Written by Kerry Brown.

Do Chinese leaders have to believe anything? After all, unlike their western counterparts, they don’t have to engage in battles over ideas and approaches during an election campaign, nor are they rudely exposed to forensic intellectual examination in the way that politicians in the US, Europe or other democracies are when they stand for power. The Communist Party of China exists almost to give them a ready made body of ideas that everyone assumes they buy into without too much internal self reflection. In the West, anyone starting out in politics has to at least, at the start, decide whether they are left, right or centrist. In China, if you go into politics then there is one valid choice. The only real issue is whether or not you go into politics, not what you believe if you do so.

And yet, the Party ideology is very broad, and when it comes down to details there is plenty of space for difference. That is why we often talk of the left and the right in China. There are those who adhere to stricter state involvement in the economy, and those who think this should be looser. In the current Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang occupies a position more on the left. He has spoken in the past of the threat that non state companies pose, and the need to maintain control over then – hardly surprising for someone trained as an economic in North Korea. Someone like Li Keqiang occupies a more right leaning place. He has written mostly about the need to unleash more domestic growth in China by encouraging all forms of business enterprise, state or not state. Liu Yunshan, head of ideology, would probably be regarded as pretty conservative in the West – the most orthodox of the orthodox, who believes in party control of the state, and state control of the information sector. Zhang Gaoli balances this by occupying a more business friendly, free market space – witness his recruitment of companies during his years in Fujian and then Shenzhen before he went to be party head in Shandong and Tianjin and unleashed staggering high levels of growth.

Yu Zhengsheng, going from the few detailed statements he has put his name to, is more to the traditional left. His tragic family history (his sister probably committed suicide in the Cultural Revolution, and his family suffered badly then because of his late father’s links to Mao’s wife Jiang Qing) means that he has made qualified statements about the past before 1978, but his views are probably that the state, centralized control and a command economy model over complete marketisation are good things. Balancing him out is Wang Qishan, more on the right, someone who impressed American policy makers with his pragmatism and economy literacy when in charge of the strategic dialogue with then before 2012.

In this situation, balanced between those who are supportive of the non state sector, of deeper marketisation and more economic liberalism, Xi Jinping has the casting vote. But his political position is the hardest to describe. The thing he has consistently spoken about and showed the deepest commitment to over the last two decades is the essential role of the Party, and its historic mission as the unifier of China, the key institution that can make China a `rich, powerful and strong country.’ It seems that he has inherited this conviction from his father, and it is a very personal one. This profound emotional link with the Party, through his family and his own history, is evidently strong enough for him to sanction the attack now on a whole number of different figures and networks who he evidently regards as not sharing this view and threatening the Party’s moral mandate. But whether you could place Xi in a left or right or even broadly centrist position is a moot point. Like skilled politicians in the West, he has mastered the art of talking a lot and managing to say very little specific. He is the current leadership’s great dispenser of ambiguity.

Whether we can see beyond the surface appearances of these leaders to anything we might call their inner life is another question. In a world where so much is controlled, managed and concealed, Chinese leaders give very few clues about what lies behind the masks they wear. Perhaps the masks are all that really exists, and there is no real inner conviction necessary. But I suspect that this is not the case. The Communist Party of China and its current structures of power are highly specific, in some details, but there is still a strong role for the universal qualities of ambition, animosity, fear, anger and the other passions we see in politics across geography and history. Xi is proving to be an interesting leader because there is this hint lurking behind his public persona of someone who is prone to these emotions. He seems to have strong likes and dislikes, and takes risks propelled by these. Unlike Hu Jintao who practiced self mastery to such an extent it became a self abnegating art form, Xi’s image is not so placidly controlled. And with the pipeline of major issues demanding tactical decisions in the coming months and years, we are likely to see more and more into Xi’s inner world as China enters a period when the raft of core decisions the leadership will have to make means that conviction politics of a former age starts to make a comeback.

Kerry Brown’s The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in Modern China was published by I B Tauris in June. 

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