Xi has burnished his populist image by resurrecting Maoist doctrines like the “mass line”—cadre-speak for keeping the party answerable to the people. The philosopher Confucius, who stressed the importance of an honest civil service and the duty of rulers to set a high moral example has been invoked by Xi. “Western capitalism has suffered reversals, a financial crisis, a credit crisis, a crisis of confidence, and their self-conviction has wavered,” Xi said in a speech late last year touting the sage’s wisdom while visiting Confucius’ birthplace, according to pro-government Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao. “Western countries have begun to reflect and openly or secretively compare themselves against China’s politics, economy, and path,” he continued.
One might hope that the reverence for Chairman Mao would be confined to rhetoric, but another passage suggests otherwise.
Another departure from the past is Xi’s chairmanship of a new reform group covering law, culture, and most important, the economy. That position would normally be reserved for Premier Li Keqiang, since the prime minister in China typically handles the economy. “Deng Xiaoping introduced collective leadership because he believed in institutions and was opposed to the cult of personality. Now, Xi is superseding some longstanding traditions of the party in order to consolidate his power,” says Lam, who is writing a book on Xi. “Even though the general secretary is first among equals, he is not supposed to overrule others in their areas.” A year ago, Li was quite vocal about his planned economic reforms, which analysts dubbed Likenomics. Li now seems to be fading into the background, says Lam.
In international affairs, Xi is breaking with what Deng Xiaoping called taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei—“keeping a low profile and achieving something.” He has taken a more forceful approach in territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, and through Beijing’s creation of an air defense identification zone overlapping Japan’s. “This may fit [Xi’s] personality, but it also fits with the times. China’s leaders feel the need to show China now is a big country,” says Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
If Xi has bought into the same “fatal conceit” that has plagued central planners for years, the prospects for China’s future have lost some of their brightness.