Optimists speculate that Xi Jinping’s power accumulation is the prelude to a burst of liberalising reform in his second five-year term as the Communist party’s general secretary, which will be consecrated at the current Congress. Nothing seems more unlikely, with the Chinese leader insisting in his marathon opening speech on Wednesday that his country should ‘strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ to take ‘centre stage in the world’. While he recognises the need for China Inc. to operate more efficiently, his chosen route lies through the reinforcement of the party state, the repression of dissent and the centralisation of his authority.
This represents a sea change in the direction of the last major Leninist state. As Deng Xiaoping pursued economic expansion from the late 1970s, he envisaged that while the party would retain overall control, it would devolve the running of the country to the government and encourage a consensus form of governance to avoid a Mao Zedong-style chief. In Xi’s eyes, that led to a degree of weakness under his predecessor, Hu Jintao, which could set China on the Soviet path to breakdown.
Since 2012, Xi has reversed the process, extending his reach over the economy, the military, the internal security apparatus, foreign affairs and ideology. Hailed by faithful followers as the ‘core’ of the leadership, Xi has restored one-man rule to a degree not seen since Mao. His thoughts may soon be written into the party constitution with a clear message: there is no alternative if China is to progress. The leader, the regime and the ruling monopoly party must be elided.
He has been fortunate in the strong economy, the bedrock of the regime’s claim to legitimacy, and in the way that Donald Trump has made it easy for China to put itself forward as the champion of globalisation and the leader in the battle against climate change — regardless of its own enormous pollution crisis. The West has generally chosen to take a benign view of the People’s Republic as its governments seek commercial advantage there. Despite his campaign rhetoric, Trump has not been able to form a coherent China strategy and may find it hard to make progress when he visits Beijing next month.Still, for all the confidence in Xi, huge challenges are inescapable. Growth since the 2008 financial crisis has been fuelled by a huge build-up of debt. Tackling excess capacity in industry will boost unemployment. The economic reforms that the leadership promises will initially slow expansion. Its aim is to create big state national champions rather than encouraging competition or boosting the private sector, which is the main provider of jobs.
Cleaning up the environment is a long-term task. Increased longevity and a falling birth rate point to a demographic crisis in a country without adequate old-age provision. And social media on a mass scale poses problems for the control mechanism at the heart of the Xi system.
Beijing has asserted itself in the South China Sea, though regional flashpoints remain, from North Korea and Taiwan to the uneasy relationship with India and the continuing confrontation with Japan. The central government has felt the need to clamp down more than usual during the Congress period on the largely Muslim western territory of Xinjiang, and more than 150 Tibetans have burned themselves to death in protest at Chinese rule in the past eight years.
The crackdown on dissent, the rejection of foreign influences and the promotion of the core leader have led commentators to speculate that the regime is weaker than it appears and Xi feels the need to bolster his position. This seems improbable. Forget the ideological trappings; China’s leadership tends to fit the older imperial mould. This will remain so as the country enters what Xi hailed as ‘a new era’ in his Congress speech on Wednesday.
The belief that was once held by Bill Clinton and others that as China grew economically, it would ‘become more like us’ was always misplaced. The new emperor will use his second term — and perhaps a third to follow — to assert himself and his nation in ways that the rest of the world will find it increasingly difficult to accommodate.