By VERA ARMUS —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Throughout his term in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made clear his interest of asserting strong and authoritarian leadership. However, his attempts to preside over almost all areas of Chinese governance do not seem destined to succeed, a leading China expert said Monday.
Xi has been described as wanting to be COE, or “chairman of everything,” said Susan Shirk, a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Yet, she suggested someone who wants to be chairman of everything might actually be chairman of nothing.
“I’ve come to a tentative conclusion that Xi Jinping’s project of institutionalizing governance in China just failed; it just didn’t work,” Shirk said during a presentation at Claremont McKenna College.
But for Shirk, perhaps most shocking about the current Chinese regime is the striking similarities between Xi’s style of leadership with Mao’s governance.
“Xi Jinping has surprised people in China and abroad by consolidating his authority in ways we haven’t seen since Mao Zedong,” she said during her talk.
According to Shirk, one of the possible causes for this path is the fact that Xi simply is not familiar with other styles of rule, turning to Mao’s structure because of familiarity.
Still, given the fact that Xi and his family were themselves victims of Mao’s measures, it is even more puzzling that the Chinese leader he would follow this path of someone who wreaked so much havoc on China through his radical programs and campaigns.
Purged from all leadership positions in 1962 after being accused of leading an anti-party campaign, Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was also later persecuted and jailed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Nevertheless, “Xi is also reviving a lot of Maoist concepts and practices that we hadn’t seen much of during this era of reform,” Shirk added.
And like Mao, Xi is looking to mobilize the Chinese people while simultaneously cracking down on his enemies.
In one of his most significant reforms, Xi has instituted and carried out an expansive anti-corruption campaign to “restore the integrity of the party.”
According to Shirk, the campaign has appeared to be hugely popular with the Chinese public, which has praised him for tackling pervasive corruption.
“The public was really fed up with corruption, and they really respect a stronger leader who is addressing corruption head-on,” Shirk said.
And even though Shirk thinks Xi has been successful in this pursuit, she said he appears also to be using these anti-corruption efforts as means to destroy rival groups.
“It’s both a purge of political rivals as well as a genuine effort to clean up the party,” she said.
Establishing power over the military, going after the previous internal security czar and 30 army generals for corruption, and instituting himself as leader of the internal police, Xi has used these as opportunities to protect potential threats to his power.
Yet, though his stab at corruption might very well be working, Shirk also points out that Xi has been conducting his efforts primarily through the party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission rather than the legal system.
Through his almost obsessive attempts to mitigate all potential backlash, Shirk thinks that Xi “cannot go after everyone” and that he has to pick his targets, underlining that Xi’s authoritarian strategy is a flaw of his regime.
Having studied Chinese politics and government closely for the last 40 years, Shirk is a prominent specialist on China’s political climate and structure.
Commencing her work in Hong Kong during the late sixties, Shirk began interviewing refugees who had fled Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime, trying to construct an image of what life was like for the Chinese, and later focusing on the human cost of Mao’s oppressive policies and movements.
She has continued to specialize in Chinese politics, serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs during the Clinton administration. She is the author of “China, the Fragile Superpower.”
(Written by Vera Armus, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Nov. 26, 2015)