A year and a half into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule, who he is and what he wants remains something of a mystery. At times, he has appeared to be a reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping; one of Xi’s first acts in office was to reenact the great reformer’s “Southern Tour,” which kicked off market reforms after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. At other times, he has appeared nostalgic for the revolutionary socialism of Mao Zedong. A few months after his trip to the south, Xi made a high-profile visit to Xibaibo, the last headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army during the Chinese Civil War and a sacred site for left-wing devotees of Mao.
Xi’s policies have been as contradictory as his image. He has launched high-profile drives to encourage private enterprise and stem corruption. But he has coupled them with a pledge to maintain the state as the “core” of the economy and a broad crackdown on political dissent. So does Xi intend to inaugurate a new era of reform that will bring China fully into the modern world, or does he intend to double down on statist authoritarian rule and revive Mao’s populist Marxism?
In short, all of the above. Xi’s economic reforms and his Maoist political tendencies are both tactics in a strategy meant to preserve the one-party system by reforming it. His methods attest to his recognition of contemporary China’s biggest problems: rampant corruption, a sclerotic political system, and an economic model that is rapidly running out of steam. To address those without dismantling the system that brought him to power, Xi promises to reconcile Mao, state-owned companies, and Chinese Communist Party dominance with a dynamic and open economy. He will do so by making what he calls the “two hands,” the state and the market, work together and inspiring the party to believe in itself and in its mission to serve the Chinese people.