By Marvin C. Ott*
(FPRI) — Over a very long history, governance has been China’s greatest achievement—and its greatest failure. Every Chinese, whether a senior official in Beijing or a farmer in a remote village, will tell you with certainty that China has the oldest (“five thousand years”) and greatest civilization on the planet. It is a point of deep national pride and with reason. For millennia, China was ruled under a system that placed the Emperor (“the son of Heaven”) at the center as a seemingly all-powerful monarch. There was no constitution, no legal limits in the Western sense on the emperor’s authority. However, he was constrained by institutional norms and practical limitations. The emperor ruled through a class of scholar officials (“mandarins”) who were steeped in a Confucian culture that emphasized authority tempered with benevolence and responsibility. Moreover, China was a vast country with a relatively weak standing army. It was not easy to assert imperial power into the far corners of the empire. A traditional saying noted, “The emperor’s authority stops at the village gate.”
This system was surely the world’s most successful and durable form of governance from ancient antiquity to the 19th century. However, by the early 1800s, the imperial order had become a victim of its own success—hidebound, backward looking, and incapable of change. When Western naval fleets arrived armed with new weapons and empowered by modern industry, the Chinese court was paralyzed and impotent. Blinded by its past, China had great difficulty coming to terms with modernity. The Republic of China, founded by Sun Yat-sen and led by Chiang Kai-shek after World War I, was crippled by corruption and fatally wounded by Japan’s invasion. A civil war between Chiang’s forces and the communists produced a communist victory under a young, magnetic, and immensely talented leader, Mao Zedong. The People’s Republic became part of a post-World War II wave of new communist states from Czechoslovakia to North Korea—inspired and led by Moscow. But Mao had two fatal flaws: he was a megalomaniac unwilling to share or relinquish power, and he was an ideologue obsessed with remaking China according to a vision of a pure communist society. As time went on, fanaticism tipped into dementia and the aging dictator nearly destroyed China with one insane ideological campaign after another.
Upon Mao’s death, power passed to a very different leader—a pragmatist and reformer named Deng Xiaoping. Deng not only set China on a course of modernization, he also instituted constitutional changes designed to prevent a recurrence of Mao’s forty-year despotism. Henceforth, China’s leaders would be elected by the Party to a five-year term renewable only once—making for a maximum of ten years in power. The Party would select the next leader years in advance. It produced a system of “collective” leadership that was a little dull, but stable and predictable. Deng had solved the problem that bedevils every dictatorship: leadership succession. And for over thirty years, it worked exactly as Deng designed it. But now, in Xi Jinping, China has a leader unwilling to be constrained by Deng’s system. Xi has used an “anti-corruption” campaign to destroy systematically all potential rivals in the upper ranks of the Party. He has centralized power in his own hands to a degree not seen since Mao. And now, he has dropped all pretense of constitutional rule and has directed that the constitution be changed to allow him to rule indefinitely.
This is not good news. The implications for China are obviously profound. Unlimited authority can act decisively and rapidly to achieve remarkable things. But as Lord Acton warned long ago: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Xi already exerts power within China that is beyond the wildest dreams of early emperors. He has made it clear that it is not enough that Chinese do not oppose him; they must also agree with him. The internet, the media, the schools, Party doctrine—everything is being brought into line with “XI Jinping thought.” George Orwell predicted Xi.
For America, the implications are stark. China is ruled by a dictator determined to dominate Asia and supplant the U.S. there—and beyond. Xi is obsessed with power—his own within China and China’s on the world stage. And the two are already starting to intermingle; we are seeing China making increasing efforts to control the behavior and thinking of ethnic Chinese living, working, and studying outside China. If you are a Chinese student in Australia, you are expected to actively defend and support Xi’s policies. If you are third or fourth generation Chinese citizen of Malaysia, you are expected to understand that your primary loyalty is to China.
It is hard to overstate how expansive and confident Xi’s China is. China has moved aggressively to take effective control over much of the South China Sea. China’s military buildup and modernization is explicitly designed to match and surpass the U.S. Chinese strategists and publicists who echo and amplify Xi see the U.S. in inexorable and accelerating decline even as China ascends. They see validation in the current disarray and policy incoherence emanating from the U.S. presidency. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (designed to offset Chinese influence) is understood as part of a U.S. retreat. As one senior Chinese strategist put it, “Xi is exploiting the space that America voluntarily abandoned.” America, ready or not, is in a global strategic contest with China—a contest that Beijing, led by Xi, fully expects to win.
About the author:
*Marvin C. Ott is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
This article was published by FPRI.