Many analysts assert that since Xi Jinping became the Secretary General of the CCP, China has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy.
Although such a perception is not entirely invalid for interpreting any leader of a country, especially an authoritarian one, a better nuanced interpretation should be derived by considering to what extent Xi’s leadership reflects the will of the CCP and through them the will of the Chinese people as a whole.
Although China is a communist country, it has often described itself as a democracy, frequently quoting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as a country “of the people, by the people and for the people”. This claim may not be as egregious as it may seem; after all, communism found favour among the Chinese people at a time when China was desperately poor and weak and left largely to its own devices.
Since Mao, Chinese communism has evolved to the point where there is rigorous election of leaders, albeit that all political contests happened within a one party system. It is a pyramidal system of elections, a brief understanding of which is available here. Nonetheless, elections are very rigid, set within the confines of a communist system where the top leadership wields enormous power.
Its claim of a government “of the people” comes from its Marxist/Leninist and Maoist roots which are underpinned by the “dictatorship of the proletariate” (in other words, the majority of the people). The final caveat “for the people” derives from the observation that the present Chinese government owes its legitimacy to the continuous prosperity of the Chinese people. In this undertaking, it has been spectacularly successful. Various estimates indicate that since the end of the 1970s, above 800 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
Within the context of such a system, the moot question is: What is Xi to the Chinese people and vice versa?
One is familiar with the Western mainstream media’s portrayal of a dictator oppressing his people into acquiescence. The possibility of an authoritarian leader who cares for his people has never been considered in such evaluations.
How Xi performs as a leader reminds one of the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. There are numerous commonalities between these two leaders, albeit that one was an overseas born Chinese and educated under a British colonial system to become a Cambridge University educated lawyer; while the other was nurtured in Communist China under Mao Zedong.
One is also reminded that Lee came into power in Singapore by eliminating his hard left/pro-communist rival Lim Chin Siong. Nevertheless, both had an extraordinary understanding of the characters and motivations of their respective peoples. Both started governing from a low economic base, one the legacy of an underdeveloped nation freed from the yoke of colonialism and the other of Maoist communist economy.
While Singapore was run under a Westminster system of democracy, Lee ruled with an iron hand and would brook no opposition to his vision for Singapore. One of his favourite methods was to bankrupt his opponent through litigations. It would be fair to say that both Lee and Xi were feared, often disliked but respected.
Another similarity is the strong crackdown on corruption without which little could be accomplished. This then enables them to manage their respective countries according to a vision which seems to fit neatly into Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.
Critics have often scoffed at China’s claim that the deferment of personal freedoms of the type enjoyed by the West in preference for meeting basic needs first is an excuse.
I believe that one’s understanding of poverty derives from the environment within which one is raised and nurtured.
I came from the same part of the world as Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore was part of colonial Malaya, then Malaysia until 1965). Consequently, I have a stronger appreciation of what he had done for the people of Singapore.
The strife from rags towards riches is being played out now (and over the last three decades) in China under Xi. Clearly China has moved steadily up the hierarchy from basic needs, to the need for security and now even to the need for respect from the rest of the world. A paradox presents itself in that with increasing affluence there is a concomitant demand for personal freedoms such as speech, assembly, religion and dissent similar to those enjoyed by the liberal democracies in the West.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Xi is not yet ready to relinquish his control on the idea of personal freedom.
According to David Shambaugh (China’s Leaders, 2021, p.316) Xi himself seems to be aware of this dilemma. Although a large number of China analysts seem to despair over what they see as an increasingly repressive Xi style government, only time will reveal the final outcome. Xi is one of the two Chinese leaders who has an eye on the past, a finger on the pulse of the present and a vision for the future.
He seems to ask, “Where did we come from? Where do we find ourselves now? Where to from here?”
Much of the answers to these questions can be gleaned from his speech marking the centenary of the CCP. He points to past glories, demands acquiescence from his people and promises them a restoration of China’s status in the world. For this, he has to depend on the Chinese people’s willingness to sacrifice their personal freedoms for the common good which Paul Keating recently said Australians could never understand. So far, the social contract (e.g. of Jean-Jaques Rousseau) description between Xi and his people is very much intact.
The astounding people’s approval ratings of above 90 per cent for Xi’s government by independent polls indicate that he is as much “of China” as he is “of his personal style of leadership for China”.