When China’s Xi Jinping first came to power ten years ago, some observers thought he might be a figure like Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. But since then, China has grown more authoritarian, a fact evident in its pervasive censorship, mass surveillance of the population, and ongoing “zero Covid” lockdowns.

Last month, at the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress, Xi Jinping secured a norm-breaking third five-year term as leader. What does his continued leadership mean? What role do Communist ideas have in shaping today’s China, which has avidly built the world’s second-largest economy? How should we understand China’s regional ambitions and its global “Belt and Road” initiative?

For answers to these and related questions, I turned to Scott McDonald, a scholar of Chinese political thought. A thread running through our conversation is the danger of misreading China. McDonald argues that American observers have projected their own priorities and political assumptions onto China, in defiance of the facts about the regime’s actual aims and conduct.

McDonald comes to the topic with an in-depth understanding of China, and I learned a lot from the conversation. We touch on many issues, including: 

  • The function of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress;
  • The role of Communism in animating the ruling Party;
  • The place of economic liberalization in the Party’s agenda;
  • The regime’s treatment of entrepreneur Jack Ma;
  • The expectation that Xi Jinping might be a Gorbachev-like figure;
  • The moral-political relationship of the individual to the state under the Communist Party;
  • The goal behind China’s brutal takeover of Hong Kong;
  • China’s mass internment of the Uighur minority;
  • China’s investment in infrastructure projects in foreign countries;
  • Weaknesses in China’s economic model;
  • Understanding the Party’s influence over ostensibly private China-based corporations;
  • China’s campaign to set the global standards for emerging technologies.

There were more questions than time to answer them, and I hope he’ll join us for a follow-up conversation in the future. You can watch or listen to the interview below.  This episode was recorded on October 27, 2022.

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash