Xi Jinping: The Man, the Myth, the Party

Some Western Misunderstandings of Xi Jinping’s Leadership

Originally published as part of MERICS’ edited volume China’s Core Executive: Leadership styles, structures and processes under Xi Jinping

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Government or the Department of State.

Key Findings:

  • Xi Jinping is not the sole or even primary factor causing recent major shifts in the Chinese political landscape. Structural and situational factors also explain many of these changes.
  • In fact, the policies Xi is pursuing are largely in line with the Party’s previously-articulated agenda. His apparent increase in decision-making power—though far from certain in all cases—is in part the result of collective sense of urgency at the highest levels prior to the leadership turnover.
  • Xi’s “cult of personality” is a far cry from the fervour of the cult of Mao. Media coverage of Xi Jinping should be viewed in the context of a highly professional and deliberate leadership personality management system that serves the CCP’s modern propaganda needs.
  • When assessing the future trajectory of the Chinese political system, we would be well-served to focus on the success or failure of the CCP’s policy agenda and not just on the man heading it. Indeed, a spectacular failure could threaten the existence of the entire regime.

The last few years have seen dramatic changes in the Chinese political landscape that raise significant questions about where China is headed.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has revitalized Leninist party governance mechanisms and forcefully reasserted control over members of the government, military, media, economy, and society.  Many observers attribute the Party’s dramatic resurgence to the face of this effort: General Secretary Xi Jinping.  This assumption is the foundation for several pieces of conventional wisdom, which present Xi himself as the primary driver of change in China and focus on his actions as the best way to analyse China’s future.  

This narrative may turn out to be the closest to the truth. However, given the opacity of the Chinese system, forcing us to frequently rely on information that is anecdotal or shaped by the PRC propaganda apparatus, this narrative may miss key elements of China’s political landscape. Indeed, if Xi is viewed as a creature of his Party and of his times, who assumed his mantle with a mandate for a particular vision of reform and a broad recognition that strong, revitalized central leadership was required to carry it out, alternative narratives may be crucial to understanding decision making within China have important implications for China and foreign observers.

This paper will provide a larger context for Xi’s actions and posit that, even as major changes have occurred in China’s political landscape, available evidence does not rule out alternative narratives.  This paper is not meant to argue for an all-or-nothing interpretation of Xi Jinping’s personal power, or to deny that individual leaders can determine a nation’s trajectory in crucial ways.   However, by reviewing the dominant narrative frameworks and discussing additional structural and situational factors driving Chinese policy, this paper aims to highlight what is missing from much of the conventional wisdom and present a preliminary alternative framework for thinking about the future of Chinese politics.

Conventional Wisdom 1 – Xi’s personal agenda has defined China’s policy strategy

The Xi administration started in on its anti-corruption campaign almost immediately after the leadership turnover, sending shock waves throughout the governance system. Combined with a more tightly-controlled media and social sphere, the resulting alterations to Chinese political life are undeniable.  Many observers point to Xi as the sole or primary driver of these alternations.  However, Xi benefited from a collective sense of urgency about the challenges facing the Party and a mandate for reform to tackle these challenges.

Years before the most recent leadership transition, the CCP began to systematically analyse the pressures leading to the collapse of the USSR and identifying changes it would have to make to avoid the same fate.  By late-2012, the pressures the CCP faced ranged from economic (the deficiencies of an export- and investment-intensive growth model had been exacerbated by the 2008 stimulus in response to the global financial crisis) to social (growing middle-class dissatisfaction with quality-of-life issues such as pollution and food safety),to technological and ideological (the advent of social media amplifying non-Party messages, raising the spectre of popular revolt), and to institutional (the CCP’s internal rot threatening to undermine Party functioning and legitimacy).   This final issue was dramatically underscored by the 2012 public revelation of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s crimes—the most serious of which, if officially unmentioned, was his attempt to circumvent leadership selection processes.  The new leadership had little choice but to act quickly and aggressively in order to preserve CCP rule, giving Xi a mandate to tackle these challenges in a manner more decisive than his predecessors.

Xi likely personally shared this sense of crisis and urgency. Certainly, as part of the previous leadership cohort, he had a hand in shaping the current policy agenda aimed at these challenges.  Anecdotal tales about Xi’s formative years or quotes from recent speeches suggest that he sincerely believes in the Party’s historic mission to rejuvenate the nation.  But whatever Xi’s beliefs, his policy behaviour since taking power remains consistent with the policy strategies outlined by the outgoing leadership.  The 18th Party Congress work report, written under Hu’s leadership and built upon familiar policy themes from previous Congresses, articulated the Party’s consensus goals and policy preferences and presented Xi and his colleagues with a mandate for reform.  

This even includes the signature initiative of the Xi administration, the anti-corruption campaign, which is the initiative that appears to diverge most strikingly from leadership precedent. Many observers initially interpreted the campaign as Xi Jinping’s attempt to consolidate power and eliminate personal or political enemies.  Yet, the campaign itself has proven to be long-lasting, expansive in scope, and increasingly systematic in the sectors it investigates, affecting tens of thousands of officials with no connection to Xi or his associates. When considered alongside other initiatives (such as the State Council’s “powers list,” which aims to clarify government agencies’ powers and prevent arbitrary fees and bribes), the Party’s anti-corruption efforts strongly suggest an organization trying to clean out the worst of its corruption and remove obstructions to further governance reform, in accordance with long-standing Party priorities.  This does not preclude personal score-settling or benefits for Xi, but it is very difficult to explain the campaign as driven purely by elite politics.

Thus, given that policy under Xi has not wildly deviated from previously-articulated Party strategies and objectives, the most straightforward assumption holds that the current leadership’s policy priorities reflect broader agreement how to address threats to Party rule.  Xi himself likely shares these priorities, but available evidence does not prove they are solely his.  This also does not rule out the existence of disagreements among top leaders, including personality-driven conflicts.  But the contours of these conflicts remain largely hidden to us, and it is difficult to prove how exactly they have shaped the Party’s actions. (Miller 2015)

Conventional Wisdom 2 – Xi is concentrating power to his person and to be wielded in dictatorial fashion

Many observers assert that Xi has drawn the reins of power tightly to himself through, among other efforts, the creation or expansion of high-level Party policy structures.  Xi may indeed have more decision-making leeway than his predecessor.  Yet, some of this concentration of authority is due to several key top-level structural changes initiated under the previous leadership to allow for more decisive action, suggesting a mandate for centralization in service of the aforementioned Party priorities. Additionally, the creation of new structures, in and of itself, is not adequate as diagnostic evidence of Xi’s personal power.

At the very highest level, Xi benefits from structural changes enacted or approved by the previous leadership cohort.  He heads a slimmed-down Politburo Standing Committee, likely designed for quicker, more focused decision-making after the apparent policy stagnation during Hu Jintao’s second term.   Xi gained further political space as Hu stepped down from all three top leadership positions (in contrast to Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, who retained his position as head of the Central Military Commission for two years after stepping down as General Secretary).  Xi also inherited Central Committee staff, responsible chiefly to him, which had been enlarged and empowered under Hu. (Heath 2015)

The creation of new leading small groups (LSGs), several of which Xi heads, is often cited as evidence of Xi seizing power for himself.  This claim rests on several assumptions, the first of which is that heading a group definitively confers additional power on the man already holding all top central leadership posts and disregards other bureaucratic players.  LSGs, long an influential part of the PRC policy-making process, deliberately include representatives from other relevant Party and state institutions, including other Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members.  So does the creation of new LSGs represent an end-run around other policy-making institutions, even if those institutions are represented in the new LSGs?  Do they equal a zero-sum expansion of Xi’s influence, or can they bring additional expert voices into the policy discussion?  If the new LSGs also contain relevant PBSC members, does Xi gain additional power from heading a policy discussion in an LSG venue rather than at the PBSC?

Further, what does it mean, on a day-to-day basis, to chair multiple LSGs in addition to running a nation of 1.4 billion?  Given the other demands for his time, a significant portion of these groups’ work is likely handled by the groups’ other members and their supporting bureaucracies.  Xi certainly personally influences a group’s activities when he is directly involved—and, according to anecdotes, may be inclined to micromanage—but there must be a limit to how much micromanaging one man can do. The new LSGs also have more deputy heads than previously-existing ones, which suggests the complexity of the tasks undertaken as well as the involvement, if not empowerment, of other leaders in the Party’s policy endeavours.  Even if heading more groups does directly equate to more power, it remains unclear exactly how many groups Xi heads. (Wang Shu 2015)  If he heads more leading small groups than Hu Jintao did, it is still a minority of more than 20 publicly-acknowledged LSGs.  And while the Xi administration has been more transparent about current LSGs, we still don’t know much more about how they operated under Hu.

How much of the recent structural changes are due to the CCP’s reform plans and how much of it is due to Xi’s personal quest for power?  Both structural and personal factors are likely in play here, but at least some centralization was initiated before Xi took the helm as a prerequisite for the implementation of long-standing Party priorities. It is also unclear how much some more recent structural changes are affecting personal power concentration.  

Conventional Wisdom 3 – Xi is building a cult of personality

Chinese media coverage of Xi Jinping shows a bolder, more charismatic leader than did coverage of Hu Jintao. Observers commonly cite this apparently more personalized media treatment as evidence of Xi Jinping’s desire to build a cult of personality.  

Yet, the change in coverage also aligns with several CCP goals. First among these is to re-establish the faded CCP brand and reinvigorate positive popular sentiment toward the Party. (Ci Jiwei 2014) Modifying leadership media treatment to focus more on the top leader supports this effort, inasmuch as it gives the Party a centre of gravity in the form of a strong, trustworthy, personally-relatable leader. This rebranding effort is also evident in the push for “new official-speak” (initiated in the last years of the Hu administration) and in the frequent release of cartoons and songs that aim to reach a younger audience on digital platforms. From this perspective, the CCP’s glossier treatment of Xi Jinping looks very much like a Leninist propaganda system trying to drag itself into the modern media and social environment. Other changes may be the result of personality, but not necessarily indicative of a personality cult. Certainly in comparison to his “wooden” predecessor, the CCP’s propaganda apparatus has more raw material to work with in General Secretary Xi Jinping.

It is notable that, since taking up China’s top leadership spot, Xi Jinping is not known for going off-script in his public appearances, as Jiang Zemin sometimes memorably did. The near-total adherence to a script raises questions about how much of his public persona is attributable to him and how much is created in concert with his propaganda team. Of course, none of this excludes the possibility that Xi Jinping is seeking personal adulation. Yet it bears remembering that the Party’s propaganda mechanisms are responding to changes other than just Xi’s relative power within the leadership structure. Indeed, media coverage of Xi Jinping should be viewed in the context of a highly professional and deliberate leadership personality management system, reducing our ability to infer too much about the man based on his media image.  

A Creature of an Embattled System

Analysis of Xi Jinping’s personal power is most significant not as an end in itself, but rather as a way for us to gauge where the Chinese political system is headed.  And the Chinese political system, as embodied by the CCP and Xi Jinping, is currently fighting for its own survival.  Xi inherited the Party’s prescribed course of action for this struggle: a combination of economic and governance reforms that ensure adequate public service provision and transition the economy to a new growth model, alongside political initiatives that enhance Party discipline and stifle extra-Party voices.  Whether or not this strategy will work depends partly on the Xi administration’s ability to execute it, but more so whether the strategy itself is inherently sufficient to save the regime.

In our quest to understand the future of the Chinese political system, then, we would be well-served to focus on the viability this strategy and not only on the man currently heading it. If the CCP has judged correctly, the public will remain acceptably quiescent, the Party tolerably coherent as an organization, and the economy strong enough to keep chugging along. In this case, the Party may well deem the current mode of leadership a success and seek to replicate it. Alternatively, the strategy itself might prove to be the wrong solution to the Party’s problems, or get executed so poorly that it does not function as intended. Likewise, the CCP might have miscalculated its ability to impose its vision on lower-level cadres, many of whom resent its effects on their interests. Xi, as the face of the agenda, would be a likely target of public ire—though in such a situation, a leadership reshuffle would be the least of Party concerns. Indeed, a spectacular failure could threaten the existence of the entire regime.  

Of course, Xi could upend this calculus by overstepping his mandate. Were we to begin to see a series of policy directives that contravene the general policy line, we could infer that they were the result of an individual’s personal whim or the makings of a very high-level opposition group within the Party. That would be a dangerous moment for Party unity and survival, and could also portend momentous change for Chinese politics, if not the state.


Miller, Alice (2015). “The Trouble with Factions.” China Leadership Monitor (46). http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm46am.pdf. Accessed: May 3, 2016.

Heath, Tim (2015). “The Declining Influence of Politburo Standing Committee Members and the Growing Strength of the Central Party Bureaucracy.” Sinocism Newsletter (January 17, 2015). https://sinocism.com/?p=11381. Accessed: May 3, 2016.

Wang Shu (2015). “中央领导小组逾22个 习近平任4小组组长(图) [There Are More Than 22 Central Leading Small Groups; Xi Jinping Heads Four].” 新京报 [XinJingBao] (July 31, 2015). http://news.china.com.cn/2015-07/31/content_36190622.htm. Accessed: May 3, 2016.

Ci Jiwei (2014). Moral China in the Age of Reform. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.