The making of Xi Jinping, China’s absolute monarch

  • Themes: China

Xi Jinping may preach Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics but a much older doctrine governs his actions: absolutism.

Xi Jinping waves above a large portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Xi Jinping waves above a large portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Xi Jinping grew up in the shadow of Mao Zedong and is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao’s death in 1976. He lost his childhood to the Cultural Revolution and saw his family wrecked by the political chaos unleashed by the Great Helmsman. His father was purged and his half-sister is said to have hanged herself. Yet Xi is set on the same course of one-man rule that defined the Maoist experiment. He has learned to see it as a necessity of power.

When Xi was a small child in the 1950s, he went to school in a tranquil walled garden near the Forbidden City, a stone’s throw from the compound of pavilions and lakes, called Zhongnanhai, where his father worked with Mao planning the New China. He recited songs and slogans praising the leader and absorbed by rote the curriculum devised by the Communist Party to shape the next generation of its elite. ‘To learn by heart has more than one meaning,’ as the biographer Richard Holmes observed, so anyone writing about the life of Xi Jinping has to look at what he learned and how it shaped him.

The results are surprising. Xi may preach Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics, but a much older doctrine governs his actions. Broadly speaking, it is absolutism. It is often assumed that the Xi clan came back from banishment in the age of reform that followed Mao, but this is untrue. They were rehabilitated in 1972, the year that Mao welcomed Richard Nixon to Beijing and set the world stage for the half century to come. Mao had almost destroyed the Xi family, yet the chairman’s arbitrary whim restored them to fortune with a few words. Even his feared secret police chief, Kang Sheng, could not stop it. Mao’s word was law.

Mao was an influencer on a global scale, but the titan of modern China had deeper roots in its soil than his foreign admirers guessed. Mao kept by his bedside a manual composed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), A Comprehensive Mirror for the aid of Governance, or Zizhi Tongjian, a collection of stories spanning the rise and fall of earlier dynasties. It is replete with anecdotes of statecraft, cunning and court intrigue. The book was read by the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722), who reigned for 61 years, the longest of any Chinese monarch, and who is said to have made more than 100 emendations to the text. Mao was so fascinated that he read it through more than a dozen times.

One lesson of the book was that absolute rulers nurture their image. In its bleak realism, the work could be compared to Machiavelli except that the emperor is made to seem benevolent even when he is ruthless. Mao, the murderer of millions, certainly accomplished that trick.

The crimes of Xi Jinping are as nothing compared with Mao, but he has copied the formula on a minor scale, appearing as the stern lawgiver one day and a wolfer of steamed buns down among the masses the next. The authorised biographies of Xi offer a catalogue of books he is supposed to have read, ranging from classical folk tales to Marx and Hemingway. They do not claim that he enjoyed Song Dynasty prose, but his acolytes are not shy of evoking the emperors. The scholar Geremie Barmé points out that Xi behaves as if he too was master of all he surveys, jiang shan, as the Chinese put it, the lord of ‘rivers and mountains.’

The vanished empire also serves contemporary politics. Xi’s Minister of State Security, Chen Yixin, has said that the times between the 16th and 19th centuries when Ming and Qing dynasty rulers walled off the country from the world were ‘periods of self-restriction’ to protect China against foreign invasion and several scholars have praised the policy of isolation as a healthy tonic; notably these statements were made while the state security apparatus was extending its grip on a populace cowering under Xi’s draconian ‘Zero-Covid’ lockdowns.

Xi himself says that ‘Chinese civilisation is characterised by strong uniformity’ and this sweeping generalisation, devoid as it is of scholarly evidence, goes unremarked when it comes from a Chinese leader. A more precise observation was made by the Sinologist Lucian Pye, who said that ‘China is a civilisation pretending to be a state’.

For Xi, the state is subject to the Communist Party, and the man who taught him most about dominating the two was Stalin. His father’s generation of Chinese Communists looked to the Soviet Union as the great example of a revolution transformed into statehood. Xi himself has ordered cadres to study Stalin’s Short Course in the History of the Bolsheviks and his writings on the Chinese Revolution. The Short Course is a handbook for dictatorship, mandating purges to cleanse the party exactly as Xi has done for a decade; the latest victims, Soviet-style, were his own foreign and defence ministers.

The third pillar of Chinese power is the army; here, too, Xi absorbed privileged leadership lessons in his first job after attending Tsinghua University in Beijing. The young Xi donned a uniform in 1979 and joined the staff of the most powerful man in the Chinese military machine. His mentor was Geng Biao, appointed to reform the People’s Liberation Army by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and later made minister of defence. Xi became one of three mishu or private secretaries in Geng’s office, trusted with state secrets and with a window on the most sensitive nuances of Chinese strategy.

He got the job because Geng Biao was an old comrade of his father and because his mother, Qi Xin, intrigued successfully on his behalf. He also watched as Geng ran into entrenched interests in the PLA, who resisted change and eventually left office a disappointed man. Xi himself quit the uniform and headed for the provinces to climb the civilian administrative ladder. When he took power, control of the military was his first priority.

Xi is not an intellectual and he is not the originator of the state doctrine that is now invoked as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. This compendium of axioms and statist clichés is chiefly the work of an opportunist academic from Shanghai, Wang Huning, who has been at the side of three Chinese leaders as wordsmith and counsellor. Wang may well be the second most powerful man in China; he is behind the talk of the overthrow of the Western-led order, which both he and his master find presumptuous and weak.

The perils of this cloistered, xenophobic and ambitious regime can be foretold in the words AJP Taylor wrote about the last Habsburg Emperor, Franz Josef, a monarch whose mulish autocracy led to the dissolution of his empire:

‘Absolutism had been established in order to conduct a strong foreign policy and failure in foreign policy brought absolutism to an end.’

That is a leadership lesson which might be useful to Xi Jinping’s opponents.


Michael Sheridan