What to make of Xi Jinping, China’s new senior leader, who holds his first summit meeting this week with President Barack Obama?
The hope is that Xi is a reformer who will guide China through domestic transformation and to responsible statecraft. The fear is that Xi is a nationalist, who has set China on an aggressive course of bullying its neighbors and confronting the United States.
The fear seems not unfounded. China has intensified its territorial claims, from island disputes with Japan to vast areas of the South China Sea.
Xi frequently inspects People’s Liberation Army forces, especially naval fleets, exhorting China’s military to “get ready to fight and to win wars” and “to win regional warfare under I.T.-oriented conditions.”
Xi holds China’s top three positions: head of the ruling Communist Party of China, head of state, and, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, head of the military. He will likely lead China for a decade.
Just after becoming party chief in late 2012, Xi announced what would become the hallmark of his administration. “The Chinese Dream,” he said, is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Xi’s Chinese Dream is described as achieving the “Two 100s”: the material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by about 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the modernization goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
The Chinese Dream has four parts: Strong China (economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, militarily); Civilized China (equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals); Harmonious China (amity among social classes); Beautiful China (healthy environment, low pollution).
“A moderately well-off society” is where all citizens, rural and urban, enjoy high standards of living. This includes doubling the 2010 G.D.P. per capita (approaching $10,000 per person) by about 2020 and completing urbanization (roughly one billion people, 70 percent of China’s population) by about 2030.
“Modernization” means China regaining its position as a world leader in science and technology as well as in economics and business; the resurgence of Chinese civilization, culture and military might; and China participating actively in all areas of human endeavor.
If Xi’s nationalism seems at odds with these grand goals, it is not. Here are six reasons why:
• Need to consolidate power. Xi was not selected by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of reform, as were his predecessors (Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao), and he was not elected by the people. Conventional wisdom had it that Xi would be a weak leader. In order to realize his Chinese Dream, Xi needs to assert strength and assure control. So far, he has exceeded expectations.
• Need to enable reform. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are determined to enact far-reaching economic reforms, the most extensive in 15 years, but there is stiff resistance from those whose dominance would be diminished and benefits cut (such as state-owned enterprises with ties to party power).
This resistance can no longer be couched credibly in terms of ideology, so it appeals to nationalistic aspirations by accusing reformers of “worshipping Western ways,” “glorifying Western models” or “caving in to Western pressures.” Xi’s proactive nationalism is a strategy of “offense is the best defense” — an inoculation, as it were, against the political virus of being labeled “soft” or “pro-Western.”
Reformers in China are generally associated with pro-American attitudes and thus subject to fierce public criticism. By establishing himself as a nationalist operating independently of the United States (his first foreign trip was to Russia), Xi is able to secure economic reforms by distinguishing them from serving Western/American interests.
• Need to legitimze one-party rule. To perpetuate its rule (which China’s top leaders truly believe is essential for the well-being of the country), the Chinese Communist Party has constructed a grand narrative that is founded on three critical claims: Only the Communist Party can continue to improve citizen’s standard of living (and ameliorate severe social and economic disparities); only the party can maintain a stable, unified country and construct a happy, harmonious society; and only the party can effect the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which stresses a firm command of “core interests” (i.e., sovereignty and territoriality) and increasing global respect.
• Maintain stability through unity. China faces numerous internal tensions, especially a class-divided populace (rich-poor, urban-rural, coastal-inland) that have erupted within one generation. Moreover, an increasingly complex society can fracture along multiple fault lines. Pollution, corruption, healthcare, housing, migrant workers, workers’ wages, social cynicism, changing values, among other raging issues, threaten to fragment society — and all are exacerbated by an energetic social media. Only nationalism, which resonates intrinsically and passionately across Chinese society, can provide sufficiently strong social glue.
• Differentiate from predecessors. Top Chinese leaders must combine historical continuity with their own distinguishing theories and practices. How shall Xi fare?
Economic growth rates must decline, and a host of domestic tensions (or crises) are coming his way, such as public anger at corruption and resistance to pollution. Hence another rationale for nationalism.
In the past, nationalistic surges were triggered largely by external events (such as NATO‘s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999). Xi is putting nationalism at the core of his leadership — his nationalism is proactive, riding the high road of patriotism and pride.
• Personal beliefs. Xi has deep-seated patriotic convictions, the product of family, life and career. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founder of the new China and a leading reformer under Deng Xiaoping. In 2006, when Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang Province, he told me about Chinese pride and patriotism as motivating China’s historic resurgence — words remarkably similar to his recent pronouncements.
So is Xi a reformer? A nationalist? The answer is that he is both, because only by being a nationalist can he be a reformer. American policy makers must understand Xi’s nationalism so that when the reigning superpower meets the rising superpower, both can benefit.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international investment banker and the author, most recently, of How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What This Means for the Future.