Communist Party leader Xi sets out to orchestrate China’s path to global prominence, but controlocracy may lack international appeal.
By Börje Ljunggren*
Xi pulled it off. His crowning could not have been grander. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is now written into Communist Party of China’s constitution on par with Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. As “thoughts” rank higher than “theory,” Xi is recognized as the party-state’s core, ranked higher than Deng, a status that will remain even after he leaves his current positions.
Mao founded the People’s Republic, and Deng created the conditions for China’s exceptional era of reforms that opened the country to the world. Xi is taking China into its third era, one in which China intends to be second to none.
Gone is the era guided by Deng’s tao guang yang hui, meaning that China should “keep a low profile and bide its time.”
Instead, Xi proposes that, before the People’s Republic 100th anniversary in 2049, China will have developed into a “modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.” China already stood tall in the East and “now is time for the nation “to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.” China, going its own proud way, has a model to offer. The Chinese model of growth under communist rule is “flourishing,” giving “a new choice” to other developing countries. These two statements mark a decisive departure from previous party declarations.
The Party Constitution also recognizes Xi as military thinker with the Chinese Communist Party to “uphold its absolute leadership over the People’s Liberation Army” and “implement Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military.” By 2035 China will have a “world class” military, one “built to fight.”
Interestingly, the document recognizes a dilemma that, in fact, potentially challenging the party-state: The constitution no longer describes the main contradiction facing Chinese society as one between “the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production” but “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life” – that is, a better life within the party-state.
Such is the party’s task in the new era: 99 percent loyalty to the party is not enough. The party intends to consolidate power, categorically rejecting western ideas of liberal democracy.
A new era requires a bold approach. World developments since the 2008 global financial crisis, Donald Trump’s degrading of the United States and Europe’s drifting search for identity, have created irresistible strategic opportunities. Hubris is growing in Beijing, as leaders envision a future belonging to China as defined by the party.
But triumphant visions are hardly enough. The PRC’s achievements since Mao are undeniable. China has the world’s largest economy by growing margins, in terms of purchasing power, and generates more than one-fourth of global growth. Globalization did not create today’s China, but the country is, ironically enough, globalization’s great winner. In ushering China into the World Trade Organization, former US President Bill Clinton declared that such membership would be in US interest, and not simply for integrating China into the global economy: “The emerging knowledge economy, economic innovation and political empowerment, whether anyone likes it or not, will inevitably go hand in hand.”
The internet, a new frontier, was a huge challenge. Clinton noted that “there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet,” but that would be “like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” The Chinese economy developed faster than anyone could then imagine, and its leaders did manage to nail the Jello. China remains a party-state, consolidated during Xi’s first term, after a crisis-ridden spell prior to the 18th Congress in 2012.
Xi sees himself as having a mission. Nothing matters more than maintaining stability through firm party rule, ruthless if necessary, repressive by nature. A vibrant, increasingly pluralistic society must cope within the party-state’s mounting constraints. A “better life” offers much, but individual freedom, as enshrined in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political right – never ratified by China and no longer on the agenda of international dialogues with the country – is one of “seven evils” proclaimed in 2013, a threat to be managed.
Underlying Xi’s concerns, to quote political sociologist Larry Diamond, is the “70-year itch” stemming from the Soviet Union’s abrupt collapse. The party’s foremost task is to prevent collapse and hence never “nationalize” the People’s Liberation Army the way the Soviet Union did. The Chinese Dream as a controlocracy is bound to suffer from lack of true international appeal.
Still, China is indeed in a position “to make greater contributions to the world.” It’s natural that China undertakes initiatives like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and grander geopolitical schemes like the One Belt One Road initiative.
Remember also that China has not gone to war since attacking Vietnam in February of 1979, determined to teach its recalcitrant neighbor a lesson. Despite a number of serious unresolved conflicts, East Asia has enjoyed what has been referred to as “the long peace.” This peace, though, has not been institutionalized and appears increasingly fragile, not least because of China’s growing assertiveness in a number of areas and reticence in other areas.
Despite its growing power, China cannot dictate a viable solution to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, its claims in the East China Sea or complex territorial disputes with India. At the Party Congress, Xi described China’s “resolve” and “ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form,” but annexing Taiwan by force is not an option. China views North Korea’s nuclear development as primarily a problem for the United States, but today it is as much China’s own. China’s two priorities, foremost stability and only then a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, have contributed to the drift towards the current impasse. China needs to build trust. With growing power follows greater responsibilities both regionally and globally.
By far the most serious challenge facing China is how to handle Sino-US relations, the most important relationship of our time, bound to suffer from strategic distrust. North Korea is the most urgent issue for Sino-US diplomacy, but immediately behind lies growing economic tensions in a sad era of US protectionism. China is no longer a developing country. To preserve the liberal economic order on which growth depends, the country’s leaders must show an increased willingness to accept reciprocity as a fundamental principle or face mounting difficulties in the international market. The Party Congress gave no clear answer regarding economic reforms. Tension is evident between the increased emphasis on the party’s role and the role of the market – boiling down to Xi versus Xi.
The new Standing Committee of the Politburo includes reform-minded pragmatists such as Wang Yang and Han Zheng. They may not matter much, though, with Xi as supreme leader, promoted by a cult of personality that should have remained a tragic feature of the past.
Finally, the Standing Committee consists only of men, none young enough to take over in five years. Chen Min’er, Xi’s favorite, and Hu Chunhua, elevated to the Politburo at the 18th Congress, did not make the cut. Unlike Xi before he took over as the party secretary general there is no one training to take over. Xi is keeping his options open, thereby deinstitutionalizing the succession process. As a consequence, the midnight hour of authoritarian systems will cast its shadow over his third era. Xi’s historic ambitions to achieve peerless personal power are clever by half.
*Börje Ljunggren is senior associate of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, former Swedish ambassador to China and author of Den kinesiska drömmen – Xi, makten och utmaningarna (The Chinese Dream – Xi, Power and Challenges),2017.