Is Xi Jinping China's New Mao-Like Strongman?

Hong Kong -- Xi Jinping and his associates at the top levels of the Chinese government have been on the move. They have been pushing a society-wide anti-corruption campaign, targeting in particular some high-ranking rivals, and in recent weeks have been unusually aggressive with their neighbors Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, unusually harsh in their anti-U.S. rhetoric, and unusually repressive of dissident voices inside China. They have moved to re-shape the internal workings of the government to concentrate more power in personal authority at the top and less in written rules or in government bureaucracies. They have floated the idea of a new Chinese "strongman," clearly intending to suggest that Xi Jinping might be one.

Mao Zedong is the best model for all of this, but Xi Jinping is no Mao, and how things will actually end up is anyone's guess.

Both Mao and his first successor, Deng Xiaoping, were shrewd and powerful men who could dictate ideas and then either force or manipulate others into obedience. Top leaders since Deng have not been able to rule in this way; they have needed to balance power interests and continually watch rivals over their shoulders.

The way recent leaders have been selected, too, has been through a process of waiting in line while balancing rivalries within the community of the super-elite. It is not a process that selects very well for merit.

Xi Jinping, son of Xi Zhongxun, a confederate of Mao, is a "princeling" of the bluest blood, but shows no particular sign of intellectual acumen. He found himself at the top in China at a time when the country was facing crisis on many fronts: vaulting inequality and corruption, both of which were made increasingly visible to a restive public because of a spreading Internet; a slowing economy, made more worrisome by the looming threat of bad loans and a real-estate bubble; environmental pollution serious enough to threaten not only health but political stability; and a deep cynicism and lack of public trust within the populace. He came into office, intellectually over-matched, sensing that he would have to do something. But what?

Understandably, but unimaginatively, he turned toward ideal formulas of his father's generation of Communists: frugal living, egalitarianism and personal rule by "good" people. This ideology has been the rationale for his anti-corruption drive. Even specific phrases -- for example that official dinners should be only "four dishes and a soup," as Zhou Enlai had put it -- were revived.

In more recent times, anti-corruption drives in China have been used to pursue two kinds of quick pay-off: they attract popular support and they are a way to take down a political rival. Ordinary people, disgusted by years of ever more ugly corruption and high living by the corrupt, flock to any leader who announces anti-corruption measures and who dares, as Xi Jinping has dared, to bring down a few "big tigers" among the corrupt. A few years ago Bo Xilai, now in prison after losing an elite power struggle, was very successful with exactly this kind of demagoguery.

But the notion that an anti-corruption campaign -- and a broader return to the roots of the revolution -- can be a way out of the crises that China faces today shows only Xi's intellectual weakness. Drives to root corruption out of the Communist Party began as early as the 1950s and have recurred intermittently ever since. None has had more than a fleeting effect. This happens because both the practitioners and the investigators of corruption inhabit a single power structure. Demands to stop corruption can actually breed more corruption, because a bribe can be the best way to stop someone from coming after you for bribery.

One can only wonder, too, at Xi Jinping's grasp of history. The corrupt people and businesses that the Communist Party was targeting when its selfless ideology was taking shape were the Party's political adversaries. Campaigns against these enemies in the early 1950s used the word "annihilation," and that's pretty much what happened. Today, though, the corrupt adversaries are well inside the Party. To take down a tiger or two is possible, but to take down more could rock the stability of the regime, and annihilation of the entire corrupt elite would mean self-annihilation. (Xi's own family, as revealed by Bloomberg News in 2012, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.) Moreover, it is almost unthinkable that the process could get that far even if Xi sacrificed his personal wealth and forged ahead. Long before he could take down the rest of the corrupt elite, someone in the corrupt elite would take him down. There have already been rumors of attempts on his life, and he has barely begun.

Xi Jinping is no Mao, and China should be grateful for that. One Mao was enough. But what might unfold from a modestly gifted man who thinks he can be a Mao is also cause for considerable apprehension.