China under Xi Jinping: putting politics in command

This article by Jenny Clegg – a revised and enlarged version of a three-part series originally published in the Morning Star (part 1 | part 2 | part 3) – provides a broad overview of China’s political trajectory in the present era.

Jenny takes on the media caricature of Xi Jinping as an “authoritarian” leader, analysing his political development over the course of several decades, noting in particular his longstanding commitment to combating climate change, his dedication to poverty alleviation, and his belief that China should shift away from using GDP growth as the central metric of economic success. As CPC General Secretary and China’s President, the most prominent aspects of Xi’s record have been the extremely rigorous (and popular) anti-corruption campaign; the success in eliminating extreme poverty; a major focus on environmental questions; and the centring of a common prosperity agenda that is already operating to reduce inequality and improve the conditions of the poor.

Sympathetic but not uncritical, the article provides valuable insights and a realistic assessment of China’s prospects for developing into a “modern advanced socialist country that is strong and prosperous” by the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (2049).

1. Who is Xi Jinping?

The Communist Party of China’s 20th Congress confirmed Xi Jinping as General Secretary for a third term. According to the mainstream media, China is lurching once again toward ‘one-man rule’ under the ‘thrice crowned’ leader. But what kind of rule will this be? China is the world’s second largest economy and the politics of its leader is of great consequence for the world.

So what are Xi’s politics? What has his leadership over the last 10 years meant for China and what direction does he intend the country to take over the next 5 years and beyond?

Xi’s political development

The son of a revolutionary hero who became a vice premier of China in the 1950s only to later fall victim to political turmoil in the Mao period,[1] Xi himself was a ‘sent down’ youth spending seven years from the age of 15 working in a poor community in China’s West. Serving for a time as a commune leader, he adopted the work style of ‘plain living and hard work’ – the ideal followed by the CPC from its earliest days.

Whilst these formative experiences moulded his core political outlook, it was through his work as Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province from 2002 to 2007 that a more concrete politics took shape.

Zhejiang is a commercialised province, one of those key Eastern seaboard areas which have driven the country’s hi-speed growth.  After China joined the WTO in 2001, local cadres were exhorted to promote business, help new enterprises and court foreign investment, creating new jobs and opportunities.

But rapid industrialisation also brought increasing inequality, environmental degradation as well as corruption as the boundaries between politics and business blurred.  Now in the senior ranks of Party leadership, one of some 3,000, Xi expressed his concerns in a series of articles in which he put great stress on the moral standards of the cadres and the need to prevent Party officials from solidifying into a privileged elite removed from the rest of society.

Power, he argued, was not a personal possession, to be used not for self-aggrandisement but for the public good. Grass roots levels were crucial – this was where the Party worked together with the people to build a better future.  Emphasising the quality not just the quantity of growth – ‘not everything has to be done for GDP’; and the importance of the environment – ‘there is only one world and only one environment’ – Xi was paving a new way forward.[2]

Cleaning up the Party

By 2012, when Xi became Party leader, China had recovered rapidly after taking a serious hit in the 2008/9 world financial crisis, resuming the fast growth that had seen the economy more than double in the previous decade.  It was up to him now to realise the previously set goals of achieving a ‘moderately prosperous society’ by 2020.

Xi’s first step was to refocus the Party on its high values of public service, launching a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign targeted at ‘tigers’ at the top as well as ‘flies’ at the bottom.  His insistence that his immediate family should not undertake any business dealings struck a chord with people, gaining him much popularity.

A graduate in chemical engineering, with a PhD in Marxist legal theory, Xi was also a good communicator, a skill acquired during his years in the countryside, and the fact that he could put over his political message in an accessible manner, avoiding stilted rhetoric, also added to his popularity.

Determined to restore ideology to the heart of the Party, he encouraged Marxist study as well as wider Marxist intellectual debate, these not for the sake of theorising but in order to drive policy and practice forward.

His affirmation in 2013 of the role of the market as playing ‘a decisive role in the allocation of resources in the economy’ saw a widening of market reforms whilst a new emphasis on commercial law which, together with the wider establishment of enterprise-based Party committees, vastly improved business practice.  From 2015, a massive infusion of government support reinforced the role of state-owned enterprises at the centre of economic policy.

Two particular advances of Xi’s first term were, on the domestic front, the 2016 Made In China Initiative which laid the basis of China’s technological upgrading to a higher stage of modernisation; and, of international consequence, the Belt and Road Initiative, setting out a new mode for China’s integration with the world community.

Revitalising Chinese politics

Greater economic success was bringing rising expectations and a more diversified society:  a middle income group of some 400 million including those owning their own homes, many university-educated and having travelled abroad, co-existed in the cities with millions of migrants from the countryside, many still in hardship.  At the same time a small but highly visible section of super-rich, heading private business empires, was becoming more powerful.

Increasing opportunities and day-by-day improvements in people’s livelihoods had meant the CPC enjoyed high levels of public support and satisfaction. 

However the pace of growth had become unsustainable and a slowdown was inevitable.  This meant that the Party had to find new sources of appeal to a more diverse public to maintain its legitimacy, delivering not only to a huge population, but one wanting many different things, no longer satisfied with just seeing China grow stronger.

Xi was to start his second term as CPC leader in 2017 with a message of unity calling for the ‘rejuvenation of the nation’ – a recommitment to the revolutionary goal of becoming a prosperous modernised society with a world power status.

The 2017 19th Party Congress opened the new era with a shift from Deng’s focus on economic growth – in Chinese Marxist parlance, the main contradiction to now be addressed was ‘between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.’

Despite this upgrade, Xi made clear China’s status as a developing country had not altered as he brought to the fore the two centennial goals: to achieve moderate prosperity, eradicating extreme poverty by 2021, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CPC; and to make China a modern advanced socialist country that is strong and prosperous by 2049,  100 years on from the foundation of the PRC.

In the last five years, China has continued to make considerable advances – in tackling air pollution; the huge investment in green development, taking China to the forefront in the production and use of renewable energy; massive advancements in transport and in R&D with the proliferation of innovative uses of automated technologies; the provision of basic pensions, social security and health insurance, some world class universities – to mention just a few.  Most significant were the eradication of extreme poverty together with the pursuit of zero COVID which successfully kept deaths down so far to a tiny fraction.  China has also become increasingly assertive in foreign affairs.

Then with the 20th CPC Congress approaching, Xi made some striking statements – that ‘houses are for living in not for speculation’, that ‘the disorderly expansion of capital’ was to be prevented.  Backed by crackdowns on gaming, private education, and the hi-tech sector, these were indications of a ‘socialist turn’ ahead with a re-assertion of state power over the market.

Sequencing steps forward

None of this is to deny that China has considerable problems and shortcomings: abuses of human rights, exploitative conditions in some sections of industry, persistent corruption. Nor is it to claim than policies are universally popular – clearly patience wore thin among sections of the population with dynamic zero COVID. Undoubtedly there were serious concerns, even among some people generally sympathetic to China, regarding the ways the situations in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang were handled.  But complex contexts are obscured by the West’s hyper-politicisation. The question is how to go about tackling the problems and making improvements.

Politics is not the fleeting day-to-day affair it often appears to be but a long term process which must be approached step by step.  Starting from China’s actual conditions, building on the economic successes of his predecessors, and with eyes fixed on the goal of achieving developed country status, Xi set out first to restore the credibility of the Party as an organisation capable of tackling the country’s problems and improving the situation for the people  – reviving its ethos of serving the people and renewing its Marxist ideological foundations.  With the Party more focussed and disciplined, the second step was to reconnect with the people in the task of completing the ‘historical mission’ started in 1949 to become a modern country by following the socialist path.

Xi was able to convey a narrative about where China had been, where it had got to and where it was going, in a way that was meaningful to ordinary people, his forward-pointing message offering a shared sense of direction and a confidence and pride about China in the world beyond the diversity of socio-economic interests. 

This had to be matched by efforts to regenerate the Party at the grass roots, in workplaces and communities, working together with the people as was seen in the campaigns to eradicate extreme poverty and to control the spread of COVID.

Taking this gradual approach, as China strengthens economically, Xi is moving beyond the Dengist framework of prioritising economic growth whilst keeping a low profile in the world towards an agenda of common prosperity and shared development.

The ‘reform and opening up’ approach is not so much being abandoned as put more firmly in the service of the overall interests of the country and the people as Xi brings politics back in command. As he says, the next five years will be critical.

2.  China’s ‘common prosperity’ agenda

Marking out his third term as CPC leader, Xi has highlighted ‘common prosperity’ as an ‘essential requirement of socialism’ as he plots a course towards a modernised socialist state by 2049,  100 years on from the founding of the PRC.

First mentioned by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, the phrase was also used on occasion by Deng Xiaoping – his call for some to ‘get rich first’ always qualified with the phrase ‘so that they can help others to catch up’.

Xi’s aim is to reduce China’s considerable gaps in wealth and income, nevertheless what ‘common prosperity’ is not is an equalisation of incomes or a radical redistribution from the rich to the poor.  His report to the 20th CPC Congress talks rather of increasing the incomes of low-income earners and expanding the size of the middle income group.[3] 

Unequal China

China’s income per capita had by 2021 reached around $12,000, the World Bank borderline between an upper middle and high income country.

Along this route to ‘moderate prosperity’, as China built cities, encouraged private enterprise, developed share ownership and the property market, inequalities grew.  Although the worst of China’s poverty has been eradicated, as  Premier Li Keqiang was to admit in 2020, 600 million still have to survive on an income of only around $140 a month.[4]

The more vociferous burgeoning middle class has tended to occupy the attention of the government with demands to improve food standards, tackle air pollution and strengthen property and consumer rights.  But what about the low pay and poor working conditions of the 300 million rural migrants?  What about the 500 million or so left in the rural areas, some still scraping a living on small plots of land?

Inequality is structured into China’s society in the urban-rural gap and uneven regional development.  In the coming years, rural dwellers will continue to migrate to the urban areas, clearing the way for agricultural modernisation with the aim of raising the remaining farmers’ incomes.

But the ‘common prosperity’ agenda also involves a shift from catering to the emerging middle class to improving the rights and conditions of the workers.

Improving pay and conditions

Low pay and poor conditions continue to affect the private sector in particular.  Including household- and micro-enterprises, this accounts for some 80 percent of urban employment.  Tougher regulations have now been introduced in the food delivery sector – minimum income guarantees, relaxation of delivery deadlines, ensuring social insurance coverage – whilst the ‘996’ pattern of working from 9 am until 9 pm six days per week, common amongst technology firms, has been ruled illegal.[5]

China’s labour laws set a reasonable standard by international comparison  but implementation is very uneven.  A recent Channel 4 documentary about Shein fashion, whose founder Chris Xu is a well-known tycoon, raises worrying questions about conditions of excessive overtime and docking of pay for substandard work.[6]

These practices may not be the majority, varying by sector, but they certainly do occur – they are against the law, as the programme pointed out.  However in China, where business has expanded so rapidly over the last twenty or thirty years generally through personal contact, although practices have greatly improved, individual influence can still trump the law.

Xi Jinping’s Congress Report has called for improvements in labour laws and greater provision of law advice agencies to address the problems; collective bargaining – involving independent worker representatives elected from the shop floor in the car industry for example – may also start to play more of a part.[7]  However, urgent though these improvements are, a radical readjustment in the relations between capital and labour in the private sector would cause economic disruption and will be approached with caution.

‘Common prosperity’ is also to cover more equitable access to improved public services.  Measures for greater taxation of the rich and for improvements in social security are underway, however the central thrust of the policy direction is seen to lie in creating better quality better paid jobs.  And the route forward for China’s 800 million strong workforce is through education.

“Invigorating China through science and education” [8]

China’s immediate priority is to upgrade its technological levels. Escaping the dead end of cheap labour exports for high-end imports means pouring investment into skills and indigenous science and technology.  It is no longer a matter of simply producing Chinese brands to attract domestic consumers but innovating at the frontiers of new technologies to drive the industrialisation of the future. 

This reorientation of the economic model has been underway for some time but has become a matter of survival as US decoupling aims to lock China into a trap where, no longer offering cheap labour at the lowest ends of the supply chain, it remains unable to compete at the top end. 

With Xi now throwing the state into gear to engineer the modernising breakthroughs, Western naysayers proclaim China’s bureaucratism can only suffocate new ideas and strangle innovation in red tape: only capitalism apparently can incentivise creativity.

But the Chinese system has its advantages as Xi focusses resources on developing a contingent of first-class scientists, highly skilled engineers and workers, pulling together ‘innovation teams’.  In continuing to give high priority to higher education, Xi ’s Report calls for the better establishment of vocational education within it.

A network of national laboratories and research centres is complemented by flexible arrangements combining state and private ownership. ‘Guidance funds’ offered by local governments to start-ups look to boost R&D and train talent.[9]  A system of state shares in private companies can be coordinated to foster clusters and to fill in the supply chain around core state enterprises at local levels.

In enterprise management, as Huawei has demonstrated, employee share ownership can be an effective way of stimulating motivation and loyalty.  ‘Technology shares’ are a practice used in Chinese firms to tie in valued specialists and skilled personnel.

It is often in the actual process of production that new techniques are worked out.  And here China has the legacy of its own pre-modern practices of invention, experimentation and learning-by-doing as renowned Sinologist Joseph Needham detailed in his volumes on Science and Civilisation in China.

The ability to draw on both Western and traditional approaches to science appears to be paying off now as China takes the lead in holding nearly one third of the world’s renewable energy patents.[10]

Indeed decarbonisation is seen to be the route to high-quality development with the government taking this as a lever to change the country’s entire social and economic structure.[11]

The Zhejiang Experiment

Xi has set the goal of doubling the middle income group to 800 million by 2035 as a mark of achieving a basic socialist modernisation.  Zhejiang province, designated the ‘common prosperity demonstration zone’, aims to expand the middle income category – those between $14,000 and $70,000 – to 82 per cent of its population by 2025, above that of Germany and the US. At the same time, the enrolment rate in tertiary education is to rise to more than 70 percent; and ‘public service centres’ are be provided for urban residents with facilities offering preschool education, health and seniors care, and physical exercise, within 15 minutes walking distance; whilst life expectancy is to be lifted above the national average of 78 to over 80 years. [12] (US life expectancy is estimated to have fallen now to 76.1 years). [13]

China’s idea of a socialist future of ‘common prosperity’ may not be what some in the Western Left have in mind: whilst the professed aim is to regulate excessively high incomes, the private sector will continue to grow numerically if not as a proportion of overall economic value, China will still have its tycoons and will still make great efforts to attract foreign investment.   Nevertheless in its focus on the real economy; its hybrid state-market approach linking production and consumption, supply and demand; and in its emphasis on maintaining the predominance of ‘payment according to work’, China’s economy clearly stands out as distinct from capitalist economies.

If it does succeed in containing the ‘disorderly expansion of capital’ in such a way as to achieve, even if only approximately, the Zhejiang targets across the whole of China in the next 27 years this surely would be something really remarkable.  Thinking ahead we should be asking what such a massive increase in market demand might have on the future shape of the world economy.[14]

Right now though Xi is clearly facing serious challenges with the property market verging on crisis, the severe challenge in exiting from COVID and with the US tech war intensifying.

3. China’s socialist modernisation

The particular significance of 20th CPC Congress was in its raising of the goal of ‘socialist modernisation with Chinese characteristics’ to the top of the agenda to achieve the establishment of a modern socialist state by 2049.  Xi Jinping’s Congress Report provides some content on the future plans – but first, what is modernisation?

Two Paths to Modernisation

As set out by Walt Rostow in his infamous 1950s work The Non Communist Manifesto – modernisation theory envisages five stages of development from simple to complex society with technology, entrepreneurialism, individualism and competition the key drivers.

According to the schema, China would appear to be somewhere along Stage 4: the drive to maturity – a long period of sustained growth and structural change with modern technology extending across the economy, poverty falling, the agricultural workforce declining, and wages rising as workers acquire greater skills.  Infrastructure and communications, education and the media, professionalism are all developed to high levels together with a more effective leadership of a population, realising new opportunities as they ‘strive to make the most of their lives’.

Stage 5: the age of mass consumption then reaches the wealth levels of the West at which point citizens, hardly remembering the subsistence struggles of previous stages, live in comfort, spending the days enjoying the arts.

Modernisation theory is of course a fantasy designed to privilege the way of the West and camouflage its imperialist nature.  Out of 190 countries, only 36 are considered to be developed according to UN rankings: comprising less than one fifth of the world’s population, their advance took place at the expense of class polarisation, environmental destruction, and plunder, war and colonialism.[15]

China plans to bring another fifth of the world’s population up to modern standards but by following a distinct path of green development, common prosperity and peaceful negotiation with the rest of the world – all seen as essential features of socialist modernisation Chinese-style.

Needless to say this is massively ambitious.

China has followed its own development stages: first Mao restored the sovereignty necessary to the country’s material progress against the forces of imperialism, establishing an industrial base; then Deng’s ‘reform and opening up’ unleashed the fast paced growth that raised China’s economy to second in the world, with the private sector’s dynamism contained within the frame of state and public ownership and control.

Now midway along its own ‘drive to maturity’, China is looking ahead to transition through these initial phases of the primary stage of socialism, reaching a basic level of socialist modernisation by 2035 en route to a modern socialist society by 2049.

China’s distinctive economic operation

Looking to modernise the industrial system, government focus is on the real economy, pursuing economic growth through its distinctive combination of market actors with the ‘strategic supporting role of the state-owned economy’.

The Chinese approach sees consumption and investment not as separate but integrally connected: consumption is taken as fundamental in stimulating economic growth; and investment is seen as key to improving the supply structure.  Supply and demand are managed together. 

In line with the commitment to significantly increase disposable income, more weight is to be given to work remuneration in the overall distribution of income and personal income is to grow basically in step with economic growth with pay rising as productivity increases.[16]

On the supply side, investment is to be guided strictly towards those areas designated by the state as priorities, redirecting flows of capital from unproductive speculation in the finance and property sectors towards the support of innovation in indigenous producer goods including those driving the green transformation. 

To this end, whilst capital market functions are to be improved, the proportion of direct financing – either from state-owned banks or enterprises reinventing profits – is to be increased.

The next step in China’s modernisation on the supply side, as noted, is to build up its own contingent of skilled specialists in science and engineering.

Working at both ends of supply and demand, the ‘dual circulation strategy’ aims now to complete a larger part of exchanges of producer- and consumer goods within the domestic markets, curtailing the drain of unpaid labour overseas through unequal exchange.

These interlinkages of state and market, supply and demand, finally make possible the trilateral coordination of strategic industrial planning and fiscal and monetary policies as a particular characteristic of the Chinese economic system overall.

The complexities here demand more effective governance and attention is shifting towards improving democratic oversight and legal practices at all levels.  China operates a system of consultation and participation through the people’s congresses, workers’ congresses in enterprises, community-level and voluntary organisations seeking a controlled approach to democratisation. 

The view of the CPC is that opening the door too quickly can mean ill-conceived laws and poor decisions creating disorder leading to demoralisation.  The experience of the Cultural Revolution still lingers since the chaos which ensued has an inhibiting effect on popular participation.  Clearly, public motivation to take part in politics is vital to effective democracy and vice versa – effective governance gives momentum to active participation.

On security

According to the modernisation theory mindset, as societies approach the age of high mass-consumption, they reach a point of choice between concentrating on military and security issues or on equality and welfare.

Western commentators and political analysts have convinced themselves that China is choosing the former, kicking up a great fuss that Xi’s report to the CPC’s 20th Congress had opted for national security over economy – as if the purpose of the state is not to put the security of the people first!  

Indeed Xi stated that the people’s security was the ultimate goal – that is, political, economic, technological, cultural, and social as well as military security.  Calling for the upgrading of defence, his report also addressed issues of food, environmental and energy security; it considered both traditional and non traditional security issues and, significantly, not just national but also common security – a demonstration of China’s peaceful approach.

A peaceful external environment is seen as necessary for success, however China’s international situation is becoming ever more testing.  Xi’s report finds that ‘the deficit in peace, development, security, and governance is growing’.  Whilst reconfirming the commitment to world peace and development, it is necessary, he said, for China to ‘prepare for the unexpected’ and ‘be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms’.

The West no longer shows  the world its future

China’s socialist modernisation is being honed through struggle against US imperialism and hegemonism as it has to finds ways of countering foreign sanctions, outside interference, and long-arm reach of the West’s so-called ‘rules-based order’.

To build resilience, Xi counsels: ‘We must maintain self-confidence and stand on our own feet’.

Deng Xiaoping encouraged learning from the West but in the face of challenges never seen before –  pandemics, climate change – with new opportunities opening at the frontiers of technology, this advice is no longer adequate.

Finding its own direction towards modernity also, for China, involves a mental transitioning away from copying the advanced capitalist countries, looking instead to its own resources for ideas on how to do things.  For Xi, this is about combining Marxist ideology with the best of China’s traditions – the Confucian approach of selecting officials on the basis of merit, and the Daoist promotion of harmony between people and nature, for example.

44 years ago, China began opening to the world with four special economic zones along its coast.  Catching the globalisation wave, it was to become the ‘workshop of the world’.  Now with a population greater than that of all the developed countries combined, China’s modernisation promises to open new horizons beyond the darkness cast by US wars and militarism.

But is China rising as a new imperial power, creating its own neo-colonial relations of exploitation?  Unequal exchange is built in to trade between economies with different wage levels, and China, along with other emerging economies is encouraging its companies to invest overseas in the expectation of making a profit not a loss. But this does not mean the advantages are all one-sided. The point is that whereas imperialism locks in one-sided deals to establish a monopoly position, China does not interfere politically to undermine the bargaining position of its partners.

For others, there are challenges as well was opportunities.  But China’s insistence that countries have the right to choose their own development path also makes a difference as it backs developing countries’ rights to special and differential treatment at the WTO, supports the common and differentiated responsibility principle at climate summits, and opposes the imposition of IMF conditionalities.

China’s vision of its own modernisation progress to 2049 may not be that of the worker democracy and participatory planning existing in the minds of some Western socialists.  But if it does succeed in reducing the gap between rich and poor, creating a majority middle income society without the consolidation of a privileged middle class; if it can uphold its commitments on decarbonisation – and it is well positioned to do so[17]; if it can advance domestically without the subordination of others, rather opening up spaces for their development, this would indeed be to accomplish something world transforming.  The next 27 years will tell.

[1] Xi Zhongxun was later to be rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping, taking on leadership roles in Guangdong province.  

[2] This draws on the discussion of Xi’s New Sayings from Zhejiang in Kerry Brown, Xi: a study in power, Icon Books, 2022 pp. 69-85.

[3] Xi Jinping’s Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Oct. 16th, 2022

[4] Li Qiao, 600m with $140 monthly income worries top, Global Times, May 29, 2020

[5] Michael Dunford, “The Chinese Path to Common Prosperity”, International Critical Thought Vol. 12, Issue 1, 2022

[6] Inside the Shein Machine, The Cut Channel 4,  Xu has subsequently undertaken to improve the situation, see Katy Linsell, ‘Shein to Spend $15 Million on Factories After Labor Abuse’, Bloomberg, December 5 2022,

[7] Yunxue Deng and Xiaolo Tian, “Triadic Interaction and Collective Bargaining of Autoworkers in South China”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 31, No.135, May 2022

[8] Quoted from Xi’s Report to the 20th CPC Congress

[9] The Economist, “Meet China’s new tycoons: Who is winning in Xi Jinping’s economy?” August 13, 2022

[10] Dominic Dudley, “China Is Set To Become The World’s Renewable Energy Superpower, According To New Report”, Forbes Report, Jan 11, 2019

[11] John Feffer, “The Future of China’s Green Revolution”, 2002

[12] Ma Zhenhuan, “Zhejiang details pilot zone for common prosperity”, China Daily, July 21, 2021; East China’s Zhejiang unveils detailed plan to establish a common prosperity demonstration zone, Global Times July 19, 2021


[14] Global Times, “Middle-income population to rise to 800 million by 2035 in China: scholar”, Dec 5, 2021

[15] Xi Jinping’s Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Oct. 16th, 2022

[16] Xi Jinping, Report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC

[17] China’s Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy and Climate Resilience Needs Shifts in Resources and Technologies, World Bank Oct 12, 2022

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