What China’s Past Can Tell Us About Xi’s Future

In Chinese history, long-term emperors and generalissimos have been far more common than rules-bound leaders.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
An illustration shows the Yongzheng emperor dressed in exquisite attire and seated on a throne-like chair.
An illustration shows the Yongzheng emperor dressed in exquisite attire and seated on a throne-like chair.
An illustration depicts the Yongzheng emperor, who ruled China during the Qing dynasty from 1722 to 1735. Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Soon after taking power late in 2012, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first trip outside of Beijing was to visit troops in the Guangzhou military region, in the country’s south, where he told recruits that “it is the soul of the military to obey the command of the party without compromise, [and] it is the top priority for the military to be able to fight and win battles.” In another high-profile move eight months later, Xi toured China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, where he delivered much the same message.

A decade later, in retrospect, these seem not only like significant events in themselves, but also fairly reliable signposts about what to expect from China under its new leader: a blunt style and much more assertiveness than the world had been used to under recent Communist Party heads.

The familiar problem with retrospect is that it is not available in real time, and with China’s political system already deeply opaque and growing far more closed under Xi, that means that outsiders have been left with little more than tea leaves to read in their efforts to interpret events in the world’s most populous country.

Soon after taking power late in 2012, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first trip outside of Beijing was to visit troops in the Guangzhou military region, in the country’s south, where he told recruits that “it is the soul of the military to obey the command of the party without compromise, [and] it is the top priority for the military to be able to fight and win battles.” In another high-profile move eight months later, Xi toured China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, where he delivered much the same message.

A decade later, in retrospect, these seem not only like significant events in themselves, but also fairly reliable signposts about what to expect from China under its new leader: a blunt style and much more assertiveness than the world had been used to under recent Communist Party heads.

The familiar problem with retrospect is that it is not available in real time, and with China’s political system already deeply opaque and growing far more closed under Xi, that means that outsiders have been left with little more than tea leaves to read in their efforts to interpret events in the world’s most populous country.

This was the situation at the close of the country’s once-every-five-years National People’s Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which generated a deluge of contrasting interpretations of the way that Xi appeared to order the sudden exclusion of his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, from the proceedings. Was Hu’s behavior—including an attempt to inspect the contents of the red folders that sat on the desks in front of all the top party leaders ahead of schedule—a sly form of protest, or a bid to upstage Xi and the ritualized choreography of power? Did Xi’s response represent an unprecedented public expulsion of one top leader by another? Was it all merely a matter of ill health and confusion by a rapidly declining Hu? There is plenty of room to speculate. In fact, that’s all we can do.

This time, Xi’s first big public move after his effective coronation was to travel to Yan’an, in northwest China, arguably the most important site in the CCP’s history. This is where Mao Zedong led his retreating forces at the end of the Long March, rebasing his movement there after a series of military routs at the hands of the Nationalists and plotting what would become the eventual triumph of his revolution. Yan’an is also where all doubts disappeared about Mao’s utter preeminence among the Chinese communists. It was there that his cult of personality fully flowered and where a tradition of treating him as nearly infallible took root. For years afterward, it was Mao, seemingly alone, who determined what was red or black, as the Chinese said—meaning what was left and what was right, who was up or down, in or out. With Mao’s decisions, often brutally implemented, the fates of innumerable people were decided.

So, what are we to think of Xi’s high-profile visit to Yan’an, made with all the members of his new, handpicked Politburo Standing Committee in tow? For some experts, this confirmed not only that Xi was the most powerful leader China had seen since Mao, but also that Xi had explicitly chosen Mao as his model.

Few expected that this would mean a return to some of Mao’s most extreme policies, including radical egalitarianism, economic autarky, or economic isolation from the capitalist world—not to mention the chaos and disaster of movements such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, each of which destroyed millions of Chinese lives and created economic devastation that took years to repair.

What it did seem to mean, according to this analogy, was that Xi wanted to be China’s next Great Helmsman, to adopt one of the widely used monikers applied to Mao during his three decades in power. Another metaphor in circulation of late has described Xi’s power and style of rule as consciously imperial, meaning emperor-like in terms of his authority and radiance or the nature and extent of the propaganda generated about him. Here, too, we are asked to believe that Xi is following Mao’s example.

In the run-up to the recent Party Congress and throughout its proceedings, a lot of my China reading was focused on the work of political scientists who specialize in the country. But—no disrespect to that discipline intended—I have come to feel that with so little real-time information available these days on China’s elite politics, we must look elsewhere for insights into what is going on and how Xi’s rule fits within the long and grand narrative of China’s past.

I thus turned to Stephen R. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to get his sense of Xi and how his recent moves might be understood. Platt is the author of two books that I greatly admire, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (2018) and Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (2012). Both titles center on the Qing, which ruled from 1644 to 1912 and was the final dynasty in China’s long history of imperial rule.

Platt would be the first to say that, in most regards, the China of today bears little resemblance to that of the Qing era. He and I had never spoken before, and when I reached out to him, he began with a modesty that I value highly, saying, moreover, that he is no expert either on China’s present or on its more distant past. After those humble beginnings, Platt proceeded to make a series of fascinating observations, which I share here.

The first of these proceeded from a simple but powerful-seeming rule. “You know, looking back at China’s history, oftentimes the rulers who come across as most powerful are actually, underneath it all, the most vulnerable, or the ones that have big weaknesses.” I heard this as a caution not to overestimate Xi’s power, even at this moment of maximum formal strength, and it reminded me of an adage attributed to the Nigerian Nobel laureate in literature, Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude,” meaning that merely being a tiger largely suffices as a statement of strength.

In explaining his point, Platt drew on the example of Yinzhen, who ruled China under the title of the Yongzheng emperor during the Qing dynasty in the early 18th century. Today, although many scholars believe that he was indeed his father’s intended successor, disputes and contests among Yinzhen’s brothers and their backers ensued, in part because Yinzhen was neither the oldest nor considered to be the most able of the possible male heirs. Insecure over perceptions of his legitimacy, with some rumors saying that he had forged his father’s will, the Yongzheng emperor had some of his brothers put in prison, where several of them died.

Few pose questions about the terms of Xi’s succession, which followed the established Communist Party script of the time, but what perhaps bears comparison, Platt suggested, is how Yongzheng ruled. “He forbade Chinese scholars from forming associations or poetry societies because these could potentially become political,” Platt said. “And thinking back and looking for echoes of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent [and his] public morality campaigns: cracking down on any kind of difference in society. This sort of echoes the anxieties of Yongzheng, who was quite worried about being seen as illegitimate.” For Xi, the source of anxiety may stem from his power play itself, having just overturned the rules of his own succession both this time and indefinitely into the future.

On this, Platt offered both valuable historical context and interpretive caution. Even though this was a bold and potentially risky move, it would be wrong to overstate the degree of the institutionalization of the succession rules that Xi just scrambled. As commentators have widely remarked, these date from Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao and devised a set of informal rules that in effect established a two-term, or 10-year, limit on leading the Communist Party. Deng lorded it over his successor, Jiang Zemin, even after surrendering all his ruling titles, and Jiang did much the same with his successor, the man recently escorted from the Party Congress, Hu. Platt said that Xi must have calculated that whatever risks were attached to tearing up the informal rules may have been worth it on a very simple basis: personal ambition, including legacy.

In Chinese tradition, he said, “much more common than [rules-bound leaders] have been long-term emperors, generalissimos, and, you know, Chairman Mao. Anyone who did not fit this mold is pretty much forgotten. I mean, nobody is going to remember them even in 30 years.” But, he noted, “Nobody is ever going to forget Mao, or Chiang Kai-shek, or Qianlong,” this last figure being the son of Yongzheng, who ruled China grandly for 61 years, dying in 1799.

Platt expounded on this temptation to bid higher in the history sweepstakes with a reference to Yuan Shikai, the military strongman who took over at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, and then sought and failed to establish himself as a new emperor after the beginning of republican rule. Xi, he cautioned, “is not trying to make himself emperor, but after beginning his time in power with certain bureaucratic constraints, Xi [has decided to] bend the reality to suit himself and ensure that he can continue in power without any need of term limits and without the close influence of any rivals. He wants his to be the voice that is heard all over the place, and [his image] appears everywhere with that same sort of bemused look on his face”—much like Mao.

Yet Platt quickly added that Xi is no Mao. “Children grew up believing that the sun rose because there was Mao Zedong in China,” he said. “And I don’t know that Xi commands anything like that sort of adulation.” Another obvious problem with such comparisons is that whatever one makes of him, Mao was indisputably a revolutionary. Xi, Platt said, has “put himself above the party,” but at bottom is merely a “sort of bureaucrat par excellence who’s played the bureaucratic game to its final end.”

He has focused China inward, Platt said, “turning his back on business growth, on foreign tourism, on learning English and foreign study—all these things we [China watchers] have taken for granted. Things like these were inherent to the vision that Deng Xiaoping had for the modernization of China and its integration into the world, and Xi Jinping clearly has a very different view of what China’s position in the world should be. I don’t think we’ve seen more than the bare contours of it yet.”

Then came this caution: “It is really hard to figure out what he’s after. It’s possible that we haven’t even begun to see what his real agenda is.”

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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