China: All the President’s men

Shared values or interests between China and the West will be few and far between in the coming years.

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The conclave has ended with the 19th Party Congress and we now see who will lead China. Xi has a very strong hand, no one can dispute that. One is reminded of Joseph Stalin speaking of his colleagues: “They are all kittens in my hand”. Yet one should also be aware of his balancing skills, and of the ambiguity he maintains on personnel choice if not on ideology and slogans for the Party, which are more assertive than ever since Mao.

On the one hand, five of the previous standing committee members are gone. They were beyond the age of 68, the customary retirement age for Party leaders. More tellingly, the two leaders who had been put in 2012 on the inside track for a possible succession in 2022 have been dropped: Sun Zhengcai was purged a few weeks ago for his sins, and Hu Chunhua, who mentioned Xi 26 times in a May 2017 speech, now fades away.

Some of the newcomers are clearly the president’s protégés: above all Li Zhanshu, old pal from Guizhou and new number three in spite of being the youngest on the roster; Zhao Leji, another friend from Shaanxi who will run the fearsome anti-corruption commission; and Wang Huning, the intriguing international relations don who has been consigliero and speechwriter to three successive PRC leaders (even so, the idea of an academic entering the Standing Committee would surely make Mao roll over in his grave). One could also cite Han Zheng, who ceded interim Shanghai leadership to Xi a decade ago.

But Xi has also kept on technocrats who originated from president Hu Jintao’s faction. Li Keqiang, the competent and largely ineffectual prime minister; Wang Yang, former reformist star of Guangdong before 2012 and lacklustre vice-premier since. Like Han Zheng, they are competent technocrats.

Xi’s skill shows elsewhere: he has respected the customary retirement age and said goodbye to Wang Qishan, his key ally of the first five years and hated head of the anti-corruption drive. But he has also named colleagues – collaborators, really – who are so old they mostly will not survive the next Party Congress in 5 years.

As a result, the party will either have to push back the retirement age – which would primarily benefit Xi himself – or leave the succession wide open, with Xi Jinping assured of pre-eminent status. Indeed, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ inscribed into the Party Constitution, challenging him is tantamount to challenging the Party. 

Xi’s recipe for power is pretty clear. He seeks checks without balances: the anti-corruption campaign will run forever, providing him ammunition against virtually anybody, given that the sins to be punished include personal sins such as ‘laziness’.

He has expanded the party’s mandate: it now ‘rules everything’ – ‘the state, the army, education, North and South, East and West’. The party was mentioned 331 times in 205 minutes in his Congress opening speech.

And he has been ruthless in purging wayward behaviour. 700,000 party cadres have been removed, along with several thousand higher officers of the army (with more changes to come, we are told). Dissent is unabashedly prohibited and will be prosecuted – recent years have seen a snowballing of repression.

This is what leads observers to conclude that Xi now is “as powerful as Mao” once was. This writer can only concur; truth be told it has been the case since at least 2013

Yet consensus is always risky when it concerns China. There are other factors at play in contemporary China to explain the rise of a strongman. Consider the following:

  • The celebrated Chinese middle classes, and much of China’s workforce, have never had it so good. Incomes, and their share of the GDP, have risen faster in 2016-17 than at any other time.
  • The threat of unemployment, which was palpable after previous financial crises, is hardly raised today. Huge infrastructure investment has nationalized China’s economy.
  • The workforce, and people generally, are on the move. In areas close to cities, farmers’ plots are turned into flats that provide housing and income for the aging but also dwindling rural population.
  • Currency liberalization has not taken place. Instead, big state enterprises, the super-rich and their giant hybrid companies are being disciplined to stop hot money outflow under the guise of “investment abroad”. But individuals can transfer up to $50,000 per year abroad. So one can still travel, spend as a tourist, and fund your children’s education. In short, why rebel when there is a way out?

Alfred O. Hirschman coined the phrase  “Exit, voice, and loyalty”. The CCP commands loyalty. It will accept exit, but never voice.

By contrast, Western democracy appears either undecipherable or tainted. We have seen populist insurgencies in the UK, US and elsewhere. And even in the remaining successful democracies, there is a craving for strong men who can serve as protectors and cut through bureaucratic, corporatist and politicking mazes.

Luckily for us in Europe, it is a woman, Angela Merkel, who best fits the bill, with Emmanuel Macron possibly coming next in line. In India we have Narendra Modi, shunned by liberals yet highly successful in his fourth year of power. In Japan Shinzo Abe, the epitome of what liberal internationalists dislike, just won a triumphant new term with a supermajority enabling him to change the Constitution – the first such majority in over 20 years.

One of the PRC’s most able propagandists, Eric Li, just wrote his best op-ed ever, simply citing the many instances since 1978 when, on the occasion of a CCP Congress, The Economist has predicted doom and gloom for China. One disturbing aspect of postmodern globalization is that, when faced with a threat, the Western establishment usually dismisses it with predictions about the unmatchable virtues of liberal capital democracy. Having contempt for one’s opponent – whether it is Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or Kim Jong Un – is never a good idea.

The fact is that, contrary to predictions, a financial crisis has not happened in China so far. Instead, growth of a level unknown in our own societies has kept going. The regime has avoided what one could call the trap of a market democracy – it has used the market only as a limited tool, rather than being dominated by it.

With China’s newfound IT resources – including a prevalence of social media and electronic marketplaces unmatched anywhere in the world – its leaders can now dream of total control: not only over individuals through their daily physical and virtual lives, but also over economic and financial data flows. China, the society where cash was once king, may become (alongside Sweden) one of the first cashless societies.

We may find this repellent, and enough to fill more than a season of Black Mirror, the dystopian Anglo-American TV series. But that is precisely what makes Xi Jinping so self-confident.

In China, the historical dilemma for leaders was that they could never know, far less control, what went on at the grassroots of society. This is precisely why Mao launched decades of “mass movements”, in order to fragment local societies that were otherwise beyond his reach. Xi’s China dream is a resurrection of Mao’s totalitarianism, but with the benefit of technological tools that Mao could only dream of.

So let’s watch soberly how the experiment moves on, but let’s also not delude ourselves with ideas of convergence or even compromise between China and the West. Xi’s vision of governance is so at odds with the principles of liberal democracy that shared values or interests will be few and far between in the coming years.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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