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How Much Does Ideology Really Influence Xi Jinping?

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Chinese president Xi Jinping during a 2018 state visit to Rwanda. This photo by the administration of Paul Kagame ( is licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0:

Xi Jinping has been China’s most dominant leader in decades, holding a tight grip on the country’s only ruling political party—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since 2012, Xi has made moves to reshape China as well as centralize power, but to what extent has ideology played a role in his decision-making?

SIS professor Joseph Torigian, a China fellow at the Wilson Center, recently wrote an article for the think tank titled, “Xi Jinping and Ideology,” which explores this question: Is Xi Jinping an ideological person? We spoke with Torigian to learn more about his piece.

In your paper, you write that Western and Chinese observers often portray Xi as “someone whose actions are more guided by Stalinist, Maoist, and communist ideas than his immediate predecessors.” What problems arise when those who analyze and discuss Xi’s behavior give too much credence to the influence of ideology?
The problem with the term “ideology” is that it can mean so many different things to many people. It’s really crucial that China-watchers state explicitly which definition they’re using before they make an argument. Often, we see people claim that Xi is an inherently “ideological” individual. We certainly need to take the role of ideas seriously when we look at him, but essentializing him as an ideologue can obscure more than it illuminates for several reasons. First of all, we tend to associate ideology with an inability to course correct or compromise, but we’ve seen Xi continue to demonstrate a capability for tactical flexibility. Second, there’s this problematic idea that when it comes to ideologues all you need to do is read what they read (in this case, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist canon), and you have a magical weapon for understanding their goals; I think the role of contingency and the “real world’ make such hopes problematic. And finally, although Xi has commonalities with past leaders, including Mao, I think it is safe to say that Xi thinks the Cultural Revolution was a disaster and has a strong aversion to extremist, radical policies.
You showcase some surprising ways in which ideology did and did not influence the behavior of Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was known for being a practical, flexible, and non-ideological figure in Chinese politics. How does learning more about the impact of ideology on Xi Zhongxun’s behavior help us better understand the influence of ideology on his son’s behavior?
Outside observers have often understood the history of Chinese elite politics as a history of “line struggles”—or, in other words, constant battles between cohesive groups of “leftists” (meaning radical) and “rightists” (meaning more practical). No one could deny that Chinese elites often have very different opinions about the proper direction for their country, but Xi Zhongxun’s life powerfully illustrates that the idea of ideologically cohesive factions has actually limited purchasing power for understanding the CCP. Why? Well, as you said, Xi Zhongxun had the reputation of an inveterate reformer. But that reputation must be contextualized. First, Xi lived in an extraordinarily leader-friendly system in which the top leader had the final decision-making authority. Second, Xi’s views across time and issue areas were not always reliably “pro-reform” or “humane.” Whatever their ideological inclinations, members of the CCP still need to address the concrete challenges of any particular goal. Cadres can learn from experiences and shift their views over time. CCP leaders often pursue multiple goals simultaneously, and such objectives may conflict with one another. And finally, when someone holds political views that seem incohesive from a rational perspective, emotions sometimes help reveal why they are present in one individual. For example, Xi Zhongxun concluded from the Mao era that China should avoid another strongman ruler, but he was still personally deeply devoted to the late CCP chairman.
You found that there’s a tension in Xi Jinping’s expressed views of ideology. Xi Jinping, you state, has mocked extremist and dogmatic approaches to policy while, at the same time, has stated the importance of dedication to the CCP. Does his outwardly stated approach to ideology differ greatly from his predecessors? Why or why not?
People commonly state that Xi Jinping is more conservative and pro-Mao than Deng Xiaoping. But I think that overstates the differences between the two in several ways. Yes, Deng repeatedly and loudly affirmed Reform and Opening—but he placed the importance of that slogan as co-equal with the Four Cardinal Principles, a very conservative formulation about party rule. When the two conflicted with each other, Deng moved between them in a flexible manner.
Despite Deng’s reputation as someone who rejected Mao, Deng actually used the 1981 history resolution to affirm Mao’s role in Chinese history and combat accusations that Deng was acting similarly to Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress. After June 4, Deng said that his biggest mistake was not paying careful enough attention to education—a clear similarity to Xi Jinping’s own preoccupation about ideals and conviction within the party.
Your paper highlights two factors that may shift Xi Jinping’s approach to ideology. What are these factors, and what may this shift look like?
I think so far we have continued to see a flexible, tactical side to Xi Jinping, which, as I argue in the paper, co-exists with an obsession with ideals and convictions. The question of course is whether the flexible side will gradually subside in a relative sense when it comes to policy-making. We do have examples of this in the past. Despite his reputation as the quintessential dogmatic radical, Mao underwent a trajectory from a practical man whose insights helped the CCP win the revolution to someone whose hubris helped cause disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And sometimes unforeseen events force “leftist” acts. For example, Deng was deeply committed to economic reform, but he still ordered the violent suppression of the 1989 protests. Deng believed stability was necessary for development, which helps explains Deng’s decision, but the act nearly sank Reform and Opening. Faced with a similar threat to regime stability, I think it’s safe to say that Xi Jinping would not shrink from doing whatever is in his power to defeat such a challenge—no matter the cost.