What does Xi Jinping really think?

The Chinese leader’s doctrine is a study in banality. But it serves as an instrument of power for a ruler who can upend the lives of a billion souls.

A man looks at a building covered in posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai.
A man looks at a building covered in posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The fourth volume of President Xi Jinping’s opus, The Governance of China, is out. A circular from the publicity and organisation departments of the Communist Party recommends that members study it as ‘a major political task.’ While it may be doubted that all 95 million of them will make it through the 109 spoken and written works collected under 21 topics, there is no question that the four volumes amount to the most substantial contribution to the ruling ideology since the era of Mao Zedong.

Regrettably, the leader does not have Mao’s gift for the pithy phrase. There are no sparks to ‘light a prairie fire’ in the minds of the masses. Injunctions such as ‘Align Our Thinking with the Guidelines of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee’ do not have the same ring as ‘the atom bomb is a paper tiger.’ The late chairman’s legacy could be distilled in a pocket-sized little red book; President Xi’s ruminations weigh some two kilos.

If Mao wrote poetry for the revolution, Xi governs in prose. He employs his own master of the prosaic to ensure a consistent tone — chauvinist, authoritarian and remote. That craftsman is Wang Huning, a 67-year-old academic-turned-courtier who has parlayed his skills to ascend from a professorship at Fudan University in Shanghai to a seat on the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme ruling body in China.

Wang is little-known in the West. But he is like an old friend to scholars who ponder the workings of the People’s Republic from afar. In the early 1990s, he was spotted by the editors of the China News Analysis, a newsletter founded at the University of Hong Kong by the Jesuit priest László Ládányi. It was renowned for obtaining original Chinese documents, for its rigorous textual approach, and its freedom from bias.

The Jesuits took note of an article by Wang in the third edition of the Fudan Journal of 1994 on the unpromising topic of ‘Cultural Expansionism and Cultural Sovereignty: Challenges to the Concept of Sovereignty.’ They included it in a survey of Chinese thinkers on human rights.

It is eerie to turn the faded pages of the newsletter and find the worldview of Xi Jinping expressed in words that are almost three decades old. It is even stranger to learn that Wang turned to the writings of Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, to find his own theoretical framework.

Today, Wang would be labelled an influencer. In the pre-internet age he made his mark with a stream of  commentaries that caught the attention of party leaders. His career reflects the defeat of liberalism in China and the demise of collective rule inside the party.

His 1994 article cited Huntington’s view that civilisations more than nation-states would be the agents of future international conflict. It suggested ‘resistance to cultural hegemony’ was the key to maintaining state sovereignty. It quoted Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after Mao, as saying ‘state sovereignty and security must be put first’ and that ‘sovereignty is much more important than human rights.’

It followed, Wang argued, that ‘an independent stand by China on human rights is a matter of national sovereignty.’ Indeed, the very affirmation of such a stance allowed China to conduct an independent diplomacy, the key to maintaining its prestige among nations. Human rights, far from pressuring China to adopt universal values, provided a convenient ‘civilisational’ way to define itself as different.

Of course, Huntington drew no such conclusion. But what remains striking is that a Chinese scholar seized on the Harvard political scientist’s most controversial work with such alacrity. The thesis was first published as an article in Foreign Affairsa specialist journal, in 1993 and did not appear as a book until 1996. Wang was commenting on it within fourteen months of the Foreign Affairs piece. There was a reason for that.

A rising star in academia, Wang had seized his moment after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. China’s political reformers had been purged but the old guard was shaken. A new regime under Jiang Zemin was trying to engage again with the wider world.

The two men knew each other because in early 1989 Jiang was the party leader in Shanghai while Wang occupied a prestigious post at the city’s Fudan University. In that heady spring, as students thronged the campus quoting Byron in their odes to freedom, Wang was not afraid to be a vocal critic of Western-style democracy. His loyalty was noticed.

To Jiang’s credit, there was no massacre in Shanghai. He let the protests burn out after a week. The student rebels fled, Jiang was called to the top job in Beijing, and the Fudan professor stepped forth from obscurity to influence.

The Jiang regime was desperate to resume ‘reform and opening up,’ to trade its way to prosperity and thus to stay in power. To achieve all three it had to deal with America, a place of which its leaders were almost wholly ignorant.

That is where Wang came in. His insight on the United States was a gift to the leadership. He had toured there in 1988 as a visiting scholar (even though his second language is said to be French), staying at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Iowa, among other citadels of American academia.

The trip led to a book, America against Americawhich was praised for its balance, identifying weaknesses like inequality, consumerism and social decay but recognising America’s strengths, such as its relentless modernisation. It was a message apt for the times as Jiang led China to join the global economy and the World Trade Organisation.

This explains why the ‘clash of civilisations’ idea was so disturbing to China. Its leaders had no illusions, they left those to their Western admirers. But nothing could be allowed to knock their plans off course. As a result, Huntington’s work quickly attracted officially-sponsored criticism in China, where it was held to be prejudiced, even hostile.

In Beijing’s ruling circles there was alarm at Huntington’s view that no evidence existed for the liberal internationalist assumption that commerce promoted peace. Nor did they appreciate his warning that it was wishful thinking to talk of the harmonious convergence of civilisations in a global economy. Both propositions were at the core of China’s engagement with the rest of the world.

Wang Huning’s stroke of genius was to take up the ‘clash’ theory and make it China’s own. Naturally the party gave little outward sign of this psychological shift. But its defeated reformers, men like Bao Tong, a high official in the 1980s, could spot the subtle change.

It reversed the intellectual trend epitomised in a famous 1988 television series, River Elegywhich contrasted the slow-moving, silted-up culture of the Yellow River with the bright blue maritime civilisation beyond China’s shores. Bao, who died in 2022, watched his hopes for a fresh, outward-looking nation fade to a dull conformist hue.

The new men were neither technocrats nor globalists. They were heirs to millennia of bureaucratic hauteur dependent on ritual and observance. Each leader sought ceremonial legitimacy. In Jiang Zemin’s case, his political skills were considerable, but as a trained engineer he had scant theoretical grounding. So Wang helped to devise the ‘Three Represents’ (it sounds better in Mandarin Chinese: san ge dai biao) to codify Jiang’s idea that the Party unified the economic, cultural and political interests of the majority of Chinese.

When Jiang stepped down (he, too, died in 2022), his successor, Hu Jintao, wanted his own political theory. Wang obliged with ‘scientific development,’ which spoke for itself. As for ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ it evolved in Wang’s hands from a slogan, ‘the Chinese dream,’ into a corpus of wisdom miraculously applicable to anything from diplomacy to medicine.

Xi himself did not pretend to be an intellectual on his rise to the top; that claim was made later by the burnishers of his personality cult. Like many a statesman, texts published under his name are not all his own work. They bear the understandable stamp of writing by committee, but there is no doubt as to their ultimate editor.

As servant to three leaders of China, a feat of survival matched by few, Wang may be an opportunist, but he has re-discovered a Soviet maxim: dullness is a weapon. It numbs the enemy and wearies the rival within. With ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ he has elevated the practice to statecraft. Millions of older Chinese would rather be bored than terrorised once again. There is a reassuring normality to the slabs of bureaucratese in the four volumes, interspersed with hymns to national rebirth and benevolent speeches to Young Pioneers.

Three things distinguish ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ from its immediate predecessors. First, it is indeed ‘civilisational,’ being proudly Chinese. Secondly, it stresses Marxism as a founding belief rather than just paying deference to the creed. Thirdly, it borrows the theory and practice of dictatorship from the late Joseph Stalin. As a manifesto for the new autocracy, it deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.

Foreigners who say with glib assurance that the Communist Party has no principles any more are wrong. It stands for ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ which restores the state to a paramount role and puts the party back in command ‘north, south, east and west’ with Xi as ‘the people’s leader,’ a title accorded to no Chinese politician since Mao.

There are inconsistencies, of course. One paradox is the contrast between the regime’s brittle nationalism and its own reliance on doctrines borrowed from abroad. The leader likes to evoke China’s misty imperial past but he himself upholds the tenets of a philosopher born in Germany, Karl Marx, whose theories owed much to revolutionary Paris and whose later works were composed in Victorian England.

As for the ‘civilisational’ component of the new order, it turns out to be yet another piece of intellectual property that has been ‘appropriated’ from Harvard. Xenophobia is key to Xi’s message to uplift and inspire the next generation, which has grown up isolated behind his Great Firewall. Ardent young patriots might be dismayed to learn that so much originated with foreigners. Not many of them will find out.

In all this one should not lose perspective. Mao occupied a place where, in the words of Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, ‘excessive power drives its possessor into a shadow world, where great visions become father to great crimes.’

The Xi Jinping dictatorship is much more banal than that. It amounts to a flimsy philosophical edifice underpinned by force. Its contradictions are blotted out by slogans. There is often scant logic to the propaganda, which does not prevent its wearisome repetition. Only the Stalinism is authentic, and that is little spoken of.

Soon after taking over in 2012, Xi declared the Soviet Union collapsed because nobody was ‘man enough’ to fight for it. To dismiss Lenin and Stalin was ‘to engage in historical nihilism,’ he said. He cherishes Stalin’s work A Short Course on the History of the BolsheviksStrictly speaking the Course is neither short nor history; it is a manual for dictatorship and teaches that purges strengthen the Party, class war means perpetual struggle, and the revolution always needs enemies, preferably foreign ones.

With Wang Huning installed at his side, Xi served notice that he meant to restore total ideological control. Officials and journalists were encouraged to study Stalin’s 1926 article Prospects of the Revolution in China. Why this obscure tract? In it, the Soviet leader acknowledged the Chinese revolution was different from Russia’s because it was a fight against foreign imperialism as well as a struggle against feudalism and class oppression.

Stalin elaborated: ‘Intervention is by no means confined to the incursion of troops … (it) assumes more flexible and camouflaged forms … imperialism prefers to intervene in a dependent country by organising civil war there, by financing counter-revolutionary forces … by giving moral and financial support to its Chinese agents.’

If this sounds familiar, that is because modern Chinese propaganda mimics it. A day rarely passes without the regime’s spokespersons evoking ‘foreign forces’ who are at their hostile work everywhere from the arid wastes of Xinjiang to the skyscraper canyons of Hong Kong and, yes, even in the wet markets of Wuhan.

Diplomats are wont to sigh that if only Chinese officials realised the negative impact of such talk on their international image they would not say these things. That inverts the logic of ‘wolf warrior’ rhetoric. It is not meant to awe foreigners but to cow the home audience.

In recent weeks some have detected cracks in the fortress. The retreat from Xi’s ‘Zero Covid’ measures happened after unusual, though not unprecedented, protests. A verdict on government pandemic policy anywhere will only come through historical analysis years in the future. But in China the revolt against it gave glimpses of a population neither docile nor deceived. In one well-documented clash, the police warned protesters they were being used by those spectral ‘foreign forces.’ In retort, there were shouts of ‘what foreign forces? Marx or Engels?’

Revolutionary stuff for sure, yet the abiding image of Chinese dissidence is one I retain from the campus of Fudan University in June 1989. The student leaders were holed up in a faculty building, daring to give their last interview to a Western newspaper, The Independent, before making their escape. Cool, articulate and defiant, they would have been worthy opponents of Professor Wang Huning in any seminar, had he dared to hold one.

One thoughtful young man pointed to a glass jar in which traditional miniature figures carved in wood traversed a landscape of mountains and clouds. China’s leaders, he said, inhabited a world as tiny, self-contained and artificial as this.

The precepts of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ may be unoriginal, its reasoning untested, and its practice brutish; as philosophy it hardly ranks with Confucius, and as politics it would bore Mao witless. But it serves as an instrument of power for a ruler who can upend the lives of a billion souls while his minions insist on the integrity of his genius. Their glass jar will not be shattered just yet.

Author

Michael Sheridan