China: Lighting three fires or the dead hand of Deng?

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

As the months have progressed since Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, there has been intense public scrutiny into his current and potential actions. One day you can read an article saying he is not a reformer and all hope is lost, the next an article saying he will finally be the one to clean up China (even though these are rare). In fact, you can read an article expressing every imaginable opinion within this spectrum. As we enter these final weeks until the National People’s Congress the prognosticating will escalate to new heights.

The reality is that we do not know enough about Xi, or any Chinese leader, to make accurate predictions. What we do know makes the picture more opaque and confusing:

1) Li Keqiang is understood as more open to change, Xi Jinping is an unknown and the rest of the Standing Committee appear to represent the old guard and old way of doing business. With no “known” reformers in power many prognosticators have already thrown in the towel.

2) Xi has said in private the CCP must stay paramount, sighting the fall of the Soviet Union as an example not to follow. Yet in public he is clearly cracking down on corruption and says the Party should be open to criticism.

3) Without change, and soon, China is bound to experience massive upheaval. Or is it? Pundits cannot even agree on this fact.

Without clairvoyance or telepathy how can we “know” what will happen next? While I could join the crowd and add my 500 to 1000 word opinion or write a thesis on the topic, I will limit myself to looking at 2 key points with no forecast.

First, there is an ancient saying in China, Xin Guan Shang Ren San Ba Huo (New Official Lights Three Fires). Throughout Chinese history, whenever a new leader at any level of government takes power, they “light three fires” to establish their authority and demonstrate they are cleaning out the old bureaucracy or system. Typically, these fires are quickly extinguished and things return to their old pattern. Many believe this is what we are seeing with Xi Jinping. As an example they point to the more conservative Standing Committee, his internal speeches and the built up wealth and power protecting the status quo.

Second, Deng Xiaoping was arguably the most able statesmen China has seen in centuries. We know after Tian An Men he almost completely changed the power structure in Beijing. There are some whom believe Deng left mechanisms and patronage lineage in place to deal with any outcomes he would have found unpalatable. Looking at the end results of Hu’s decade leading China, one can easily imagine Deng viewing the current predicament as less than acceptable. Could it be that Xi is exercising the Dead Hand of Deng to steer the faltering ship of China?

In the end we don’t know what will happen next in China. We know some change will take place, because even under Hu and Wen, China did not stand still and made many promising changes. What I can say with some certainty is that none of us will have correctly forecast exactly what Xi Jinping will do or the course China will take in the next decade.

Originally published at

Categories: Politics & Law

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3 replies


  1. China’s annoying habit of insulting western leaders | China Daily Mail
  2. China’s No. 3 leader warns Hong Kong activists against ‘crossing a line’ | China Daily Mail

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