Today's date:
Winter 2014

How China’s New Leaders Think

Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels are the co-authors of “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.”

BEIJING—To understand where China is headed in the next decade, it is best to take off the Western lenses and look at the world’s second largest economy from the standpoint of the present Party leadership—something we had the chance to do when we met President Xi Jinping and other leaders in Beijing recently (Nov. 2013).

Xi’s new policies so far promise to end labor camps, ease the one child policy and migrant residency requirement in cities, grant property rights to farmers and open up many new areas to a “decisive role” for the market. At the same time, he has strengthened the grip of the Communist Party, accumulated more power at the center, asserted ideological orthodoxy and clamped down on raucous bloggers.

There is no contradiction, in their view, between economic and social liberalization on the one hand and more political control on the other. In fact, in their minds, the latter is the condition for the former. Lightening up and tightening up are two sides of the same coin.

For them, only a strong state-Party at the center can forestall conflicts abroad and see the reforms through against vested interests of the state enterprises, local party bosses and what they see as the virtual “manufacturers of chaos” on the Internet.       

In this respect, Xi is a true disciple of Deng Xiaoping, albeit in these less harsh, more tempered times. Deng was a pragmatist who continuously calibrated opening up and cracking down to both move forward and maintain stability. His loosened grip on the economy raised hundreds of millions out of poverty; his iron fist crushed the Tiananmen Square protests.


Along with other members of the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council, we had the opportunity to gain a firsthand glimpse into the mindset of China’s new leadership during a rare, wide-ranging discussion with Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in early November on the eve of the recent Plenum.

We also met with Premier Li Keqiang as well as top generals of the People’s Liberation Army and other ranking officials from National People’s Congress as well as governors and Party secretaries from Zhejiang, Guangdong and Yunnan provinces.
In our conversation, Xi was informal and relaxed. He hadn’t the least air of the stolid technocrats we have become used to over the past decade, but rather that of a fully formed leader well prepared to take up what everyone acknowledges are towering challenges.

Like Deng or Mao before him, his remarks were peppered with classical allegories. “Understanding China,” he mused at the outset of our dialogue, “is like looking at Lushan mountain. What you see depends on the angle from which you view it. When you are on the mountain itself, it is very hard to see the whole picture.”

Xi invoked Deng Xiaoping more than enough to make the point that he was treading in his stead, noting that China was now in the “deep end” of Deng’s reforms, which the former leader always said ‘would last 100 years.”

Our interlocutor in these meetings was Zheng Bijian, also a member of the 21st Century Council, who was a key author of Deng’s famous “southern tour” report which re-launched China’s reforms in 1992 after they were stalled by the Tiananmen episode.

Noting that all of China’s problems were related to each other and could not be tackled piecemeal, Xi emphasized that the “people-centered” reforms he was introducing would be “comprehensive economic, political, social and ecological reforms.”

He expressed confidence that China could meet its goal of doubling per capita income from 2010 to 2020 by growing for the “next ten to twenty years” at a rate of at least 7 percent. This would be possible because of the more market-oriented structural reforms introduced at the Plenum, and because of accelerated urbanization and the shift toward domestic demand driven consumption.

Xi emphasized that raising GDP did not stand alone as a goal. He is determined in the next decade to close the inequality gap and end poverty for the more than 100 milliion people who have been left behind during the decades of rapid growth. As Premier Li noted, China’s reform path must also shift from “quantity” to “quality of life,” including on the ecological front.

Realizing  “the Chinese Dream” and moving China through the middle income transition, the Party chief stressed, can only take place by remaining engaged in today’s interdependent world. “The more developed China becomes,” he said, “the more open it will be. It is impossible for China to shut the door that has already been opened. There will never be an end to reform and opening up.”

On this score China is “ready” to become “more active” in global affairs and work with others to shape the new rules of the game. “We will shoulder more international obligations and play a more proactive role in international affairs as well as the reform of the international system,” Xi said in response to former British prime minister Gordon Brown’s question about taking on the G-20 chairmanship in the coming years.

The “trend of the times” is to avoid conflicts damaging to development and instead seek to build, in Zheng Bijian’s words, “communities of interest on the basis of expanding on the convergence of interests” in areas ranging from open trade to financial stability and battling climate change.

The discussion with PLA leaders on the Japan-China conflict over contested islands was both insightful and troubling from the perspective of “peaceful development” as the “trend of the times.”

Japan and China have never been great powers at the same time. Now, they are both “bent twigs springing back” from humiliation, in Isaiah Berlin’s phrase about assertive nationalism. Though proudly on its feet now, China is still wounded going back to the Opium War and Japanese occupation. Japan’s pride has been damaged by the recent decades of economic stagnation from which it is now trying to recover, including through a more assertive military posture they call “active pacifism.” This bumps up against China’s more assertive military posture of “active defense” in the South and East China Sea as clearly demonstrated by its unilateral declaration of an “air defense identification zone.”


During our two days of intensive talks in Beijing, our Chinese counterparts expressed frustration at the inability of the West to see China’s reform path on its own terms instead of acting as if we were the tutors of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection, as Reinhold Niebuhr once put it.

The chairperson of one of the most powerful committees of the National People’s Congress lashed out on this point: “The West will never believe that China is advancing until we produce a Gorbachev.”

At the heart of this dispute, in their view, is the unwillingness of the West to accept the one-party system as a legitimate model of governance.

Even many liberals in China today doubt whether one-person-one-vote multiparty democracy is the best way to govern a society as large and complex as China. While they want an end to corruption and arbitrary abuse by authorities, few want to replicate the partisan paralysis, gridlock and general dysfunction they see today across the three historic holds of Western democracy—Athens, Rome and Washington.

In their eyes, the Communist Party, afflicted as it may be with corruption and princeling privilege, is not a dictatorship. For them it is a 78 million strong consensus-forming body that arrives at agreement on long-term policies and then grants the collective leadership the power to decisively implement them.

To attain internal consensus through endless rounds of consultation and trade-offs with stakeholders instead of dividing the body politic against itself and inviting polarization and paralysis through external competition, as in the West, is for them a superior way to govern. As long as there is  internal competition of ideas and personnel based on merit and performance instead of special interest pleading, the system should work well.

As the Peking University scholar, Pan Wei, put it: “The meritocratic principle of competition holds the same central position in the history of Chinese governance as the electoral principle of the majority holds in Western democracy.”

What everyone seems unsure about is how a one party system that must maintain its ruling narrative can handle the explosion of individual expression through social media and microblogging.

Weibo—where 600 million people log on to complain about tainted milk, train wrecks, stolen land and corrupt officials—has replaced the Tiananmen of Deng Xiaoping’s day as the far more powerful public square of modern China. The great question is whether the Party will succeed in “checking and balancing” weibo, or if weibo will balance and check the Party.

How deft Xi’s hand will be in handling this powershift is one of the game-changing unknowns in the times ahead.  For now the Party aims to stop any two people who vent on the Net from ever meeting in the street. New rules also threaten to punish anyone who re-posts “mis-information” to more than 500 others.

A chilling effect has already set in as many bloggers who cross the line are hauled in “for a cup of tea served with fear.” And there has been a harsh crackdown on the so-called “big bloggers” who have millions of followers—even if they are only echoing the appeals of the leadership to tackle corruption and defend the constitution under which free expression and equal treatment under the law is guaranteed.

Fearing the fate of the Soviet Communist Party, which collapsed under Gorbachev, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to curb the “glasnost”—or transparency—that weibo has enabled.

By doing so, paradoxically, they risk inviting the very fate they seek to avoid. When the veil was lifted on the lies and false claims of the Soviet party, there was nothing left. China could not be more different. In China, the emperor does have clothes because the Party and government have performed for society over the past 5 years.

Indeed, “glasnost with Chinese characteristics” could bolster the Party instead of weaken it if it openly allows the public to air their concerns and address them.

As we openly discussed in a panel on social media during our Beijing visit, everyone knows what is happening in their lives and shares that with others. Trying to censor reality will only further undermine the governing narrative, not strengthen its authority.

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the oft-predicted collapse of China’s model has not only not come to pass; China has advanced to the top ranks of the global economy. The next ten years under Xi Jinping will be the ultimate test of whether China’s system of governance ends up on the wrong or right side of history.