions. Term limits for the leader of China have all gone by the wayside. And the question I guess I have for you is one, why did you believe that Xi Jinping felt that that was both necessary and desirable? And second of all, is Xi now in a trap? Given the anti-corruption drive and everything else, has Xi now reached the point where he is 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 campaigns such that he can't easily step down. 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. 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 he 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 he could be setting in motion a real competition for whether what comes after him is something more of the same or 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 here 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 Xiaopeng helped to put in place to institutionalize a succession pattern in the PRC.
PERRY: 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 intra-party 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 this, in my view, was a very negative decision on the part of the MPC 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.
HAASS: Dr. Elizabeth Perry, thank you so much. For explaining so much today. It was a rich conversation and we are all indebted to you.
PERRY: Thank you so much.
Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed the conversation.
If you’d like to learn more please visit CFR.org/9questions where you can find a transcript as well as additional resources on this topic. Have a question or some feedback? Send us an email at [email protected].
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About this episode
By all accounts, China is sure to have an outsize impact on the world over the next one hundred years. In this episode of Nine Questions for the World, Richard Haass and Elizabeth J. Perry, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, consider China’s rise and its implications for the global order. Will major economic, environmental, and social challenges hinder China’s growth? Will Xi Jinping hold on to power? And what might a China-led world look like?
This podcast series was originally presented as “The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas,” an event series in celebration of CFR’s centennial. This episode is based on a live event that took place on October 6, 2021.
See the corresponding video here.
From Elizabeth Perry
Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition, University of California Press
Carl Minzner, “Are China’s Domestic Politics Beginning to Erode Its Governance?”
Eleanor Albert, Lindsay Maizland, and Beina Xu, “The Chinese Communist Party”
Eleanor Albert and Lindsay Maizland, “Religion in China”
CFR.org Editors, “U.S. Relations With China”
Tarun Chhabra and Ryan Hass, “Global China: Domestic politics and foreign policy,” Brookings Institution
Rana Mitter, “How China’s past shapes Xi’s thinking - and his view of the world,” BBC
Watch and Listen
“Chinese domestic politics in the rise of global China,” Brookings Cafeteria