I recently caught up by email with Kerry Brown, a prolific writer on Chinese affairs who has held a mix of diplomatic and academic posts and who recently moved to King’s College London to head its Lau China Institute. I was eager to get him to reflect on Chinese politics, the subject he studies and the focus of a new book. It also seemed only natural to slip in one question dealing with Brexit, which has been dominating the international news cycle.
Jeff Wasserstrom: A couple of years back, you published The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, a book I reviewed favorably for the Wall Street Journal that was about a group of Chinese elite figures known as the “Princelings”—a term for children of revolutionaries leaders who were connected to Mao Zedong and the founding of the PRC. That book was partly an effort to explain how one Princeling, Xi Jinping, emerged as the group’s most powerful member. Do you see your new book C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, which is out in the U.K. and available in the United States as an e-book (with the hardcover version to follow soon), as a sequel to that earlier work, which brings in events of the last couple of years? Or did you view writing it as offering a chance to provide a different sort of explanation for Xi’s ascent?
Kerry Brown: Obviously we know a lot more about Xi Jinping and the contours of his leadership, his preoccupations, and driving vision now than we did in 2013-4 when I wrote and published The New Emperors. The mystery of his ascension to power, however, has not gone away. Xi was not a spectacular provincial leader – at least in terms of generating GDP growth. Nor was he a member of the A list of elite families – Bo Xilai really belonged to that class, with his father Bo Yibo a member of the so called “Eight Immortals” who had a huge impact on post-1978 China. The ways in which Xi Jinping has transformed into this seemingly all-dominating, all-powerful figure has been remarkable. It was hard to see this sort of drive before 2013. One thing I do wonder a lot about is what precisely the relationship is between Xi and the other so called princelings. In many ways, he seems to have attacked much of their vested interest, keeping the families of past leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng under close tabs, and using the anti-corruption struggle to wrestle whole parts of the state sector away from their control. You might almost say that he is an “anti-princeling” leader, a much more populist politician, trying to derive his appeal and power to the public, and instill fear and obedience in the Communist Party leadership and membership through that.
The fact that Xi looks and sounds so authoritative, however, is also something we have to be a bit careful about how we interpret. Appearances can be deceptive. Making oneself the “Chairman of Everything” can simply hide feelings of vulnerability and weakness. The simple fact is that there are real limits to what Xi can do. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up pragmatism in many ways still shape China, Xi has not articulated a new body of ideas that are proving transformational – not yet, at least. This might happen, but it would need to be in the one area that Deng’s ideas did not touch – that of political reform. Here, of course, a Chinese leader can really reset the agenda. So far, Xi has made clear that he absolutely won’t countenance any competition from another organized political force with the Communist Party. So in many ways, despite the radical tone and feel of his leadership, he still operates within the template supplied by his predecessors.
Sticking with the connections between the two books, the earlier one used an imperial metaphor in its title, while this one employs one drawn from the corporate world. Could you tell us something about the thinking between those two choices?
Politicians everywhere like to create narratives and masks they can present to the world. Xi seems to me to be an ambiguous figure. The most difficult thing to work out is his relationship with the Communist Party of China. Is he its servant, or its master? People state that Xi is a modern Mao. But the China of Mao Zedong with its mass mobilization campaigns, utopian idealism, and separation from the rest of the world, is long gone. The memory of Mao’s China for Xi too would not be a happy one – he was living in the countryside for most of it, with his father under house arrest. The one thing that Mao does offer is the model of how a Chinese leader can emotionally connect with the people. But, of course, the danger is that a charismatic, all-powerful leader can also start to turn on the Party, in the way that Mao did in the Cultural Revolution.
Since 1978, the whole objective has been to ensure that this sort of elite leader domination never happens. Leadership has been institutionalized. Succession and term limits have been introduced. Collective leadership structures set in place. If Xi is indeed starting to dominate, and create a power structure parallel to, and one day possibly dominating the Party, then I am surprised that there has not been much more internal dissent at an elite level. There would be people in the Politburo and Central Committee who would see this as undermining so much work the Party has tried to do in the last four decades. So the imperial and corporate models of Xi’s power are trying to find some kind of model we can make sense of him within.
Switching gears a bit, a lot of commentators have played with the idea of imagining what a reanimated Mao would think of today’s China, and I recently wrote an op-ed that played this what if game with a focus on how the former leader might view his latest successor as head of the Communist Party. What, though, would you think that Deng Xiaoping, if somehow brought back to life, would make of Xi and the way he is steering the country?
Xi has not contested Deng’s central ideological position. In fact, he has sponsored the development of the idea derived from Deng’s mantra of market socialism, which is that the market is essential for reform, in the 2013 Plenum. He has also stuck by the utter centrality of the Party in China’s political life, and the need to maintain openness to the outside world on China’s terms. I don’t see Xi as being anything except a faithful follower of Dengism. He has articulated his central goals within the framework set out by Deng. So if Deng were to magically rise from his grave and look at what Xi is doing, I don’t see what he would object to. He certainly wouldn’t disapprove of the harsh treatment of rights lawyers, nor the clampdown on corrupt officials, nor the tolerance of a vibrant non-state sector. For people’s hearts, Xi might use the resources that Mao gives – but for their heads, he seems to me a Dengist through and through.
A final question, which brings in the issue making the most headlines globally just now. Given your assessment of Xi and sense of what makes him tick, how do you think he is likely to feel about the Brexit vote?
Xi reportedly stated to David Cameron when in the UK last October that he did not support an exit from the EU. Part of that was self interest. A UK which was potentially adrift from the European financial market and open trade area becomes a far less attractive investment and currency destination. The UK is the largest host of Chinese students in Europe, and one of the largest technology transfer partners. Exiting the EU makes life a bit more complicated for China, because unless the UK can arrange a deal which preserves the openness of these areas, China will presumably have to look for another launchpad within the EU main zone.
Politically, though, nothing that Xi will have seen of the chaos in the UK immediately after the vote on June 23 and the clear lack of a plan B by the politicians to deal with what was happening will have endeared democracy to him. But he might have been impressed by the fact that despite this, so far at least, the UK remained stable, people get on with their lives, institutions are still able to function. China of course would be far less robust in dealing with a crisis like this. But I guess Xi would argue that it would never end up in such a position in the first place.