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Geopolitics Watch: The ‘People’s Leader’ and the ‘Phase One’ Deal Signing

◎ Xi’s “people’s leader” tag is a sign of weakness, not strength.


Xi Jinping chaired the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party’s annual “democratic life” meeting (民主生活会) from Dec. 26 to Dec. 27. Buried in the middle of the sixth paragraph of state mouthpiece Xinhua’s report of the Politburo meeting was a line about the “people’s leader’s deep feelings for the people” (“人民領袖深切的為民情懷”); the line was one of several praises about Xi in that paragraph.

Western commentators and media interpreted the Politburo’s “people’s leader” reference as Xi having collected a special title associated with Chairman Mao Zedong. They also believe that the new title is a signal that Xi presently has a very strong grip on power and that the Party’s elite are firmly united behind him in the face of growing internal and external pressures.

Meanwhile, United States President Donald Trump told reporters on Dec. 24 that he and Xi Jinping will have a signing ceremony for “phase one” of the Sino-U.S. trade deal. On Dec. 31, Trump tweeted, “I will be signing our very large and comprehensive Phase One Trade Deal with China on January 15. The ceremony will take place at the White House. High level representatives of China will be present. At a later date I will be going to Beijing where talks will begin on Phase Two!”

Michael Pillsbury, a Hudson Institute scholar and Trump’s top external China advisor, told The New York Times that “we’re entering a period now, before the signing, to see if it really gets locked in or they renege again.” He suggested that Trump “publicized the date of the ceremony on Twitter to put additional pressure on China,” according to the Times report.

Our take:
1. At first glance, the argument that Xi Jinping collecting a title associated with Mao Zedong at a Politburo meeting signals that his grip on power is very secure and that he has the support of the CCP elite seems commonsensical. The argument would also seem very persuasive for those who already buy the notion that Xi is powerful and virtually unchallenged, particularly after the 19th Party Congress.

Those who accept the mainstream interpretation of Xi’s “people’s leader” title must also test that hypothesis against the following questions:

  • Why did Xinhua only make reference to the “people’s leader” once in the middle of the sixth paragraph of its report on the Politburo meeting? If Xi was really that powerful and wanted to show it, it does not make sense for him to “bury the lede.”
  • Why did CCP propaganda media not comment on the “people’s leader” title until it was “unveiled” or issue commentary pieces on it after the Politburo meeting to ram home the message to CCP cadres?
  • Some Western observers note that the “people’s leader” title was used as early as August 2019. Why did overseas Chinese media and commentators (both pro-democracy and pro-CCP) not seek to call more attention to this development? Notably, overseas Chinese language commentary on the “people’s leader” title only appeared after Western media reports about it.
  • If Xi is indeed as powerful as Western commentators believe, then why does the Trump administration believe that whether or not the “phase one” deal can be reached is dependent on whether “reformers” or “hardliners” gain the upperhand in the CCP regime?
  • Again, if Xi is so powerful, then why did the CCP “renege” on the draft trade agreement negotiated by Xi ally Liu He in May 2019? Also, what is causing the delays in the release of the Chinese translation of the “phase one” trade deal? And why does Michael Pillsbury believe that trade negotiations are in a phase where there is a need to see if the deal “really gets locked in or they renege again,” and that Trump needs to place additional pressure on China?

2. Based on our understanding of CCP political culture and power operations, the use of the “people’s leader” phrase (we do not think that it qualifies as a “title”) after the Dec. 26-27 Politburo meeting is merely the latest “you know what I mean” (“你懂的“) attempt by Xi to boost his “quan wei” (權威) ahead of the signing of the “phase one” trade deal.

Xi’s lack of “quan wei” has resulted in a stalemate between him and his factional rivals (see here, here, and here). The stalemate appears to have affected Xi’s ability to ram through decisions that deeply concern regime survival without facing strong pushback from the Party; the CCP “reneging” on the draft trade deal in May 2019 is an example. Now with the signing of the “phase one” Sino-U.S. trade deal imminent, Xi has again taken to “borrowing” tokens of “quan wei” (titles used by Mao, visiting revolutionary sites, etc.) in “you know what I mean” fashion to strengthen his position and hand as he prepares to bring the Party’s elite to a consensus on signing the “phase one” deal.

Xi has frequently attempted to show that he has “quan wei” through various “you know what I mean” gestures. For instance, he broke with tradition by appearing first and walking a distance away from the other Politburo Standing Committee members during their unveiling at the First Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in 2017; while Xi was unable to ditch the “collective leadership” model, he still needed to show that he was a “General Secretary Plus” and hence “first among equals” in the Politburo Standing Committee. Also, in the lead up to the 2018 Two Sessions, state media used the “national helmsman” (國家掌舵者) tag, another “title” associated with Mao, when referencing Xi; then, Xi needed to guarantee the election of his top ally Wang Qishan to the PRC vice presidency and do away with presidential term limits amid great opposition. We believe that the Politburo’s use of the “people’s leader” phrase barely qualifies as an “you know what I mean” gesture by Xi to boost his “quan wei” as he again prepares to confront domestic opposition and force through his will.

3. The fact that Xi needs to keep “borrowing” so-called “titles” associated with Mao to strengthen his own “quan wei” clearly indicates that he does not have a firm grip on power. To draw a comparison, Deng Xiaoping was recognized as the paramount leader in the CCP despite never holding the title of “CCP Chairman” or “General Secretary.” Indeed, Deng’s “quan wei” was so strong that he was able to force Jiang Zemin to continue with “reform and opening up” just being going on a “Southern Tour” in 1992 despite having already stepped down as head of the Central Military Commission and serving only as honorary president of the Chinese Bridge Association. Thus, Xi’s collection of “special titles” is a sign of weakness, not strength.

4. Given the already sky-high levels of political risk facing Xi Jinping and an unprecedented political crisis in the CCP, we believe that it is very unlikely that he will personally meet with President Trump to sign the “phase one” trade deal despite what Trump told the press on Dec. 24. Also, Trump only referenced “high level representatives of China” and did not mention Xi in his tweet on Dec. 31. We believe that it is more likely that PRC vice premier Liu He will be tasked with signing the “phase one” deal—and taking the arrows later on behalf of Xi for signing an “unequal treaty” with America.

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