Setting the record straight on Xi Jinping

Society & Culture

A new biography by Alfred L. Chan purports to be the most comprehensive English-language work about China's "chairman of everything."

Image by Nadya Yeh

During his last 10 years as China’s leader, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 has expanded Chinese influence well beyond its region. The country is done biding its time, Xi has all but said out loud, and it will become a superpower to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the central government has become more assertive at home, with ongoing crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and a strictly maintained COVID-zero policy that has slowed GDP growth to an all-time low. Now, Xi is preparing to assume an unprecedented third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

How does one make sense of the man behind all this maneuvering?

English-language biographies of Xi have been scarce until this year. Among the new titles, Alfred L. Chan’s Xi Jinping: Political Career, Governance and Leadership, 1953-2018 claims to be the first comprehensive biography of Xi’s life and political career.

Chan, a professor emeritus of political science at Huron University in London, Ontario, Canada, takes a multidisciplinary and multi-layered approach to analyze the complex topics of China and its foremost leader. The result is an encyclopedic work that offers a nuanced and contextualized understanding of the subjects.

We recently spoke with Chan about his work. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You say this is the first comprehensive English-language biography of Xi Jinping. Why haven’t there been other full English-language biographies of Xi until now? Is reliable information difficult to source?

There are many books out about Xi Jinping, but many of them deal briefly with his provincial career in a chapter or so. Several of the writers also say without evidence that Xi was an “unremarkable” provincial leader. This jaundiced view might have discouraged the exploration of his regional career.

In fact, there is a wealth of materials on Xi’s life in Chinese. Mainland China sources include his numerous speeches, articles, and reports made throughout the past five decades. Even Xi Jinping’s doctoral dissertation is readily available. Contemporary collections of his “selected works” and new histories and TV series about his life are just as numerous. Just recently Chinese state media announced a 50-part TV series about his life to be broadcast throughout the summer.

In the diaspora, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the U.S., there are lots of biographies. The quality of this literature varies, ranging from sensational books like “Xi Jinping’s Mistresses” to books that are written by knowledgeable writers. There are also biographies that essentially are compilations of sources gathered from the internet.

All of these materials can be useful for the discerning researcher who can read between the lines and situate them in the proper context of the time. Yet, only a tiny fraction of this material is translated into English. Perhaps this is a second reason explaining the paucity of full-length English biographies of Xi Jinping.

Was there anything that surprised you about Xi that came up in the course of your research?

Not really. Because Xi’s policies really have a lot in common with post-Mao leadership from Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 to Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 to Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛. They have wrestled with very similar issues of poverty and under-development, and how to reform the Soviet model adopted during the 1950s. They also share similar goals of achieving wealth and power. And they all know that stability breeds stagnancy, which is why they all had to launch campaigns and new initiatives to keep the economy going.

Things of course are changing in Xi’s time. China is now the second largest economy in the world, tightly interdependent with the rest of the world in terms of resource supply, markets, and development. The rise of China has also created multiple security dilemmas with the rest of the world. Xi Jinping has had to change his policies. So in this way, there are many continuities and changes, which is why I’m not surprised at Xi Jinping’s policies.

Was there anything you came across in the course of your research that had not been reported before, or anything that will be new to people who have been watching Xi Jinping?

Many. The first is the major role played by the Central Organizing Department (COD) in recruiting, grooming, and scrutinizing generations of leaders. The COD recruits officials and rotates them to different regions and administrative levels until some of them finally reach the apex of power. So you can see very clearly how the COD recruited and groomed Xi until he became general secretary. At the 20th Party Congress this fall, we will be able to see the fruition of the COD’s efforts in cultivating the sixth generation or seventh generation leaders.

The second major finding is about the theory of “one party, two coalitions,” which says that the Chinese top leadership is divided into two coalitions, one called the Elitist Coalition, represented by “princelings” like Xi Jinping who are supposed to represent leaders from coastal cities, urbanites, the interests of the middle class, and so on. The other is the Populist Coalition, represented by former president Hu Jintao, [former premier] Wēn Jiābǎo 温家宝, and current premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强, who had their career origins in the Communist Youth League and who tend to emphasize a “people-first policy”: the interests of farmers, workers, rural migrants, and so on. But in my book, I find that there’s basically no evidence to support this theory. Leaders including Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Hu Jintao really have had to grapple with a whole range of issues in their political careers; there is no evidence that there’s bias one way or another.

What are some major misconceptions about Xi that you’d like to set straight through this book?

It’s common in the West to characterize Xi as a dictator, a new Mao, and a “last emperor.” It’s also a popular stereotype to conceptualize China as a “frozen” system under one-man rule. Xi Jinping certainly has an authoritarian side, but he has introduced many progressive reforms such as poverty alleviation and judicial reform. In decision-making, no doubt the buck stops at Xi Jinping’s desk, but Xi also depends on his colleagues for input and advice. All major decisions are subjected to extensive consultation and intense debate. These decisions also rely on a huge bureaucracy, which numbers about 6 million people, to implement. Xi has had to contend with the bureaucratic issues of vested interests, foot-dragging, non-compliance, and corruption.

Based on that, how can we understand the “power grab” that Xi Jinping is making for a third term as General Secretary and potentially holding on to power for a long time?

Currently, China watchers tend to follow the “rational choice perspective,” which assumes that Chinese leaders are power maximizers who constantly struggle for power. Accordingly, Xi would not be content with a third and a fourth term, but would want to become a leader for life. But this perspective ignores other important factors. Xi is already 69 years old and will be 74 by the time he completes a third term, and if he takes a fourth term he will be 79. As a party and organizational man, Xi realizes that a smooth transition is absolutely important for the survival of the party. We will find out this fall whether or not he will nominate one or two successors to be groomed for the 21st Party Congress. Even a third term is contingent on many factors, such as good health and party support.

Global politics are entering a period of extreme turbulence, haunted by the pandemic, economic downturn, climate crisis, and intense international competition. Even Xi is constantly talking about unpredictability, black swans, gray rhinos, and financial risks. Xi has also created legions of enemies as a result of his anti-corruption campaign and other policies. Assassination is not a remote possibility. On the other hand, even if he resigned from all formal positions, it’s possible that he could stay behind as the power behind the throne, following the model of Deng Xiaoping. He doesn’t necessarily have to be General Secretary.

Recent reporting has suggested that there may be power struggles or shifts in the upper echelons of the CCP, given the economic impacts of Xi’s strict zero-COVID policy and how Li Keqiang has taken a larger economic role. Do you think this represents a challenge to Xi’s power?

An examination of conflicts, especially the competition for top office, is one of the most fruitful ways of understanding political systems. Currently, rumors swirl that Xi Jinping has dominated Li Keqiang for the past 10 years, that Li has now reemerged, and that he might even replace Xi as the top leader. Aspects of these rumors are not new. More than 15 years ago, when both were inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee, unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Xi and Li fought to get to the top. Of course, it is natural that the two harbor personal and political differences over the years, but their relationship has been mostly co-dependent, much like the relationship between the president and the premier in the French system. As premier, Li heads the State Council and its 22 ministries, and Xi relies on Li to operationalize and implement his policies. The conjectures about a split between the two are largely unfounded.

A related issue is Li and Politburo members’ alleged challenge to Xi’s authoritarian insistence on a zero-COVID policy, although no evidence exists to show a fundamental split. Certainly, the repercussions of the zero-COVID policy on the economy are hotly debated in China. And detractors of Xi Jinping tend to emphasize the economic cost to China’s growth. The choice between a zero-COVID or a living-with-COVID policy is a judgment call. Every policy involves costs and tradeoffs; how to balance the two is really the major question. Further, the Chinese approach is not as inflexible and monolithic as it is made out to be. The situation in China is so complex that it defies simple characterizations.

What do you think Xi wants to accomplish by the end of his third term? And is he capable of achieving these goals?

Xi’s centenary goal is that by 2049, 100 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, China will become a fully modernized political and economic system. That’s the long goal. And Xi is constantly talking about “reforms with no end.” But now, with the tremendous global ramifications of COVID, the short-term projection is unclear. Beijing is constantly wrestling with an encyclopedic range of issues, from economic downturn to state-owned enterprise reform, from national security to judicial reforms, from pollution to inequality, and so on. All of these issues will occupy Xi in the next five years. So for that reason, I don’t think he has any fixed idea of how he can go. A great deal of flexibility will be required in a touch-and-go situation.

So the short answer is there are a lot of policies already implemented that will have to be refined in the next five years. In economic terms, he will hope for at least 5 or 6 percent economic growth because anything less would negatively impact employment, living standard, and social stability. Just this year there were 10 million new university graduates that needed to be employed. We all know that during the reform period of the last 30-plus years, approximately 330 million migrants have migrated to the cities. That’s like the entire population of the United States being dropped onto China’s cities. So we’re talking about huge and often intractable problems that the West does not always appreciate.

Is unifying Taiwan also a primary goal for Xi over the next five years?

Military personnel in the United States and China, with a few exceptions, like to sit around and talk about war. The current view is that China is strong enough, and there is a window of opportunity to conquer Taiwan by force. One Chinese hawk even boasted that Taiwan could be subdued in three days! These are simplistic views. For Xi, the unification of Taiwan is a long game and he has not set a timetable. His plate is full. His priority is still economic growth, employment, raising the standard of living, and so on. The Ukrainian situation has also reminded leaders in China that sanctions and global instability would be detrimental to the important goal of modernizing China’s political economy. Xi has talked about a peaceful international environment to fulfill the China Dream. Conflict and war over Taiwan would destroy that.

Author Alfred L. Chan (right)