Written by Steve Tsang.

Much has been written in recent weeks of how Chinese president Xi Jinping has established himself as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. Distinguished Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar went a step further in an interview with the New York Times, comparing Xi’s authority with that of Chairman Mao Zedong. Other China watchers have voiced their agreement.

It is easy to see why comparisons to the ‘Great Helmsman’ are being made. The Party has tightened its grip on Chinese society and free speech. The defining policy of Xi’s leadership, after two years as president, is an unrelenting and far-reaching crackdown on corruption among Party officials. The focal point of the clean-up campaign is the fall of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, the most senior leader in Communist Party history to face criminal investigation for corruption.

But the portrait of Xi as a ‘strongman’ figure has been painted with excessive haste. China’s spin-doctors have been busy creating a cult of personality around the man they call ‘Xi Dada’, or ‘Big Daddy Xi’. A collection of speeches by Xi – titled The Governance of China – was published in nine languages last year. In a publicity coup, Chinese state media published a photograph of the book lying on the desk of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The charm offensive is working – at home and abroad. A study published by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School shows Xi had the highest approval rating among his own people than any other world leader. And Xi came out top of the international rankings where people were asked to rate other country’s leaders.

Xi has real presence, unlike China’s previous two leaders Jiang Zemin – a ‘waxwork’ according to Prince Charles – and Hu Jintao, who was routinely described as stiff or wooden. Confident, affable, assertive, Xi cuts a more dynamic figure. No doubt this will come across to the American public when he makes his first state visit to the United States in September. But careful branding and assured swagger should not lead us to excitedly proclaim Xi the new Mao.

China is still very much ruled by a collective leadership in what can be termed, in political parlance, as a ‘consultative Leninist system’. What does this mean in practice? It is a system of governance that has five defining characteristics:

–       The principal aim of the Communist Party is to remain in power, for which maintaining the country’s stability and pre-emptively eliminating threats to its political supremacy are deemed essential.

–       The way the Party governs must be reformed in order to pre-empt public demands for Western-style democratisation.

–       The Party is committed to seeking, responding to and directing public opinion.

–       Rapid growth and economic development must be sustained by whatever means.

–       A brand of nationalism must be promoted that instils a sense of national pride by championing the greatness of China’s history and the progress it has made under the Communist Party since it came to power in 1949.

Xi exudes immense confidence in this political system and its future prospects. To him the system is not fundamentally weak or faulty but needs a good shake up and a strong leadership that can realise what he calls the ‘China Dream’.

By the time Xi has completed his two terms as President in the autumn of 2022 the Communist Party will have celebrated its centenary (2021), and the People’s Republic of China will have outlasted the Soviet Union by four years. These forthcoming landmarks are important points of reference for Xi. As China’s leader, Xi is committed to pre-empt a Soviet style implosion and to revive the Party and the country during his watch.

This consultative Leninist system took shape under the leaderships of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Having inherited it, Xi intends to leave his mark. Compared with his predecessor Hu, he is far more willing to drive the Party harder towards significant reform within a decade.

But the focus of his reforms is to reinforce and strengthen this system, not to replace it with liberal democracy or indeed by restoring Maoist totalitarianism.

If Xi was really the ‘strongman’ that many claim, he would have behaved in a much more assertive manner over the first two years of his presidency. In dealing with highly sensitive and potentially divisive issues, such as the bringing of the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai to trial and in the investigations into the alleged misdeeds of Zhou Yongkang, Xi has moved with great deliberation. It took Xi over a year to formally arrest Zhou.

There is little doubt that Xi is in the driving seat but he has apparently not imposed his will on his colleagues in the Politburo and its Standing Committee in a way that would provoke a backlash, at least not yet. What Xi has so far demonstrated is an attempt to lead from the front and yet he has managed to preserve a collective leadership.

As consultative Leninism consolidates and the Party under Xi gains further in confidence and competence, it is likely to take bolder steps in deepening reform. This should result in greater scope being given to NGOs and private citizens to operate as long as they pose no challenge to the Party, while dissidents’ ability to articulate their opposition will be subject to even tighter restrictions.

The Chinese leadership is well aware that reform is vital. Up until now fate has smiled upon Xi, which has served to magnify the impression of this Mao-style figure. He is presiding over an economy that for years has outstripped growth in the Western world and that escaped relatively unscathed from a global financial crisis. And unlike their Western equivalents, the Chinese middle class is broadly satisfied with their lot.

Yet there are signs that prospects are on the turn. Economic growth is gradually slowing – although still above seven percent – and the demographic bonus of recent decades is beginning to shift to a demographic deficit as China’s population ages. Much needed economic reforms have been slow to be implemented, again suggesting that Xi is not quite as all-powerful as it may seem.

In fact Xi’s outward confidence belies an acute sense of insecurity. He feels he needs to exert a high level of control over the Party in order to make the reforms that China needs. He has set out along the long road to reform but progress is slow and he still does not have the power to speed up the journey.

Steve Tsang is Professor and Head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, and former director of the China Policy Institute. This article was originally published on Forbes.com on 16 Feb. Image Credit: CC by APEC 2013/Flickr

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