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The best books on Xi Jinping

recommended by Olivia Cheung

The Political Thought of Xi Jinping by Olivia Cheung & Steve Tsang

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The Political Thought of Xi Jinping
by Olivia Cheung & Steve Tsang

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Despite his own and his family's suffering under Maoism, China's president, Xi Jinping, has turned his back on some of the reforms of the past four decades, dismantling safeguards designed to ensure that some of the disasters of that era never happen again. Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at SOAS and co-author of The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, recommends books to better understand China's leader and his quest to build a new world order—led by China and admired by all.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Political Thought of Xi Jinping by Olivia Cheung & Steve Tsang

Just out

The Political Thought of Xi Jinping
by Olivia Cheung & Steve Tsang

Read

A lot of people reading this interview will have heard of Xi Jinping but won’t know very much about him—other than that he’s the leader of China and that he’s the son of one of China’s founding Communist revolutionaries. For those of us who aren’t as well-informed as you, what do you think are the most important things we should know about him?

I think the most important attribute of Xi Jinping is how he has firmly replaced over two decades of collective leadership in the Chinese Communist Party with his strongman rule. He has managed to centralise and personalise political power in China to an extent that we haven’t seen since the time of Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People’s Republic of China. That is remarkable, and to know about Xi Jinping, we need to start from that.

What’s interesting about the book Steve Tsang and I just wrote, The Political Thought of Xi Jinping (2024), is that we go beyond Xi Jinping as the powerful centralised leader to get really close to what he wants to achieve. What is his vision? What are his intentions? What does he want to do for the party, for China, and for the world in different policy areas? That is what makes our book different from a straightforward biography of Xi Jinping. We’re going not just into the background of this man but also what his thinking is, as articulated by him.

What did you find out? Broadly, what do you think is driving him? What’s your sense of what’s pushing him on this path, based on your research?

I think there is a sense that the Chinese Communist Party and China are in a crisis, so unless he acts very decisively—and to do so, he believes he needs to centralise all these massive powers—and unless he changes the course, then things will go very wrong, and irreversibly so. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that Xi Jinping does have abiding faith in Leninism—the idea that the party needs to be organised according to Leninist principles. He saw that the party isn’t organised like that, and that has become a mission that he needs to achieve.

He’s put all this together under the banner of the ‘Chinese Dream’ of national rejuvenation. It’s not only about fixing problems—it is about achieving a grand mission of making China great again. In simple terms, it means making China a great power that has no parallels by the time of the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049.

Wow. That’s quite a big ambition, isn’t it?

It is very big, and whether it is achievable is highly questionable. There’s also the question of whether the trajectory that he has chosen for China is bringing the country further away from or closer towards that goal. That also is very debatable.

Let’s talk about some of these issues in more detail as we go through the books. Is there one book that’s more introductory, a good one to start with if you don’t know that much about Xi Jinping?

Let me briefly explain how I selected them. Kerry Brown’s book, Xi: A Study in Power, is introductory. Important concepts are introduced, and it contains a very brief biography of Xi Jinping. It’s a very good basic background for someone who knows next to nothing about him or about China.

Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution is very good on Xi Jinping’s first two terms. From 2012 to 2017 was his first five-year term, with his second five-year term starting in 2017 and ending in 2022. She goes through the first five-year term and up until the middle of the second five-year term, and she is good in bringing together a meta-narrative. She describes the changes that Xi made to China as a ‘Third Revolution.’ (The First and Second Revolutions refer to specific things in a Chinese context). What she’s alluding to is that this is really massive, it’s big, it’s not just everything continuing as usual. It’s a good macro framework.

Willy Lam’s book is also very good. He is a journalist with 40 years of experience watching China and has published numerous books on Chinese politics. His book is more on Xi Jinping’s third term, beginning in 2022, so very recent. He focuses on ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and Xi Jinping’s policy agenda as well.

“There is a sense that the Chinese Communist Party and China are in a crisis”

Xuezhi Guo, in The Politics of the Core Leader in China, is more specific. He is really getting into the idea of strongman rule. He looks at traditional Chinese philosophy, traditional Chinese culture, and more recent Chinese history to see whether the idea of strongman rule is embraced or not embraced by the party and by Chinese culture. He argues that it is. I don’t fully agree with him, but I think it’s interesting.

Then, we have a book by Steven Feldman, Dictatorship by Degrees. That book has some parallels with the book that Steve Tsang and I wrote, in the sense that he also tried to conceptualise China’s political system under Xi Jinping. Steve Tsang and I studied what Xi Jinping wants, his vision. We also wanted to draw it together and look at how it is implemented, and what it means for the Chinese political system. Has Xi made China’s political system different from the one he inherited? Steven Feldman also addresses that question but in a completely different framework, with different methodology and different conclusions, so I thought that was interesting.

Let’s start with Kerry Brown’s book then, Xi: A Study in Power, as an introduction. It covers Xi and his background and it also tells the story of the Chinese Communist Party—which is important because quite a few of these books say that you can’t really understand Xi without understanding the party he’s both a product of and trying to shape.

That’s right. This book’s central argument is that Xi Jinping, as an individual person, does not really count. It is the Chinese Communist Party that Xi represents, and to which he is a servant. This is Xi’s main purpose.

Xi has centralised all those powers, but it’s not so much for himself; it’s for the party, and without the party he is nothing. That’s Brown’s main argument. I  don’t fully agree with it, but I think it’s an important and interesting argument because, as you said, how can we study Xi Jinping without bringing the Chinese Communist Party into the picture?

The issue is that because of the way in which Xi Jinping has personalised power and broken with party conventions—there are many party norms that he has completely violated—I would find it hard to argue that he is being constrained by the party or that he is the party’s servant. Especially since the beginning of his third term, in 2022, when he eliminated political rivals and the top echelon of the party is all his men, I don’t find that argument persuasive anymore.

But it is an argument we can discuss, as in, ‘What is the relationship between the party and Xi Jinping himself?’ What if Xi came out and said he was no longer a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and formed his own party or was a non-party leader? Would that hold? I think obviously not. So Kerry is right in the sense that Xi Jinping’s legitimacy derives from being the powerful leader of that powerful organisation. It also means that whatever Xi Jinping does or does not do will always be measured by party conventions, by what the party used to do or used to believe. That idea will always be a constraining factor or benchmark for Xi Jinping’s performance.

I first lived in China when Deng Xiaoping was alive, and he was very much in charge. He had no formal titles, but there was no doubt that he was the one calling the shots. Is Xi that unusual?

To answer that I would bring in my solo book, Factional-Ideological Conflicts in Chinese Politics, which really addresses that question in detail. China after Mao Zedong, even under Deng Xiaoping, was really a situation of factional power-sharing, of factional power balances and contestation of power. No single leader could monopolise all powers in their own hands.

In my book, I went through some very major policy reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping and argued how uncertain it all was—how, quite often, those reforms nearly didn’t make it. When they did make it, there were a lot of political struggles, a lot of compromises, a lot of give and take, and a lot of concessions. All this showed that Deng Xiaoping really wasn’t that powerful: there were major political factions that he needed to respect, that he needed to consult, and that he needed to trade advantages with, in order to push through an agenda.

Another important aspect is that the Chinese Communist Party isn’t just an organ of interests—we want to stay in power, we want to make ourselves rich—it’s also an organ of political ideas.

This is something that we almost forget when we think about China because of how rich it has become, and how it seems like everyone is so focused on making money and making their lives better. Deng Xiaoping embodied that image. People are all about material profit and very little beyond that. It almost seems like they don’t believe in anything. They don’t believe in Mao; they don’t believe in socialism. Some people might have a religion, but they are a minority. So what do Chinese people believe in? I think, after the death of Mao Zedong, the conventional view of China is that it is in an ideological vacuum.

What my solo book shows is that even within the party there are different ideologies, different political values, and they are all very much alive. Powerful party leaders use those values to debate with each other, to shape different policies, to try to undermine existing policies or existing narratives, to push through their own visions, and so on. There’s lively political debate, and that’s because there are many different ideas rather than because there are no ideas. That’s an important point to make.

“The political, social, economic, and foreign policy changes he has made are profound”

So there are two views of the Chinese Communist Party. One is that it doesn’t believe in anything, that it’s an ideological vacuum (which my solo book challenges). The other is that it believes in too many things, but they’re not united. There’s ideological diversity.

Xi Jinping addresses both. Xi Jinping is about eliminating ideological diversity. He says that the main issue is that Chinese Communist Party members have lost their conviction in socialism. Whether they believe in various things or they don’t believe in anything, the main problem is that they don’t believe in what they should believe in, which is that socialism can save China, that Marxism works, and that China must persist in being a socialist country.

The idea behind Xi Jinping Thought—the full name, which is rather clunky, is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era—is that socialism works because the powerful and visionary Xi Jinping can make socialism Chinese, can make it work for China.

This is not the first time we’ve heard that. Mao Zedong said the same many years ago, that he was making socialism Chinese to make it work for China. After that, we had Deng Xiaoping, who focused much more on market reform. Now, Xi Jinping comes along and tries to sinicise socialism but in a different way, not in Mao Zedong’s way. Our book on Xi Jinping Thought is looking at what Xi Jinping thinks sinicising socialism means. To him, these are the guidelines (so to speak) to guide China to national rejuvenation and to fix the many problems that he thinks are holding back the party and holding back China if they are left unresolved.

Let’s go on to the next book. This is The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, by Elizabeth Economy. From what you’ve been saying, it seems you agree with her that this really is a revolution that Xi has brought in since coming to power.

It is a revolution. I agree with Elizabeth Economy. But there is a trick here. If you ask any ordinary Chinese person or anyone who interacts with China a lot, they’ll say that many things seem like they’re carrying on as usual. They don’t feel like there’s a revolution or struggle going on.

One analogy Steve Tsang and I use in our book is that Xi Jinping has kept the hardware but changed the software. The political, social, economic, and foreign policy changes he has made are profound, they’re systemic, and they are changing China’s direction of travel. But Xi has done it by keeping in place the hardware that the Chinese Communist Party has maintained since the death of Deng Xiaoping, from the 1990s to the present.

This means that the basics of the political system are there, but how they work has changed. The Chinese Communist Party still has their national congress once every five years. Many  political meetings, titles, and rituals are still there. But he’s added another layer on top of them.

Also, how the system works has changed. The most important change is that now power is centralised to Xi, and the previous process of collective deliberation has gone. The previous process of policymaking by decentralisation and experimentation is gone. Things are very centralised, and Xi Jinping emphasises top-level design. He says that the Chinese Communist Party and China are like one body, and we need to move together. Everybody has their role to play, and he is there to direct and orchestrate. The metaphor of unity is strong.

What Steve Tsang and I argue is that he’s fashioning the whole of China and the whole party into oneness. He’s forging a strong unity of sameness, of homogeneity. That is what makes all the difference, although, on the surface, the hardware remains the same. The party is still there, and various political meetings still happen, but what they mean and how they work have been changed.

When you said that Xi wants the Chinese Communist Party to be Leninist, what does that mean?

Let me qualify that. Xi Jinping’s vision of building the Chinese Communist Party is a merger of Leninism and Maoism. Leninism believes in hierarchical political order, a vertical line of command leading up to the party leadership, and party organisation. The party is not only an ideology; the party is also a structure. What that means is that the party needs to penetrate and lead everything and everyone else in China.

To give an example, every organisation in China that has more than three party members must set up a party cell, and that party cell needs to work in a way that is following party regulations. The essence of that, which Xi Jinping draws out, is that the party cell needs to lead. For example, if there is a private company in China that has three party members, there needs to be a Chinese Communist Party structure set up within that private company, and that structure isn’t there only symbolically, as in ‘I’m setting up a structure because I have to’; that party committee or that party cell in that private company needs to be consulted on all major decisions and needs to have veto power.

What it means is the party is leading what is nominally a non-party organisation. This happens in state-owned companies, in private companies, in schools, in hospitals, even in so-called civil society organisations (what we call NGOs), and social groups — such as women’s groups, football clubs, etc. You’re really talking about a party penetrating society, and leading society at a structural level.

Another example of the party leading is that Xi Jinping has set up a lot of what are called ‘central commissions’ or ‘leading small groups.’ These are very high up in the political hierarchy, and they are there to make final decisions and do policy design. Formerly, those powers often rested with government departments on a de facto basis, but now those powers are held by these leading small groups. Early on in Xi Jinping’s second term, he also had a list of reforms that resulted in a lot of government departments being eaten up by party departments, so they became formally subsumed into the party structure.

So that is one part of Leninism—building the party structure. The Chinese Communist Party leader before Xi Jinping who really believed in the party as a structure was Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969), Mao Zedong’s right-hand man. By making the party more Leninist, Xi Jinping is following the Liu Shaoqi playbook.

The other aspects of Leninism are very strict, ironclad discipline and ideological conviction. Xi Jinping is instilling discipline in the party by pursuing an endless anti-corruption campaign. Because it’s so endless, we might call it a drive, rather than a campaign. ‘Campaign’ suggests it’s time-limited. If you look closely at the campaign, it is not so much about anti-corruption in the traditional sense—of money changing hands unlawfully or selling of offices. Money is a part of it, but the main goal is rectification.

And what is rectification?

Rectification is another Leninist term, and it means purging the party of impurities. Xi uses the anti-corruption drive to enforce loyalty to him. Officials are being checked on whether they are loyal to Xi Jinping. There are a lot of inspections going on, including unannounced ones, where Xi will send in people who are not from that province or from that department. Inspectors from elsewhere will come into the inspection unit unannounced and they’ll call on people, look at documents, and check how faithfully they are implementing Xi Jinping’s policies. If they are not, that’s disloyalty, and they will be charged with a political crime.

What’s so disturbing about it is that the whole anti-corruption or rectification campaign is taking place outside China’s legal system. It’s used to enforce Xi Jinping’s power. In Xi’s first two terms, the anti-corruption campaign left people who are his allies completely untouched, while  resulting in rival political factions disappearing—their key leaders are gone, and their budget slashed. It’s very politically oriented and helps Xi Jinping to consolidate power massively.

Xi has also indicated many times that anti-corruption and rectification must never end. Some might wonder, ‘After such an aggressive effort, is the party still so dirty that you need to push so hard?’ But it’s not that you’re clean or not clean. It’s about ensuring political loyalty. That’s an ongoing process. It shows Xi’s sense of insecurity despite all the honorific titles and real power that he has in his hands.

Ideological conviction is another feature of Leninism. Hence the relevance of Xi Jinping Thought. Socialism as it is seems almost outdated: no one in China knows what it is; no one believes in it. You need a reboot to give people faith that there is one central idea gelling us together to make us one people. Xi Jinping Thought is supposed to do that.

How does it work in practice? Does it mean that the government controls companies and there are lots of state-owned enterprises? What does this socialism consist of?

That’s a really good question. Xi Jinping himself has said the most important characteristic of socialism in China is that the Chinese Communist Party is in charge. He’s almost saying that it’s self-referential. As long as the CCP is front and centre it’s socialist.

But it’s more than that. You mentioned the economy. Xi Jinping really believes in state-owned enterprises. Party-controlled, state-owned enterprises should be a lot stronger at an organisational and financial level than private companies. Xi has said many times that state-owned enterprises must be at the forefront of the Chinese economy.

He has a vision where the Chinese economy must be made strong, and that does not mean simply growing the economy. GDP growth is far from strength, according to Xi. For the economy to be strong, it needs to be internationally competitive, leading, and strategic in the long term. That means technological innovation: new vehicles, AI, 5G infrastructure—all these new and emerging technologies. He wants to make the economy big and important, something that can make China powerful. It’s an instrument for Chinese power.

Significantly, he has said that China’s innovation sector is where state-owned enterprises need to dominate and be front and centre. If you look at the state funds that have been allocated for innovation, most of them have gone to state-owned enterprises and they are very closely carrying out the innovation agenda that Xi Jinping has set out in policy documents.

Xi’s vision is a ‘socialist market economy.’ By that, he means that state-owned enterprises must take the leading role, especially in strategic industries and in industries—like technological innovation—that he believes will shape China’s future.

Private companies are subsidiary to state enterprises, but they have a role to play because they are much better at earning money and creating jobs, so Xi Jinping wants to harness that. They’re useful, so keep them there. At the same time, the boundaries between private and state-owned enterprises have been blurred under Xi Jinping by a lot of the reforms that he has undertaken, including what I told you earlier about how the party structures inside private companies must lead—he is really big on that.

If that really happens (and it is happening), it will mean that the autonomy and scope for a private company to make commercial or any other decisions has been greatly narrowed because the party has a say.

“Socialism can save China…Marxism works”

Xi Jinping has also launched a crackdown on China’s top technological firms—including both Chinese firms and Western tech firms in China—on anti-monopoly grounds. Those firms were found to have monopolistic practices and were issued with very significant fines. This is a way of using regulatory power to bring private companies under control.

The other thing to bring to mind on China’s socialist market economy is the outsized role of the state in planning things and in directing the economy and directing resources. A policy document that was very controversial when it was released in 2015 was called ‘Made in China 2025’. It was a ten-year blueprint on how to make China a global technological leader.

When it was released, it got a lot of criticism from the US government and major Western chambers of commerce. They said, ‘This is distorting market practices, because the government is going to heavily subsidise selected industries so that they can effectively out-compete any other firms because they can run so cheaply. This is deeply unfair, and a threat to every other firm in the world who is in those industries.’

Since then, the Chinese government (including Xi Jinping) have reduced their mentions of ‘Made in China 2025’—to the extent that you might not even see them saying this term. Nonetheless, the thinking is still there. That hasn’t changed, and it’s still being pushed. The idea is that the government can pick winners, choose losers, and create a market using state steerage and national industrial policies. You identify the sectors—and even the quotas of what companies produce in each sector—that should dominate the market. It’s very much a legacy of the socialist planning that we saw in early Maoist China, which was adopted from the Soviet Union.

Is there anything else to highlight in The Third Revolution?

Another thing Elizabeth Economy says—which I think is very true—is that Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power, and the growing control over information in China, mean that it is now difficult to assess the degree of real consensus in China over China’s policy direction.

That’s a good moment to move on to the book by journalist Willy Lam who, over the years, I’ve come to associate with commentary on elite politics in China. His book is Xi Jinping: The Hidden Agendas of China’s Ruler for Life.

Yes, it opens by talking about COVID protests in China. China imposed a very draconian lockdown that was also quite arbitrary. It really made people’s lives very difficult for three years.

In 2022, there were spontaneous demonstrations, beginning in November, on at least 70 campuses in China, mostly university or vocational higher education campuses. There were also protests in the streets and people were carrying angry messages. A lot of them protested with blank white A4 paper because they didn’t want to get in trouble. Eventually, some people did criticise zero-COVID or were directly critical of Xi saying things like ‘Down with Xi Jinping.’

Willy Lam’s book argues that Xi Jinping’s government and Xi himself have lost the trust of the people. In his first two terms, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign was genuinely popular. There were government-sponsored TV programmes that glorified the campaign that people watched as entertainment. A hypothetical official from an imaginary province is very corrupt, and then this hardworking, diligent, anti-corruption team comes in to bring him down and restore order.

Now, I think, with the anti-corruption campaign still going on strongly today, it’s very hard to convince people that it’s effective or it’s just about anti-corruption. Also, we have Xi Jinping’s policy failures, and his inability to attend to what the people really want, increasingly coming to the surface.

Xi Jinping wants to style himself not only as a strongman who can control the powerful political elites, but as leader who is also close to the people—someone who is down to earth and can actually deliver. The zero-COVID policy, and the resentment that it has generated, failed on that. Willy Lam’s book starts with that.

The book is about what he calls ‘political liberalisation’ after Mao—from Deng Xiaoping to his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Under them, he argues, it was a trajectory of liberalisation.

The term ‘liberalisation’ might sound confusing in a one-party context. I would probably use the term institutionalisation. I think that’s better and less confusing. What Lam really means is that it is more collective rule, as opposed to one-man rule. Also, there is greater accountability and greater visibility on what’s going on. Chinese politics was becoming less of a black box.

Xi Jinping reversed a lot of that.

“The party needs to penetrate and lead everything and everyone else in China”

In the book, Will Lam goes through these major trends. Under Deng Xiaoping, it was the beginning of putting institutions above individuals, which is exactly what Mao didn’t do. Mao put himself above institutions, hence the dramatic abuse of power that led to the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Both had huge casualties with the whole of China involved in political infighting.

After the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping came to power and his reforms were very much about putting institutions ahead of individuals and putting checks on power. It’s things like term limits and age limits. The idea that the top party leader can be in power for only two terms came from Deng Xiaoping. If you want to get to the top of the party, you need to prove your meritocratic credentials. It can’t just be that you’re someone’s friend or somebody likes you—you have to work your way up the ranks.

It is also in this context that my Factional-Ideological Conflicts book on factions competing with each other for influence comes in. The party is no longer about one man: it’s about institutions, about norms. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms—which were about putting together a collective leadership—is what Willy Lam describes as the first major trend of political liberalisation in post-Mao China.

What is significant is that although Deng Xiaoping made himself an exception and broke a lot of those norms by staying in power behind the scenes, those norms were binding on many important party elites. After Deng Xiaoping was gone, Jiang Zemin, who was much weaker than Deng Xiaoping, largely followed those norms, and Hu Jintao, who was much weaker than Jiang Zemin, observed them scrupulously and even introduced new norms to reinforce them.

Jiang Zemin pushed hard for China to join the World Trade Organisation. That happened in 2001. Throughout the negotiations, there was signalling that China was sincere about becoming a much more market-oriented economy. The planned features of the economy would gradually be reduced.

The joining of the WTO was significant because there were factions in the party that didn’t believe in market reform and didn’t want China to merge with the rest of the world. By putting China into that organisation, Jiang Zemin was signalling very strongly that he bought into market reform and that there would be no turning back of the clock.

Then, he introduced a concept called the ‘three represents’. The party represents the people, it represents advanced cultural forces, it represents…whatever. It’s all very boring and jargonistic, so forget about the details. What is important is that after Jiang introduced the theory of the three represents, he used it as a rationale to justify admitting private businessmen to the Chinese Communist Party.

That was important because since the economic reform and opening up that started under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, there had been some private businesspeople joining the party off and on. Then, in 1989, there was the Tiananmen Square massacre. There were pro-democracy protests and the party sent in the army and killed a lot of people. It never revealed the number of fatalities and it’s still a taboo subject in China today. After that, Jiang Zemin—who had been installed by Deng Xiaoping as party leader—came out and said private businessmen could no longer join the party. He put that ban in place himself after the massacre. Then, in 2001, he lifted it.

It showed that the Chinese Communist Party was committed to marketisation, to more private business. Obviously, it’s also about co-option. These are important, influential people. Rather than them being outside our organisation, it’s much better for them to be one of us, so we can influence them or use them to achieve our purposes.

Willy Lam argues that this is a trend of political liberalisation, but I would say it’s more market reform continuing on its trajectory and a commitment to not turning back.

What Hu Jintao did might actually be closest to what we think political liberalisation is. He pursued experiments of intraparty democracy. There was a greater formal role for consultation within the party. There were direct elections, where party members had a say in choosing leaders at their own level (there are five levels of administrative hierarchy in China, with party organs at each level). Hu Jintao’s intraparty democracy was about making the party itself more accountable. Party members had more say in deciding how to run the party. It also meant that Hu Jintao was submitting his own power to greater checks and balances.

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Xi Jinping turned back the clock in many ways. The aim since Mao had been to have checks and balances, to prevent excessive concentration of power, and also, to make sure that leadership succession can be orderly—because a perennial problem for authoritarian regimes is: how do you ensure that the leadership succession doesn’t end up in massive political infighting that can bring down the regime? Institutionalisation under Deng Xiaoping was supposed to do that. Xi Jinping, with the abolition of the term limit for the presidency in 2018, the way in which he built up a personality cult and touted and centralised his power, undid that.

In terms of China merging with the rest of the world, it’s interesting because Xi has said that China is still very much committed to economic globalisation, to the WTO, to the United Nations, to the International Monetary Fund and all sorts of international organisations. It would appear, at least on the surface, that he has continued that Jiang Zemin paradigm. But, in reality, he has moved further away from that by making China’s economy more insulated from the West.

He pursues what he calls the ‘dual circulation strategy.’ It’s about making China more self-reliant when it comes to strategic industries and high tech, and being able to control its supply chains in its own hands to avoid external instability. It is about being much more selective and strategic with what kinds of foreign direct investment is allowed in China, rather than the Jiang Zemin paradigm of ‘the more foreign direct investment the better’. With Xi Jinping strengthening state-owned enterprises, it also shows that he is not interested in the market reform that Jiang Zemin seemed to have signalled.

Finally, on Hu Jintao’s intraparty democracy reform, Xi Jinping has been emphasising hierarchy, and an anti-corruption campaign that is more about rectification. Clearly, he is not interested in letting the party elites hold him to account. It’s much more the other way around—not intraparty democracy, but strongman, top-down rule.

That’s the opening of Willy Lam’s book. Xi has undone the good things from Deng Xiaoping’s reform era that Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continued, and he has brought back a lot of quasi-Maoist tendencies into the CCP. Then, in the rest of the book, Lam looks at different policy areas under Xi Jinping to build up that case.

I get a sense, from the way you talk about him, that Xi really believes in the ideology that he’s selling.

Yes, he does. I think that’s important because he really isn’t just saying it because he needs a political slogan. Xi Jinping Thought is a whole package of ideas, with the goal that China must be made great again. To be great again, you need to unite around the party, and the party needs to unite around a leader. That one-ness, sameness, the party-centric nationalism—he believes in it.

He also believes that China’s rise as a great power is irreversible as long as we stick with his programme of ‘party in charge, Xi in charge, everyone unites with the party.’ You stick with that, and the party will be invincible and lead to China rising. The decline of the US and the West, to him, is a historical trend that is inevitable. It’s about making it happen quicker with Xi in charge. I think he believes that because this is such a powerful idea, he can capture the whole Chinese population with it. Then the party is on strong ground because you have one way of thinking that unites all the people.

This is a good moment to talk about something quite controversial, which is Xi’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority population, especially in the remote Xinjiang province on the periphery of China. Many people use different terms to describe what is happening: a genocide, massive atrocities. Whatever term you use, what is quite clear is that it’s an extremely forceful campaign of assimilation, of making the Uyghur Muslim minority Chinese, making them one people, in the image of Xi Jinping Thought.

As Steve Tsang and I argue in our book, Xi Jinping has put forward a new de facto social contract for the people. That social contract is that the party has to increase control over your life, especially if you are one of those categories that are identified as more problematic, like Uyghurs, religious believers, or private businesspeople. (Businesspeople have money, and that money is independent of the party, so they’re suspicious). If you’re in one of those categories, then the party needs to control you even tighter. But everyone else, the party controls as well, increasingly using technology for control. The most surveilled cities in China have have one CCTV camera for every two to six people.

The Uyghurs are being controlled using a mobile phone app and other very sophisticated methods, as well as some that are not as sophisticated, including a party cadre going into their houses to assess their political loyalty. There are a Han Chinese uncle and auntie literally living with them in their house to assess them. This is not very technological, but he uses that, too. He rationalises all this by thinking, ‘I am reforming you. I’m reforming you to make you into a new, socialist person, so that when you accept that your new identity is a one-Chinese identity, you will have the opportunity to get rich and make your life better.’

We hear a lot about the suppression campaign against the Uyghurs here in the UK. What we hear less about is the background to it, which was an anti-poverty campaign that lasted for four or five years, beginning in the middle of Xi’s first term. The anti-poverty campaign’s professed goal was to eliminate absolute poverty. It was very ambitious. How do you eliminate poverty? Xi set a benchmark: there’s a poverty line for every province in China. If your income goes above that line, then absolute poverty is said to be eliminated.

The actual implementation has been very rough. A lot of local leaders simply handed out cash to bring the province above the poverty line.

“The whole idea is that you need to make the Uyghurs Chinese”

Xinjiang, where there are massive atrocities going on, is arguably one of the places where the implementation of the anti-poverty campaign has been the most serious. It included  a massive relocation effort, with a lot of Xinjiang people being sent to work in factories in other parts of China, in low-skilled jobs. It was all framed under the anti-poverty banner: This is about giving you a future, giving you skills, giving you income. That took place at the same time as those massive detention centres, and other very intrusive surveillance was happening. The Chinese Communist Party rejects the term ‘detention centres’ and calls them ‘vocational training centres.’

If we look at Xi Jinping’s speeches and official documents that are out there, we can get a sense of how thoroughgoing it was. There was an official document I was able to find online, saying things like, ‘We need to break the influence of religion in Uyghur households and Uyghur families.’ To do that, one major goal of the education bureau in Xinjiang was building boarding schools.

The whole idea is that you need to make the Uyghurs Chinese and making them Chinese means that they need to not believe in what they believe in, because if they believe in that faith, they’ll be prone to extremism. Also, you need to make them grateful to the Chinese Communist Party, make them one of us, make them grateful to China. Hence, you send them elsewhere in China to work, so they’re more integrated. This is part of his social contract for ethnic minorities.

What I’m curious about is Xi obviously suffered under Maoism, or his father suffered under Maoism, and he must have seen the devastation that it caused. Having seen the evidence, it’s strange he’s going back to that now as a solution.

That’s a good point. You’ll notice that among the books I gave you, I don’t really have a Xi Jinping biography. Kerry Brown touched on a bit of that in some of his chapters, tracing Xi Jinping’s background. But I really don’t think we can explain Xi’s agenda through what he himself has experienced, his growing-up story.

Even his own father, a founding CCP member, was not popular within his generation. His father was much more liberal-leaning, so Xi Jinping doesn’t even act like his father. What we might understand from his background is that despite what he has gone through, he has always stuck with the party.

During the Cultural Revolution, when his father was being wrongly accused and badly treated in Beijing, Xi Jinping was sent down to the countryside, to a mountainous area. He lived in a cave and worked with farmers, so it was a very hard life. Even in that context, he applied to join the party. He was rejected ten times because of his father’s difficult political background.

The point is that he tried to join the party. And then, when he could leave that cave situation, it was because his father, having been wronged, was gradually restored to his former status. So, in Xi Jinping’s own career, he was wronged by the party, and his family was very wronged by the party. His half-sister committed suicide because of what happened to her.

You might say that by going to a remote village, although he lived in very poor circumstances, he was shielded from the political turbulence in Beijing. But I think this is a side note, really. The main point that I see in his life is one which is really shaped by the party and bound by the party, and he hasn’t let go of the party.

We’d better cover your last two choices. Tell me about Steven Feldman’s 2021 book, Dictatorship by Degrees: Xi Jinping in China.

This book is interesting because he introduces the concept of ‘pre-totalitarianism.’ What he sees happening in Xi Jinping’s China has tendencies of totalitarianism, but it’s not completely totalitarian yet.

The way he defines totalitarianism is that it’s a political regime that has complete control over the minds of its citizens. It goes beyond dictatorship, which simply means that decision making is outside the rule of law by a leader or a group of leaders. Totalitarianism is about controlling the mind.

We’ve seen the term ‘pre-totalitarianism’ before, in political science, and famously, in Hannah Arendt’s work, but she didn’t develop it. She used the term, but Steven Feldman did the difficult work of really trying to conceptualise what it is. He went to China and talked to a lot of different people at all levels: people who are more senior in politics or business, and ordinary folks. It’s an ethnographical approach to looking at pre-totalitarianism, and I thought that was interesting because I’ve never seen that before.

The other book I’ve chosen, The Politics of the Core Leader in China, is by Xuezhi Guo. His main argument is that in Chinese politics, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, there’s an enduring tendency to gravitate towards one core leader. From what Willy Lam has said and what I have said, we are talking a lot about collective leadership under Deng Xiaoping and how important it is.

What Xuezhi Guo says is that collective leadership is actually an abnormality. You have collective leadership only when the top leader fails to really consolidate power. If you have collective leadership, it is not because Deng Xiaoping put in those norms, and people abide by those norms because they don’t want the atrocities of the Mao era to recur and you have collective leadership as a party consensus. He challenges that view. He says that you have collective leadership because the person who has the title of the top party leader failed to consolidate power successfully, so that you have different factions competing with each other.

Elsewhere in Chinese political culture, with Confucianism and Legalism and ancient political thought, looking up at one core leader is what supplies stability. The emperor, the wise sage—he can maintain order.

So, Guo argues, Xi Jinping being able to concentrate power and now being formally at the top of the party actually has a lot of cultural legitimacy—because Chinese political culture really supports the idea of having one core leader.

When you start studying Chinese, you often learn a sentence about how long Chinese history is. In one of the books you’ve chosen, the author points out that the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, so we’re talking about a country that actually hasn’t been around that long.

It’s a good point. Xi Jinping Thought—which is simply Xi Jinping’s political vision—is now in the process of being formally elevated into China’s state ideology. He argues that the origins of socialism with Chinese characteristics aren’t only in Marx or the Soviet Union but in China’s 5000+ years of excellent history. He is always trying to backdate his own political vision and socialism with Chinese characteristics, to ancient Chinese history.

He even said that when the Chinese Communist Party waged a revolution and founded the PRC, the reason why it was so well received by the people of China—which is contradicted by the many campaigns to supress ‘counterrevolutionaries’ and unleash terror in the population—is because socialism merged seamlessly with traditional Chinese culture. So Xi revived ideological research in China, the study of Chinese poems, idiom, and so on. The idea that he is representing something much older—that there is a consensus that transcends the political regimes that China has gone through—is a main theme.

Xi says that as Chinese people, we need cultural self-confidence, which is deeper and more enduring than any other sort of self-confidence. And where do we get that? From ancient Chinese history that merges seamlessly with socialism into the brand of ideology that he is now putting forward.

What’s your sense of Xi Jinping and his relationship with the world beyond China? We often hear about how he spent time in Iowa, but when I looked this up it seems it was only a brief stay. How well does he understand the outside world, do you think?

Xi Jinping has never studied abroad. Even his education level in China is questionable, even though, formally, he has a PhD. But he has distinguished himself as the Chinese leader who has travelled the most, spending the highest number of days outside China—at least before COVID. Even during the COVID lockdown, he had a very busy schedule, video calling different political leaders around the world. That suggests that he is comfortable conversing with dignitaries around the world, in selling his own agenda.

But he focuses on the developing world much more than the developed world, and he is clearly a lot more comfortable and welcome there. He basically supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The way that he’s going about things really cuts into what are seen as core values in the West. This decoupling—at least rhetorically or ideologically—between China and the Western world is going to keep happening because I don’t see Xi Jinping pulling back.

The way he has allied with Putin and condoned what has happened in Ukraine is seen as unacceptable in this part of the world, but to him it’s about building a new world order. This is in the last chapter of the book that Steve Tsang and I wrote.

“Xi Jinping Thought is a whole package of ideas, with the goal that China must be made great again”

Xi Jinping believes that China needs to guide the world to build a new world order, and this new world order is branded ‘tianxia,’ a Chinese term meaning ‘all under heaven.’ This is not the same tianxia that was in place as a world order in ancient Asia; it is tianxia as Xi Jinping himself imagines it to be—his romantic interpretation of a world order that used to be the world order of ancient East Asia.

In the tianxia world order as Xi Jinping believes it to be, it is hierarchical, but importantly, China doesn’t need to use force or use coercion, although China would have the capacity to do so. Strong army: necessary! Strong military: necessary! But China doesn’t need to use it because other countries genuinely admire and like China. They look up to Chinese civilisation. They look up to China as a good example that they can learn from.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone in the West is too serious about learning from China. But there are developing countries that Xi Jinping has really tried to get to learn from China. The Chinese Communist Party is literally funding and writing curriculums for schools that train political parties in Africa, and inviting political elites, especially from developing countries, to come to Beijing to study in party schools or Chinese universities that have curriculum programs for them to learn about how the CCP rules China.

There’s pride there. There’s the sense that in order to build up this new world order— where all under heaven admire China and see China as the centre—you need the support of the developing world. So Xi Jinping is definitely a lot more comfortable with that part of the world than with the US.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

January 9, 2024

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Olivia Cheung

Olivia Cheung

Olivia Cheung is Research Fellow of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. She was educated at Oxford where she was a Swire Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar. She previously taught at the University of Warwick, where she was Course Director for the MA in International Politics and East Asia. She is the author of Factional-ideological Conflicts in Chinese Politics: To the Left or to the Right?

Olivia Cheung

Olivia Cheung

Olivia Cheung is Research Fellow of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. She was educated at Oxford where she was a Swire Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar. She previously taught at the University of Warwick, where she was Course Director for the MA in International Politics and East Asia. She is the author of Factional-ideological Conflicts in Chinese Politics: To the Left or to the Right?