It is an honour to be asked to deliver this year’s annual Lord Caradon lecture. When I put up on social media news of this, an academic friend in America whose family originally hailed from Jamaica sent a message saying how his father and mother has strong memories of Hugh Foot, as he then was, and his time as Governor in Chief on the island. As Minister of State for the Foreign Office, no doubt Lord Caradon in the 1960s would have spent time thinking about the role of the People’s Republic of China. But at that time, the UK still had yet to start ambassadorial level diplomatic relations. The Cultural Revolution in China was raging. The mission that existed in what was then called, by the UK, Peking, was sacked, with British diplomats there beaten up. And effigies of Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, were burnt in the centre of the city, despite Wilson’s refusal to allow British troops to fight in Vietnam.
When we hear about the fractious and challenging role of China today, it is good sometimes to give a sense of perspective and remember what it was like in the depths of the Cold War. I asked a colleague who had been active at this time in issues relating to China what it was like back then. They laughed and said that even mentioning one was interested in the country risked causing criticisms, so many just kept silent. These days, things at least haven’t got to that level. Yet!
We should be interested in China. And we should certainly be as interested and engaged with its politics in ways that most people are about US or European issues. Sometimes I am envious of my academic colleagues who deal with these areas. They don’t need to explain the importance of what they are talking about. Why does the US or Europe matter are questions where the answer is self-evident. But until quite recently, the same kind of question about China was often levelled at me, without it sounding slightly odd or redundant. One of the side effects of the pandemic that has afflicted the whole world in the last 18 months, and is largely regarded as having originated in China, is that that question has now definitely been answered. It was always true, but now we are all crystal clear – what happens in a country that accounts for a fifth of humanity and a fifth of global GDP matters to everyone. Good or bad, we all live in a world now where China is part of our environment. The idea of being able to delink from that is simply impossible.
In that context, this is why Xi Jinping should be someone who figures in our thinking and our minds as much as Joe Biden or, until she finally retires, Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin. Most of the time, in Western media, when Xi appears, it is usually with an air of mystery or some implication that he reigns over China’s 1.4 billion people like some Medieval despot. Not a word gets spoken in China, not a whisper uttered, without Xi being able to hear. He fits into the archetypal `Big Brother’ figure in Orwell’s dystopian classic, `1984’ – that benign, smiling face looking down from every wall and screen and newspaper, gazing into our eyes, ubiquitous, overwhelming, and very very terrifying.
Xi Jinping is now imputed with levels of power that equate him with his predecessor some decades ago as Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. This is quite some claim. Mao Zedong was instrumental in the Party from its foundation in 1921, a hundred years ago, when it had only a few dozen members. He rose to power over two decades, winning fights against other figures in the Party, against a group of Moscow backed activists, and then against the onslaught of the presiding government of China then, the Nationalists, and the Japanese, who launched a devastating war against the country in 1937. Mao Zedong was the proclaimer of the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. In his 27 years in control, not a single figure managed to successfully contest his power. From the aforementioned Cultural Revolution in 1966 onwards, the levels of devotion given to Mao came close to the religiously ecstatic. Mao was in people’s hearts, under their skin, in their morning and their night. To contest him was to sign ones own death warrant. Can we really say that Xi Jinping has power like this?
To complicate matters, however, we have to remember that however vast Mao’s powers, the China he ruled was not the same place as today. It was a marginalised, isolated country, which, through falling out with its main patron the USSR, had only one formal ambassador abroad by 1966. It was a country where 90 per cent of people lived in rural areas, where their standards of living were undeveloped, and their lifestyle almost pre-modern. The Communists did dramatically improve life expectancy, literacy, and other developmental measures. But to visit China of 1970, and to compare it to the place half a century later often seems to involve moving between two worlds. Xi might not in himself have the reach of Mao’s power – but he is in charge of a country with the world’s largest navy, in vessel terms, which stands on the cusp of being the world’s largest economy, which is the largest trading partner of 120 plus other countries, which has produced world leaders in telecoms and hi tech, and is now sending space shuttles to land on Mars. Say what one likes about Xi’s power, but of China’s power there is no dispute.
And that is to me a crucial issue. Where does the boundary between Xi as a political, public figure, and the country he serves and represents end? Xi’s China is often presented as a place that is slightly different from China in itself. But what is this place, where he casts such a long shadow? IN the Mao era one went to a China where the Chairman’s image was almost everywhere, where reference to him saturated daily language, where he was a living part of everyone’s daily lives. In Xi’s China, I can attest, through constant, frequent visits till the pandemic ended these, at least for now, there is nothing like this blanket coverage. Xi ‘s image is present, but only in government buildings and in state media. People’s daily lives are preoccupied by the same challenges of late modernity as anywhere else – saving money to buy expensive accommodation, commuting long hours each day to work in offices that look like those in London or New York – in fact, that look newer than these! For Mao’s China, people were not so much a captive audience, but one addicted to their love of the Chairman. For Xi, the Party has a wholly different challenge – to at least engage and fight for air time with the million and one other things that distract people online or in the ever shifting spectacle of their daily lives.
As an attempt to remedy this, a great deal of the Xi message has been to gain power through telling stories. There is the story of Xi himself, deployed in state media – of the man who came from an elite background in Beijing, whose father had been an ally of Mao in the pre-PRC period, but then felled in a political campaign in the 1960s and put under house arrest. In the Cultural Revolution Xi was sent from school to the rural area in central China where the Communist Party had taken refuge in the 1930s and 1940s, Ya’nan. This is Xi the peasant emperor tale, the one about the man who despite these setbacks then rose from the lowest level of government at the village level to become a provincial, then a national leader, and now sits at the heart of the whole system. IN this story, Xi is someone who had earned what he now enjoys. He also shows that for Chinese, they can aspire, they can enjoy the Chinese dream, rather than carry on being addicted by the American one!
But behind this is the larger story, the one that is promoted to the great, emerging middle class, the builders of the new China. In Mao’s era, it was the farmers, the rural dwellers, who formed his base. These people embraced the liberation ideology of the Party. The outside world heard, and still knows a lot about, how intellectual and other elites in Mao’s time suffered. It is true. They suffered, sometimes terribly. But there is a strong argument that for the vast vast majority of the people, Mao’s government lifted them from poverty, and made their lives measurably better. In Xi’s China too, while there are credible reports of the dismay of specific members of the government and intellectual elite being appalled at Xi’s consolidation of powers, the middle class are the new base. For this group, while an appeal based on Marxism Leninism or socialism with Chinese characteristics would be highly limited. But as Xi and the circle around him have shown, when one starts to talk of the rise of the great Chinese nation, of its now being on the cusp of an historic renaissance, where, with the Communist Party’s guidance and support, it is about to reclaim its pre modern status as one of the great countries of the world – perhaps the greatest – then one is occupying far more solid ground. For Xi, if there is power, it resides in this story in particular – a story of nationalism, where Chinese people themselves can witness the reality of their country’s new found confidence and power by simply looking around them. The monuments to this are not revolutionary struggle, or Maoist devotion, but the 36 thousand kilometres of high speed rail lines built in the last decade, more than the rest of the world put together, or the construction of the world’s fastest computer, or the amazing ultra modernist architecture of the great urban landscapes of Shanghai, or Shenzhen, with skyscrapers that now rank in the world’s top ten.
When we think about power in contemporary China, we have to step back and look at some of the long, and often stubbornly, held assumptions we might have, things that have nothing to do with China itself. Those notions about oriental despotism, fortified from the 17th century onwards by figures like Montesquieu and others who often portrayed Chinese emperors as almost mythical in their remoteness and the size of their powers. Even people who had direct experience from Europe of the nature of these powers at this time however started to see a more complex reality. The Dutch embassy to China in 1795 – only a year or so after the far better known British one under Lord Macartney, had to endure in their overland journey from southern China to the emperors seat in Beijing often harsh and primitive conditions. This was not because their visit was unsupported by the ruler. On the contrary, they came with Qianlong’s full support. The issue was the ways that local officials obediently followed instructions, while siphoning off as much of the central budget for the hosting of the tour for their own needs as they could. Surface respect for the powers of the emperor was fine. Underneath that, it was anyone’s game! That captures something about power in China to this day – something that at the same time is immense and frightening, but also strangely dissipated and inefficient because of the ways it is held in the hands of only one limited figure with all the of the issues of overstretch and overburden.
Before we get too excited by the discovery of a new oriental despot, a figure of vast and all penetrating abilities, we might set aside this historic template, and start to locate Xi in a more contemporary context. First of all, we have to remember from what his powers flows – the body that he leads. With its 92 million members, the Communist Party of China, fresh from celebrating its hundredth anniversary in existence, is a very different body to that of the Mao era. It is a well trained, highly hierarchical, well funded and well entrenched entity. In the new history of the Party’s hundred years, issued only this April, the lines put it well: the party is east, west, south, north, and at the centre. It is something created by all of Xi’s predecessors, with ability to control the military, the economy through state enterprises, and the whole of society through various different bodies and governance mechanisms. This is one of the world’s most formidable collective enterprises. Any one who heads such a body would be powerful per se. Xi is the person heading it now. By definition, he is powerful, but through the Party.
Beyond this, we have to remember the new suite of technologies that the Party and Xi’s China now enjoy. These give state capacity a reach that is unprecedented. If Xi’s style of power is autocratic and centralising, that is in large part because artificial intelligence, big data harvesting, and a host of other new capabilities have made this so. The lamentable and disturbing situation in Xinjiang, in the north west of the country, is a case in point – mass incarceration and indoctrination of people of largely Uyghur ethnicity over the last three years which have attracted international attention, and condemnation. We have to remember though that repression in this area, and others in the country, is hardly a new thing. What is new is the ability by the state through face recognition and online tracking to keep tabs on the population in ways that the Mao era could only have dreamed of. Xi’s China may be one of repression and the quashing of specific communities. But there is an important discussion about whether the real agent here is not so much Xi and the politicians around him, but the cyber world itself, the same kind of villain that the West also struggles with in their constant veering between addiction and revulsion at the world social media has created, and how it impacts on the real material and social world!
Finally there is the question of just how solitary Xi is sitting at the heart of this techno-nationalistic Party edifice steering the country towards its moment of rejuvenation fuelled by the huge swathes of the middle class. Xi has to be accorded, even by those who are most severely critical of him, at least some solid political skill. If we see the context of his power more clearly, then we can understand better how it works. He has clarified the key audience – that middle class – the base that he needs to craft messages for and whose aspirations he needs to address. He has created the key means of doing this – the story of nationalism, of the resurrection of the great Chinese nation with its own successful form of modernity. On top of this, he has articulated a much more domestic set of policies, ones around common prosperity which are aimed at showing the Communist Party is on the side of the everyday people, helping them buy their houses, have better health care, enjoy a better physical environment, and have a social security net to fall back on when times get hard. Is this such a hard group to understand, or a hard message to relate to, for outsiders, when one thinks of the sorts of issues post Brexit and Post Trump that politicians in Europe or America are also trying to face. Xi is in the business too of levelling up – and of doing something about the massive inequalities and inequities that afflict Chinese society just as much as they do western ones. He has defined the core people within the Communist Party itself that can support his political project, rather than him as a person – the sort of people the outside world might not know much about, but who form part of the deep establishment, a network of military, party, business and others who will define their interests in ways that are compatible with the Xi political mission.
And finally, he has also defined the mission – the march towards a China which is strong, unified, developed, wealthy, and able to stand up against the rest of the world. None of the Xi goals and methods of behaving are particularly new – the Party has always been keen to use new technology, it has always been dependent on nationalist messages, the middle class has been emerging for decades now as the country has urbanised and its economy developed. But what is new is the ways these have all come together at one particular moment. Looking at the individual figure of Xi as though all this were simply about him, his hubris, his ambitions, his ego, would be a massive misperception. It would also make the challenge of what we are looking at in China now from the outside far simpler than it actually is. It is Xi’s symbolic value – the ways in which his sort of Leadership with a capital L has been crafted, by him and many many others, to promote a corporate plan, and to be a central, strategic role in this, – that most matters. The highly deliberate and collectively constructed nature of this is the key thing – the ways in which it has been collaborative and jointly constructed. Looking at the key role for instance of the main current Party ideologue Wang Huning, and his work on stressing the importance of party culture and the sustainability of that as the key basis of its power is helpful here. In that context, the story and the strategy came first – then the kind of architecture that was needed to carry this forward followed afterwards. The Xi Leadership is part of this – but only part of it.
So next time you see, on TV or in the news, on the internet, or even on film, that figure of Xi with his big brother like gaze and the massive power imputed to him, remember too that even in Orwell’s vision, Big Brother was merely a front for a vast network of complex and more hidden issues, and a story and aim that was designed to transcend the bounds of any one person. Think beyond the face of Xi, to the story that Xi is the mouthpiece of, and the vast Party and its culture that his leadership is a major tool to promote, along with the very specific ways that this has been created for the audience – the great middle class, with all their complexity, the urgency of their aspirations, and the critical challenges that the Xi Leadership and the Party have in trying to address and appeal to this group. Scratch your head perhaps. Look bewildered. You should do. In this whole context, who leads, who is lead, and where the threads of power go are never, ever easy to follow. One thing I have to make clear after years of trying to work this one out. Whatever you conclude, whatever you think, beware of the simple story and the easy conclusion. And look at the image of one man controlling all of this at your peril. The power is almost certainly somewhere else.
(Lecture available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUdijrvILZ8)