When Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the Chinese Community Party in 2012, one of the first things he did was take his senior colleagues to the National Museum in Tiananmen Square.
The seven new top leaders of China walked through the “Road to Revival” exhibition, a fairly straightforward nationalist history of the country, from the first Opium War in 1840 through the present.
There, Xi delivered a speech about the Chinese dream in which he set forward the goal of “achieving the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
As Xi is poised to take on a third term as China’s president this week at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the highly symbolic museum stroll is worth recalling: it shows how much Xi is shaped by history.
Xi has become increasingly authoritarian — consolidating power, imprisoning dissenters, and now taking a third term, unprecedented since Mao Zedong.
Many of the most aggressive voices about China in the US have painted Xi as inflexible. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called him a totalitarian, and Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien likened Xi to Stalin. Even those who have worked closely with Xi have come to see him driven by ideology. This week, former Australian prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd described Xi as a “true believer.”
We may risk misunderstanding Xi, however, if we don’t consider the evidence that he is a pragmatist, who is drawing on the centralized power of the state to apply clear lessons from home and abroad. China’s own modern history and Xi’s experiences living through it likely present the major referents of Xi’s worldview and his priorities, but there are three other moments that have come to inform his worldview as president.
Three historical moments
No historical event haunts Xi and the Chinese leadership more than the Soviet Union’s collapse. “It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” historian David Shambaugh has said.
A month into his first term in December 2012, Xi delivered a private speech to party leaders in Guangdong province with “deeply profound” learnings from the USSR’s downfall, with a focus on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s missteps. A summary of those remarks was later circulated. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” Xi said, according to the summary. The lessons he took from the collapse: Retain tight control of the military, don’t make reforms that undermine the party’s power, and make no unforced errors.
“Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” Xi reportedly said. “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”
Another major historical moment that has informed Xi’s thinking is the United States’ war on terror that was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Xi perhaps saw the ease with which the US perpetuated bad policies worldwide and at home. The US did face a credible terrorism threat, but Washington’s response was a massive overextension of power: invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan; deepening extrajudicial policies that meant close collaboration with autocratic Arab and Muslim countries; and advancing surveillance policies, including a misguided dragnet of Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities inside the US and long-term detentions in Guantanamo Bay.
The lesson Xi apparently took from America’s global war on terror wasn’t that overextension and hubris would lead to decline. Xi, instead, has seemed to grasp that he could get away with brazen expressions of power, so long as they were framed as counterterrorism.
China, before Xi ascended to the top of the party, took on many of the worst tenets of the war on terror, its rhetoric and policies, to clamp down on the country’s Muslim communities in the province of Xinjiang. The mass detention and relocation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been called a genocide.
Though these policies began in the early 2000s, Xi has accelerated them and come to be associated with them. As Gulzira Auelkhan, a Uyghur who survived the camps, has said, “In the camp, guards openly said it was Xi Jinping’s policy. … We had to publicly thank him for everything.” Or as Xi has put it, “The facts have abundantly demonstrated that our national minority work has been a success.”
Third, recent political uprisings have informed Xi’s thinking. Top of mind are the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan (former Soviet states) in the early 2000s and the Arab revolutions in 2011 that spread across the Middle East and North Africa and toppled dictators.
It’s led to a major emphasis on the Chinese state’s stability.
One way to ensure that is to eliminate the corruption within the party and the Chinese government — for Xi, the rot at the top of the undemocratic regimes exposed their own vulnerability to citizens. Anti-corruption campaigns have been a key component of Xi’s rule, and a way to avoid the fate of leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who over his 29 years in office was known for his expensive tailored suits and decadent lifestyle that appeared at the expense of his increasingly impoverished nation.
The Arab Spring occurred before Xi took office, but its ongoing protests and counterrevolution were still present in 2012 and may have informed the crackdown on Chinese party corruption, including the fall from grace of party honcho Bo Xilai.
Learning from China’s history
The crack-up of the Soviet Union, America’s war on terror, and the fall of autocratic regimes elsewhere are certainly instructive for Xi.
But John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, emphasized that Xi’s main references come from within China. He did take the core members of his party to the history museum, after all.
The museum itself offers important clues for how Xi thinks. “It’s an orthodox lesson of essentially modern Chinese history, which is the century of humiliation,” Delury told me. The museum tells the story of the Qing Dynasty — “China let itself become weak, the system became weak. And ‘We got whooped by these European powers and then by the Japanese. And we can never let that happen again,’” he said.
That account is well-known in China, but, Delury says, “It does tell us a little bit about Xi’s instincts.”
It’s less clear what Xi has gathered about the histories of succession among China’s leaders. There is much speculation but little clarity about who might follow Xi as president after his third term — or perhaps even another. The party is changing the constitution to extend his presidency, and we don’t yet know when that term will end or what comes next.
“From the beginning, from 1921 when the CCP was founded, there are very few examples of a smooth, orderly transition of supreme power,” Delury said. “It’s a mess.”
As Delury put it, “Xi Jinping would know this history.”