Two plausible views of Xi Jinping's rise prove we're clueless

Is Chinese Vice President and presumptive next President Xi Jinping a hard-liner who will return China to confrontations with the west? Or could it be that only a hard-liner could convince domestic nationalists that a more cooperative stance is beneficial to the CCP and the Chinese people?

Bruce Gilley argues Xi could end the reform era:

It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally. As his time in office nears, Xi is evincing signs of being a narrow nationalist on foreign policy and of having a penchant for police actions in dealing with domestic frictions. Hence, his rise could signify that the long struggle between Maoists and reformers that characterized China’s “reform era” is now ending.

Daniel Drezner proposes that the opposite might be true:

The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China.  Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don’t know either.

I’m with Drezner, not because I think Xi Jinping is a Chinese Nixon, but because I think these arguments are rooted in nothing but speculation. Sure, it’s fun to speculate, and we’d be delighted to know more. But the personality of a leader is hard to interpret.

If you’re from the United States, consider less “exotic” leaders such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The former was supposed to be an isolationist and started two big wars. The latter was supposed to bring the wars to an end but has escalated the conflict in Afghanistan while participating in a new intervention in Libya. There’s no sense in arguing about these events, but there’s also no way we could have known how these events would unfold.

Put another way, consider the “only Nixon could go to China” aphorism. It may be true, but then, we never would have known that when Vice President Nixon was assigned to make the most strident anti-communist statements by President Eisenhower. Nor did Americans know in 1968 that Nixon was such a complex and conflicted figure, an anti-Semite one moment and a great proponent of Henry Kissinger the next, a leader who desperately wanted the United States out of Vietnam but decided the best way to do so was to enter Cambodia.

My point is that we don’t get to predict these sorts of things, and that there is nothing special about “Pekinology” in this sense. Intuiting the future by interpreting public statements and speculative psychology of leaders is a fool’s errand. Our effort would be better spent working on concrete problems and preparing for the actual negotiations and dilemmas the United States and China are likely to face: environmental regulation, cybersecurity, sovereign debt and currencies, and the like.

Here’s hoping that future leaders in the United States as well as China are motivated to work together and able to overcome domestic resistance to cooperative outcomes.



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