When Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the Chinese Community Party in 2012, one of the first things he did was take his senior colleagues to the National Museum on Tiananmen Square.
China’s seven new top leaders walked through the “Road to revival” exhibition, a fairly straightforward nationalist history of the country, from the first Opium War in 1840 to the present day.
There Xi delivered a speech about the Chinese dream in which he put forward the goal of “achieving the great revival of the Chinese nation”.
Given that Xi is poised to take up a third term as president of China at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this week, the highly symbolic museum walk is worth remembering: it shows how much Xi has moved through the history is formed.
Xi has become increasingly authoritarian – consolidating power, locking up dissenters and taking a third term, unprecedented since Mao Zedong.
Many of the most aggressive voices on China in the US have portrayed Xi as inflexible. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave him a ?? totalitarianand Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien compared Xi to Stalin. Even those who have worked closely with Xi see him driven by ideology. This week, former Australian Prime Minister and China expert Kevin Rudd described Xi as a “true believer.”
However, we could risk misunderstanding Xi if we ignore the evidence that he is a pragmatist, relying on the centralized power of the state to apply clear lessons from home and abroad. China’s own modern history and Xi’s experiences it has lived through are probably the main references of Xi’s worldview and his priorities, but there are three other moments that informed his worldview as president.
Three historic moments
No historic event haunts Xi and the Chinese leadership more than the The Collapse of the Soviet Union. “It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” historian David Shambaugh said.
A month after his first term in December 2012, Xi delivered a private address to party leaders in Guangdong Province saying:deep in depthlessons from the downfall of the USSR, with a focus on the missteps of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A summary of those comments was later circulated. “Why did the Soviet Union fall apart? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? A major reason was that their ideals and beliefs faltered,” Xi said in the summary. The lessons he learned from the collapse: keep tight control over the military, don’t implement reforms that undermine the party’s power, and don’t create unnecessary faults.
“Finally, it took just one silent word from Gorbachev to announce the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a major party was gone,” Xi reportedly said. “In the end, no one was a real man, no one came out to resist.”
Another important historical moment that has informed Xi’s thinking is the United States’ war on terrorism launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Xi may have seen the ease with which the US perpetuated bad policies globally and at home. While the US faced a credible terrorism threat, Washington’s response was a massive expansion of power: invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan; floor extrajudicial policies that meant close cooperation with autocratic Arab and Muslim countries; and rolling surveillance policies, including a misleading dragnet of Muslims, Arabs and other minorities within the US and long-term detention in Guantanamo Bay.
The lesson Xi apparently learned from America’s global war on terror was not that overuse and hubris would lead to decline. Xi, on the other hand, seemed to understand that he could get away with brazen displays of power as long as they were labeled counter-terrorism.
China, before Xi climbed to the top of the party, adopted many of the war on terror’s worst principles, rhetoric and policies to target the country’s Muslim communities in Xinjiang province. The mass detention and displacement of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been called a genocide.
Although this policy began in the early 2000s, Xi has accelerated and associated it with it. Like Gulzira Auelkhan, a Uyghur who survived the camps, said“In the camp, guards said openly that this was Xi Jinping’s policy. … We had to thank him publicly for everything.” or if Xi said it“The facts have shown abundantly that our work for national minorities has been a success.”
Third, recently political uprisings have informed Xi’s thinking. At the top are the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan (former Soviet states) in the early 2000s and the Arab revolutions in 2011 that spread across the Middle East and North Africa and toppled dictators.
It has led to a great emphasis on the stability of the Chinese state.
One way to ensure that is to eliminate corruption within the party and the Chinese government – for Xi, the rot at the top of undemocratic regimes has exposed their own vulnerability to civilians. Anti-corruption campaigns were an important part of Xi’s rule and a way to avoid the fate of leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who during his 29 years in office was known for his expensive tailored suits and decadent lifestyle at all costs. of his increasingly impoverished country.
The Arab Spring took place before Xi took office, but the ongoing protests and counter-revolution were still present in 2012, and may have informed the crackdown on Chinese party corruption, including the falling out of favor of party honcho Bo Xilai.
Learning from the history of China
The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the US war on terror and the fall of autocratic regimes elsewhere are certainly instructive for Xi.
But John Delury, a historian at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, emphasized that Xi’s main references come from China. He nevertheless took the core members of his party to the historical museum.
The museum itself offers important clues to how Xi thinks. “It’s an orthodox lesson of essentially modern Chinese history, the age of humiliation,” Delury told me. The museum tells the story of the Qing dynasty: “China allowed itself to become weak, the system became weak. And ‘We were verbally abused by these European powers and then by the Japanese. And we must never let that happen again,” he said.
That story is well known in China, but, Delry says, “it does tell us something about Xi’s instincts.”
It is less clear what Xi has amassed about the history of succession among Chinese leaders. There is much speculation, but little clarity about who could succeed Xi after his third term as president — or perhaps even another one. The party is changing the constitution to extend its presidency, and we don’t yet know when that term will end or what will come next.
“From the beginning, from 1921 when the CCP was founded, there are very few examples of a smooth, orderly transition of the highest power,” Delury said. “It’s a mess.”
As Delry put it, “Xi Jinping would know this history.”