Elliott professor looks back on Chinese leadership in new book

Media Credit: Sophia Young | Assistant Photo Editor

Professor David Shambaugh said he views Chinese president Xi Jinping as more of a “modern emperor,” because he aims to make China a global power while maintaining ethical behavior and promoting China’s imperial past.

A professor from the Elliott School of International Affairs reviewed his book on the national influence of China’s five past presidents during an online discussion Thursday.

David Shambaugh, a professor of Asian studies, political science and international affairs, said each of the five presidents who have led the People’s Republic of China have influenced the course of the country’s history through varying personalities and areas of interest. The National Committee on US-China Relations hosted the event – moderated by Stephen Orlins, the committee’s president – as review of Shambaugh’s book, “China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now,” which examines China’s presidential history.

Shambaugh said his idea for the book’s analysis of the leadership styles of all five of its past leaders — Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaopeng, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping — started to develop when he was an undergraduate student.

“I have always been interested not only in how they get to the top but in different dimensions of how Chinese leaders rule once they get there,” he said.

He said he was “fascinated” with political systems that resemble Leninism — a political ideology that supports the establishment communism while the working class holds political power — and he views Chinese leaders as actors in these systems. He said the beginning of his book explains the differences between “Leninist-type” political systems and the more personal leadership styles of Chinese leaders.

“Each of these chapters is as much about the times of each leader as it is about the leaders themselves,” Shambaugh said. “But I do my best to explicitly examine their individual impact on policies, China and the world.”

Shambaugh said Mao was known as an anti-elitist politician who frequently appealed to the public and believed in its ability to mobilize groups to change cultural norms and practices. He said Mao was more of a Marxist — someone who believes the working class can overthrow the higher class and lead a revolution — than a Leninist because of his “deep distrust” of institutions and bureaucracies and his drive to rally society against the party-state.

Shambaugh said Mao’s policies directly caused the deaths of 40 to 50 million Chinese citizens and millions of additional persecutions, making him one of the most forceful tyrants of the twentieth century.

“These two elements, a leader who cultivated the masses yet also stigmatized and terrorized several segments of the population, stand in contrast yet capture a main contradiction of Mao’s rule,” he said.

Shambaugh said he views Xi Jinping, the current Chinese president, as more of a “modern emperor” because he aims to make China a global power economically and technologically while maintaining ethics and promoting China’s imperial past. He said Xi has worked to quickly implement his agenda in China, engaging the nation in foreign affairs and handling dissent with a methodical approach.

“While serious problems certainly lurk under the surface in Xi’s China, and many do, the trajectory and momentum of the country that he has initiated is nonetheless rather remarkable,” Shambaugh said. “That is leadership impact.”

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