Interviews | Politics | East Asia

David Shambaugh on China’s Political Personalities, From Mao to Xi

“Although their respective periods of rule are four decades apart, and China has changed so much in the interim, it is really quite striking just how much Mao and Xi have in common.”

David Shambaugh on China’s Political Personalities, From Mao to Xi

Porcelain plates baring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are displayed with previous Chinese leaders below, from left, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, at a souvenir shop near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Since Xi Jinping officially ascended to the head of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, he has tightened his personal control over both party and country in a way not seen since the founding leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong. Understanding Xi the person is important to understanding China the country. But even under Xi’s more understated predecessors, understanding the PRC’s top ruler helps explains the choices made in Beijing that have shaped the country, and the world.

In “China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now,” David Shambaugh, an internationally acclaimed expert on contemporary China, provides an in-depth look at the widely divergent personalities and ruling styles of the PRC’s five main leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. In tracing their differences, Shambaugh also illuminates the true power in China: the bureaucracy, which has remained surprisingly consistent in its culture and institutions since the PRC’s founding.

Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, and Director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. In addition to his latest book, he is the author of “China & the World,” “China Goes Global: The Partial Power,” and “China’s Communist Party: Atrophy & Adaptation,” among others.

Because of Xi’s emphasis on his own primacy, and the resurrection of old titles not seen since Mao Zedong, comparisons between Xi and Mao are prevalent. But obviously the China of 2021 is a far cry from the China of the 1950s and ‘60s. Are comparisons between Mao and Xi useful?

Yes, I do think comparisons (by which I assume you mean similarities) between Mao and Xi are quite useful, in many dimensions.

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First, I should note that Xi himself is publicly quite positive about Mao and the Maoist era. Most analysts consider the Maoist era – certainly post-1956 – to have been an unmigrated disaster and Mao himself to have been a dictatorial tyrant of historical proportions; but not Xi Jinping. On several occasions Xi has spoken of the “first thirty years” of the PRC (the Mao era) as filled with accomplishments and that much should be credited to Mao. Xi has never once spoken critically (in public at least) of catastrophes such as the Great Leap Forward and resulting famine; the anti-rightist or other campaigns that persecuted and killed millions; the atrocities committed during land reform; or the Cultural Revolution itself. Nor has Xi ever denounced Mao for purging, persecuting, and incarcerating his father (Xi Zhongxun).

Five years ago, on the anniversary of the outset of the Cultural Revolution (which Mao launched), Xi said not a word about the movement – which could be interpreted as implicit support of it. More recently, in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the CCP, authoritative official history books gloss over the Cultural Revolution, referring to it in depersonalized abstract terms, e.g. “When the Cultural Revolution broke out…” Mao’s absence in Xi’s revisionist narrative [of the Cultural Revolution] is notable, and it is at direct variance with the official judgment rendered in the 1982 Resolution on Certain Questions in Our Party’s History and what everyone knows from common sense and personal experience – that Mao was responsible for a ten-year catastrophe.

Second, and relatedly, Xi is an adamant and proud nationalist and he views Mao as having fathered the new republic and having prioritized the types of power that Xi also values – industrial, technological, and military power. Both had a vision of China as a legitimate great power in the world. Both fiercely defend China’s freedom of action and refused to make the pragmatic compromises in foreign policy that other Chinese leaders were willing to. Both are hyper-sensitive to perceived slights by others. Both were haunted by China’s previous weakness, but also enamored by its earlier greatness – and are thus deeply devoted to regaining China’s paramount place in the world.

Third, Mao and Xi are both dictators. Mao was a classic totalitarian and I describe Xi in the book as “neo-totalitarian.” Neither have any tolerance for dissent or disobedience at any level, and both rule with an iron hand. Both evince a kind of emotional autism, an inability to empathize or sympathize. Both were ruthless toward their peers in the leadership (Mao more than Xi). Both personalized decision-making power in their own hands and did not delegate authority to others. Both thought of themselves as philosopher-intellectuals and required everyone to study their “thought.”

Fourth, both actively have fostered sycophantic cults of personality. Both seek absolute loyalty, both are classic narcissists, and both are highly ideological and explicitly advocate Marxism. The one difference is that Xi is far more of a Leninist – in that he believes in a strong party as a ruling institution, whereas Mao had deep distrust of bureaucracy, institutions, and sought to destroy the party (during the Cultural Revolution).

These are just some of the main similarities that I see between Mao and Xi. There are others, which I spell out in the book. Although their respective periods of rule are four decades apart, and China has changed so much in the interim, it is really quite striking just how much these two leaders have in common.

To what extent are developments in China’s political system driven by specific individuals? For example, is the current trend toward party centralization and consolidation of control due to Xi’s own personality (and ambition), more structural/historical factors within the CCP, or a combination of both? 

I have long been of the view that bureaucracies run China, not necessarily individual leaders. This has something to do with my own academic training at the University of Michigan under Professors Michel Oksenberg and Kenneth Lieberthal, both of whom emphasized the importance of bureaucratic institutions in Chinese politics. The works of several historians – Charles Hucker, Beatrice Bartlett, Philip Kuhn, among others – also adopted a bureaucratic approach and helped to shape my understanding of contemporary Chinese politics. After all, China invented bureaucracy. As Oksenberg told me over lunch on my first day at Michigan, “David, if you want to understand China you have to understand bureaucracy.”

This advice was a new perspective for me, as I had previously been immersed in the “inside the Beltway” Washington mode of analyzing Chinese politics during the late-1970s. This mode of analysis emphasized individual leaders, factions, and constantly looked for arcane clues of debates and splits over policy and political power. It was what was then called “Pekingology,” as derived from Soviet “Kremlinology.” But once I got to Michigan, my understanding of Chinese politics became much more institutional and less personalized. Then, once I studied and lived for several years in China during the 1980s, this bureaucratic perspective was only reinforced from discussions with many different Chinese: for them it was the bureaucratic “system”  that mattered, not individual leaders in the Zhongnanhai.

This said, obviously leaders do matter in Chinese politics. In part this is due to it being an authoritarian Leninist system, in part due to China’s patriarchal political culture, and in part to its long history of emperors. In essence, however, leaders catalyze bureaucracies in China. In that sense they certainly possess their own agency. Then, on occasion, you get leaders like Mao, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi who have an outsized impact on the entire body politic. Yet, no matter how impactful these strongmen leaders, they come and go – while bureaucracies stay.

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I would observe, though, that foreign analysts of Chinese politics do not have a very good grasp or deep sense of how Chinese bureaucracies operate. This is true at the national level, and even more so at the provincial and municipal levels. We may have a slightly better understanding of CCP organs than government ministries, and formal structure than the actual policy process, but due to the opacity of the system there is so much about these bureaucracies that we do not understand with any real depth or specificity. This is partially by scholarly omission, but also very much by Chinese intention – interviewing, archival work, not to mention in situ research, is simply not allowed. Back in the 1980s, Oksenberg, Lieberthal, Lampton, Barnett, Solinger, and a few others were permitted limited access certain parts of the party-state bureaucracies – but no longer. I and a few other scholars were allowed to research the party during the 1990s, but no longer. This is just one example of the severely restricted research environment in China today.

Is the era of “collective leadership” that marked the tenures of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao gone for good? Or should we expect to see this style of more transactional (rather than transformative) leadership re-emerge in the post-Xi era?

Under Xi Jinping, Chinese politics is that of one-man dictatorship (enforced through party organs). Collective leadership in any genuine sense is gone. Xi makes all the final decisions, as best we can tell, and he dominates the institutional decision-making structure (Leading Small Groups in particular). This doesn’t mean that Politburo meetings are not convened and policies are not discussed – they are, but it is highly questionable how much real input other senior leaders have at this level. I suspect that Wang Huning and Li Zhanshu do have input and impact with respect to ideological and party affairs, Yang Jiechi with respect to foreign policy, Liu He on economic policy, but there is no indication that other Politburo members really matter much. This is a “co-opted” not collective style of leadership.

One unfortunate consequence of this modality of rule is that conflicting information does not reach the top, dissenting viewpoints are not aired, and alternative policy options are not duly deliberated – as this is all stifled by Xi’s sycophancy and dictatorial style. There is a built-in tendency to “please the boss,” which creates an “echo chamber” effect that discriminates against contrary evidence and policy positions. The echo chamber is then reinforced throughout society by the all-pervasive propaganda apparatus.

This modality is likely to last as long as Xi does. But, once he’s gone from the scene (and there is no indication of this for a significant period of time, barring health issues or a coup), my guess would be that the CCP would return to a more collective and consensual style of policy making, and that institutional feedback from below would be reactivated. After all, one of Xi’s many significant changes has been to undermine and roll back this collective/consensual style first initiated by Deng and followed for 30-plus years until Xi took control. There are a number of cadres in the system (and average citizens too) who are unhappy with his dictatorial style, removal of term limits, and personality cult.

On a related note, the rule of Hu Jintao – Xi’s immediate predecessor – has been referred to as the “lost years” since even before he was out of office. You dubbed Hu a “technocratic apparatchik” and note that he can’t be considered a transformational leader. How would you evaluate his legacy in the PRC’s overall history? 

You are correct that when Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao stepped down together at the National People’s Congress in March 2013, an unofficial narrative emerged that their decade of rule had been “ten lost years.” Yet this description may in fact be unfair. Some important policy initiatives were launched, and some things were certainly accomplished on their watch – notably in social policy, party reform, and foreign policy – but the verdict of non-accomplishment remains the prevalent perception both inside and outside of China.

Above all, Hu’s tenure was marked by a distinct shift in policy emphasis away from the growth-at-all-costs economic calculus and bias towards coastal China associated with the Jiang Zemin era – and toward a new emphasis on the geographic prioritization of the inland provinces of China and on issues of social equality, social justice, improving basic living standards and social services, environmental protection, poverty alleviation, reducing burdens on farmers, public safety and anti-corruption, job retraining, and other “public goods.” This was, in essence, Hu Jintao’s agenda. It was a very commendable and progressive agenda, which was suitable to the time and stood in quite sharp contrast to Jiang Zemin’s emphases. While it was publicly popular and well-received during Hu’s first term, it simply faltered in its implementation during his second term.

Much of the critique of Hu and his time in power may superficially derive from his own stilted personality. Hu’s personal blandness was widely ridiculed inside and outside of China. Foreign caricatures frequently used the adjectives “wooden” and “stiff.” Hu was seemingly invisible to many people inside and outside of China, triggering the overused question “Who’s Hu?” He never seemed to evince any emotion, hardly ever smiled, never joked, and was rarely spontaneous. He appeared to be a programmed robot. Hu’s personality and leadership style were very much that of a disciplined party man – a technocratic apparatchik – schooled in the inner-party norms of depersonalized selflessness, collective rule, consensus seeking, rigid adherence to rules, and disciplined policy implementation. He was a self-effacing, low-profile leader who prized the collective.

Hu Jintao was a model Leninist cadre. But model cadres do not make for impactful transformational leaders. Hu was a perfect product of the institutional political system in which he was trained.

Hu’s rule was more notable for “muddling through” a series of complex challenges rather than having a transformative impact on the country. He didn’t change things. As just noted, his social policy initiatives fizzled out. Yet, his tenure was noteworthy for its stability, predictability, and incremental improvements in domestic and foreign policy. To be sure, these are not bad things – indeed they are highly desirable for most countries and particularly in China where they are considered sacrosanct. Hu Jintao could credibly claim at the end of his decade in power that he had maintained social and political stability, overseen considerable economic growth, paid attention to the less fortunate sectors of society, protected national security and continued military modernization, enhanced China’s position, and enhanced its reputation in the world. These accomplishments should certainly count as success! Hu kept China’s development train on the tracks, the CCP in power, the country out of a war, and enhanced the nation’s standing in the world – all important metrics by Chinese standards.

So, his tenure should perhaps not be undersold – even if it was understated. Perhaps with more retrospect and passage of time, Hu Jintao’s historical reputation will be burnished for the better. Perhaps over time Hu’s reign will get better marks and be more highly regarded (as Jiang Zemin’s has been).

With your review of the PRC’s five major leaders, each of whom had his own unique style and goals, you highlight the “discontinuity” in China’s political system, despite over 70 years of one-party rule. Is that discontinuity a positive or negative for the CCP as a whole? We might argue this flexibility allowed the CCP to survive 100 years, but what are the costs of this disjointedness over the long term?

Actually, in the book I argue that there has been considerable continuity in the political system but surprising discontinuity among the leadership styles of those I studied. Another way of putting it is that the system has proven more important than the leaders. In the first chapter I detail the systemic continuities, political culture, institutions, and normative imperatives that have endured over time and in which all Chinese leaders must operate. Despite all of the upheavals and tumultuous events of the past seven decades (which includes the very different leadership styles of Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu, and Xi), I conclude that the system has been impressively durable and resilient. It is the institutionalized Leninist system – derived from the Soviet Union – that has kept the Party in power. But the CCP’s durability has also been due to its flexibility, adaptability, and pragmatism since 1978 (and during 1962-1965). This is captured in the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or what can be called Sinicized Leninism.

Yet, systems are not static. They must evolve too. Without renewal and in-built rejuvenating mechanisms, all political systems become sclerotic after a while, they experience progressive atrophy, and could collapse, be overthrown, or simply stagnate. The Chinese and the CCP get this – and it was particularly the overthrows of communist regimes across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that drove home this point to them. They have assiduously studied the processes of decline in those systems and have sought to adapt their system accordingly, in order to stave off a similar meltdown. But, as I describe in this book (and previous book “China’s Communist Party: Atrophy & Adaptation”) there have been two contending interpretations and factions in the CCP that do not agree on the appropriate lessons to be drawn and implemented.

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In brief, one argues for “managed opening and liberalization” of the system, while the other argues for holistic controls to prevent any dissent, liberalization, or emergence of genuine civil society. The first believes that the best – indeed the only – way to stay in power is to open the system, the society, the economy – but in an incremental and managed way. The other faction argues that any opening is a slippery slope that cannot be managed and will inexorably cascade out of control – hence comprehensive control is the only practical answer to sustaining CCP rule. This is a somewhat oversimplified description, which is described in much greater detail and depth in the book, but it helps to explain some of the discontinuities we have witnessed in Chinese politics over the past four decades. Scholars refer to this as the repetitive “fang-shou cycle” (opening and closing cycle).

Xi Jinping is the representative par excellence of the second faction. That is why we have seen a sweeping return to pervasive controls throughout China under his rule. Xi is a control freak. His actions may have successfully dealt with the many aspects of “atrophy” that were apparent when he took over, and this has indeed brought about short-term stability and a strengthening of the party in the short-term. Yet, and this is relevant to your original question, I would argue that his repressive actions to reassert comprehensive controls over society and the party-state will, in fact, weaken the CCP in the long-term.

Through implementing excessive controls, combined with his own dictatorial style, Xi is actually increasing the rigidity and hence sclerosis in the system. The party is now being run like a military organization – a top-down institution where orders are given and to be followed. There is little, if any, genuine bottom-up or horizontal feedback and participation, much less autonomy, in the political system. The party has become robotic and responsive only to the supreme leader. In this sense, Xi has failed to grasp one of the key elements that contributed to the atrophy of the Soviet system and its downfall: ruling parties need to have “life” with them. Deng, Jiang, and Hu all understood this – and they all undertook “managed liberalization” of the system. Not Xi. The irony may be that his efforts to strengthen party control may have worked in the short term, but may well make it more vulnerable in the medium-to-long term.