In search of Xi Jinping’s political origins

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a blog post

A popular source of clues to the origins of Xi Jinping’s (习近平) policy is his late father Xi Zhongxun’s (习仲勋) political career, an outspoken man known for championing China’s economic reform as well as siding with Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and his brand of progressive politics. In other words, tracing ideological DNA.

But with state control of all fronts of society, being increasingly tightened from freedom of speech to cleavages on telly, I’m not sure whether the current General Secretary of CCP can be said to represent his father’s or his father’s ally Hu Yaobang’s liberal political legacy, and we can fully expect current controls to widen its scope and intensify if anything. But it is nonetheless interesting to trace the events that may have shaped the man.

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Hu Yaobang’s death sparks democracy protests at Tiananmen

Hu Yaobang and Xi’s father
Xi Zhongxun was not just a proponent of economic reform–Hu Yaobang’s secretary Lin Mu (林木) argued that it was Xi Zhongxun who first proposed the idea of making Shenzhen into an experimental Economic Zone, not Deng Xiaoping (邓小平)—but also a core member of the faction that supported Hu Yaobang’s liberal political reform agenda that went directly against Deng Xiaoping’s incumbency.

Their affinity goes back to the end of Cultural Revolution when Hu was instrumental in Xi’s political resurrection. Gao Xiao, the author of Xi Jinxing’s biography “He will lead China”, claims that it was since then that the fate of the Xi family was to be intertwined with Hu Yaobang. It is widely known that Xi Jinxing has visited “uncle Hu” on every Chinese new year’s.

Xi Zhongxun’s political “blood ties” (血盟)with Hu is well documented. He was the only senior leader to speak up for Hu Yaobang at the meeting that saw the latter’s downfall, for which he was forced into semi-retirement.

24th May 1986. Hu Yaobang convened a meeting of cadres in Sichuan to strip away the last vestiges of the revolution (Deng Xiaoping) and inject the party with fresh blood in order to continue the political transformation of China. Word had spread sending seismic waves through the party establishment. In an ensuing Political Bureau meeting, things come to a head.

“We must stop feudal absolutism from becoming a permanent ruling structure under the guise of revolution… from now on we must convert from rule by man (人治)to rule of law (法治), ensure that every man is equal before the law, and govern China with legislation. For reform, and for progress, comrade Xiaoping must step down from the centre (中央).“

Xi Zhongxun said this directly to Deng Xiaoping.


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Was Xi Zhongxun a liberal?
His stance on the Tiananmen massacre still remains controversy. Xinhua reported, as the bloodbath was being swept up, that Xi praised the measures that were taken against “this counter-revolutionary riot, safeguarded the socialist system, safeguarded the people’s regime”. But as the Party historian Jia Juchuan noted in an interview with Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut, such comments do not reflect Xi’s personal views, given the party’s track record, and that ’‘All leaders did that kind of thing, making their attitude clear,” Mr Jia said. “It was a ‘work duty’.”

Garnaut also adds that “(l)eaders who did not demonstrate support for the massacres risked not only their own careers, but those of their supporters and children.” This makes position on Tiananment Square hardly the litmus test for political liberalism, in the context of Chinese elite politics.

Whether a liberal or not, CCP has been and continues to be a Leninist party; it needs to remain in power. Another source in Garnaut’s report may offer some additional clue to the liberal’s dilemma, ’’Quite a few of those senior guys were not comfortable with opening fire on students, but somehow they also realised that the student issue had to be dealt with otherwise the whole party could collapse.’’ An interesting question may be, what defines a “liberal” under the context of Chinese politics and history?


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Xi Jinping’s liberalism?
Billed as the most powerful leader since Mao, Xi Jinxing has definitely overseen an increased control over Chinese society. The controls on dissent around the internet and media have been well documented elsewhere. The education system is turning increasingly anti-Western (by which I can only presume they mean any liberalist preaching that undermines one-party rule). Any organizations, religious, non-for-profit—regardless of purpose–deemed a threat to state, eg. the New Citizens’ Movement, have been and will be suppressed. Propping this top-down control is a somewhat odd rise of the Maoist hawks from disgruntled pockets of Chinese society. It still remains to be seen whether the War on Corruption is a political tool or a genuine attempt to cleanse the political system of a cultural legacy. Increased attention to rule of law is welcome, but analysts all agree, when the party’s rule is at stake, jurisdiction will be bent to will.

In a positive assessment of Xi Jinxing–rare in Western commentary–Guardian’s Jonathan Kaiman notes that China has taken to relax one-child policy, ‘abolish a controversial “re-education through labour” penal system and revise an outmoded residence registration system that denies basic social benefits to rural-urban migrants in their adopted homes.’

These policy initiatives are good because they obviously address genuinely acute problems, but clearly, they also aimed to remove any antiquated structures that may create source of social discontent, and in turn reinforce party legitimacy. These were not fundamental reforms to political structures that maintain one-party rule.

I would argue that benevolent reforms that address genuine social problem will continue in so far as it does not undermine CCP’s power. (Which is basically what most people know and believe too).

The fact that Xi sent a garland to Zhao Ziyang’s funeral in 2005, one Beijing freelance journalist, Li Datong 李大同 has taken as evidence to suggest Xi is in line with the brand of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang’s liberalism. Optimistic observers claim that Xi has long terms plans for political liberalization a few years down the line once his personal power has been stabilised enough to conduct such reforms with relative ease. But Li admits the link is too weak, nor is there any other strong evidence, and says in politics, pretty much anything can be staged.

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