The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress which began on Sunday is a pretty ho-hum affair.
- We already know Xi Jinping will emerge from the Congress with even greater power, no discernible opposition, and a new five-year term (with another likely to follow).
- And, based on his nearly two-hour speech at the opening, we’ve learned that Mr. Xi doesn’t intend to change course.
These are good news both from the perspective of China hawks and of the Chinese people – just for different reasons.
- And they reflect Mr. Xi's transformation from ' “Uncle Xi” to stern Communist monarch.'
1 | Crossing a threshold into outright dictatorship
If you are a China hawk, Mr. Xi’s staying in power and staying the course are good things.
- Mr. Xi – for reasons both explicable and inexplicable – has pursued policies and actions that have often left China weaker and more isolated.
- For China hawks, whatever weakens China weakens Mr. Xi’s capabilities to project his will.
As CSIS’s Jude Blanchette writes in ‘Party of One: The CCP Congress and Xi Jinping’s Quest to Control China’ in Foreign Affairs:‘The reactive, shortsighted, and often incoherent set of policies that Xi has promoted over the past five years intended to achieve his global ambitions and confront the country’s innumerable challenges have placed China on a worrying path of:’
- ‘anemic economic growth,’
- ‘declining global prestige, and’
- ‘rising domestic repression.’
‘Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term as general secretary will drag the CCP back to the pathologies of the Mao era and simultaneously push it toward a future of:’
- ‘low growth,’
- ‘heightened geopolitical tension, and’
- ‘profound uncertainty.’
‘Rather than a moment of course correction, the 20th Party Congress sees the CCP—a regime that has long enjoyed a reputation of competence, pragmatism, and predictability—cross a threshold into outright dictatorship.’‘And, with it, a likely future of:’
- ‘political ossification,’
- ‘policy uncertainty, and’
- ‘the ruinous effects of one-man rule.’
From this litany of woes, two of Mr. Blanchette’s comments are worth highlighting.First, the Chinese Communist Party has ‘long enjoyed a reputation of competence, pragmatism, and predictability.’
- But no more.
For years, before Mr. Xi, whenever I would be asked about headlines of some crisis in China that portended its fall, I would counsel:
- Be patient. There are a lot of smart people working to solve this – and their track record is pretty good.
- Today, not so much.
Any solution now has to be in line with ‘Xi Jinping Thought.’
- So the scope of debate about the solutions to any problem have narrowed dramatically.
Any solution to a serious problem now is subject to Mr. Xi’s sole decision.
- Unlike the competent technocrats of the past, Mr. Xi’s track record, as Mr. Blanchette has described, is far from good.
Second, ‘the CCP is cross[ing] a threshold into outright dictatorship.’
- Given the foregoing, this is worrisome enough in itself.
But, as Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, notes in her NYT op-ed, ‘Xi Jinping Has Fallen Into the Dictator Trap’:
- Mr. Xi ‘has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, looming so completely over the country that he’s been called the “chairman of everything.” ’
‘Mr. Xi fell into the same trap that has ensnared dictators throughout history:
- ‘He overreached.’
- And ‘the costs of his overreach are piling up.’
Goodnews for China hawks.
2 | ‘With Xi, we will become powerful’
The view from inside China appears to be quite different.
- Yes, the Chinese people may grumble about the Zero-COVID lockdowns, and just a few days a banner critical of Mr. Xi and his regime was unveiled over an overpass in Beijing.
But, as one author has pointed out, the Chinese people are better off as a whole than at any time in Chinese history, and they know it.
- Or, as Harvard Kennedy School’s Tony Saich puts it: ‘We tend to forget that for many in China, and in their lived experience of the past four decades, each day was better than the next.’
- This is reflected in the 2020 Harvard Kennedy School report, ‘Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time,’ which found that more than 95% of the Chinese people are “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the central government in Beijing.
And the Chinese people seem supportive of Mr. Xi’s tough stance on issues like Xijiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
- They are likewise supportive of Mr. Xi’s unleashing ‘wolf warriors’ on governments that ‘interfere with China’s 'internal affairs’ on these and other issues.
In‘Will China’s strongman become even stronger?’, a recent video discussion, Cheng Li of Brookings pointed out:
- ‘We hear a lot of negative things – criticism - about Xi Jinping overseas.’
‘But we should put ourselves in the Chinese perspective.’
- ‘In my observation, he is popular among the Chinese public for a number of reasons. Here are a few.’
‘The first is poverty elimination.’
- ‘A World Bank report said 800 million Chinese got rid of poverty over the past 40 some years.’
‘Of course, Xi Jinping was not the leader from the start date - Deng Xiaoping started the process.’
- ‘But Xi Jinping was the leader to complete it - particularly the most difficult period - with tremendous resources.’
- ‘This resonates well among the Chinese public, as does his "common prosperity" initiative.’
‘Number two is the environment and green development.’
- ‘When Xi Jinping came to power, six of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were located in China.’
‘About 10 years ago, when you arrived in China, you’d see the pollution in major cities – but things have changed dramatically.’
- ‘Now, only three, maybe even fewer, of the world’s most polluted cities are in China - 15 or more are now in India.’
- ‘That's dramatic change within a decade under Xi Jinping.’
Number three is military reform. Very quickly, three components.’
- ‘Xi Jinping transformed China’s People’s Liberation Army – the PLA - from the Russian model with its heavy emphasis on ground forces to an American model which emphasizes joint operations.’
- ‘He himself now has direct control over service forces and the operational theaters. Previously, these were run by committees or departments.’
- ‘He changed the military leadership, promoting many young officers, who are loyal to him and under his control alone.’
‘Number three and probably most important, Xi Jinping saved the Chinese Communist Party.’
- ‘Remember 10 years ago, the Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and other scandals.’
‘People at that time - including myself - thought the Communist Party’s days were numbered.’
- ‘But all of sudden, Xi Jinping, through the anti-corruption campaign and the things I just mentioned changed the Party.’
‘Just to give you one example, 10 years ago, very few college students were interested in joining the Chinese Communist Party. What was the point?’
- ‘People told them: "You should go into business. You go abroad." And so on.’
‘But 10 years later, there's a high percentage of students in China’s elite schools – Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, you name it – who are joining the Party.’
- ‘Now, this does not necessarily mean they believe in communism.’
- ‘But it does show they believe the Communist Party will be with them for a long time to come.’
‘These are just a few of the reasons for his popularity among the Chinese people.'
- ‘So Xi Jinping may feel that he has some political capital to spend, rightly or wrongly, at this moment.’
Listening to Dr. Cheng reminded me of an expression common in China:
- ‘With Mao, we stood up;
- ‘With Deng, we became rich;
- ‘With Xi, we will become powerful.’
Whether you chalk this sort of thinking – and the support of Mr. Xi - up to indoctrination, propaganda, or actual national pride, it means that where we see cracks in Mr. Xi and his rule, a lot of the Chinese people see a leader they love or at least respect and have confidence in.
- And as long as he has the people behind him, don’t expect Uncle Xi to take a new direction any time soon.
That said, throughout history, popular leaders/autocrats/dictators (pick your appellation for Mr. Xi) have nonetheless taken their peoples down the paths to downfall and even destruction.
- So, as Mr. Xi exits the Party Congress, both the China hawks and the Chinese people could both end up being right.
3 | From Uncle Xi to stern Communist monarch
Having considered the foreign view of Xi Jinping and the view of the Chinese people, let’s look at Mr. Xi himself.
- In “‘Uncle Xi’ to Exalted Ruler: China’s Leader Embodies His Authoritarian Era,” Chris Buckley of The New York Times gives a great brief profile of who Xi Jinping believes he is and who he has become.
‘In his first years as China’s leader, Xi Jinping paid for his own steamed dumplings in a cheap diner, casually rolled up his trouser legs to avoid splashes in the rain, and was serenaded with sugary pop tunes.’
- ‘His image-makers cast him as “Xi Dada,” the people’s firm but genial “Uncle Xi.”
‘How vastly different now.’
- ‘A decade on, Mr. Xi looms over the country like a stern Communist monarch, reflecting on China’s fallen ancient dynasties and determined to win its lasting ascendancy in a turbulent world.’
‘Chinese officials praise his speeches like hallowed texts, professing loyalty with a fervor that sometimes echoes Mao Zedong’s era.’
- ‘Privately mocking Mr. Xi can lead to prison.’
- ‘His public encounters are regimented displays of acclaim.’
‘Mr. Xi, 69, presents himself as the history-steeped guardian of China’s destiny.’
- ‘He cites the toppling of China’s ancient empires, determined to ensure that it does not again fall prey to political decay, revolt or foreign aggression.’
- ‘He quotes advice to emperors on ensuring obedience, “like the arm commands the finger.” ’
- ‘He has taken to using a grand, ancient-sounding Chinese motto, guo zhi da zhe: roughly meaning “the nation’s great cause.” It sounds like it could have been passed down from a sage; in fact, Mr. Xi or his advisers minted it in 2020.’
- ‘ “Xi Jinping wants to show that he isn’t just a party leader but also almost a spiritual seer for China — a bold, visionary statesman,” said Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney.’
‘In Mr. Xi’s worldview, the party is the custodian of traditional Chinese hierarchy and discipline, set against the dysfunction of democracies.’
- ‘ “He sees his historical role as breaking the historical cycle of dynastic rise and fall so the Communist Party remains in power pretty much forever,” said Neil Thomas of the Eurasia Group.’
‘He argues that the party’s centralized power can mobilize China to accomplish feats beyond the grasp of Western countries, like cutting rural poverty, leaping into new technologies, or — so it seemed for a while — efficiently halting the spread of Covid.’
- ‘ “We must demonstrate the clear superiority of our country’s socialist system in being able to concentrate forces to achieve big feats,” Mr. Xi said at a meeting on technological innovation last month.’
- ‘ “The superiority of our political system and system of governance is even more blazingly clear in its response to the Covid pandemic and winning the war on poverty,” Mr. Xi said in March.’
- ‘ “The contrast between Chinese order and Western chaos has become even sharper.” ’
‘Mr. Xi is already looking well beyond the next five years, trying to build a lasting edifice of power and policies.’
- ‘He is fleshing out his own creed and promoting cohorts of younger protégés, technocrats and military commanders who may advance his influence for decades.’
‘As the Party congress neared, senior Chinese officials garlanded Mr. Xi, the “core” leader, in vows of utter loyalty.’
- ‘ “Embrace the core with a sincere heart,” said one.’
- ‘ “At all times and in all circumstances, trust the core, be loyal to the core, defend the core,” said another.’
Is this a case of Xi Jinping's believing his own press rather than acknowledging the realities in China and the world?
- No. This is who Mr. Xi believes he is: A man of destiny, confident in his judgment and certain of his success.
And woe to anyone who opposes him.