I try not to admire Xi Jinping, but the more I learn about his backstory the more impressed become. It is true he is a “princeling.” This is a son of a Communist Party Leader, but this disguises the reality of his background. His father was removed from leadership when he was eight or nine. This was a major influence on Xi and in many ways set the trajectory for his life.
Classless societies do not exist within modern society. The sheer size of the population brings about stratification. Xi grew up at a time where China had abandoned capitalist principles of wealth creation. But capitalism is more than an economic system. It lays the foundation for social inequality. But its transparency also creates a road map for class mobility. Capitalism creates barriers to entrench the upper classes but also creates a pathway for social change. Communism pretends it has eliminated social inequality so the road map to class mobility is muddled.
China faced its own social inequality through the cultural revolution. The current generation of Chinese leadership was shaped by this period of history. But their experience was different from their fathers. Deng emerged from a period of terror that allowed him to begin a period of reform and change. The political system both revered and feared Mao. It transformed from a personal dictatorship into a party dictatorship. For those who have grown up in democratic nations this sounds like a difference in terminology rather than substance. But it established political order and stability through the transfer of power. This represents the emergence of the Communist Party as the dominant political institution of the Chinese political system.
Recently, China has changed its constitution to eliminate term limits on its President. Change that. But all meaningful power is centralized in the CCP. A reading of the Chinese Constitution shows the President as a figurehead. The Premier is the most powerful position under the formal constitution. But Xi is not important because he is President. His power is derived from his role as the General Secretary of the CCP. Through this role he controls the agenda, the military and even parts of the bureaucracy report directly to him. This is an arrangement difficult for Americans to understand. The military is not a part of the formal state. It is a wing of the Communist Party.
The Cultural Revolution shaped Xi and his generation. It took him from a boarding school for the Chinese elite and sent him into the countryside. He lived and worked among the peasants during a formative period of his life. This part of the Cultural Revolution draws in an American reader. In a political environment where the divide has become between rural and urban experiences, the Chinese elite were forced to live amongst those whose life held the greatest challenges. The American experience might be different if our own leaders lived in poverty during their formative years. Yet this is difficult to achieve. The Cultural Revolution obviously does not lay out a reasonable blueprint.
Xi emerged as a leader and became incorporated into the Communist Party during these years. Indeed, his experience during the Cultural Revolution was different from his parents. He was young so he transformed this experience into an opportunity. The older generations embraced Deng because the Cultural Revolution brought about so much death and destruction. Let me stress that Xi does not intend to repeat the Cultural Revolution, but he recognizes the role of experience and education on the formative years. This has created some scary repercussions. The Chinese education system shelters its children from their own history in ways the American system could never imagine. Chinese millennials have already forgotten about Tiananmen Square. Newly hired censors have it explained so they know what to censor.
I’m not sure how to think about Xi Jinping. It is China so repression is the norm. But is he a man with good intentions? I am not sure it matters.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org