China in the Xi Jinping Era: An Interview with Christopher K. Johnson

Christopher K. JohnsonChristopher K. Johnson, Senior Advisor and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), led a discussion on Chinese domestic politics and foreign policy at the most recent “China Speaker Series” seminar hosted by Georgetown University’s Asian Studies Program. The Journal sat down with Mr. Johnson after the event to hear more about his views on China’s Third Plenum and Xi Jinping’s leadership.  GJIA: How did China’s Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Central Committee differ from the previous ones?

CJ: The recent Third Plenum in China differed from the previous ones in that Chinese leadership tried to find a balance between being specific [about its reform plans] and being able to get things actually accomplished. The communiqué that was rolled out in the 1993 Third Plenum [of the Fourteenth Central Committee] was too specific. It had passages about clamping down on prostitution, preventing gum chewing, and more. Yet the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not implement these measures until much later in the decade when Zhu Rongji became the country’s Premier. In 2003, the party leaders included almost no specifics in the communiqué; they did implement some of the grand strategies listed in the document, but the problem was that, because there were not enough specifics, those measures were too uncoordinated to be impactful.

Therefore, this time, the leadership was looking to include fewer specifics in their decision than the 1993 document did, though I am surprised at the amount of details that they have provided. But more importantly, they have focused on their ability to very quickly deliver at least some of the proposed reform measures. For example, Xi Jinping has repeatedly said, “Empty talk harms the nation.” In the Weibo era, comments like this reach the public very quickly. If the party [had] produced a document and [done] just that, they would have received a lot of criticism from the Chinese public [for] being another do-nothing leadership. So party leadership had to strike that balance between specificity and feasibility this time.

GJIA: Which reform measures in the released Third Plenum communiqué did you find most striking and unexpected?

CJ: In terms of the most striking outcomes of the Third Plenum, I think it is that they were able to, at least in general terms, take on state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Also, this idea that market forces will play the decisive role in allocating resources—and how the Party is couching this as ideological advancement for the CCP—puts a lot of weight and significance on ideological guides to reform. Furthermore, there are many items in the communiqué that human rights activists will like: closing re-education-through-labor camps, loosening up the one-child policy, and reducing the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. As far as the overall scope of reforms is concerned, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, said before the Plenum convened that this meeting will carry out fundamental, unprecedented reforms that will touch every aspect of Chinese society and economy. People were skeptical of his announcement at first, but it turns out that the Party leadership did get pretty close to Yu’s words.

GJIA: You stressed during the event that Xi Jinping played a central role in the drafting of the Third Plenum communiqué and that, without his early exposure to Chinese politics due to the influence of his father Xi Zhongxun, developing such a detailed policy blueprint within a year of assuming top leadership would have been extremely difficult. Can you tell us more about Xi’s political background and explain how his leadership style is different from that of Hu Jintao? How was Xi able to rapidly consolidate his power within the CCP?

CJ: In terms of Xi Jinping’s background, the most important fact is his ‘princeling’ pedigree. Being a child of one of the regime’s founders carries a lot of stock within the Chinese political system. There are a couple of reasons that it is so valuable, and these are the factors that distinguish Xi from Hu Jintao.

First, it means that Xi has this born-to-rule mentality and self-confidence that Hu lacked. If you talk to people who have met with Xi, they would tell you how he comes across as much a more engaged and confident leader. In the United States, we would say that Xi is a talented retail politician. He knows how to get down with the public. Generally, the Chinese public is not too fond of princelings because they have all these privileges and are often seen as corrupt. However, this is not the case for Xi; the general public is very supportive of him. The reason for this is that, early in his career, Xi made a very smart decision: he was holding an influential position at the Central Military Commission, and could have stayed in this prestigious job, but instead chose to go down to the county level where he spent a very long time working with peasants. Xi thus has this credibility among the Chinese people in a way that Hu certainly did not.

Second, faction-wise, Hu Jintao always had Jiang Zemin looking over his shoulder and this prevented Hu from fully consolidating his power. It is clear that Xi is where he is now because Jiang wanted him to be, in part; there is this relationship between the most powerful figures within the system. And as such, Xi was able to gain a lot of credibility within the elite group as well, which would allow him to execute his policy more easily.

GJIA: The Chinese government recently announced that it is setting up a new national security committee (like Washington’s National Security Council). What was the motivation behind its creation, and how exactly will this security agency function? More importantly, what are some implications of this power transfer for China’s internal political dynamics?

CJ: China’s leaders have been talking about establishing a national security council since the 1990s, and some people say that it goes even further than that. The reason is that they knew that they needed more coordination. The challenge for the CCP has been that they have a stove-piped Leninist system riding on top of an extremely dynamic society, both domestically and globally. The challenge now is that when they make noise, when they swing their arms around, they are more likely to be noticed. They can no longer afford to have this lack of coordination because global implications of what they do are so much more significant in today’s world.

How they were able to do it, I think says a lot about Xi Jinping. He was able to surmount substantial resistance; [with the new agency established], the existing security services lose power, the Party’s legal apparatus loses power, the Political Science and Law Committee loses power, the military to a certain degree, and so on. Though when they roll out the membership of this new body, there will be several military officers in very senior positions.

The other thing to watch for is how the tasks [of China’s new security body] will be balanced between internal and external security issues. Many China experts have already said that this is not the White House National Security Council (NSC). It cannot be, because the White House NSC does not really play a domestic role. In China, however, security is always looked at from domestic perspective first. Therefore, there is going to be a balance been the two, if not a tilt towards domestic security issues. In sum, the most important things keep in mind are: 1) The new body’s membership and where it fits organizationally in the system. Is it indeed above the Central Committee or is it branching entirely off from it? 2) Is it really the side body where Xi Jinping can shape policies that are based largely on his own design? Will he consult the Politburo Standing Committee in this process or not necessarily so? These are some of the most important questions that we should be asking.

Christopher K. Johnson is a senior advisor and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. He has frequently advised senior White House, cabinet, congressional, military, and foreign officials on the Chinese leadership and Beijing’s foreign policy. Previously, Mr. Johnson worked as a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he played a key role in the analytic support to policymakers during the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis and the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Mr. Johnson was interviewed by Daye Shim Lee and William Handel on 19 November 2013 in Washington, D.C.