CLAREMONT, Calif. – Chinese President Xi Jinping has been consolidating his power in a way unexpected by the Chinese people, an expert on China’s politics said Wednesday.

“Xi Jinping has surprised people in China and abroad by consolidating his personal authority in a way that we haven’t seen since Mao,” Susan Shirk said in a talk at Claremont McKenna College, referring to Mao Zedong, who founded communist China in 1949.

“People who know him say that he really has a sense of mission to save Chinese Communist Party rule in China,” she continued, “and that he’s been very spooked by what he knows about the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.”

These observations reflect what Shirk, a professor and chair of the 21st Century China Program at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, calls “the tension between the institutionalization of governance … and personalistic dictatorship.”

This means that highly hierarchical communist governments in the Leninist structure tend to gain the trust of their people by increasing meritocratic appointment practices and liberalizing economic policy while, at the same time, the concentration of power can allow one person to execute more major reform than any collective policy decisions, Shirk said.

The aspect of heavy-handed Communist rule is exemplified in the leadership styles of Xi and Mao, according to Shirk. Her comparison of the two chairmen focused mainly on their similar missions to create cults of personality, single-handedly implement major policy reform, and spearhead not only political but also cultural changes in China.

Of these changes, Shirk compared Mao’s 10-year Cultural Revolution to Xi Jinping’s commitment to censorship and “preventing the public from being seduced by foreign ideas and ideas that appear to be subversive to Communist Party rule.”

Shirk juxtaposed Mao’s omnipotence in China’s power structure with what she referred to as Xi Jinping’s COE – “Chairman Of Everything” – approach. This refers to Xi’s chairmanship of many key committees in the Communist Party and government, which parallels Mao’s nearly unchallenged rule.

Shirk also described how Mao and Xi not only held multiple executive positions, but also implemented major reform in China without checks and balances of the government or the party. The most significant of these reforms under Xi’s rule, according to Shirk, has been his extensive anti-corruption campaign, which she said is actually used to “take down rival groups, or anyone who would challenge his rule.”

This tentative balance between Xi Jinping’s firm individual rule and his supposed mission to regulate the Communist Party and People’s Republic of China government is, according to Shirk, one of the main identity crises that the Chinese leadership faces today.

Shirk’s justification for Xi’s decision to carry on Mao’s centralized leadership style despite its evident failures and human costs is that there is a dearth of successful exemplars for Xi to emulate.

Furthermore, given that Xi is a “princeling,” or son of a prominent Communist Party revolutionary, Shirk said that he has higher incentive to maintain the prestige and absolute power of the party. This was a goal that Mao achieved through strict enforcement and practically abandoning rule of law, all the while making China’s people endure the negative consequences of such authoritarian rule.

Xi, according to Shirk, will likely not revert to the mass starvation and economic devolution of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but there is a chance that he achieves the same level of personality cult following as Mao.

(Written by Anna Balderston, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Nov. 26, 2015)

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