Xi Jinping in February 2012. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.
In his opening remarks on November 15, after a Politburo Standing Committee meeting that confirmed he would lead China from March 2013 onwards, Xi struck a tone more reminiscent of a senator stumping in Iowa than an ascendant party apparatchik:
Our people love life and expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment. They hope that their children can grow up better, work better and live better. People's yearning for a good and beautiful life is the goal for us to strive for.
By speaking to the aspirations of the Chinese people, Xi has tempered the overuse of hackneyed socialist symbols and slogans – the rhetorical bread and butter of his predecessor – in favour of ordinary language that better appeals to everyday Chinese. His speech began with an unexpected, but surprisingly gracious apology to the press corps for his late arrival, and was soon followed with a widely-hailed trip to Shenzhen, where the new leader chatted casually with ordinary citizens while forgoing the opulent banquets and onerous traffic controls that have soured so many to party elites.
In contrast to departing President Hu Jintao, who often came off as stiff, expressionless, and at times even dour, Xi has cut a more affable and caring figure in his public appearances. These changing optics have been accompanied by new rules that prohibit “empty rhetoric” at official meetings, and bans on floral arrangements, red carpet, or grand receptions during state inspection tours. Netizen reaction has been positive.
Some might dismiss this as a trivial shift in personality with little consequence for Chinese governance. After all, Hu Jintao’s boisterous predecessor Jiang Zemin was well-known for breaking into renditions of Love me Tender, and famously waltzed with Condoleeza Rice, the then US National Security Adviser, during a visit in 2002.
But Xi’s innovation is not his charisma per se – refreshing though it is after years of Hu’s stoicism. Rather, Xi Jinping is distinctive in that he is the first Chinese Party head to truly understand that authoritarian politicians have something to learn from their democratic counterparts. Western politicians may get flak for perceptions of pandering or placing electoral viability ahead of common interest, but one thing at which democratic politicians unquestionably do better is connecting and empathizing with ordinary people.
Xi gets it. Whether it’s Corey Booker’s masterful use of Twitter or Bill Clinton’s moving performance during the ‘92 debates, it is clear that the best politicians are the ones who can speak at the level of their audience, and in doing so humanize themselves as individuals who understand the struggles of ordinary citizens. In one sense, Xi has already proven himself to be a better student of this than Mitt Romney, whose comment antagonizing 47% of the country would have gone down just as badly in China as it did in the United States.
This is all the more important because of the age Xi lives in. The country he inherits is a place where vigilant netizens can shelter criminal defendants, oust adulterous officials, and even help abolish unconstitutional regulations. This level of scrutiny is unprecedented, particularly for a new leader whose vision and humanity are still unknown quantities. In a country where the previous cohort of sovereigns have appeared ever more distant while public outrage towards graft and inequality have only grown fiercer, Xi’s projection of himself as an authentic and upright leader could set him apart as an entirely new breed of politician.
Crafting an empathetic public image can enhance sound leadership. This is true for any polity, but particularly for non-democratic societies where leaders lack the legitimacy-conferring authority of popular election. President Obama had more than a year to sell himself on the campaign trail before setting foot into an office he had won. Xi, in comparison, had his stilted official biography rolled out via state news organs, but lacked the autonomy to personally introduce himself to the Chinese people until he actually assumed the reins of power. His 'presidential campaign' is only just beginning.
If he succeeds, it will be a boon to him in two ways. First, China’s challenges are severe, and as they worsen, frustrated citizens will need to know they have an empathetic leader on high. In China, there remains a longstanding belief that the emperor, under the mandate of heaven, is fundamentally just. As long as instances of local abuse are brought to his attention, all will be remedied. This is what still brings countless aggrieved petitioners into Beijing every year with letters addressed to China’s highest authorities. But if trust in top leadership is eroded, and Xi is perceived to have lost his 'mandate' – whether heavenly or not – a loss of faith in existing arrangements can contribute to serious social instability.
Second, public support – even under autocracy – can translate into real political capital. In the consensus-based decision-making model of the Politburo Standing Committee – where Xi is but first among seven peers, it is crucial that his (mostly conservative) colleagues see him as wielding a popular mandate. Naturally, Xi fans won’t be writing constituent letters to their elected representatives to support his agenda, but modern Chinese authoritarianism bases much of its legitimacy, and indeed its own conception of “democracy,” upon its ability to be responsive to public opinion. Rival peers will be slower to challenge Xi’s authority if he is seen to command the will of the Chinese people.
Of course it remains to be seen whether Xi will be able to capitalize on his favourable persona. It will require more than popular support to defeat the many entrenched interests that stand in the way of genuine reform. But Xi the politician is off to a promising start, and if he succeeds, he may be only the first of a new generation of Chinese leaders who can speak directly – and compassionately – to the people they govern.