Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China?

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.

It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:

By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.

Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.

Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.


If the New York Times sources are correct (and if the paper has accurately reflected their words), then the response that Xi was coordinating was probably laid down by Hu Jintao. The China Leadership Monitor’s rock-solid Michael Swaine has discussed, on the basis of “knowledgeable Chinese observers”, the PRC’s decision-making system in international crisis situations. The process is believed to start with the General Secretary convening an enlarged Politburo Standing Committee meeting, with trusted advisers and, if there are “significant military issues” at stake, the two Central Military Commission Vice Chairmen with or without their staff.

“The purpose of this initial senior-level meeting,” Swaine writes, “is to understand and determine the features and significance of the crisis, and to agree upon a set of principles and guidelines for handling it.” This is believed to be the point at which China’s basic objectives, interests and “thresholds for certain actions” are worked out.

If this is how PRC leadership developed its response to Diaoyu in 2012, then such a meeting would have taken place well before September. It could have taken place in April after Ishihara’s original announcement that the Tokyo government was planning to buy the islands, or in July after Noda publicly indicated that the Japanese central government was considering making the purchase. More likely, it would have been whenever China’s diplomats or spies reported convincing enough evidence that Japan was actually going to go through with the plan. Whatever the precise timing, the CCP knew about Japan’s nationalization plan months in advance, so the initial meeting laying down the “set of principles and guidelines for handling” the crisis would almost certainly have been convened and chaired by Hu Jintao.

According to Swaine, when the crisis is a relatively slow-moving one, as Diaoyu 2012 was, the relevant Leading Small Group (in this case Foreign Affairs) is often assigned the task of overseeing the ongoing management of China’s response over the weeks and months that follow. However, an additional ad hoc working group dedicated to the crisis may be formed if and when the General Secretary deems it necessary. The Times‘ sources told the paper that by September Xi Jinping “had began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response”, suggesting this may have been the case. If Swaine’s description of ad hoc group formation applies to Diaoyu, then the working group Xi took over would also have been set up by Hu Jintao.

Most importantly, the Times‘ sources do not seem to have intimated that Xi taking over the Diaoyu response resulted in a noteworthy shift in policy. This also supports the idea that the existing reactive, non-military approach to the crisis was subject to strong consensus.

If the tolerance of this year’s anti-Japan street protests was, as the previous post suggested, a foreign policy tactic, the sequence of events described by the New York Times make it likely to have been a Hu Jintao-backed initiative because the mobilizations actully began back in mid-August, before Xi Jinping is supposed to have taken over. The PRC under Hu has form in using anti-Japan demonstrations to its advantage in the international arena. (On the other hand, the switch from Hu to Xi sounds like it happened somewhat progressively so by mid-August Hu may already have been weakened such that he was unable to suppress the protests even if he opposed them. This would have offered the chance for contending groups within the leadership to improve their positions. The next post will consider such alternative explanations for the protests.)

The basic continuity between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping’s foreign policy stances contradicts the China-watching media’s rather more dramatic narrative of a nationalist hardliner now in control of China. On Thursday, for example, the FT told the world:

On foreign policy, Mr Xi, who is due to replace Mr Hu as president in March, has adopted more nationalist rhetoric than his predecessors.

So what exactly has Xi said that has been “more nationalist” than his predecessors?

While Deng and other leaders stressed that China should keep its head down and “bide its time” in international affairs, Mr Xi has spoken emphatically of the “great revival of the Chinese nation”.

This idea that Xi’s “great revival” talk indicates he will run a hardline foreign policy is hasty to say the least. What evidence is there linking the great revival discourse with foreign policy aggression?

Chiang Kai-shek, ostensibly the inventor of the national humiliation/revival discourse, justifiably wanted to abolish extraterritoriality but he didn’t try to drive foreigners into the sea. Instead, he allied with them against his domestic enemies, the Communists. Under Jiang Zemin, we are often reminded, the CCP (re-)introduced nationalism to “fill the ideological vacuum” after the abandonment of communism. But Jiang pursued national revival (which he called 振兴 rather than 复兴 until late 1997) by focusing on domestic development, encouraging increased foreign involvement in China’s economy, and officially enshrining the low-profile taoguang-yanghui foreign policy principle more often attributed to Deng.

And of course Hu Jintao, Xi’s allegedly less “nationalist” predecessor, mentioned “the great revival of the Chinese nation” 23 times in a single speech last year, and 9 times in his report to the 18th Party Congress in November.

The great revival discourse, as Gregory Kulacki recently pointed out, has important socialist elements that outside observers often overlook when they assume China has simply abandoned its founding ideology:

The aims of the Chinese Renaissance are fairly modest; to achieve the status of a “basically modern” nation whose citizens enjoy a “medium level” of economic development by the middle of this century.

Such a pragmatic, domestic orientation is readily apparent in Xi’s use of the concept. His repeated emphasis on the great revival began with the crackdown on corruption he outlined in the first Politburo group study session after the 18th Congress: “A mass of facts tells us that if corruption becomes increasingly serious, it will inevitably doom the party and the state!” Xi is quoted as saying (NYT translation, with exclamation mark re-inserted from the Chinese original). Clearly, foreign policy assertiveness is not the only means for Xi Jinping to demonstrate his credentials as a leader who rules for the people.

To me it seems equally possible that Xi Jinping’s “nationalist” rhetoric, backed up by already-conspicuous action against corruption, will give him breathing space to lead China to pursue more cooperative relations with the US and/or lower the temperature in its territorial disputes, if and when he decides it is in the PRC’s interests. That would follow a similar logic to Nixon in 1972, whose staunch anti-communism is generally assumed to have been crucial in enabling him to make his breakthrough trip to China. A more recent precedent is perhaps Shinzo Abe in 2006, who warmed relations with China after coming to power, despite a hardline reputation and some tough talk on foreign policy during the election campaign.

It is not a good time to be making this argument. Thursday’s fly-past by a China Maritime Surveillance (civilian) plane over the Diaoyu Islands is a sign that i may be proved completely wrong in short order. The FT’s Simon Rabinovich claims that because Xi Jinping visited the Guangzhou Military Region this week and talked about the need for China to have a strong military (also not new), there is “little doubt about who was behind the order for the Chinese surveillance flight”. As a unilateral escalation by China, this would mark a clear break with the previous policy of advancing in maritime territorial disputes via fierce responses to external provocations.

To this point, however, Xi Jinping has been continuing with Hu Jintao’s foreign policy. After all, it is Hu Jintao’s 18th Congress Work Report that is being cited by self-interested PRC policy players as the basis for intensification of a range of maritime activities, from strengthened patrols to inter-provincial cooperative fisheries facilities and construction on disputed islands. For a CMS force pushing hard for upgraded aerial surveillance capacities, as well as state aircraft status, it could easily justify a flight or two to Diaoyu and back.

As the immediate crises over Scarborough and Diaoyu have passed, and the new leadership settle down to concentrate on their overwhelmingly important domestic agendas, central coordination of China’s foreign policy actions may have slackened, allowing the five/nine/eleven dragons of the China Seas to recommence their stirring routines.


8 Comments on “Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China?”

  1. σ1 says:

    It seems to me that Xi and Li are the most moderate in the SC. Where Hu lost is that he wasn’t able to enforce his legacy on the incoming PSC like Jiang did with Hu’s PSC. Hence why Hu was considered a failure from the pro-reform point of view. Even if Xi is not a natural hard liner, it will be hard to take a moderate position until 2017.

    • Hey – welcome & thanks for the comment.

      Why hard to take a moderate position until 2017 – do u mean with Japan or everybody in the region?

      Consensus view is that Hu got rolled by Jiang in the PBSC, but the appointments of Fang Fenghui, Zhang Yang and Zhao Keshi to the CMC show he is far from a spent force.

      Did that also suggest Hu’s standing with the PLA came through better than with the CCP? That would be ironic given Hu’s alleged lack of authority over the PLA.

      Also, if Hu has form in using anti-Japan demonstrations as foreign policy tool (2005), he also warmed ties with Japan (2006-08) and pursued cooperative agreements like Chunxiao.

      What’s your take on Hu vs Jiang on Japan? Any noteworthy differences?

      • σ1 says:

        I meant that because the remainder of the PBSC being quite conservative then it may not be until the 19th party congress that we see an influx of new blood. All five of the non-Xi/Li PBSC members will have to stand down due to age.

        As for Japan, yes there are significant differences. Essentially, the Japanese public dislikes Jiang Zemin in general, and the conservatives *hate* Jiang Zemin. With Hu, there was a bit of leeway, even after the 2005 demonstrations, as there was a general sense that he preferred the reform direction, even if not particularly successful and hampered by a less reformist, and large, PBSC. It is not a reflexive anti-Chinese thing – the Japanese, including conservatives, quite liked Zhou Enlai, Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and of course Deng Xiaoping. They were fine with Hu and Wen for the most part.

        With Jiang it is very different. Partially this is ideological relating to Jiang’s obsession with history and culture issues, but also Jiang reflects for many China watchers in Japan the exact kind of China that Japan cannot live next to – one that is not even trying to reform but is expanding its national power by any such means. There was an understanding in Japan that China has problems, and democracy may not be the immediate cure all, hence the 1978 peace treaty and soft Tiananmen response. However there was an expectation that China would over time engage in both political and economic reform, even if incremental, which would make it a large but generally constructive power. Jiang, in addition to his strong support of, and from, the PLA, reflects a bad faith alternative. That Jiang and Li Peng are still exerting their influence, will worry Japan analysts a lot.

  2. dylanjones says:

    Not taking a position on whether Xi is a hardliner or not, but isn’t it the case that (according to the Chinese state media) Xi Xinping led the drafting team for the report/speech Hu Jintao delivered to the 18th Party Congress?

    • Hope it doesn’t sound like I am taking a position on whether Xi is hardline or not. My point was not to say that he will be a dove, but that it’s premature to be reading everything the PRC does through the lens of Xi-the-hardliner just because he’s been talking about the great revival.

      Thanks or raising the drafting of the work report, that is very pertinent. Xinhua says Xi led a drafting team which operated on “guiding priciples” set down by Hu Jintao. More interestingly, however, the topics that Xi (rather than Hu) “heard reports & gave important suggestions” on included “ecological progress”, the heading under which maritime power is discussed.

      Perhaps this indicates that Hu Jintao was happy to entrust most foreign policy related parts of the draft to Xi (the military was not mentioned among the topics that Hu and Xi respectively “gave important suggestions” on). I note also that Xi gave his “important suggestions” on ecological progress between May 11-14, at the height of the Scarborough Shoal crisis. Maybe Hu delegated China’s response then to Xi as well….of course that’s just speculation, and even if that was the case, the most the could be said would be that Hu’s policy has been to let Xi handle China’s responses based on guiding principles from Hu – a la the work report. The responses this year to the two crises also mirror the response to the Diaoyu incident in 2010. Maybe Xi Jinping in charge then too? Heck, maybe the rising-nationalist Xi’s influence, rather than post-GFC arrogance, is behind China’s “aggressive assertiveness” since 2009!

      Point is, its not clear that Xi has done anything notably different from Hu in the foreign policy arena yet, and the available information suggests, more than anything, policy continuity between Hu and Xi.

  3. […] Sea Conversations looks into the new Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's political speech, in particular his talk […]

  4. […] via Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China? « southseaconversations 讨论南海. […]

  5. archibald says:

    Bottom-line to me seems to be the need to fill in the ideological gap ever since the CCP finally cracked down on demands by the people for reform – by the people and for the people. Zhao Ziyang was illegally removed, and then Jiang gave communism the final blow. Today the whole world knows they are all else but communists.
    The so called “great revival of the Chinese nation” is a nicely wrapped justification for the large scale corruption, nepotism and profiteering of the few at the expense of the many. The “great revival” is both, one in a set of moral fig-leaves offered to the haves (a tiny minority by the grace of the CCP), and a kind of boastful, emotion-loaded, but not material, “compensation” offer to the have-nots (still the overwhelming majority in China, tho the educated middle-class of some megacities seem to be better off – well, iPads and fake LV bags don’t mean people are wealthy and enjoy social security). In other words, the nationalist paroles of “great revival” are nothing but large-scale and deliberate eyewash.
    xiao kang was actually a nice idea, yet greed and neo-liberals proved stronger, and it’s sad to see how they even tailor Confucius, one of the truly great teachers of Chinese people, to justify their crimes.
    30 years ago, people on the mainland enjoyed a somewhat comprehensive social security compared with today.
    But it seems more important to the CCP to send a Chinese to the moon, 45 years after Americans did, or to turn an Ukrainian war ship into China’s first aircraft carrier.

    And sadly, people are still being educated (on a daily basis, at school, on TV, etc.) to “hate the Japanese” and to assume that some “foreign powers” are responsible for everything that slows the drip of the tranquillizing drug named GDP growth, a “great revival” that ignores the welfare of the people since decades.

    The rich drove with (certainly red) Ferraris to demonstrate against the Japanese joining their impoverished countrymen, many of the latter actually saw simply a good opportunity to “legally” blow off steam.

    Then CCP government’s media played the “buy Chinese” card, knowing that Japanese cars and products are immensely popular on the mainland due to their quality and reliability.
    Ironically, the new Chinese state limousines under the brand of hongqi (red flag) use Toyota technology, as Toyota is their partner in the joint-venture.
    And it’s Chinese people who work in Japanese manufacturing subsidiaries, shopping malls, restaurants, on the mainland. They suffered the most from this “hate the Japanese” game.

    But as history shows, it’s a very old strategy of governments to create and maintain a common “outer” enemy in order to feign social stability at home.

    For the US it has been, for quite a while and nearly without discrimination, the muslims in the world, after communism ceased to exist – well, except North Korea.
    For the government of Israel it’s the Palestinians and Iran, and vice-versa, etc. etc.
    And their peoples pay the price.

    Sowing nationalist sentiments in order to keep the status-quo is a dangerous game, and the CCP will reap what they sow.

    The world is unchangeably governed not by governments, but by the law of Karma i. e. the law of cause and effect.
    The CCP is therefore, as any empire in history, a transitory event.

    But I’m confident that young Chinese people are underway to unmask CCP’s version of “national revival” and will build the society they want to live in.

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