If you think Xi Jinping is just another dictator, then think again, says Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute in London, and author of an eye-opening new book on what the Chinese leader really wants and how he intends to get it.
The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, by Tsang and his SOAS colleague Olivia Cheung, reveals the extent of Xi’s ambition. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the other-worldly lengths he will go to realise it. The control-freakery is mind blowing.
Xi’s supremely focussed megalomania is interesting in its own right. But more importantly, Xi’s impact on the world – and our lives – will be enormous, if he gets his way. “He wants to change China and with it the world. We ignore him at our own peril,” Tsang told i.
Xi expects China to become the pre-eminent world power by 2050, displacing the US in the process. But it will assume none of the global responsibilities inherent in America’s (admittedly flawed) role as the world’s policeman.
Despite its huge power, we shouldn’t expect China to intervene in regional conflicts to protect human rights or deter further invasions by revanchist states like Russia.
Taiwan will be toast by the mid-way mark of this century – or, according to the Chinese Community Party line, “successfully re-unified” with China. Xi’s destruction of Hong Kong democracy and his use of concentration camps to extinguish cultural diversity in north-west China, indicate that Taiwan’s capture will see its democracy and plurality obliterated.
The victory of outspoken China critic William Lai, who is also known as Lai Ching-te in Taiwan’s presidential election last weekend will have angered Xi. The election result will probably lead to China flexing its military muscle again. But, says Tsang, it won’t change anything in the short term; Beijing’s military muscle, while big, is not yet big enough, he says.
“He will not launch military action immediately after the election,” says Tsang. “And not necessarily in the next four years … And the reason for that is that Xi Jinping is moving more at his own pace and his agenda than simply according to the agenda that is being set by somebody else.”
If, as Xi plans, China has retaken Taiwan by 2050, Japan would have to do a deal with China or become a nuclear power. America’s relegation to second-tier status in the region would also force to South Korea to acquire nuclear arms, utterly changing that part of the world.
Lessons in how to think
Xi has given China “Xi Thought”, his own Chinese-centric spin on Marxism-Leninism.
Mao, the brutal Chinese leader with whom Xi is increasingly compared, gave China his ideology, Mao Thought – an agrarian version launched in China’s vast countryside.
Unlike Mao, who wanted to create a modern China, Xi’s ambition is to revive the former glory he sees in its ancient culture and civilisation.
The defining aspect of Xi Thought, however, is the Chinese Communist Party’s importance and Xi’s irreplaceable role within it. “Xi distorts history to assert the country is nothing without the Party and the Party is nothing without him, the ‘core leader’,” says Tsang.
To ensure that the philosophy is propagated, Xi Thought research centres have sprung up around the country.
The 70-year-old Chinese President has made it clear that the Party must crush any dissenters. Xi has said the failure of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union to combat the “traitor” Mikhail Gorbachev caused the collapse of the USSR. He will not make that mistake.
Like his ally Vladimir Putin, whose ruthlessness he admires, Xi views the age of empire through rose-tinted spectacles. At least Putin doesn’t give Marxist lectures. Xi’s imperial ambitions – not the language he’d use, of course – don’t sit well with his political discourse.
From China 2,500 years ago, Xi has borrowed the Confucian concept of “rectification of names”, which insists that people should know their place in society. Armed with the bristling, hi-tech surveillance of a major 21st-Century police state, Xi has applied “rectification” to Chinese officials of all ranks, to ensure they know how to think and who’s the boss.
The tragi-comic extent – or depths – of Xi’s yearning for control, and his determination to emasculate opposition is highlighted by the “democracy life meetings” in which all Party members (except, of course, Xi himself) are required, in the presence of colleagues, and Xi-approved inspectors, to criticise themselves and their colleagues and commit to making amends.
Having read hundreds of Xi’s original documents in Mandarin and scoured all the volumes of Xi Thought, so we don’t have to, Tsang – a leading historian of China who knew a thing or two about Xi before researching the book – admits he has been stunned by the scale of Xi’s ambition.
“I knew he was trying to push very, very hard to put everything under the leadership of the Communist Party. It was not until quite an advanced stage into the research that I came to the conclusion that what he is trying to create in China is a situation of one country, one people, one ideology, one party, one leader,” he says.
In Xi’s mind, he, the Party and the country are one and the same; a series of concentric circles with the paramount leader at the centre.
More remarkably, perhaps, Tsang’s research has convinced him of Xi’s unwavering belief that he is doing the right thing.
“And that is extraordinary in the 21st century,” he says. “That sense of moral conviction; that he has great things to do, including what he’s doing in places like Xinjiang or Tibet. He sees himself as a force for good … from his perspective, he is actually levering up the Uighurs and helping minorities to become proper Chinese and be better, for their poverty to be alleviated.”
Xi appears oblivious to the glaring contradictions. He wants China’s soft power and cultural influence to open doors around the world. “The treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang means China being criticised for committing genocide. How much more counterproductive could something be for a government that is dedicated to building up soft power and its international image?” Tsang says.
China demands that international borders are respected, never mind that Putin sends tanks into Ukraine, with Xi’s tacit approval.
Xi insists that China has never invaded another country. “But this is because Xi re-writes history and defines it in a way that is ludicrous to even a young child,” says Tsang. “This guy is saying that China has never invaded anybody, ever. And you see he is talking about a country that originated as a principality in the Yellow River Basin, becoming a subcontinental-size unit.”
But Xi has plans that extend far beyond China’s own enormous territory.
Tianxia (literally: “all under heaven”) was the system of inter-state relations governing Asia in ancient times. China, as the centre of the civilised world and the apex of culture, governed by a sage empire, supposedly spread wisdom and material benefits to all mankind.
Tsang says Xi’s ultimate goal is to have a modern version of Tianxia established globally by the middle of the century. For the rest of Asia, and perhaps the rest of the planet, that would mean a globally pre-eminent CCP enforcing, for millions who don’t want it, Xi’s brand of narrow-minded Chinese nationalism.
With its global economic muscle, Beijing might be able to coerce even Western nations into curtailing free speech for China critics or accepting one-sided trade deals.
Although Tianxia is “integral to Xi Thought”, Tsang thinks Xi has avoided spelling out his plans for its modern iteration to “avoid arousing other countries’ suspicions”. But he thinks Xi intends to recreate Tianxia by ensuring “Chinese leadership in international organisations throughout the world”.
The United Nations will be a principal target. “It is not about replacing the UN,” Tsang says, “but about winning control of it with the support of countries in the Global South”, something Xi describes as the “democratisation of the international order”. He notes that as members of the “West”, we are in the minority.
A key assertion in the book is that China doesn’t want to replace the US, exactly, but instead be top dog on its own terms. This has a ring of semantics about it. It’s not quite clear how Chinese domination will be different in principle to US domination, although we can imagine the reality will be worse, more transactional and much more authoritarian. Democracy, free speech and even free trade, will suffer.
Whether Xi can make his dream of Tianxia a reality is open to question. But Tsang thinks we need to be aware that he will try – and this will mean “maximising Chinese advantages, even if its policies undermine existing international order, peace and security of the world”. He adds that Xi “is undeterred by Western objections because he believes in the moral righteousness and the inevitability of Chinese global leadership”.
Xi’s ambitions seem overweening. But Tsang says it would be a mistake not to take them seriously.
Having risen to the top of a giant police state and dispatched numerous rivals and critics along the way, Xi is clearly smart as well as ruthless.
Tsang notes, however, that while decisiveness, cunning and self-belief have allowed Xi to assume complete control and dispense with the pragmatic cabinet system of government practised by predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, such unbridled power has come at a cost.
His intolerance of dissenting voices has robbed him of good advice. Tsang says that between the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and 2017, the year in which Xi became completely dominant, “there were no major policy blunders” by the Chinese government.
But since then the mistakes have piled up – trade wars that went too far, the Hong Kong security law that wrecked the international credibility of the lucrative island state, in which the pro-democracy protests had already largely died away; the increased crackdown in Xinjiang; Xi’s signature – and disastrous – Zero Covid policy, in which he did his impression of King Canute, locking tens of millions of people in their own homes for months, in an attempting to hold back the tide of vastly more contagious strains of Covid, long after they could be contained.
No room for compromise
Xi is officially infallible. Yet his desire to centralise the control of everything, not least the economy, might yet unravel his grand vision. Tsang notes Xi’s aversion to economic liberalism is undermining the capacity of the Chinese economy to sustain a fast pace of growth.
“He is constraining the people’s belief in the future. If he really believed he’s actually succeeding, why does he have to limit the number of statistics on youth unemployment? Why does he have to worry about Chinese leaving China for America and Europe and Australia and Canada? How many Europeans are settling in China?”
Xi won’t back down or compromise. Compromise is anathema to him – and would leave him terribly exposed. Problems in China that can’t be hidden are blamed on the US and the West. Divergent opinions are dealt with by coercion and propaganda.
“He will continue basically the way he is, he cannot afford to retire,” says Tsang.
Xi changed the rules of the game when he became leader. Politburo Standing Committee members used to enjoy lifetime immunity. That immunity was ended by Xi. “And he has antagonised so many people within the Communist Party, that if he hands over power, he cannot be sure his successor will or can protect him and his family.”
Tsang says that with luck and good medical care, he might be in power till his 90s. If he lives to 95, he might see his dream of a China that is “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” by 2050.
But this dream of a more authoritarian world, with a dominant China, is probably not one many of us would wish for.
“And this really does come back to why we need to understand that Xi Jinping sees himself as a transformational leader. He’s not just a dictator like any other. He is not just there to hang on to power because he has inherited it. He sees himself as one of those historical figures who wants to make things really different.”
I recall the comment Tsang made at the start of our conversation: “We ignore him at our own peril.”
The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, by Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung; Oxford University Press