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Deciphering Xi Jinping’s Dream

A Q&A with Roderick MacFarquhar

On November 9, the Chinese Communist Party will host its Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee. This conference will be a key to deciphering the ruling philosophy of the new Chinese leadership, who will run the country for the coming nine years.

According to Party convention, in a cycle of seven Plenary Sessions during each Party Congress, the first and second Sessions concentrate on personnel issues and the third one on policy. What will transpire at this Third Plenum? What will it tell us about China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, whose mercurial “Chinese Dream” seems to encompass both a hard-line on political control and the promise of economic liberalization?

I spoke to Roderick MacFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University. His publications include the final two volumes of The Cambridge History of China (edited with the late John King Fairbank), The Origins of the Cultural Revolution trilogy, and jointly-coauthored Mao’s Last Revolution.

The new Chinese government under Xi Jinping is cracking down on civil society and tightening control of the Internet. But Xi is also punishing corrupt officials, including Bo Xilai and the colleagues and secretaries of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. What do you think Xi wants by doing these?

Xi has indicated very clearly from the time that he became General Secretary of the Party that he was obsessed, as maybe other Chinese leaders are also, with the Gorbachev syndrome. Xi Jinping realizes, like Li Keqiang, that there is a need for deep economic reforms—really very important and very difficult economic reforms. But what I think they worry about is that they don’t know which reforms could be the ones which unleash a Gorbachev-type situation, where one thing follows another and before you know it the whole country and the whole party system has collapsed. So as he approaches these economic reforms, he wants to make sure that there’s nothing else that is going to impact upon the state. I think what he decided was that we don’t know exactly what it would be that would make China develop a Gorbachev syndrome, but what we can do is to prevent the kind of things that Gorbachev allowed. Gorbachev allowed all sorts of free speech under Perestroika: well, we won’t allow that. And as you know they’ve issued these instructions, these "Seven Nos" about what you can’t say, and I think he is going to be extremely tough because he feels, first of all, it’s one way to safeguard the regime, and secondly it’s particularly important when very deep and far reaching and perhaps unsettling economic changes are initiated.

Why is Xi attacking corrupt people? Because as Hu Jintao used to say—I think Jiang Zemin used to as well—corruption could be the end of the regime. And according to what the late Chief Editor of the People’s Daily used to tell me, corruption today is much worse than it was under Chiang Kai-shek when his regime collapsed. So, it’s a worry. The real question is will they attack any corrupt person, including any member of the leadership, and I think they won’t. They can’t. Because that will split them wide open. Xi Jinping’s own family have benefitted enormously from the fact that he was becoming a leader, so he’s effectively defending his own nest. Xi said he’d get “tigers and the flies.” So far he’s gotten the flies and the cats. If he publicly gets [former security czar] Zhou Yongkang for corruption, even though we’d know politics would be heavily involved, since Zhou Yongkang was an ally of Bo Xilai, then people will start to look up. But if he attacks Zhou Yongkang, then everyone starts to feel uneasy.

But, where are they trying to go? With tough control on the political side mixed with “market reforms” on the economic side, will China wind up looking like Singapore?

If they ended up with another Singapore, that would be excellent. Singapore is not a perfect democracy, but there’s a lot more free speech in Singapore than there is in China. And I think what Xi Jinping wants China to end up as is a society which is disciplined politically, with no Liu Xiaobos, no Charter 08 people, everyone very disciplined, and everyone concentrating on economic reforms. Why? Because they will be, I’m told by many economists, very transformative if they are successful. And it seems that Li Keqiang is very keen to go ahead with these reforms. So what Xi Jinping is doing is to make sure that the political arena is quiet so that everything can go smoothly with economic reform.

Some China watchers claim that there is a split between Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, that Xi is a Maoist while Li Keqiang favors the ideology of the market. But do you believe that, actually, they are cooperating and there is consensus between them?

You probably remember that there was a story that in the 1990s, under Jiang Zemin, there was a discussion and it was decided that after Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had ended their period in office, the ultimate successors should be princelings, because the princelings had much more invested, from their family point of view, in the regime than anyone else.

Anyone who is in a regime like China’s, anyone, whether princeling or not, would want to preserve it. And they would do anything not to let it disappear, because it has been so beneficial to them, and in their view, to the country. The princelings may feel more of a family obligation to their parents and their grandparents to keep the faith, but actually I think almost every official wants to keep the present system.

The current government’s hardline tactics have already made some officials, intellectuals, and journalists uneasy. What about ordinary people? Do they feel the pressure as well? Or they do they think it’s none of their business?

I’m reminded of what happened when they had the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the 1980s. And as I understand it, it stopped because Deng Xiaoping was informed that, as a result of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign, the peasants had stopped investing in land. Why? Because the peasants are not fools: they had learned from the Maoist period that no man is an island. If you have leftism affecting one branch of society, eventually it’ll affect you. How many people knew who Liu Xiaobo was before he was imprisoned? Probably not very many. But I don’t think the Chinese people are foolish enough not to realize, especially in the Internet age, when people [are] being arrested and even eliminated, what’s going to happen to them at some other stage?

After Mao, Deng once said “China should maintain vigilance against the Right but primarily against the ‘Left.’” And in practice, the Leftist wing of the Party has been constricted since the beginning of reforms more than three decades ago. But why do top leaders like Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, and Bo Xilai still keep borrowing from Mao’s playbook?

There are a number of reasons why people like Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping have to nod their heads, [and] bow in the direction of Chairman Mao. First and foremost is that the Chairman’s name—the Chairman himself and what he did for China—is really important glue which binds the state and society together. If you want to have a society which responds to you, Chairman Mao is a name to conjure up. The Party no longer has the respect of the people as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao is the symbol of State. They can’t remove him from Tiananmen Square, and they can’t take his picture down. That would be like saying “what was the whole revolution about?”

Second, the people—mainly ordinary people—look back to the Mao days with some amount of superstition. There are peasant houses where there’s a picture of Chairman Mao and a picture of the Buddha beside him, and some believe that under Chairman Mao society was more equal, that everyone was poor. Actually, Chairman Mao wasn’t poor. Whereas today, the income distribution is so enormously different and there’s such a big gap between the rich and the poor that people look back to the Maoist days with longing. So the leaders have to bow to Chairman Mao again to show that they themselves respect that kind of society, even if they have not [been] presiding over a similar one.

Third, there is a growing body of intellectuals who have been advocating Maoist-type policies for many years, and because of what I just said about the people resenting the inequalities of the new society, those intellectuals have some leverage and an audience. We know, from what Bo Xilai's experience tells us, that Bo Xilai was very popular not just in Chongqing but in neighboring provinces. Because people thought he was going back to Chairman Mao. I personally do not believe he was. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, does not want to introduce the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward or anything like that, but he has to bow in the direction of Chairman Mao because, remember, Xi’s father was an old comrade of Chairman Mao. Until he was purged by Chairman Mao, Xi’s father had a very high position within the Communist state, as a result of Chairman Mao’s victory. So Chairman Mao’s victory, which put the communists in power, is still vital to the legitimacy of the current guard. The Cultural Revolution, in my mind, undermined the legitimacy of the power. But even though he was guilty of unleashing the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao sort of somehow still legitimizes the present state.

But most of Mao’s policies and ideas have been totally removed from China since Deng kicked off China’s reform. For a lot of younger Chinese, Mao is quite a vague image. Under these circumstances, can Maoism and Mao himself still glue society and the state together?

They have nothing else. And where do people go on their pilgrimages to Beijing? Tens of thousands every month line up to go to the Mao mausoleum. In primary school and in secondary school, people learn about Chairman Mao, like British kids learn about William the Conqueror who came over in 1066. That’s hundreds of years ago, but they still know about it. Chairman Mao was only sixty to seventy years ago. He conquered—unified—China. That’s a big deal. He set up a new regime. He set up New China. So of course he’s still seen as a hero figure in Chinese education.

Will people still buy Mao’s ideas? China has been changed so dramatically since Mao conquered China.

I think most people most of the time in most countries do not think about politics. Especially if they’re poorer, they think about food, living expenses, and better education for their kids. In the last thirty years, the Party’s role in the average life of the average person is much smaller than it used to be under Mao. Even under Deng.

So yes, I think that most people aren’t listening to the Party about Chairman Mao. But Chairman Mao is there somewhere in the back of their minds because he’s being dinned into them in their education, there’s a statue there, there’s a picture there. Now, do they believe in his ideas? Well it depends what the ideas are. Some of his ideas were adopted by Deng Xiaoping: “Seek truth from facts” that was Mao’s idea, I mean actually it was an ancient Chinese idea which Mao adapted, but it’s credited to Mao. And “the foolish old man who moved the mountain” (if we have strength of will and determination we can do anything). That’s something which in a country like China that is showing great development and getting stronger everyday, you can believe in. So, I think there are some things—simple things—that they will believe in.

What about other legacies of Mao’s, like the mass movements Bo Xilai used in Chongqing and Xi Jinping is using now?

Mass movements are the enemy of the kind of economic reforms which Li Keqiang and his colleagues are about to introduce. Mass movements have their place in an early-developing society. If you want to persuade peasants to do something and you need to mobilize them to do basic physical tasks, like making dams and so on, there is a role. But what we have seen in the reform period is that if you offer financial incentive, people will travel from the North of China to the South of China in order to get a job in a factory earning minimum wages. They’ll sleep in dormitories away from family because it gives them a chance to get on. So I think that the likelihood of this regime introducing mass movement is small.

So, Maoism won't die, or disappear from China, because other leaders will pick it up even without Bo?

Maoism will not disappear from China until there is a change of regime, which will result in the taking down of his portrait, and probably the dismantling of the tomb. They say that in Russia they are finally going to remove Lenin from the tomb. I don’t know what they’ll do with the tomb. They removed Stalin’s, but if they remove Lenin that’s really a major step. But that’s what will have to happen in China; you cannot have, in this day and age, a single person worshipped as that sort of demigod.

The Future of Xi Jinping’s Reign

Many people believe that market-oriented reforms can’t coexist with Big Brother. So how will this play out in China?

Of course there will be differences of views: there are differences of views in every political system, not necessarily over where to go to, but how to get there. So I think all the present leadership agree on the need for reform, but the question is how to do it. And it may be that some people will think that Li Keqiang’s reforms are too extreme, and others will be in favor of the reforms and say they’re not going far enough. So, yes, of course there will be disagreements and this will show the measure of two things. First, Xi Jinping’s ability to keep order and discipline in the Party’s Politburo, and second, the instinct for self-preservation on the parts of all the leaders. They should know that if they start splitting the Party that may lead to disaster. Some people said the way for political reform is to have factions within the Party openly acknowledged. Well, that is the first step towards a two-party system. But no one wants to go that route.

That happened to the Soviet Party under Gorbachev.

Gorbachev wrongly thought that he was going to strengthen Communism, and first he tried to do it by Perestroika, that is to say by reforming the system. But he found that after seventy years or so of Communist rule, the Soviet bureaucrats were very resistant to that kind of reform. So he unleashed glasnost, but the people started criticizing the bureaucrats and the press became very critical. So he divided the society against itself. And that’s what helped to bring it down. And then, of course, he thought that elections would solidify the Communist Party’s ability to rule with consent. But he himself never stood for election. Yeltsin took that gamble, and won, and we all know what happened then. So I think that if people are clear, as I think Xi Jinping is, that there are certain things you cannot do, because they will undermine the system, then they won't do them. This isn’t to say that the system will persist. The system has very weak foundations, as it is now. But nevertheless, I don’t think the leadership will want to commit suicide.

Will Xi achieve his goal at the end of the day?

His goal is the Chinese Dream. His goal is clearly to make China more and more powerful on the world stage. The problem is that China has no experience in acting on the world stage. None at all. It’s been a great country for many centuries, for many millennia, but not on the world stage.  It’s been on a little stage in East Asia, and now the idea of being a responsible stakeholder, which is what it was suggested to China that it should become, is attractive to some, but not to all the leaders. So, I think that Xi’s dream is of a stronger and stronger China, and that people in Asia, then in further afield—in Africa perhaps, and then in the West—will bow. And that’s happening at the moment: people rush to China to do trade all the time. So I think that his dream is that China should get more and more powerful, and that the Communist party should rule forever. I have no doubt that China will get more and more powerful; I have doubts that the Communist Party will rule forever.

—Daniel Engel contributed to the transcription of this interview.