Saturday, May 5, 2018

  The story of China's new leadership generation
  as evinced by the life and words of its President

As noted at the end of the last post, Americans generally have no context for understanding what is going on in Chinese politics without having a celebrity to relate to. Knowing something about the person currently leading the policy changes, President Xi Jinping, might help as he the outward "face" of 21st Century China, a man who standing like a dawn redwood overcame the extreme hazards of the world's changing political climate.

Last year at the end of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), for the first time all seven Standing Committee members of the Political Bureau were born after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, including President Xi Jinping.

All were born and raised in the People's Republic of China. That means that none of them were WWII veterans and none were part of the Revolution. Instead, all were impacted as children from 1958 to 1962 by Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward and impacted as teens by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution from 1966 until 1976.

To understand the meaning of this history to these seven men, one only need to look at the experience of President Xi Jinping.

After the founding of the Communist state in 1949, though considered a political moderate Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, held a series of government posts, including propaganda chief, vice-premier, and vice-chairman of the National People's Congress.

Xi Jinping was born June 15, 1953. Based on normal expectations, both Xi's futures looked bright.

But when Xi Jinping was age 10, his father was purged from the Party and sent to work in a factory in Luoyang, Henan. In May 1966, Xi Jinping's "high school years" were cut short by the Cultural Revolution, when all secondary classes were halted for students to criticize and fight their teachers. Xi Jinping was age 15 when his father was jailed in 1968.

In 1969, lacking the protection of his father, Xi Jinping was sent to work in Yanchuan County, Shaanxi, in Mao Zedong's Down to the Countryside Movement. After a few months, unable to stand rural life, he ran away to Beijing. He was arrested during a crackdown on deserters from the countryside and sent to a work camp to dig ditches

Mao Zedong died in September 1976. As with most purged leaders who were not executed, after Mao's death and the confusion that followed, Xi Zhongxun was "fully rehabilitated" at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in December 1978.

From 1978 to 1981, he held leadership roles in Guangdong Province, successively as the second and then first provincial secretary, governor and political commissar of the Guangdong Military Region.

The island of Hainan was administered as part of Guangdong until 1988 which explains the picture to the left, at least in part.

When Xi Zhongxun first arrived in Guangdong, the provincial government was struggling to hold back the tide of Guangdong residents trying to flee to Hong Kong. At the time, daily wages in Guangdong averaged 0.70 yuan, about 1/100 of wages in Hong Kong. Xi understood the disparity in standards of living and called for economic liberalization in Guangdong. To do so, he needed to win over leaders in Beijing skeptical of the market economy.

In meetings in April 1979, Xi Zhongxun convinced Deng Xiaoping, the de facto leader of China, to permit Guangdong to make its own foreign trade policy decisions and to invite foreign investment to projects in experimental areas along the provincial border with Hong Kong and Macau and in Shantou, which has a large overseas diaspora. As for the name of the experimental areas, Deng said, "let's call them, 'special zones', [after all, your Sino-Japanese War] Shaanxi-Gansu Border Region began as a 'special zone'." Deng added, "The Central Government has no funds, but we can give you some favorable policies." Borrowing a phrase from their guerrilla war days, Deng told Xi, "You have to find a way, to fight a bloody path out."

With Deng's support, Xi Zhongxun submitted a formal proposal on the creation of special zones, later renamed special economic zones. In July 1979, despite opposition from Marxist ideologues, the party center and State Council approved the creation of the first four special economic zones.

In the context of his father's work, President Xi Jinping's efforts to open up China's economy are both understandable and believably sincere.

After Xi Jinping (who we will call Xi from this point on) was arrested and spent time digging ditches, he became the Party branch secretary of the production team, leaving that post in 1975, later describing that time of his life: "It was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion."

From 1975 to 1979, Xi studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University. As a "Worker-Peasant-Soldier student" under the direction of the People's Liberation Army he had to spend about 20% of his time studying Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong thought and doing farm work.

After 1979 Xi had a long career in Communist Party politics and local and provincial government slowly rising (overcoming his status as a "princeling" who could potentially benefit from nepotism and cronyism as a descendant of a prominent senior communist official).

One event of interest during this period was in 1985, as a mid-level county functionary in his early thirties, he led a small delegation from Hebei Province (the home of the dawn redwood!) on a two-week U.S. tour to learn about U.S. agriculture. As explained in a story worth reading in The Street President Xi Slept Here: How a Trip to Iowa in 1985 Changed U.S.- China Relations:

    My parents hosted Xi and his translator, Wenyi Xia, during their stay in Muscatine. Xi slept in my bedroom while my brother and I were away at university, which is why my mother had the empty rooms, and she was happy to offer her hospitality to these visitors from a far-off land. My sister was still in the house and met Xi long before his rise to the top.
    The conversations were not easy -- having to go through a translator -- but both parties learned a lot about each other, both personally and about their cultures and countries. The visit was a catalyst for my parents and sister to visit China the following year, their first sojourn to Asia.
    Life went on and the Muscatine folks involved with the visit lost touch, which is not surprising in a pre-Internet era with significant language barriers. Xi continued his rise to the pinnacle of Chinese politics, and in 2008 emerged as vice president and designated successor to lead the nation.
    As he planned his 2012 visit to the U.S., which introduced him to the world as the heir apparent to lead China, he directed his staff to track down those people he met in Muscatine all those years ago. The staff succeeded, of course, and his visit to Iowa and the reunion with old friends was an international highlight of that trip.

Though you can't tell it from this discussion so far, yes there are women in China in Xi's life. In 1986 a skinny 32-year-old vice-mayor who had been previously married and divorced went on a blind date with 24-year-old Peng Liyuan, a celebrated folk singer, who was far better known than him. The following year they married. Their daughter Xi Mingze, an only child, was born in 1992. She received her bachelor's degree from Harvard in 2014.

Peng, as a popular folk singer, graced dozens of magazine covers during her three decade career, and for two of those decades, she was a fixture on the annual CCTV New Year's Gala—a long-running television holiday ritual as familiar and iconic as the New Years Eve Ball Drop in Times Square. Now, unlike her predecessors who mostly kept a low profile, China’s first lady Peng Liyuan has been in the spotlight since her husband Xi Jinping became president as can be seen in the video below.

In addition, there are women who have significant positions in government in China. But that is not the focus of this story.

In 2000 Xi became Governor of Fujian Province where, consistent with his father's policies decades before in Guangdong, he made efforts to attract investment from Taiwan and to strengthen the private sector of the provincial economy. In 2002 he moved on to Zhejiang becoming a provincial party chief. That year he was elected a full member of the 16th Central Committee of the CPC.

While he was in Zhejiang the reported economic growth rates reached 14% despite his tough stance against corrupt officials.  And in 2005 Xi famously said in support of establishing environmental "green" goals: "Clear waters and green mountains are mountains of gold and silver." At that time Xi Jinping, as Zhejiang Province Communist Party Secretary, was not even on any pundits radar. His environmental statement was far from pandering to the popular thinking.  Zhejiang has pioneered an "eco-compensation" system, which enables regions to both preserve the environment and develop eco-friendly industries.

Following the dismissal of Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu in September 2006 due to a social security fund scandal, Xi was transferred to Shanghai in March 2007 to become the provincial party chief.

In October 2007  the Communist Party of China prepared to convene its 17th National Congress in Beijing. Liaoning party chief Li Keqiang and Jiangsu party chief Li Yuanchao were the odds-on favourites to emerge from the small group of candidates to be anointed supreme leader-in-waiting of the party’s Fifth Generation.

As the newly appointed party chief of Shanghai, Xi Jinping, was not expected to contend for the post. He was expected to continue serving as Shanghai party chief. But at the party congress for the 25-member Politburo, in the ‘open audition’ selection process, for the first time all Central Committee members were allowed to vote from a wider pool of candidates drawn from provincial and ministerial-level cadres. Xi won the most support.

The day after the National Congress, at the First Plenum of the party’s 17th Central Committee, Xi was selected as the sixth-ranking member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and executive secretary of the party’s Secretariat.

Later that December, he was appointed president of the Central Party School – mirroring the path that Hu Jintao, President from 2003 to 2013, had taken during his elevation to the supreme leader-in-waiting position in the late-1990s.

Xi was neither a protégé of Jiang Zemin, President from 1993 to 2003, nor belonged to Hu Jintao's group. His elevation was beholden to neither factional politics nor to the reigning supreme leader’s dictates. This may have been instrumental in his rapid rise to the top

Five months later, at the 11th National People's Congress in March 2008, Xi was elected as Vice-President of the People's Republic of China.

Less than a year later, on February 11, 2009, while visiting Mexico, then Vice-President Xi spoke in front of a group of overseas Chinese noting that "it was the greatest contribution towards the whole of the human race made by China to prevent its 1.3 billion people from hunger."

And regarding the 2008 financial crisis affecting the Atlantic oriented world filled with complaints about Chinese foreign trade: "There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us. First, China doesn't export revolution; second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches. What more is there to be said?"

On 15 November 2012, Xi Jinping was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission by the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

On the following day, Xi led the new line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee onto the stage, decreased its number of seats from nine to seven, with only Xi himself and Li Keqiang (who became Premier beginning in 2013) retaining their seats from the previous Standing Committee; the remaining members were new.

Lest anyone think this happened easily, Xi disappeared mysteriously for two weeks in September unseen, unheard, and undiscussed by official Chinese media. The most believable or unbelievable story is that in a meeting of "the red second generation." (the Communist Party old guard's elite and now-adult children) which at the time involved old rivalries, petty squabbles, and apparently fights. When a fight broke out Xi tried to be peacemaker, putting himself physically into the path of a chair as it was thrown across the room.  It hit him in the back, injuring him.

If you think the Communist Party of China is a unified organization of one mind under an absolute dictator focused on evil, that story is unbelievable. If you think the Communist Party's 65 million members form factions and disagree vehemently on policy and that the shift to a new generation likely was rancorous, that story is believable.

In any event, in a marked departure from the common practice of Chinese leaders, Xi's first speech as general secretary was plainly worded and did not include any political slogans or mention of his predecessors. Xi mentioned the aspirations of the average person, remarking, "Our people ... 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."

In December 2012 Xi made a trip to Shenzhen, a major city in Guangdong Province, the birthplace of China's market economy under his father Xi Zhongxun, and where in 1992 Deng Xiaoping, as part of his famous 1992 Southern Tour, rallied provincial support for pushing ahead with reforms as a means of balancing the power of hardliners in Beijing who had enjoyed a resurgence following Tiananmen Square.

On March 14, 2013, in a confirmation vote by the 12th National People's Congress in Beijing, on a vote of 2,952 for, one vote against, and three abstentions, Xi Jinping was elected President of the Peoples Republic of China.

In presenting this life for context, one caveat must be made. From an ideological view, Xi Jinping is a Marxist. He embraces Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, meaning Marxism adapted to Chinese conditions and contemporary considerations. While that is important to keep in mind, one also has to keep in mind the statements Xi has made outside the complexity of the "system" of Chinese government:
  • Clear waters and green mountains are mountains of gold and silver.
  • The greatest contribution towards the whole of the human race made by China was to prevent its 1.3 billion people from hunger.
  • Our people 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.
  • First, China doesn't export revolution; second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches.
Regardless of how one interprets China's social, economic, and other policy goals set in place under Xi's leadership, Americans can consider it all in the context of his life history.

Perhaps that's good, even if we can't help but conflate the terms personage, personality, and celebrity. Certainly the next post in this series deals with really boring complex subjects like economics and the well-being of future generations, stuff that Xi cares about as a human.

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