China's third revolution: How an overreaching Xi Jinping is antagonising an entire planet

Under Deng, the slogan was ‘getting rich was glorious’. Under Xi, ‘getting strong is glorious’ is fraught with winds of uncertainties and global pushback. Deng might have the last laugh. There’s a Chinese proverb ‘the tall tree catches the wind’, ...

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In Xi’s China, not much backlash has happened, yet. But Xi, to his credit, has not failed to see the writing on the wall.
ET Spotlight
China’s moderniser Deng Xiaoping needs little introduction. China’s post-1978 success was built on Deng ‘burying Mao’, ushering in China’s ‘second revolution’. Today, Deng may be at the receiving end, being buried by Xi Jinping’s ‘third revolution’.

Xi’s ‘third revolution’ is explained by his grand festschrift to himself: ‘Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era’ (2017) – a declaration that China under Xi was different from China under Deng. In 70 years of revolution and 40 years of reforms, China ‘stood up’ under Mao, ‘grew rich’ under Deng and is ‘rising strong’ under Xi. Xi’s domestic and external behaviour, including relations with India, should be read in this context.

The shifts under Xi are better understood with reference to Deng. Deng chose to engage the world whilst ‘hiding (China’s) capacities, biding its time’. Deng built bridges with the United States (1978), economically engaged Taiwan and negotiated the return of Hong Kong and Macau (1997-99).


Xi’s tool of ‘go-out’ foreign policy has been sharpened with economic heft manifesting in BRI (Belt and Road Initiative 2013), AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank 2016), BRICS Bank (New Development Bank 2016) and claims over South China and East China Seas. For China, the US ‘pivot’ in Asia necessitated focus on the ‘primary strategic direction’ (eg South China Sea, North-east Asia and Taiwan). China sought dominance, stability and a ‘solid balance of power’ in the ‘secondary strategic direction’ (eg India).

The economic shift under Xi is more nuanced. Long-term ‘Two centenary Goals’ (100 years of the Communist Party in 2021 and 100 years of the republic in 2049) of achieving a ‘well off society’ and ‘high income country’ stand. But while the end remains the same, the means have changed.

Deng’s focus was gradual reforms without a blue-print for action – ‘crossing the river by feeling for stones’. Today, new catch-all phrases define ‘Xinomics’ – ‘new normal’ (high growth to medium growth), supply-side reforms, ‘Make in China 2025’, ‘Internet+’ (digitisation with focus on cloud computing and big data) and ‘China as an innovation power by 2050’. Recent additions are ‘high level design’ (shift from fragmented policy making to standardised blueprints and unified implementation) and ‘dual circulation’ (boosting domestic consumption with foreign markets as a bonus).
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The political shift under Xi is somewhat ‘Back to the Future’ with the resurrection of Xi’s ‘pocket book’, the 21st century version of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and the app ‘Study Strong Country’ that promotes Xi.

Deng ‘buried Mao’ with ‘quasi-institutionalisation’ (versus personality cult), collective leadership, championed the separation of the party and state, and successors were picked out in advance. Under Xi, there is ‘no separation of the party and the state, only division of powers’, and no successor has been picked out yet. Factions (eg ‘Shanghai & Shanxi gang’) which ensured the ‘circulation of elites’ have been neutralised. Seemingly there is only one faction – Xi’s.

Despite enhanced censorship under Xi, a small but vocal circle in China is not exactly thrilled. Deng’s son Deng Pufang cautioned that China should ‘know its place’ (2018). Law Professor Xu Zhangrun, an outspoken critic of Xi, was dismissed from Tsinghua University (2020). Retired Professor Cai Xia of the Central Party School has held Xi responsible for alienating China from the world – she is, not surprisingly, now in America. Real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang who criticised the ‘people’s government’ becoming the ‘party’s government’ has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The backlash in Deng’s time came through successors who did not succeed – reformist party leaders like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang (the latter supported the 1989 student protestors) and famously, the unsung heroes of Tiananmen (1989). In the last decades, students in Chinese universities have borne a surfeit of ideological and political education and are unlikely to be problematic.
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In Xi’s China, the backlash has not happened, yet. But Xi, to his credit, has not failed to see the writing on the wall. China’s Tech giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) dominate and oversee a vast empire from Artificial Intelligence (AI) to social media to group buying to video sharing to food delivery – an ecosystem that controls access to information, technology and finance. In short, creating a parallel universe that challenges the real power of the Communist Party. The recent anti-monopoly draft measures that came out on 10 November – which stopped the ‘world’s largest IPO’ by Jack Ma’s Ant Group (in Shanghai and Hong Kong) – is a step by Xi to try to subvert this challenge.

Ant Group, which was to raise $34.4 billion, would have leaped into the exclusive stratosphere of the world’s largest financial companies. ‘East, West, North, South the Party leads Everything’ is in turn led by Xi – an effort to reverse the fragmentation of authority. It is Xi’s version of putting ‘China First’ and of ‘Making China Great Again’.
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Xi’s effort has not come cheap or easy. Trump’s anti-China economic and military moves, global criticisms of China’s Hong Kong and Uighur repression, Tibet, aggressive moves on Taiwan, Covid origin, not to mention the Ladakh confrontation are part of a global pushback. China is squandering away precious economic and political goodwill – showing up China’s real lack of finesse in soft power.

Under Deng, the slogan was ‘getting rich was glorious’. Under Xi, ‘getting strong is glorious’ is fraught with winds of uncertainties and global pushback. Deng might have the last laugh. There’s a Chinese proverb ‘the tall tree catches the wind’, implying that the tall tree bears the brunt of the storm.


The author is Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
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