Xi Jinping wants legitimacy and legacy, but both of those legs are fractured. And instead of trying to tread carefully and to deal with the fractures, he is forcing treatment while running.
Most of the analyses that have come after the abolishment of presidential term limits in China have dealt with President Xi Jinping’s concentration of power, its implications, and whether it has any legitimacy after Deng Xiaoping-era reforms. However, little attention has been paid to the deeper motives that may be driving Xi in his mission. Chief among them are the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi’s views of his legacy.
SCMP columnist Cary Huang recently wrote that “In ancient Chinese dynasties it was standard practice for new rulers to destroy all symbols of their predecessors to ensure their legacies did not endure.” This fits with what the CCP did post-1949 with the physical and ideological remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT). However, there are at least two important things that survived. Number one is the person of Sun Yat-sen. If you walk just 50 meters West from the Mao portrait at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, you will come upon the Sun Yat-sen Park. Sun’s picture also hangs in the Legislative Yuan in Taipei. To the present day, Sun has been the largest common denominator for the CCP and the KMT, the father of modern China.
Number two is the KMT itself — which Sun founded. After the fall of the Qing dynasty (1911), the KMT brought the Republic of China (ROC) into being. From the intense power struggles and the ideological melting pot of the era, the CCP emerged as the only potential challenger to the KMT, but it largely remained in its shadow until after Sun’s death in 1925. Then the underlying differences between the two sides intensified, and more than two decades of civil war ensued. Mao eventually squeezed out Chiang Kai-shek’s army from China. As Dean Karalekas puts it:
The KMT retreat to Taiwan in 1949 meant that neither side became the indisputable winner in the Chinese Civil War, and hence the ruler of all of China. According to the prevailing belief system in China since the Zhou dynasty, power passes from one dynasty to the next through the Mandate of Heaven, wherein the new ruler is conferred divine right to rule the Middle Kingdom. In establishing the Republic of China in 1912 and exercising authority over China until 1949, the Kuomintang had inherited the Mandate of Heaven from the Qing. As long as the KMT continues to exist, however, the CCP cannot lay claim to the Mandate of Heaven.
This may sound a bit too archaic for 2018, but few China watchers would argue that Xi Jinping does not look at himself as the 21st century emperor of the Middle Kingdom. Xi wants to be the sole legitimate ruler of all of China, and for that he wants to put an end to the unfinished business with the KMT — and Taiwan. This is fundamentally important, less because of the so-called “territorial integrity” of China, but rather because there is much history and emotions involved. From Mao to Xi, all Communist leaders were eager to somehow resolve the “Taiwan issue.” Mao’s military ventures were only deterred by the Americans. Singapore tycoon Robert Kuok wrote in his memoirs about meeting with Deng: “He smiled throughout the meeting and I thought he was a very kind, friendly man, totally unselfish. But when he spoke on Taiwan, for the first time I saw in the man a sense of extreme frustration.”
Compare Xi’s regular public appearances with his 2015 summit in Singapore with then-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT. There is a truly emotional, human side of Xi when he shakes hands with Ma that simply isn’t seen in other situations. These captured moments of Xi or Deng reveal the central importance of Taiwan to the question of CCP legitimacy.
The problem for Xi lies in the fact that Sun Yat-sen’s legacy and the unfinished civil war are increasingly turning into something that he, and other Chinese leaders before him, cannot control. Sun’s dream was of a strong, prosperous, and democratic China freed from the imperialists, in harmonious co-existence of her ethnicities. Whereas there is little doubt that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is democratic only in its constitution, Taiwan gradually turned into an actual thriving democracy. Theoretically, this could even strengthen the Taiwanese government’s legitimacy over the whole of China, but effectively it changes nothing in the standoff: if the CCP wins over the Taiwanese government, whatever its form, it wins the civil war. What may be more troubling for Xi is that the Taiwanese people are not only refusing the idea of communist rule, but also that a growing segment of the Taiwanese population sees Taiwan and China as separate countries altogether. Taiwan wants to walk on its own as a grown-up son, and the prospect of Taiwanese independence is widely regarded as bad news for Beijing.
In terms of legitimacy over China, Xi could be seen to have a historic chance to conclude the civil war peacefully by having the upper hand over a much weakened KMT. That would largely cure the fractured leg of legitimacy, and could even mitigate the pain of the territorial “loss” of Taiwan, the size of a little toe for China. Of course, such a happy scenario is utterly unrealistic, for the CCP is simply too attached to the “Taiwan question,” so much so that even if he wanted to, Xi couldn’t abandon the idea of capturing that piece of real estate. Consequently, Xi wants to take Taiwan, curing his party’s fractured leg by keeping the little toe at any price. Moreover, he also wants to shine in history books as the great rejuvenator of all the Chinese people, the core leader of a bigger China that leads the world. This brings us to his second leg: legacy.
The task of of integrating Taiwan into the autocratic Chinese system isn’t the only issue that threatens failure. Xi’s desired legacy — the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation — rests on whether Beijing will be able to tackle the numerous socio-economic problems that plague the country while securing the nation’s “core interests” in the international arena. Rampant corruption in all levels of government, as well as mismanagement, have been tearing the fabric of Chinese society at a faster pace than GDP growth in the past decades, leading to severe income inequality, acute rural-urban as well as geographical divisions, and generational ruptures. Xi Jinping surely recognizes these challenges, and the whole thing could very well have already collapsed had he not aggressively tackled some of the longstanding problems. Obviously, his unprecedented purges were primarily aimed at consolidating his power, but at the same time he is genuinely addressing the issues of systemic corruption, something his predecessor, Hu Jintao, already regarded as the single largest threat to the survival of the party. Arguably, only a strong hand like Xi’s could have a chance of success in breaking such systemic corrupt practices. And to his credit, Xi values not just absolute loyalty, but also competence, which is reflected in his appointments to key economic, diplomatic and state positions.
And yet, for all the good, there are just as many and important worrying signs that could still result in spectacular failure.
Without a more profound degree of pluralism, the CCP risks losing the trust of the Chinese people, much more so than it would without absolute information control.
All the restructuring, tiger hunting, clampdowns on free speech and activists, restrictions in academia, and Xi’s pledge that the party will increase its control over all levels and areas of China point in the direction of over-centralization. And therein lies the biggest problem: the key to China’s greatest successes to date, many of which predate Xi, was almost exclusively the free hand given to the right people at the right time, starting with the land reform in Anhui through the BAT domination in IT. Admittedly, such freedoms are also the root cause of China’s main systemic problems, including the ailing SOE sector, the shadow banking system and the financially embattled local governments — too much free hand to incompetent and corrupt cadres, the unchecked marriage of communist bureaucracy and raw capitalism. But the ultimate conclusion should not lead to an “I know everything” attitude by the Chinese leadership. The appropriate answer to China’s ailing problems lies in giving more power to people, not more control over them. This is not only because that is what Sun Yat-sen allegedly wanted, but because China is simply too big, too complex, and too diverse to be controlled by the center. If too much of the state’s resources are used to keep the people under scrutiny in such challenging times, the problems will never be tackled appropriately — not by the state apparatus, and not by the people.
If Xi is not confident enough to trust his own people, he will ultimately become a weak leader. For here lies the contradiction: on the one hand, the party has convinced itself that it can only survive China’s overwhelming problems if a strongman with a grand vision, someone like Xi, is at the helm; at the very same time, that leader should also be strong enough to accept critical voices, especially from the middle class, the country’s youth and intellectuals, and to genuinely encourage such participation in public affairs and constructively engage with them. Without a more profound degree of pluralism, the CCP risks losing the trust of the Chinese people, much more so than it would without absolute information control.
Ironically, Xi and the CCP could learn many lessons from Taiwan’s democratic transformation, perhaps even ways by which they could ensure their legitimacy. That isn’t to say that China should convert into a multi-party system overnight, but there is a clear need from Chinese society to have its voice heard and views paid attention to by the Chinese leadership, voices and views that could earn Xi the mantle of a Sun Yat-sen for the 21st century, and help him secure the legacy he so evidently desires.
Top photo: Youtube.