The now notorious episode when ex-president Hu Jintao was ushered out of the Great Hall of the People at the closing session of the Party Congress offers a unique, penetrating view of the internal Chinese decision-making process. It shows President Xi Jinping’s ability to think on his feet and takes responsibility.
The moment was topical and extremely controversial about its significance. While Politburo member Li Zhanshu tries to reason with Hu, and Wang Huning, also a Politburo member, tells Li to let the older man go, nobody makes a move.
Xi tries to talk to Hu, and when he sees that the talking fails, he decides to have Hu escorted out. There is no yelling, no excitement. Xi doesn’t lose his temper despite the dramatic, weird situation; he keeps calm and moves. It is a matter of a few seconds. He doesn’t allow the case to drag out and maybe get blown out of proportion.
Why did he do it? Beijing’s rumor mill is working at full speed in these hours. Some say Hu was disappointed by the demotion of his protégé Hu Chunhua; some argue the old man was the standard bearer of a wider power struggle that, in the past months, tried to force Xi to resign and evidently failed. Some go for the simpler explanation that old Hu was not in control of himself.
Certainly, Hu was not politically purged as the episode was censored in Chinese media, and later TV coverage showed the ex-president in the leaders’ rostrum.
Still, no matter the seasons, Xi’s leadership clout, shown at that moment, is something that is considered almost magic in traditional Chinese political culture.
It doesn’t matter if the emperor is right or wrong; the dragon, symbolizing the emperor, was seen as a beast bringing fortune or disgrace. What matters is that the emperor takes his stand before Heaven, man, and the situation, and he moves while others remain terrified.
Xi shows what scholar Emilio Iodice calls leadership’s stamina, which can be learned but never works well if you don’t have the gift.
Then and there, only Xi dares to make a momentous decision.
That may be his role, the power he has accrued. Still, in any event, it is an illustration of why he is the “leader of everything”: While in crucial circumstances, others are hesitant, he steps in and moves the ball in one direction to solve the situation that otherwise could spin out of control.
In any case, one reason for his effective power could also be that Xi moves in a situation dramatically different from Mao’s or Deng’s.
Mao was surrounded by people who challenged him. Two of his anointed successors, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, turned against him. His best buddy, Marshal Peng Dehuai, denounced him for the Great Leap Forward.
Even his successor Deng Xiaoping survived by not challenging him but by navigating around him. Deng pretended to be ill and didn’t attend the 1959 Lushan Conference when Peng confronted Mao, so Deng could avoid taking a stand for or against Mao.
But Mao’s comrades were all revolutionaries, people who put their lives on the line to join a cause they thought was righteous. They were fearless and moved up the ranks of the revolution by dodging bullets and thanks to their achievements on the battlefield. Thus, they could and would challenge Mao if they thought it was necessary.
Deng, knowing his tough comrades, could have been more of a consensus’ builder, and tried to skirt bitter confrontations.
But the people around Xi are not fearless revolutionaries. They are cadres who got promoted because they were good at following orders and owe their career to the favors of this or that leader.
Xi is different. He moved up the ladder, currying favor, but then in 2012, when he was promoted to party chief, he turned against his masters and claimed all the power for himself.
Then, if others cannot think fast and daringly in the top leadership, Xi will undoubtedly remain the “top dog,” whether anyone likes his decisions or not.