A more nuanced understanding of Xi Jinping and Chinese history

31 March 2023


A more nuanced understanding of Xi Jinping and Chinese history

Reported by Adisetu Joy Malih, CSaP Policy Intern and Sevcan Birdal, Communications Manager

In this seminar, Dr Daniel Knorr, Temporary Assistant Professor in Modern Asian History at Cambridge, explored some of the historical comparisons made about Xi and discussed implications for contemporary politics and international relations.

Daniel Knorr’s research and teaching focuses on the early modern and modern periods of Chinese history, particularly the relationship between local communities and the state, urban history, and translocal mobility. World historical perspectives are an important component of both Daniel’s teaching and research, shaping how to look at historical problems through a comparative framework and examining global currents and local and narratives in light of each other.

Xi Jinping and Chinese history

Dr Knorr began his presentation by drawing parallels between Xi Jinping, the paramount leader and president of the People’s Republic of China and Qianlong Emperor, the emperor of the Qing Dynasty who ruled over China from 1735-1796. He emphasised that these self-confident and powerful rulers reigned in China while the country prospered. However, the fragility of the empire became more evident towards the end of the reign of both rulers.

Dr Knorr also talked about the differences between the two leaders. Qianlong Emperor adopted a pluralistic approach, presiding over a multi-empire, whilst Xi Jinping led with a nationalist system, forcing a common sense of shared Chinese identity. He further discussed that corruption also sets the two leaders apart. Although a significant legacy of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign was the growth in corruption, Xi Jinping partially came to power through a campaign against corruption.

Following the comparison of the Qianlong Emperor and Xi Jinping, Dr Knorr started using another figure of comparison: Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. He revealed that Mao Zedong, who was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and paramount leader of China from 1949-1976, and Xi Jinping practised an adapted version of Marxist ideology that included a sense of Chinese nationalism. He further discussed that both rulers maintained tight social control: Mao Zedong relied heavily on an extensive network of informants throughout his reign, while Xi Jinping has made use of modern methods, such as tracking people.

Then, Dr Knorr started discussing the differences between the two leaders. He argued that Mao Zedong focused on leveraging populist energy and even turned against his party’s bureaucracy in time. On the other hand, Xi Jinping focused on his party’s stability. Additionally, while Mao Zedong grew up in an age of cultural revolution when the Chinese people were assertively rejecting their traditions, Xi Jinping grew up embracing the Chinese past. Moreover, in terms of economic context, the responsibility of jump-starting the Chinese economy burdened Mao Zedong as he reigned in post-war period. In contrast, the obligation to grow an inherited and established economy has dominated Xi Jinping’s leadership.

Different contexts create different outcomes

At the end of the seminar, the discussion in the question and answer session broadened around a few contemporary issues in relation to China and its place in the world such as demographic crises, diversity tolerance, and global integration. Dr Knorr informed the audience about the Chinese government's enforced one-child policy in order to address the rapid growth in the Chinese population between the dates of 1980 and 2015. He also said that the policy resulted in negative population growth in 2022. He further talked about the recent abuse of minority groups such as the Uighur Muslims and discussed that China gives us a reflection of how our communities deal with similar problems.

Dr Knorr concluded the online seminar by emphasising that there is no single model for Xi Jinping. In this context, he argued that a historical perspective teaches us that different contexts create different outcomes. He further stated that even if we use history as a mirror for ourselves, we can not predict the future - but an understanding of history and historical contexts helps us generate questions about the present.

Image by Christian Lue - Unsplash