It is well known that the tiger occupies a unique position in traditional Chinese mythology. Of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, tigers are known to have potent personalities. They are considered to be strong, brash, impetuous and, above all, self-assured. However, while they are potent personalities, at the same time they are fundamentally dangerous animals.
Xi Jinping emerged as the top Communist Party leader in China in November 2012 — two years after the last year of the tiger in 2010. Remember, in 2010 China edged out Japan and became the world’s second largest economy after the US. This year will be the first time Xi Jinping will be leading China into the year of the tiger. In fact, as observers tell us, in the tiger year, Xi will helm China “riding the tiger” as the leader of the world’s largest economy.
...it is the mounting political pressure he has put himself under to succeed for the “unprecedented” third term at the top that explains Xi’s uncharacteristic and yet distinct shift towards populism during the entire past year.
Distinct shift towards populism
But does Xi know how to get off a tiger? For, in recent years, Chinese politics has increasingly become too “hot” at the top and is not for someone with a weak heart — especially when compared with the days of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively.
Of course, no one can disagree, Xi Jinping has been under mounting pressure since the last Communist Party of China (CPC) Party Congress in 2017, when he forced Xi Jinping Thought into the party constitution and got rid of the two-term limit to his leadership of the party and of the PRC.
Hence, it is the mounting political pressure he has put himself under to succeed for the “unprecedented” third term at the top that explains Xi’s uncharacteristic and yet distinct shift towards populism during the entire past year.
Some say it is the widening social inequality — and Xi did not do anything for the first eight years — that is the biggest driving force behind Xi’s emphasis last year on “common prosperity”. Last August, Xi’s call for “prosperity of all” at the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs stands out as the most populist of his series of “populism” measures announced last year.
Other populist announcements include massive national propaganda that China has abolished “absolute poverty”; steps to rein in China’s monopoly capitalists such as big and large “fin-tech” entrepreneurs Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma, among others; shutting down of highly profitable private online tutoring centres that dominate the education industry; and last but not least is the state cracking down on Didi online cab service and on the real estate businesses.
Furthermore, just like Xi did not, or could not, do anything substantive to bridge yawning inequality during his two terms as the top leader, he also failed to follow through the campaign against corruption to the end.
Remember the great enthusiasm with which the new leader had launched the “anti-corruption” movement on coming to office in 2012. However, soon the common people in China could see through the hollow slogan Xi had coined at the time: “We must uphold the fighting of tigers and flies at the same time.”
Though anti-corruption rhetoric was maintained at a high pitch, it remained mere propaganda and would not go as far as to “destabilise the rotten bureaucratic apparatus on which the CPC relies to rule”, as mentioned in Peter Symonds' article on the World Socialist Web Site.
At the end of Xi’s ten years of rule, likewise, calls for common prosperity — the so-called philanthropy from the super-rich and the need to reduce social inequality — are seen as mere “populism” aimed at deflecting rising discontent and resentment mostly among rural migrant workers and the vast majority of marginalised rural youth.
New solutions needed
Ever since the CPC General Secretary Xi declared, or some say claimed, that the party has apparently extended its full support and endorsed Xi as the “core” leader and abandoned the principle of collective leadership, the global media as well as scholars abroad, have been critical of the PRC president. Xi was said to be “leading China away from the hybrid path taken by Deng Xiaoping and returning to a system of absolute rule by one individual without term limits, as under Mao Zedong”.
Xi is also accused of returning China on “the road to disaster” by turning the CPC leadership back from authoritarianism towards a one-person dictatorship. Moreover, serious doubts have been expressed, such as those in a Project Syndicate article over whether “unstoppable” Xi can end the “Gilded Age” of the world’s largest economy (in size) and lead China into “its own era of progressive reform”.
Xi's only claim to enjoying wider popularity within China is perhaps the manner in which he and his team managed to keep low the pandemic death toll.
It is against this backdrop that President Xi’s sudden, high-pitched populism in the past one year must be analysed, for political as well as economic reasons. On the one hand, Xi’s populism actually relies on “socialist nihilism” to quell ideological challenges from the Chinese left. On the other hand, Xi is using state-led propaganda of “abolishing absolute poverty” and “prosperity for all” as a political instrument to dupe the working people of China.
As Joschka Fischer explains in his article, perhaps Xi may be right in thinking that for the CPC, a change in direction is clearly needed. “For Xi, the Chinese hybrid model that has developed since Deng now needs a fundamental readjustment and social reorientation to account for the escalating political confrontation with the US and the decline of the economy’s growth rate,” Fischer noted.
However, within China, in a nutshell, disregarding all his populist moves in the course of the year for consolidating his quest for the third term, Xi's only claim to enjoying wider popularity within China is perhaps the manner in which he and his team managed to keep low the pandemic death toll.
Eric Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist and political scientist, notes in a Foreign Policy article that once President Xi took charge of leading China’s counter fight against the epidemic — following Xi’s virtual meeting with the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on 28 January 2020 — he showed that “opportunism and shirking responsibility” are not in his leadership character.
Li does not disagree that the Wuhan authorities had erred in the early stages of the virus outbreak about which very little was known. And the unexplained delay resulted in justified public anger — best manifested in Wuhan Diary written by the city-based well-known writer, Fang Fang — especially at the initial silencing of the whistleblowing Dr Li. But Xi’s decision to lock down Wuhan city and Hubei province turned out to be “the decision that saved the nation from a devastating catastrophe,” noted Eric Li.
...both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have been credited with possessing the required political skills to be able to both ride and get off a tiger
Finally, both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have been credited with possessing the required political skills to be able to both ride and get off a tiger — Mao for his extraordinary ability to lead China on the disastrous path to Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and yet he continues to enjoy god-like status today, while Deng emerged from “three ups and three downs” to become the “chief architect” of a strong, modern China.
In comparison, Xi’s only claim to be endowed with the unique Chinese skill “to ride and get off a tiger” lies in his ability to act with an unprecedented high degree of firmness and character to lead China’s “people’s war” against a once-in-a-generation pandemic crisis.
The world is still fighting the war to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, with both the number of infected cases and the death toll rising. So is China. But with a difference — China has the CPC and Xi Jinping. If Eric Li, advocate for Communist China and for Xi Jinping, is to be believed, Xi seems to have successfully managed to both “ride and get off” the Chinese tiger.
Related: Chinese youth will be imbued with tenets of Xi Jinping Thought through school curriculum | Self-assessment: How will the Chinese Communist Party evaluate the Xi Jinping era thus far? | China turning inward? China has always been a civilisation unto its own | The most outstanding of CCP leaders? | China is now 'a moderately affluent society'? | China's regulatory clampdowns: Masterful moves or persistent mistakes?