2022: Xi Jinping’s Annus Horribilis or Annus Mirabilis?

At the end of his first 5-year term, Xi is said to have tricked the party elites into letting him “hijack” power beyond two terms. In spite of his zero-COVID policy, it appeared that for Xi, the year 2022 will prove to be his annus mirabilis. However, the Russia-Ukraine war in February and a nationwide COVID resurgence in China in March have left Xi facing the most severe backlash abroad and people’s outrage at home. Both these developments could disrupt the party’s pre-determined consensus at the 20th congress later this year to hand over a record third term to Xi. Thus, turning 2022 into Xi’s annus horribilis.        

In post-Mao China, all successive CPC general secretaries were “handpicked” by their respective mentors, to lead the party and the country for a maximum period of ten years, or for two 5-year terms. Xi Jinping was no exception. But unlike his two predecessors, Xi, at the end of his first 5-year term at the party’s 19th national congress in October 2017, is said to have so deeply consolidated his hold over the party that the party constitution was amended to “preserve” Xi as the “core” leader forever. Some China watchers even called the party’s firm faith in Xi’s leadership the then 64-year-old Party princeling’s successful “silent coup.”

Xi is exceptional among Reform era CPC leaders

But Xi has been exceptional – unlike all post-Mao new generation leaders, such as Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, etc., Xi is the first leader to lead the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China who was not chosen by revolutionary generation leaders. Also, Xi is the first top Chinese leader who was born in New China. In addition, he is a “princeling,” the son of Xi Zhongxun – one of the first-generation revolutionary heroes of the CPC. Princelings, or a better phrase in Chinese Tàizǐ dǎng – are the older party leaders’ offspring who today control both nation’s wealth and political power.  Above all, Xi is exceptional because he is the first princeling to be elevated to the party’s top leadership position.

Moreover, Xi’s elite status of being the scion of a revolutionary family did not come with any special privileges. Instead, early in his childhood, Xi was not only “disgraced” but was denounced when he was a teenager because his father was purged from a senior position in the party hierarchy. Joseph Torigian, an expert in Chinese elite politics who wrote a biography of Xi’s father, says the “fall in status Xi Jinping suffered during this period shaped the future President of China.” Not only Xi was frequently sent to jail and was forced to write self-criticism at numerous “struggle sessions,” both his parents were physically harassed and his siblings were subjected to torture and humiliation. One of his three grown-up step sisters was reported as “persecuted to death” – a euphemism for suicide people committed during the decade-long Cultural Revolution.   

Xi – “safe pair of hands” and not a “boat-rocker”

Interestingly, one key factor why the CPC leaders who ruled before Xi, leaders such as Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, picked “princeling” Xi as their successor was his success as the party chief in “capitalist” growth centers such as Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, and in Shanghai. It was the rapid capitalist growth in these regions under Xi which earned him the tag of “safe pair of hands,” “status-quo keeper, and not a boat-rocker,” which in turn catapulted him to the party political bureau in 2007. Years later, Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking former Australian prime minister who is ranked among the world’s top China watchers, had this to say of Xi: “In my early judgment of him, he saw himself very much as, quote, the man of destiny. That is, someone who could reshape China’s future.”   

A decade ago, when the CPC elevated Xi to the top position in the 9-member political bureau standing committee (PBSC), to the foreign observers “Xi Jinping was relatively unknown in the West.” It is not known to us what finally made the party elders choose Xi over others in contention – that he was a princeling or that he would maintain the “status quo” or both. Some speculated he was handpicked and placed in PBSC to move up in the hierarchy and succeed Hu Jintao as he was thought to be the best bet at the time to keep a lid on the simmering pot of anger that China had become due to social tensions arising out of past years of reform era inequalities.

Xi – “liberal reformer” or “Bonapartist”

While others chose to focus attention on the fact that the “safe pair of hands,” Xi, might even turn out to be an “enlightened liberal reformer” because his family and he himself had been tormented during the Cultural Revolution. The Guardian claimed that Xi’s rise to power represented a generational and social shift and that, unlike his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi grew up in an era of reform and opening. “Optimists say that a younger generation of leaders may be more willing to rethink policy since they have more experience of the outside world,” the newspaper wrote of Xi Jinping. In sharp contrast, those on the left argued that Xi’s emergence as the new party leader in 2012 was not a function of his personal characteristics but of the extreme social tensions wracking the country.   

Likewise, five years later at the CPC 19th National Congress, when the party made a sharp break from the norms of the past three decades by putting an end to the two-term limit for the president and vice president respectively, though the move was interpreted by China observers globally as Xi’s “silent coup,” in reality, it was the party which needed Xi more than the other way round. According to Peter Symonds, “Confronting a deteriorating economy and the prospect of social upheaval, the Chinese bureaucracy is desperately seeking to consolidate its forces around the figure of Xi—a form of rule that Marxists have classically designated as Bonapartist.”

Xi’s third-term: annus mirabilis or annus horribilis

No doubt, Xi has consolidated his control over the military and state apparatus and purged key political rivals over the past decade. Also, no doubt, though Xi’s four great thoughts – “new concepts, new ideas, new strategies, new era” have been amended into the party constitution, which some say make him an even greater leader than Mao and Deng, yet these past ten years have been a great failure as Xi could neither reverse corruption in the party nor did he succeed in in uplifting living standards of millions of rural migrant workers and low-wage urban workers. Therefore, if the party “rewards” Xi with a third term two months from now, which is highly likely it would be seen more as an annus mirabilis for Xi, but for the people of China, it is going to be an annus horribilis.

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.