By: Yan Yu
Under China’s continuing draconian zero-Covid measures, more and more people in the country are beginning to question the rationality of such policies. In a super-authoritarian country like China where freedoms of speech and press are severely suppressed, it is hardly possible to know the true public opinion on politically sensitive issues. The regime’s monopoly on education and the dissemination of information, as well as the punishment of dissent, not only greatly stifles the thinking of the Chinese people, but also turns self-censorship into a necessity for people to protect themselves. Under such circumstances, how can we understand the Chinese people’s true assessment of supreme leader Xi Jinping?
In an authoritarian country, the roles of ruler and followers shape and reinforce each other, but whether the ruler can maintain power depends on whether he has sufficient leadership capital. This article uses the internationally accepted Leadership Capital Index (LCI)—which reflects the leader’s popularity and dynamics—to analyze Xi Jinping’s political capital. Total leadership capital is composed of three elements: skills capital, relational capital, and reputational capital. Upon analyzing Xi Jinping’s performance in terms of foreign and domestic affairs, governance model, ideological construction, and personal ability since coming to power, it is evident that the Chinese people’s trust in and satisfaction with him are not high, and his leadership and political capital are barely sufficient to support his continued rule. In 2022, a year crucial to determining whether Xi can preserve his rulership, he urgently needs some important achievements to fulfill his ambition to stay in power. At the same time, genuine public opinion will inevitably become a weapon on the political stage and a force that helps shape history.
The well-known American public-relations firm Edelman recently released the results of a survey that showed that 91% of Chinese trust their government, the highest percentage among all countries surveyed. For a country universally acknowledged to be very authoritarian, this situation is reminiscent of the one described in “1984,” in which Big Brother constantly monitors everyone, and receives in return their adoration.
Surveys such as this assume that respondents are willing to give their true views on political topics. To test for the presence of such a self-censorship problem in China, the V-Dem Institute at Gothenburg University in Sweden has previously used a “list experiment” to test for such bias among Chinese survey respondents. This is a survey technique that tests for such self-censorship by asking separate groups different questionnaires, with and without questions where respondents might be unwilling to answer truthfully. The results showed that the self-censorship rate was far higher than predicted, and that such self-censorship has become to a great extent a means of prudent self-protection in China, even to the extent that respondents themselves are often unaware of it.
And so the bigger mystery is, what do the Chinese people themselves truly think of Xi Jinping, the country’s supreme leader? Recently a 40,000-word Chinese-language article, “Objectively Evaluating Xi Jinping,” has been circulating widely inside and outside China. In it, the author paints Xi as someone regally presented yet thoroughly unadmired, obsessed with power yet thoroughly mediocre. Is this view peculiar to the author, or is it widely held among the Chinese people?
In the classic authoritarian society, the leader is often characterized by little ability to empathize with others and a high level of neuroticism, narcissism, hunger for power and practicality. His followers are characterized by closed-mindedness, cynicism, self-awareness and empathy, and a high degree of psychological dependence on authority. But of course, these latter characteristics are precisely the symptoms of long-term oppression. In such a society, if it functions well, the symbiosis between leader and followers is one of the leader keeping his promises, the efficient, centralized governance of society, and the followers having stable living conditions and in turn being contented. It is a sort of closed loop of time and space, in which power is exercised and worshipped even as information and ideas are controlled. As long as this surface harmony produces the desired outcomes, it can persist. But if it does not, it is undermined from within.
To create ideal followers and preserve this harmonious equilibrium, autocrats need to perform, to be credible, to be trustworthy, and to have an abundance of loyalty by the people, perhaps tacitly held. They also need to create the perception of a distinct model of governance that allows them to stand out. All of this together produces a dictator’s “leadership capital,” which in turn reflects the dictator’s popularity among the people.
In China, accurate polling on sensitive topics simply cannot be conducted. And any negative comments about Xi in particular are extremely dangerous, and many people have in fact been imprisoned for such. According to a research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab institute, 87% of the terms that trigger China’s online-censorship system involve Xi himself. To overcome this self-censorship problem, we can look at the internationally widely used “Leadership Capital Index” (LCI), which can be applied to any leader, whether autocratic or not, political or private, to measure Xi’s leadership capital, and from this analyze domestic evaluation of Xi since he came to power. In this index, the separate components of a leader’s skills capital, relational capital, and reputational capital combine to produce his total leadership capital. This index can also be used to systematically track and predict a leader’s political situation.
Skills capital denotes a leader’s individual skill, including cognitive, physical, communication and management skills. Political psychologists remind us that who the leader is is extremely important. In “Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping,” the author has already brilliantly described these aspects of the Chinese leader. He argues that the pompous book lists that his government promotes, that supposedly are available to him at his fingertips and that are intended to show off his erudition, instead betray his audacity bred from ignorance. His communication skills are externally manifested as the recent so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy (meant to describe China’s recent hostile international posture, deriving from a recent Chinese movie title), and expressed domestically as condescending lecturing down to the public, or only very trivially looking into public opinion.
As to Xi’s management skill, one can look to the embattled state of both domestic and external affairs in recent years. In foreign affairs for example, as a major economic strategy his “One Belt, One Road” project has not only brought unbearable debt risk to developing countries, it has also led to China itself facing huge financial pressures and other economic burdens. Many participating countries expressed dissatisfaction or opposition to the project and withdrew outright from it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi’s “We decide” policy has been intertwined in global opinion with the Chinese government’s malfeasance in the pandemic’s early stages and its subsequent unwillingness to cooperate in the investigation of the origins of the virus. This makes for a suspicious and therefore humiliating posture. According to a 2021 international survey by America’s authoritative Pew Research Center, negative views about China have reached the highest levels since the survey began. In addition, a majority of respondents in 16 of 17 surveyed countries had little or no confidence in Xi himself.
Internally, the various policies and plans implemented since Xi assumed power, such as the suppression of private enterprise and private capital generally, as well as some industries that have been particularly targeted, have been strongly questioned. So too have the “1000-Year Grand Plan” to construct a new city called XiongAn to serve as an economic hub for the Beijing-Tianjin-Jilin region, the family-planning-policy changes to allow families to have first two and then three children, and the plans to comprehensively alleviate poverty and achieve “common prosperity” been strongly questioned as being without scientific or other foundation. The suppression of the human rights of China’s ethnic minorities, along with the destruction of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong hardly needs mentioning. And the price of these actions are borne by the people themselves, and so one group after another has fallen into hardship. The only “successful” policy is the growing web of social surveillance, but this without question is pushing the population into slavery even more rapidly.
As for the people’s economically flourishing, Xi has said “As for protecting and improving the people’s livelihood, there is no destination.” And of course, if there is no destination, staying in place rather than moving forward is perfectly natural. When Xi took office as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he proposed as a program the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, i.e. the prosperity of the country, the rebirth of the Chinese nation, and the happiness of the Chinese people. Ten years have now passed, and the dream is still just that, only a dream. When showing off China’s economic achievements and using them to denigrate democracy, the CCP has often claimed that “Democracy cannot be eaten.” Recently, Xi Jinping portrayed China’s political system under his rule as a “whole process people’s democracy,” more democratic, the CCP asserted, than any other democracy in the world. But many in China, perhaps including Xi himself, have come to realize that Xi’s whole process people’s democracy cannot be eaten, either.
Relational capital refers to the loyalty a leader can mobilize. Whether and if so why people follow a leader is a matter of that leader’s authority and influence. Under charismatic leadership, supporters can reach a level of unconditional, even blind loyalty. Other types of leader-follower relationships can be more intellectual, conditional and transitory. Xi Jinping obviously does not possess charismatic authority and cannot use any leadership gifts to gain the acknowledgment and love of his followers. Legal authority is recognized through a publicly acknowledged and fair selection process, e.g. a democratic election. This is obviously not what prevails in China. Socialist autocratic leaders often win their people’s allegiance instead through ideological monopoly, and Xi is no exception. Under Xi, the idea of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” has flowered. According to one Chinese scholar of civic politics, “This sort of political rhetoric is essentially an ad hoc mixture of traditional culture, power-worship and authoritarian control that cannot be converted into a strictly rational ideological framework. It is not an effective way to hold a large organization together, and it cannot make up for the void deriving from the bankruptcy of communist ideology.”
The only tool left to Xi to engender loyalty is the imposition of strict legal rules to achieve social obedience through promoting moral panics. From formal campaign-style crackdowns, to arrests of human-rights lawyers, to literary imprisonment to other crimes pulled at will out of his pocket, in the face of power the fig leaf of whatever dignity the law might have had has been simply torn away. According to a report, during the 76-day lockdown of Wuhan, there were 638 wenziyu or literary inquisitions, an ancient Chinese tactic refined under communist rule in which an intellectual’s writings are combed over to manufacture crimes. Such moral-panic-induced obedience, regardless of an individual’s actual loyalty, betrays a general dissatisfaction clearly directed at the regime and its leaders.
Reputational capital refers to the use by followers and observers of a leader’s words and deeds to form a perceived image of the leader. This image is partly shaped by the leader himself, and partly comes from the subjective judgements of the followers and observers themselves. These form the core of a leader’s reputation.
In China, the ruling party and its highest leaders on the one hand and the bureaucratic system on the other have a master-slave dependent relationship. The legitimacy of the bureaucratic system comes from its authorization by the leadership, and the leadership is ultimately responsible for decisions. Even so, the bureaucracy is a tool of central governance, and plays a role in both linking the state and the people and serving as a buffer between them. During the Xi Jinping era, in which one man holds ultimate power, and in particular heads multiple small working groups and singlehandedly authorizes and implements policy, the old tripartite system of the authorized national sovereign, the bureaucracy and the people become a binary system involving only the sovereign dictator and the people. In recent years the inequity deriving from the authorities’ rent-seeking amid their efforts to “preserve stability,” along with harsh government attempts to control the epidemic and other policies has led to substantial conflict between the bureaucracy and the people. Events such as last year’s catastrophic mishandling of flooding in the city of Zhengzhou continually appear. The still-unfolding case of a woman in the town of Xuzhou in Jiangsu province held in chains for years after she was allegedly kidnapped before being forced into marriage and then repeatedly raped, resulting in the births of eight children, is currently further destroying officials’ credibility and capacity to govern. Under such circumstances, the dereliction of duty, slovenliness and recklessness of the bureaucracy will inevitably cause the public to question the supreme authority operating above even as it is thoroughly integrated within the system.
In addition, Professor Michael A. Hogg in 2001 proposed the “social identity theory of leaders”. In this theory, when people identify with a group, their evaluation of and support for the group’s leader are based on whether he conforms to the group’s archetypes, of which their leader should be the personification. After generations of continuous indoctrination and broader coercive shaping of the people, a majority of them bring a strong presumption to how they think about the communist party: that its nature is far more advanced nature than that of other historical political parties, that it is (in Leninist language) the vanguard of the proletariat, and that it represents the interests of the vast majority of the Chinese people. But when Xi Jinping, acting as the party’s leader and increasingly depicted as its core, presented a personal image and displayed a capacity to govern that was very different from the party’s hagiography, and then dragged the Chinese people through endless talk of “national rejuvenation,” only to give them the reality of a society characterized by what the Chinese call neijuan (roughly national deterioration resulting from excessive interior complexity and control) and tangping (“lie flat,” referring to substantial withdrawal from economic activity, family responsibilities, etc., mostly by young adults). The Chinese people thus perceive a clear difference between what has been promised and what they see with their own eyes. One can well imagine the effect of all this on the reputation of and public support for the leadership.
For sure, 2022 will be a very special and bumpy year for Xi. He will strive to officially begin his indefinite rule by entering the third term of leadership and remaining in power (by breaking the CCP’s decades old norm of succession of power) following the 20th National Party Congress, which is expected to be held in the second half of 2022. In light of Xi’s current power and control over the CCP and the Chinese military, probably no one will be able to stop him from staying as the CCP’s top leader at the 20th National Congress, unless something unusual and unexpected happens. However, Xi inwardly knows, and as confirmed by the appearance of such undercurrents as the anonymous “Objectively Evaluating Xi Jinping”, that although no one in the CCP is spoking out, everyone is privately questioning why he is undermining the party’s decades-old system of orderly succession of top leaders. Xi Jinping may urgently need to do anything in his power to stabilize the society and prosper the economy to enhance his mandate. In any case, he will prevent such a whole-sale policy failure as to give a chance to make resistance open and viable.
As the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party nears, it is clear that if Xi Jinping remains in office, it would rank as another glorious moment for him. Yet under this spotlight, what will the public reception be? Based on the above analysis of the three types of leadership capital, we may draw some tentative conclusions. Under an extremely authoritarian political system, public opinion is perhaps not so important. But even given this it is still a sort of power that can be wielded as a weapon on the political stage. In the twenty years before Xi assumed power, the feeling of political oppression was not so overwhelming. But since then, the intrusion of politics into more and more of daily life has become clearer and clearer. While the people may have to actively or passively submit on a number of political questions, the value judgments they make in their hearts will inevitably form a power, a power that will change history.
Yan Yu (pseudonym) is an independent scholar in China.
Translator: Professor Evan Osborne