Why China’s Xi is not ‘Putin-plus’

Xi Jinping is not following in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. He’s carving his own path.

Putin and Xi
While the phrase "Putin-plus" sounds catchy, the comparison does not reflect the facts on the ground, writes Repnikova [Reuters]

The recently announced constitutional amendments in China, ending term limits and paving the way for Chinese leader Xi Jinping‘s indefinite rule, have sparked quite a lot of debate and speculations in Western media.

Some commentators went as far as comparing Xi to Russian President Vladimir Putin, claiming that China is now turning into a Russia-style autocracy. While the phrase Putin-plus sounds catchy, the comparison does not reflect the facts on the ground.

Xi’s regime is indeed changing gears and starting on a more autocratic path, but Chinese governance practices are radically different from those in Russia. Lumping the two countries together into a vague category of “one-man dictatorship” distorts reality and doesn’t help western audiences understand and engage with them.

The Chinese political system thus far still remains more institutionalised, more adaptive to public opinion, and more aspirational globally. When it comes to governance, both domestic and global, the Chinese form of authoritarianism is outperforming Russia’s.

The Party and Chinese public opinion

Unlike Russia, China boasts a strong party, heavily integrated into all levels of Chinese society. From the media, to entertainment, to Western enterprises, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a vast and powerful organisation with over 80 million members, which directly and indirectly co-opts Chinese citizens into the political system. Its reach has extended from the media and entertainment industries all the way to foreign companies, where it has started planting its own units.

The CCP can be frustratingly opaque, but there has been some push for transparency from within. For example, last December, the “Open Party Regulations” – first proposed during the Hu Jintao presidency – were passed, signalling a renewed effort for more open access to information. These regulations allow party members and the general public to request and receive certain types of records, albeit with heavy constraints.

At the same time, despite increasing repression against activists and grassroots organisations, the regime has still been open to institutionalised political participation by ordinary Chinese citizens. Under Xi, institutionalised channels for reporting grievances have been reinforced, allowing for a more controlled gathering of information on public opinion.

In contrast to state-society relations in Russia, which have been described by scholars and observers as a no-participation pact“, with citizens exchanging silence for stability, in the Chinese political system, the Party obsessively studies and responds to public opinion.

Apart from the increasingly institutionalised public feedback channels, we have witnessed an expansion of digital deliberation channels under Xi, with Chinese officials opening more pages on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) to communicate with the general public. The regime has also launched new digital media outlets, like Pengpai (The Paper, which is owned by the Shanghai local government). While such outlets regularly offer rather fulsome praise of President Xi, they also often uncover corruption and expose governance failures across various institutions.

The Party increasingly does not see public support as a given. In some of his recent speeches on internet policy, Xi has described public opinion management as a “battlefield“. That is, the regime has to “fight” for positive public opinion, using various channels to grasp public concerns and more sophisticated tools to persuade.

My research on journalists in China and Russia found that even in the domains of traditional media, Chinese authorities have been more responsive to journalistic investigations than their Russian counterparts. Interviews I did with critical media professionals in both countries revealed that, whereas Chinese journalists tend to get at least some reaction to their reports, often in the form of modest policy change, their Russian colleagues say they “can’t reach the other side [the state]” at all.

There is a sense of co-participation in governance among China’s journalists – a fluid, albeit now tested partnership with the party-state. On the Russian side, there is more of a sense of exasperation and a tense cohabitation between media professionals and the state.

Thus, in China, the Party seeks legitimacy by drawing more heavily on societal feedback that is collected and studied through a variety of channels. In Russia, the regime relies heavily on Putin’s popularity and on internal accountability checks through the “power vertical”, rather than through horizontal public opinion surveying.

Personality cults and international aspirations

Putin and Xi have also approached building personality cults in different ways. For over a decade now, the Russian president has preferred to portray himself as a macho man, fearlessly tackling anything that comes his way, from saving tigers to standing up to Western aggression. 

Xi, on the other hand, has adopted the image of a father figure. As a result, he is often referred to as “Big Daddy Xi” in the public arena. This portrayal was quite explicit in the recent CCTV propaganda film about the Chinese president called “A family nation under heaven”. 

Xi’s personification of power has also been more tech-savvy than Putin’s. The Chinese propaganda machine has created multiple apps dedicated to tracking Xi’s travels, studying his speeches and interpreting all his latest policies. By contrast, Putin’s rule has been dotted with PR blunders, the latest one of which was the use of a 2007 video during his state-of-the-nation speech to illustrate a supposedly brand new nuclear missile

The two countries also operate differently in the international arena. Russia projects its strength mostly through aggression and political interference, while China is pursuing an intentional authoritarian governance model. 

Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative and his explicit support for globalisation are strikingly different from Putin’s strategy of launching military operations and engaging in subversive acts abroad (such as the alleged interference in the US elections). 

Xi’s slogans, the “China Dream” and “Telling the China Story”, speak of China’s drive to propagate an alternative to the Western democratic model. Whether he will succeed in his ambition of symbolically and logistically rebuilding the world order remains to be seen, but the attempt itself is significant. 

The Russian regime, too, has rejected dominant Western liberalism, but it has not articulated an ambitious project beyond a desire to reaffirm its military standing in the international arena.

Indeed, the way autocratic rule unfolds in China and Russia should be watched closely in the years to come, as Xi introduces new political and economic policies during his limitless stay in power, and Putin enters yet another six-year term. 

While, thus far, the Chinese authoritarian model still features more participatory governance domestically and globally, this can change, if Xi over-extends his personal ambitions at the cost of those of the party, cuts out channels for public feedback, and embarks on a more aggressive foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.