When Xi meets with President Donald Trump Thursday and Friday in Florida, expect a flurry of stories predicated on the assumption that Xi is fully in charge of the three levers of Chinese power: the Chinese Community Party, of which he is party secretary; the Chinese state, which he presides over; and the Central Military Commission (CMC), which he chairs. To be clear, it’s certainly possible, even likely, that Xi dominates all three. But doing so requires a complicated dance, beyond the view of outsiders, between him and retired leaders, regional party secretaries, princelings, CEOs, generals, top aides, and, most crucially, the Standing Committee. The various steps these men take has a great impact on Sino-U.S. relations, and on the upcoming summit. How much leeway does Xi have to make on-the-spot decisions, particularly those involving China’s support for North Korea, or the militarization of the South China Sea? Can he compromise on trade? Does he have institutional support to change China’s future? The answer to at least one of those questions may well be no, meaning that Trump will be negotiating with someone without a solid grip on the reins of power, in thrall to the top of the party.
Why is the top of the CCP so opaque? Aside from its Leninist roots, the simplest answer is that the party believes projecting a united front is crucial. Just how opaque is it? In July 2016, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Discord Between China’s Top Two Leaders Spills Into the Open.” Their main evidence for that assertion: conflicting messages Xi and China’s number two official, Premier Li Keqiang, delivered about reforming China’s state-owned sector in a private meeting. Subtle stuff indeed.
It also doesn’t help that the Standing Committee members, Xi included, rarely give interviews to Western media. When they do, they tend to offer either milquetoast remarks to sympathetic interlocutors, or send in tepid written responses.
In that way, Xi and Trump are opposites. Trump has lived in the public eye for the last three decades: The world is well aware of his personal weaknesses, the flaws in his leadership style, and, now, the contempt many in the U.S. government and bureaucracy feel for his ideas. Xi is a product of the Party, one of the world’s most secretive large organizations—and one which requires officials to be publicly modest and low key. In a 2000 interview with the magazine China Profiles, when Xi was a party official in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, he said he had rejected more than 100 interview requests. “People’s abilities are limited,” he said, explaining why top Chinese officials should eschew publicity. “If you leave the broad masses of the people, if you leave collective leadership, you will be a total failure.”
The extent to which Xi subscribes to those views today is unknown. Those who have met him often describe him as confident, charming, and comfortable speaking to foreign delegations without notes. But without further data, it is imprudent to assume he is firmly in control. In other words, just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. (Besides, it’s very unlikely these conversations touch upon the sensitivities of Xi’s relations with the top elite. Not long ago, I met an American who occasionally dines with a current member of the Standing Committee. What did that member think about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign? “I never ask him,” the American told me. “If I did, I wouldn’t be invited back to dinner.”)