Xi’s First Steps in Power Signaled His Political Turn

Elites were uncertain about the new leader’s growing power.

By , associate professor of government at Cornell University.
Then-Vice President Xi Jinping attends the closing of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People.
Then-Vice President Xi Jinping attends the closing of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People.
Then-Vice President Xi Jinping attends the closing of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2011. Feng Li/Getty Images

When Xi Jinping took office in 2012, he was invested with power by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to help address problems that the previous leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had been unable to resolve. This was apparent immediately. When the traditional lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee emerged following the conclave in November 2012, only seven men in black suits were on stage rather than the previous nine. Many moves that would be core to the neopolitical turn—Xi’s aggressive personalization of power and repressive crusade against corruption—came very early in Xi’s tenure.

Yet the regime’s overall trajectory under Xi initially remained uncertain, as observers predicting deeper marketization saw centralizing moves as serving to push through neoliberal-esque economic reforms, while others interpreted them as increasingly reminiscent of a return to Mao Zedong-style politics. Similarly, while the early institutional changes suggested that regime elites accepted some personalization and centralization of authority, it was unclear how they assessed the risk of shifting from collective to individualized leadership.

As the son of Xi Zhongxun, a major CCP figure, history had its eyes on Xi Jinping. One can find throughlines from his life, works, and rhetorical corpus that fit various characterizations, for, like most politicians, his positions flexed as his offices and their interests changed, so that “where you sit is where you stand.” Some said that Xi was selected because, as a consummate careerist, he could be molded or controlled. Others saw a basketball-loving reformer who had charmed Iowans during a visit in the 1980s, whose father was heralded as the progenitor of Guangdong’s Special Economic Zones, and whose surviving sister had become fabulously wealthy. Another perspective placed his identity with a red second generation that venerated Mao and saw themselves as the inheritors of a new empire they were determined not to lose.

When Xi Jinping took office in 2012, he was invested with power by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to help address problems that the previous leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had been unable to resolve. This was apparent immediately. When the traditional lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee emerged following the conclave in November 2012, only seven men in black suits were on stage rather than the previous nine. Many moves that would be core to the neopolitical turn—Xi’s aggressive personalization of power and repressive crusade against corruption—came very early in Xi’s tenure.

Yet the regime’s overall trajectory under Xi initially remained uncertain, as observers predicting deeper marketization saw centralizing moves as serving to push through neoliberal-esque economic reforms, while others interpreted them as increasingly reminiscent of a return to Mao Zedong-style politics. Similarly, while the early institutional changes suggested that regime elites accepted some personalization and centralization of authority, it was unclear how they assessed the risk of shifting from collective to individualized leadership.

As the son of Xi Zhongxun, a major CCP figure, history had its eyes on Xi Jinping. One can find throughlines from his life, works, and rhetorical corpus that fit various characterizations, for, like most politicians, his positions flexed as his offices and their interests changed, so that “where you sit is where you stand.” Some said that Xi was selected because, as a consummate careerist, he could be molded or controlled. Others saw a basketball-loving reformer who had charmed Iowans during a visit in the 1980s, whose father was heralded as the progenitor of Guangdong’s Special Economic Zones, and whose surviving sister had become fabulously wealthy. Another perspective placed his identity with a red second generation that venerated Mao and saw themselves as the inheritors of a new empire they were determined not to lose.

In his first public speech after taking power, Xi pushed the optimistic, forward-looking “China Dream” slogan: “to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In Xi’s China Dream, “each person’s future and destiny [are] closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and the nation.” However, the positive vision of the China Dream clashed with aggressive actions to rein in “problematic” behaviors in the here and now.

In his first meeting with the Politburo as party leader, Xi denounced corruption among the party’s ranks, warning that it could “doom the party and the state.” This ominous conclusion, Xi said, was based on “a mass of facts,” and the underlying mechanism—political rot—was identified by his use of one of the favorite aphorisms of his former rival, Bo Xilai: “Worms only come after matter decays.” To strengthen the body politic, Xi stressed that “ideals and convictions are the spiritual calcium of communists,” as “a belief in socialism and communism is the political soul of a communist and the spiritual pillar that allows a communist to withstand any test.” Upon coming to power, both of Xi’s most recent predecessors had initiated anticorruption campaigns, even removing relatively high-level leaders, so those inclined to see Xi as continuing with reform-era patterns were not swayed by his visceral language or actions.

His anticorruption crusade began collecting scalps immediately, when Li Chuncheng, a deputy party secretary in Sichuan and alternate Central Committee member, was dismissed in December 2012. Li was but the first of thousands of toppled officials and hundreds of thousands of punishments that the crusade would impose on officialdom.

That same month, Xi took a pilgrimage to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, a transparent symbolic venture to replicate Deng Xiaoping’s reform-reviving, post-Tiananmen Square Southern Tour. Thirty years before the Xi fils visit, Xi père had overseen the creation of the Special Economic Zones and led the trailblazing rise of Guangdong to its status as the world’s factory. Many observers, such as former National People’s Congress deputy Ng Hong-man, believed Xi’s 2012 visit indicated the leadership’s economic priorities, and because economics was seen as the regime’s bedrock, other pieces of the political puzzle were assembled around it. Further marketization was acknowledged to be difficult for the regime politically, but paired with anticorruption actions and the nationalism of the China Dream, Xi’s governance resembled the self-strengthening movement of the late 19th-century Qing reformers.


While Xi basked in the economic successes of Guangdong, his allies seemed to find its comparatively open-information environment anathema to their designs. In January 2013, the Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend had its New Year’s editorial censored, portending a tightened information environment. The editorial was titled “The China Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism,” a provocative play on Xi’s slogan given the political apparatus had been lurching away from constitutionalist views. The anticorruption crusade was operating through an empowered Central Commission for Discipline Inspection rather than through more transparent legal channels. A revised, softer title failed to keep the provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, from cutting sensitive sections and revamping the editorial’s title to the obsequious “We Are Closer Than Ever Before to Our Dreams.” The censorship enraged the newsroom: Staff went on a four-day strike, and there were demonstrations outside the Southern Media Group’s offices and viral posts on Weibo.

The denouement was simple, not a bang but a whimper: Certain staff were fired and their social media accounts deleted. A similar drama unfolded at the Beijing-based Yanhuang Chunqiu, which had its website shut down for a period following its own constitutionalist editorial. Authority had yanked hard on the reins of control, restricting the space for officials and the media that covered them. Even activists ostensibly pursuing goals close to the regime’s—such as fighting corruption—found themselves discordantly attacked in the restricted political space, where the party wanted to orchestrate all the notes. Members of the New Citizens Movement (新公民运动) were arrested in Beijing on March 31, 2013, for unfurling small banners that called for officials to disclose their assets and connecting the fight against corruption to the China Dream.

The regime’s messaging continued to be ignored or stepped on by its own agents, as Xi officially took the title of president in March. Lei Feng, Mao’s favorite patriotic and self-sacrificing soldier-martyr, had died 50 years before, but 2012’s “Learn from Lei Feng Day” flopped. A “Micro Lei Feng” app was produced to “inspire good deeds.” A troika of propaganda films were pulled from theaters after dismal ticket salesThe media reveled in this example of the party misunderstanding society, running stories questioning and cartoons lampooning the martyr’s myths.

By April, the information environment was tightened further with the circulation of “A Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” referred to as Document No. 9. The communiqué described a struggle between Western values and the CCP and listed seven ideas to be avoided (Seven Nos): “universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens’ rights, the party’s historical aberrations, the ‘privileged capitalistic class,’ and the independence of the judiciary.”

Despite the tightening, the party endeavored to improve the relationship between officials and the people with a “mass line campaign,” similar to what Bo had orchestrated in Chongqing. Xi wanted the campaign, officially begun on June 18, 2013, to make cadres more accessible to the public and to eliminate formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism, and extravagance, the “four [bad] work styles.” Reviving the Maoist practice of democratic life meetings and self-criticism, the campaign went beyond what previous leaders had initiated when coming into office to cement their leadership, but the practices rhymed.

Two days later, on June 20, Chinese banks trying to settle their daily books found themselves facing a massive cash crunch, as spot interbank interest rates that usually hovered under 3 percent shot up suddenly to 25 percent. The Shanghai Composite Index lost over 5 percent of its value on June 24 before the Central Bank moved to calm markets the following day. The Chinese financial authorities’ actions were interpreted as reflecting the regime’s rhetoric that lending needed to be constrained and that credit would not flow as it had in the previous decade. While ultimately the crunch was a shot across the bow rather than a direct hit on the economy, the incident served as a costly signal to investors, speculators, and the banks themselves that the status quo was changing.


While economic policy was shifting, the information environment continued to tighten into the summer. On July 17, it became known that the rights lawyer and New Citizens movement transparency activist Xu Zhiyong had been placed under house arrest. Despite being seen as a moderate voice calling for change inside the existing political system, Xu’s advocacy was inconsonant with the top leadership’s ideas.

On Aug. 19, Xi again addressed a crowd of officials and expounded on the significance of ideology. Initially, commentaries about the speech suggested that the tone and content were relatively moderate. Xinhua’s report had the following stultifying headline: “Xi Jinping Emphasizes at the National Propaganda Work Conference: [We Must] Grasp the General Situation and Focus on Major Events with a View of the Big Picture, Working Hard to Do Propaganda and Ideological Work Properly.” Though he emphasized ideology’s significance, Xi stated that “economic construction is the party’s central work.”

Yet in the days and weeks that followed, the impression of normalcy faded as more combative language, specifically the phrase “public opinion struggle,” came to the fore, despite its connotations. “Struggle” evokes violent episodes in the Cultural Revolution, and “public opinion struggle” was a rarely used term connected to the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of the early 1980s. The language also makes prominent antagonists against which the party and its ideology need to fight. As Hubei’s propaganda minister put it in a September issue of Seeking Truth (Qiushi), “[C]onstitutionalism and universal values were just ‘beautiful lies.’” Compared with Jiang Zemin’s “public opinion guidance” and Hu’s “public opinion channeling,” Xi’s “public opinion struggle” was emphatically confrontational and raised the stakes of political difference.

The following month saw Xi’s visit to the democratic life meetings in Hebei that upended Zhou Benshun as well as the detention of outspoken venture capitalist Wang Gongquan, a supporter of Xu Zhiyong and the New Citizens movement. Xiao Shu, a friend of Wang’s and one of the Southern Weekly journalists fired earlier in the year, wrote that it was “obvious” that “civil society is under attack” and that indeed the regime may see it as part of the “hostile forces.” Anticorruption investigations penetrated into the depths of Zhou Yongkang’s political network, focusing on Sichuan and the oil sector.

Tensions continued to rise throughout October as televised confessions expanded, Xi called for learning from Maoist practices in the “Fengqiao experience,” and violence rocked the symbolic heart of Chinese power, Tiananmen Square. A journalist at Guangzhou’s New Express, Chen Yongzhou, was detained in Changsha for damaging the business interests of Zoomlion following critical reporting on the firm. Initially, his paper defended Chen, publishing a front-page editorial titled “Release Him,” but it relented after a confession by Chen aired on national television, despite such forced confessions being in direct violation of the country’s criminal procedure law.

Xi’s reference to the Fengqiao experience suggested a willingness to embrace Maoist mobilizing practices after decades of reform-era Chinese political and legal developments that distanced the regime from such energies. October ended with ethnic Uyghurs driving an SUV through barriers and across a crowded Tiananmen Square; the car erupted into flames, injuring 38 and killing five, including the vehicle’s occupants.

Into this storm sailed the 300-odd top leaders of the party’s Central Committee, who convened for the third time under Xi to discuss “Comprehensively Deepening Reform.” After an initial, difficult-to-parse communiqué confounded observers, a full decision text emerged that solidified the perception of a regime prioritizing market reforms. The initial communiqué’s language seemed to indicate that China would “unswervingly uphold the importance of the state sector.” This reading deflated pro-market expectations and was followed by steep drops in Chinese stock indices. However, the reception of the decision text was decidedly different. Economist Barry Naughton called it “a huge, sprawling, impressive document,” while Arthur Kroeber said that it “encompasses an ambitious agenda to restructure the roles of the government and the market.”

Kroeber saw in it a message about how to “get the government out of resource allocation”: Markets would shift from a “basic” to a “decisive” role. Beyond that change in language, analyst Christopher Johnson emphasized sweeping changes in removing “many of the regime’s most noxious—and longstanding—practices,” namely the labor camp system, the expansive use of the death penalty, and the stringencies of the one-child policy. Assistant office director of the party’s financial leading small group, Yang Weimin, compared the resolution’s agenda to Deng’s Southern Tour in 1992.

The decision presented a 60-point reform scheme, including opening the financial sector, reducing subsidies for energy, increasing space for foreign investment and ownership, expanding land-use rights for rural dwellers, and prioritizing the environment. Keeping state-owned firms as part of the economic mix was emphasized, but details were provided about reforms even in that hard-to-discuss sector. The decision document and the positive commentary around it reversed the market drops that had followed the communiqué’s release.

The uncertainty and narrative swings over Xi’s first year in power are vast. Savvy politicians build support and avoid lighting too many fires at once. Xi’s politics are highly autocratic, but they are not nihilistic. His rhetoric is not that of ubiquitous lying that destroys the idea of belief itself, like Bashar al-Assad’s personality cult in Syria, and while skillful rhetoricians and theorists have little compunction about twisting his words then to fit his current line now, there is some sense in which what has come to be called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” is coherent.

His past words and deeds have some friction that holds up the future trajectory or slows it down. That is, these early actions are not presented as feints to deceive and acknowledged as such, but rather as correct steps toward the current line, if a bit convoluted in its path. The range of uncertainty has narrowed considerably as Xi’s tenure has lengthened.

In 2022, a new Politburo Standing Committee came forward at the end of the 20th Party Congress, and once again Xi led the way. The speeches and personnel moves gave no hints of succession plans but also little clarity about the policy directions that the country will endeavor to undertake. The one certainty seems to be the man in front of the iron curtain, Xi Jinping, whose reign seems likely to endure.

 

 

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Jeremy Wallace is associate professor of government at Cornell University.

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