A clash is coming: Xi vs. Trump
Will Chinese-style party rule unseat US-advocated democracy?
With tensions simmering between Beijing and Washington ahead of Donald Trump's inauguration next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping is further concentrating his power.
Xi, also the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, reportedly once pledged never to become "another Mikhail Gorbachev," who held similar positions in the Soviet Union as it collapsed in the early 1990s.
Xi's regime hews to Chinese-style of governance -- making decisions behind closed doors and prioritizing one-party rule -- while belittling U.S.-style democracy.
Xi became the CCP's general secretary at the party's last national congress, in the autumn of 2012. He ascended to the country's presidency in 2013.
But there was more to come. This past October, he was elevated to the "core" of the CCP during a key party conference.
In the U.S., Trump's ascendancy is a reflection of public opinion. Unlike the 70-year-old billionaire property tycoon, Xi, 63, has established himself as China's unrivaled leader through backroom consultations.
In the eyes of the authoritarian Chinese leader, Western-style democracy is nothing more than a threat to decades of communist party rule.
In an article published on Dec. 25, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, insisted that the wishes of the majority, as expressed in elections, often do not conform to the thinking of the political elite.
The article was published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union's collapse. Some blame the Soviet Union's demise on Gorbachev, who tried to save it by moving slowly toward political freedom and democracy. But the decay continued.
Xi's remark that he "will never become another Gorbachev" came during a party meeting.
A little more than a month after being elevated to "core" status, political developments in the U.S. began frustrating Xi.
At Xi's behest, scholars and other experts in China had been mobilized to analyze and predict what would happen in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8. Contrary to their findings, the Republican Trump defeated his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Xi then ordered his team to try to glean what specific policies Trump might adopt toward China. But the incoming U.S. president made their job easy, quickly signaling a pro-Taiwan stance.
In a move that angered Beijing, Trump in early December took a telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
This one act brought down the curtains on a decades-old Kabuki in which U.S. leaders never publicly acknowledged Taiwan's leaders.
Beijing still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary, and has pressured the 60-year-old Tsai to acknowledge the "one-China" principle.
Hours after Trump and Tsai chatted by phone, 36-year-old Wang Wen and 71-year-old Michael Pillsbury dined together in Washington.
Wang was once in charge of editorials for the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily. Pillsbury has been involved in U.S. policy toward China for more than four decades and currently serves as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Their conversation was tense.
In a combative tone, Wang described the Trump-Tsai phone call as "a clear negative message" to Beijing and warned Pillsbury that Trump will have to "pay a price" for it. In reply, a pale-faced Pillsbury said Trump did not take the call blindly.
Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, 74, counted on a limited number of policy advisers. Unlike Hu, Xi prefers to gather information through a wide range of channels.
But one scholar close to the Chinese leadership said, "Nobody knows which report will be adopted or based on what judgment. It is only Zhongnanhai that makes decisions."
Zhongnanhai, a sprawling area on the west side of the former imperial palace in central Beijing, is China's political nerve center. It is there that Xi and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee have their offices.
Successive CCP leaders have lived and worked there. Like Mao Zedong, the charismatic revolutionary Communist Party leader, Xi enjoys swimming in a pool in the Zhongnanhai compound.
Chinese leaders work out their national strategies behind closed doors in the Zhongnanhai compound.
"It is China that can now respond most quickly to changes actually happening," one CCP cadre said. "It is clear if you look at Trump's presidential election win, the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union and South Korea's political turmoil."
Public opinion should not be allowed to determine the future of the state. Instead, the state must control public opinion. This thinking is reflected in Chinese-style, behind-closed-doors governance.
Mao led China to communism by routing nationalists in a civil war. He declared the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. After the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao, Deng Xiaoping took the country's reins.
Mao and Deng both weathered political storms through iron-fisted rule. Xi is following their game plan.
Many within the CCP are now trying to gauge the current supreme leader's feelings. Some are even seriously calling for Chinese-style governance to be spread around the world and to replace the kind of democracy championed by the U.S.