Xi Jinping: the new Augustus?

It will soon be clear whether China's paramount leader cares more for baubles or, like the great Roman emperor, long-term achievements.

Kerry Brown
25 January 2016

Edward Gibbon, an 18th-century Englishman and the finest historian produced by Europe in modern times, noted of a 6th-century emperor that his huge accretion of titles did not quite accord with his somewhat underwhelming power. Gibbon called such titles "baubles", gathered to satisfy the monarch's vanity. He compared the approach of the first Roman imperial leader, the great Augustus, who five centuries before had done his best to avoid any specific titles or grand positions. Augustus's influence nonetheless extended far beyond his forty-four years as paramount leader, shaping the empire for centuries. Few people have had a larger, if largely invisible, impact on history. That, Gibbon declared, truly was power. 

This contrast between two kinds of power – noisy but empty, or quiet but deep – is helpful when looking at Xi Jinping, who has now spent over three years at China's helm since his appointment in October 2012. It's useful to bear in mind that for leaders in the United States or Britain, the search for a new mandate would be underway by this time (and in Australia, with three years as the limit of a single term in office, it would have begun even earlier). Such leaders have to have achieved something in this period.

So far, Xi's time in post shows that China's Communist Party elders and other decision-makers have either consented to granting him a remarkable series of official positions, or been so sidelined and outmanoeuvred that not a squeak of significant opposition has appeared to prevent him acquiring these. The opacity of the Chinese elite political system makes it impossible to be certain about how they did it. But there is circumstantial evidence of a widespread belief amongst most of them that Xi had the qualities to manage what everyone knew would be a tough period of transition and change, and that in order to deliver he needed  tools to put him in a position above his peers. So it was as much their consent as Xi's ambition that brought this situation about.

Now, Xi is likely to be facing a "shadow" re-election campaign of his own, starting at some point in 1916 and extending to the next party congress and expected leadership changes in late 2017. The real worry now is that, for all the energy Xi has shown – the policy activism, the drama of the anti-corruption war, the high-profile diplomacy in various fields – other events, such as the financial volatility that led to investor losses on the Shanghai stock-exchange in early January, reinforce the notion that his leadership risks being all baubles and no substance.

So far, the Xi administration has certainly been effective at doing the negative stuff. Rights activists, Chinese or non-Chinese, can hardly breathe without suffering reprisals. The corruption struggle has provided a ceaseless flow of news about officials and their associates being mired in illicit money and hauled off to the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission. Beijing has loudly told Hong Kong that it cannot have full universal franchise. And party ideologues have been issuing lists of outlawed ideas and approaches, now grown to industrial levels. Xi even told his party colleagues earlier this month to keep their mouths shut and demonstrate unity. The hope of silencing Chinese officials surely carries a whiff of hubris.

So more than halfway through Xi’s likely first five-year period as party and national leader, the world inside and outside China knows at least what he and his colleagues don’t want. No multiparty or bicameral parliamentary systems, no reporting on Shanghai stocks that is deemed to panic investors (despite no one knowing quite how to do this), no rule of law that offends the party. But to the question of what they do want, all that is on offer is worthy, but so far empty, abstractions. Such grand notions as "China Dream", "One Belt One Road" and "Centennial Goals" float in the Chinese ideosphere. But even the least politically minded urban resident of a place like Shanghai or Guangzhou must wonder what they mean as their house prices soar, their air-quality tanks, their shares dwindle by the hour and the jobs market dries up.

The Deng inheritance

This comes back to the initial question of what kind of power Xi has. If he is truly in charge, then it can be assumed that he will be able to do something about the grim suite of problems now facing his country. Indeed, many have stated that Xi Jinping is the most commanding leader since Deng Xiaoping. Some even say he is more powerful. In truth, the vast differences between the China of Mao, Deng and Xi (politically, economically, diplomatically) make comparisons like this close to meaningless. But disregarding this point, one very tangible area does offer some illumination. After 1978, Deng Xiaoping occupied only the position (and that briefly) of vice-premier. He maintained chairmanship of the military until 1989. His sole other role was as head of the China Bridge Association! In that sense, he resembled Rome’s Augustus.

Despite Deng's lack of any real formal standing, China still works within the intellectual parameters he mandated and sponsored. His great achievement, as the scrupulous biography of him by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine issued in 2015 makes clear, was to show that socialism with Chinese characteristics was viable. Everything done by today's leadership operates in a framework Deng set down. To change it, they would need to move into overtly political rather than economic areas, something they have shown no desire to do. Xi is a Dengist leader. It looks like his successor, whoever that is, will be too, simply because all the personnel on the politburo, leading the Chinese provinces, are also Dengist.

It must be granted that Xi is a man of surprises (witness the meeting between him and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou in November 2015, little though it helped the departing president's party in this month's elections). It might be that in 2016 he takes the lead in announcing a series of bold moves: rolling out elections from villages up to towns and prefectures, allowing real legal reform, letting the market (rather than daily government intervention) sort out Shanghai’s stocks. If that happens, a revised view of the sort of power he has might be in order. Such change could even represent the outline of an emerging "Xi-ism" that will seek to shape the direction of the country for the coming decades, thus both succeeding and supplanting Dengism.

As of today, however, it is not clear if his impressive list of titles and positions makes him someone driven more by vanity and profile than, Augustus-like, by sustainable achievement and lasting political impact. At last, in this year of challenges, we are almost certain to find out.

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