By Wen Liu
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
Many China watchers say that Xi Jinping now has become the most powerful leader since Deng, if not Mao. He is the Party chief, state president and chairman of the military, and head of the “overall reform” and “national security” leading groups. There is talk of his autocratic role and less collective leadership, even a new cult. Do you see this tendency?
Sidney Rittenberg: Obviously now we have one great authority, one great leader, which we didn’t have before since Deng. Even Deng, he refused to become chairman or premier or any of that. Vice premier was highest he ever got. He used to brag about the national chairman of the China Bridge Club. That was one job he was proud of.
But what I think happened… the economic reforms that are starting now… actually the Party central committee took the decision to do these things 13 or 14 years ago, and it was published. In the report to the 16th Party Congress, I forgot which one, Wen Jiabao was premier. He said very plainly that the present model of economic growth is not sustainable. We cannot go on like this. We have to make drastic changes. Specially he named three things: one, we have to go from a state-invested economy to an economy that depends on the capital markets, on investors, not state; two, we have to go from an export pulled economy to one that depends on developing the domestic market, consumer market; and three, we have to not pursue speed for speed’s sake, but speed only on condition that it helps the environment, that it produces good quality, and that it makes life better for the people. Hu Jintao also said something very similar, 13 or 14 years ago. But they couldn’t do it. They were too weak. I don’t think Hu Jintao ever had reliable majority in the Standing Committee of the Party. He had people like Zhou Yongkang and others. They weren’t able to do it.
So now, when it came to the 18th Congress, I think they made a decision: if we don’t reform, we are sunk, China. But the only way we can reform is to establish a powerful authority, with concentrated power that could break through the logjams and see to it that it is done. And I think they decided to build Xi Jinping up as that kind of man. One reason that I think this is we know something about Xi Jinping before he became all of these things. He was a man that was known to be a nice guy, easily approachable, easy to get along with, good listener. We went to Fujian, we went to Zhejiang, we went to Shanghai. They all said the same thing. We went to Hangzhou and we wanted to see him. And he was traveling. So he sent his secretary to bring us Longjing tea. But they told us that we have never had a leader that visited every singly county in Zhejiang province. That’s what he does. He goes around the counties, talks to the people on the ground to see what their problems are. Also he was known for something very praise-worthy, he didn’t harass people. He wasn’t mean to his opponents. So everybody thought OK now he is going to be Party secretary. You know he will spend two years consolidating his power and gradually we’ll see what he really wants to do, but not at the beginning, instead of which he comes out of his corner like a prize fighter and starts slugging immediately. I don’t think that was against Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao. I think they had agreed with this approach to begin with.
Not only powerful, Xi Jinping has also revived some Maoism, or Mao’s practice, such as the “mass line,” “criticism and self-criticism,” his own version of Yan’an Talk on Literature and Art that art should serve the people and socialism, and his statement that one should not negate the first 30 years of the PRC, which included the Cultural Revolution. Do you see Mao in Xi Jinping?
Sidney Rittenberg: No, only in one respect: dialectic materialism. If you read the things he wrote when he was provincial leader, he always stressed theory, especially stressed dialectic logic. On that I think he is a student of Mao. Not anything else really. If you look at it, first of all, his thunderous campaign against the corruption, he does not allow it to become a mass movement. But with Mao, he emphasized mass movement. Mao’s method of operating was to sic the masses on the bad guys, let the masses expose them, struggle with them. Xi doesn’t allow any of that. If you try to start that kind of activity, they won’t allow it. So it’s very different, it’s opposite from Mao really. Mass line, not Maoism. Mass line simply means you make policy by going “to the masses and from the masses” when you are a policy making body. Before you make your policy, you listen to what people are
demanding, what people need. So that’s “to the masses” and then you go “from the masses”. You bring their needs and demands up to your center and you form a policy based on that. Then you take it back to see how it works. If it’s not working, it probably won’t work perfectly, so you revise it as you go along. That’s all the mass line is. It’s not about class struggle. Really it’s got nothing to do with Mao’s ideology. I don’t think it’s anything like in Mao’s days. I think Xi Jinping went through a period when he had provincial leaders and so on going on TV. Really painless self-criticism, just very superficial things they talked about mostly. Why did he do it? I think the reason he did it was at the 18th Congress, when they took a decision to crackdown on corruption, it says that the corrupt cadre who tell the truth and change up to a certain time, I am not sure how much time it was, would not be punished. I think he was giving them an opportunity to get right before the crackdown. (end)
Wen Liu can be reached at email@example.com.