Issue: 2019: Vol. 18, No. 1

Special Issue: Introduction

Article Author(s)

Stephen Herschler

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Dr. Stephen B. Herschler is a professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University, and an associate of the China Research Center. 
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One of the benefits of being a member of the China Research Center is ready access to colleagues possessing wide-ranging expertise on Chinese affairs.  Five years have passed since I last drew upon these resources in a China Currents special edition examining policy trends under the new Chairmanship of Xi Jinping post 18th Party Congress. ( In introducing those essays, I boldly proclaimed Xi to be “no cypher.”

In retrospect I sounded like the master of understatement. Truth is, I’m no China swami.  Indeed, the past five years have been as humbling for me as they have been fascinating. I did not anticipate five years later, after the 19thParty Congress, that:

  • I would join hundreds of millions of people in studying “Xi Jinping Thought.”
  • The Party, with Xi Jinping as its nucleus, would work determinedly toward infusing key aspects of this Thought, not just conceptually but organizationally into every facet of state-society relations in China.
  • Xi Jinping Thought would contain as a conceptual hub a “China Dream” formulated to counter the American Dream, complementing a “China Model” formulated to counter international neo-liberal models of development.
  • A constitutional two-term limit to the presidency would be brushed aside, enabling Xi to rule until, well, whenever.

I would not have predicted the global ambitions of the Belt and Road Initiative. Closer to home, I would not have predicted Donald Trump’s candidacy, much less how his election would inflame U.S.-China relations, be it through a trade war or resurgent Cold War rhetoric in Washington.

In brief, my five-year plan would have failed.

To rectify that going forward, I have diligently studied the Chairman’s words at the 19thParty Congress, words that set forth China’s goals not for the next five years, nor for the next 15 years, but all the way to the nation’s “great rejuvenation” by 2049, not coincidentally the centenary of the PRC’s founding.  (

Still, with such major domestic and international developments impacting governance, I feel somewhat like the proverbial blind man and the elephant – or rather, the blind man and the dragon.

Fortunately, six China Research Center members who contributed their expert insights five years ago were willing and able to come to my aid again, including a Center alumna. Many of the essays put recent policy developments in perspective relative to their previous analyses, thereby highlighting continuity and change in Party governance in a wide range of policy arenas, including administration, Party discipline, economics, media, the environment, and U.S.-China relations. The timeliness of the analysis encompasses developments through the first half of 2019.

Baogang Guo’s opening essay on administrative reform foreshadows governance trends apparent in many of the other essays. He examines a 2018 comprehensive institutional reform, one of unparalleled scope and scale in the post-Mao era, that aims to reassert unequivocally Party dominance over governance through creation, reorganization, and consolidation, creating a melded Party-state apparatus through which central organs can exert increased control.

Xuepeng Liu’s essay examining “Market vs. State” in the domestic economy finds an ongoing advance of the state with a commensurate retreat of the private while, on the international front outlines the force dynamics and flashpoints of the Sino-U.S. trade war as well as activity on the related battlefronts of investment and technology.

Andrew Wedeman’s update on the anti-corruption campaign shows it still to be a defining trait of Party control of the Party-state apparatus, suggesting that the removal of “tigers, wolves, and flies” serves not just to take out prospective challenges to Xi’s power but aims to ensure the regime’s long-term survival.

Hongmei Li’s essay on Party-state governance of media focuses on the increasingly comprehensive control over social media domestically through the examples of WhatsApp, WeChat, blogs, and a commensurate wide-ranging international initiative to exercise soft power through state-sponsored initiatives ranging from corporations and Confucius centers to state media blitzes promoting the global Belt and Road Initiative.

Eri Saikawa’s update on initiatives to reduce air pollution reveals that while prodigious policy measures taken in the past five years have measurably improved air quality, the question remains whether the government will be willing to temper growth and adequately address all factors impacting air quality.

Director of the Carter Center China Program Liu Yawei fittingly concludes this edition with an interview on U.S.-China relations under Xi and Trump in a range of areas, including North Korea, trade, as well as research and education.  He counters any facile “clash of civilizations” frame, arguing that both sides stand to benefit far more from cooperation than from conflict.

Overall, the essays highlight a Party-state intent on achieving an ever-firmer grasp domestically while nurturing an ever-greater influence internationally – all part of the Party’s self-proclaimed historic mission of making China great again.

An ambitious plan – but will it work?

Again, I’m no China swami, but I will hazard an educated guess that the Party’s recent abolition of term limits means there’s a good shot that, five years hence, I will have another opportunity to reach out to China Research Center colleagues for their fresh insights and expert evaluations of Xi’s dragon ride.

In the meantime, I’ll keep in mind the analysis proffered some 2,000 years ago by another scholar of Chinese governance, one with his own particular feel for dragons, Han Feizi:

The beast called the dragon can be tamed and trained to the point where you may ride on its back. But on the underside of its throat it has scales a foot in diameter that curl back from the body, and anyone who chances to brush against them is sure to die. The ruler of men too has his bristling scales. Only if a speak­er can avoid brushing against them will he have any hope for success.