Willy Wo-Lap Lam has been analyzing five of China´s recent leaders, and now published his book on Xi Jinping. Journalist Ian Johnson interviews him and ask him why China´s new president is different from his predecessors for the New York Times.
You have analyzed all major Chinese leaders over the past 30 years. What drew you to Xi?
Lam: Xi is very different from previous leaders. Basically Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed Deng Xiaoping’s instructions not only to reform the economy, but to carry out some degree of institutional changes. Deng didn’t believe in Western-style reforms, but he did try major institutional reforms to prevent a second Cultural Revolution and a Mao Zedong-style tyranny. So he promoted collective leadership — that the [ruling Communist Party’s] Politburo and especially its Standing Committee rule as a collective entity and the general secretary is just first among equals. Also, he didn’t want a cult of personality. Deng had a famous saying that leadership should come from the “five lakes and four seas” — from different backgrounds and all walks of life.
But Xi Jinping so far has stood many of Deng’s principles on their heads. We have seen an excessive concentration of personal power by Xi Jinping. He’s not first among equals. He’s the big boss. He runs roughshod over the other six members of the Standing Committee, especially Premier Li Keqiang.
Perhaps there is a plausible argument that he needs to concentrate power to push through reforms?
Lam: This is the so-called theory of neo-authoritarianism — that in a complex country like China, the ruler must have near-absolutist powers. Xi says that all the easy reforms have been tried out. He’s been left with difficult reforms that would impinge on the prerogatives of power blocs in the party — and so he needs extra powers to push through changes.
But the big question that I raise in the book is why thorough structural reforms are nowhere to be seen. I believe he is concentrating power for two purposes. One, to ensure that the Communist Party remains China’s perennial ruling party. He wants to be sure that no one else can challenge the supremacy of the party. Also that it only has one dominant faction, the inchoate Xi Jinping faction. It’s about amassing powers in his own hands — and it has very little to do with economic or political reform.
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