The Chinese Parliament made a change to legislation over the weekend, abolishing term limits for presidential terms. It benefits one person in particular. The man The Economist called “the world’s most powerful man”, President Xi Jinping, can now remain President “without time limit”. Phil Entwhistle, Lecturer in Chinese Studies at UCD, joined Sean O’Rourke in studio to give him a crash course on China’s President.
Xi’s childhood was eventful, Phil explained. Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, noted Communist revolutionary. Jinping enjoyed quite a “privileged” upbringing as a result until his father, as Phil put it, “fell out of favour” with the party elite.
“Xi Jinping and his family were eventually purged in the Cultural Revolution. He was chased down the street by Red Guards. He was denounced publicly. Red Guards raided his home.”
Xi Jinping’s father was “sent to do hard labour” and Jinping himself was sent to the countryside to be re-educated as part of the Cultural Revolution. An experience, Phil says, he uses to his advantage when crafting his political narrative, all while neatly side-stepping how his party treated his father.
“He remains loyal to the party. In fact, he applied to join the party 10 times. Failed multiple times and was eventually allowed in in the 1970s. But he’s never lost the faith. And that’s something quite intriguing.“
Phil drew a parallel between Xi’s loyalty to the Communist Party and former President of Ireland Mary McAleese’s loyalty to the Catholic Church, referencing the interview Sean conducted with McAleese on the programme yesterday.
“With Xi Jinping, his critiques of the party and his disappointment with the party, they’re the critiques of an insider and it’s the disappointment of an insider.”
Xi studied Chemical Engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing before going on to work with the Central Military Commission. At the time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Xi had a reputation for being “competent” but not “particularly ruthless, according to Phil.
“He’s got this kind of reputation of someone who the leadership sends into a place that needs cleaning up.”
Phil believes that a corruption scandal in Shanghai in 2007 “paved the way” for Xi’s rise through the ranks. At first, Xi was so unknown outside of the jurisdictions he had worked in, there was a running joke that he was “the husband of Peng Liyuan” (Xi’s wife is a famed folk singer).
“Xi Jinping has really used his own personal life, his own personal story and also his family as part of his charms. So, having this glamorous, pop singer wife has certainly given him that popular appeal.”
What does he want to do with this new power, the ability to be “President for life”, should he choose to be?
“To coin a phrase, I think he wants to ‘Make China Great Again’…China is a strong superpower but it still has problems…and Xi’s aim is to sort those problems out and to restore China to the greatness it once enjoyed under the Qing emperors in the 18th century, which is seen as the golden era of Chinese power. Now, you don’t have to agree with that historical narrative. But it’s certainly something that is informing Xi’s politics.”
Phil’s worry, he explained to Sean, is regarding the “extremely virulent, nationalist narrative” he has seen emerging in China’s domestic politics.
“Whereas once you heard narratives of openness to the world, now…Xi Jinping is talking about having an ideological war with the West. And so this openness, this desire to learn from the world that we once saw…within Chinese elites, it seems to be diminishing.“
Listen back to the whole segment on Today with Sean O’Rourke here.
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