Authoritarian resistance to criticism and full accountability of leadership may limit China’s global ambitions.
By Börje Ljunggren*
China has entered a “third era” with President Xi Jinping placing himself in the same firmament as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Like Mao, he refers to himself as a people’s leader. The People’s Republic of China launched its 70th anniversary celebrations as confirmation of China’s ongoing “rejuvenation” under the predetermined leadership of the Communist Party, of which Xi has served as party secretary since 2012.
A military parade during the October celebrations illustrated China’s development of a muscular defense force, destined to become second to none. Xi described China’s successes as “a miracle in the history of humanity.” He urged the Chinese people to “hold the banner of unity high and gather tightly behind the CCP Central Committee” to “create an unprecedented force that will propel the ship of national renewal through the waves and reach its destination.”
Xi’s China differs dramatically from Mao’s, but demands for loyalty to the Communist Party are stronger than ever since Mao’s death. Xi cannot help but sense a “70-year itch,” as described by sociologist Larry Diamond, with the People’s Republic of China at the same age as when the Soviet Union collapsed. During a 2012 internal speech in Guangdong, shortly after having become party secretary, Xi spoke about the Soviet collapse and explained why China must stand firm on the party’s leadership over the military: “In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the party and nationalized, the party was disarmed.”
China, a poor, fragmented and war-ravaged country that transformed into a superpower, has much to celebrate. Deng’s radical shift towards reform and opening in 1978 not only allowed China to catch up, but also enjoy an unprecedented era of rapid economic growth. China has also proven to be far more innovative than considered possible according to conventional wisdom. The country, no longer simply the world’s factory floor, seeks to become a leader in multiple technologies including robotics and driverless cars, as detailed by the “Made in China 2025,”strategy released in 2015. China already leads in artificial intelligence, according to many analysts, with data as the oil of our time.
Ironically, the country is globalization’s biggest winner, and the fact that hyper-globalization has come to an end is not the least due to China’s successes under the liberal international economic order.
The party-state did not perish or wither, as many had predicted after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square or the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire. History did not end, and since Xi came to power in 2012, China has moved away from Dengism. Deng’s modernization focused on four goals – improving agriculture, industry, science and technology, defense – and not democracy, a fifth goal as demanded by some. Still, Deng clearly wanted to reform the party-state, develop the role of state institutions and reduce the influence of Maoism.
Xi, however, is a true believer in the party’s right to govern and wants to be Mao’s heir. Under Xi, China has taken an authoritarian turn.
The collapse of the Soviet empire almost three decades ago made the “third wave of democratization” that began in the mid-1970s, appear unbreakable. However since 2005, Freedom House has reported an annual decline. The predictions that China and the small number of remaining communist regimes also would fall were legion. These systems have proven to be considerably more enduring than expected. There were, as Gideon Rachman of Financial Times has noted, “two 1989s, Berlin and Beijing.”
China borrowed the means but not the goals, explicitly rejecting Western-style democracy. As concluded by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in their book, The Light That Failed: “They borrowed exuberantly but refused to convert.” Instead, China’s leaders pursued authoritarianism with increased determination. The ambition of Xi and the current leadership is unambiguously to consolidate rather than liquidate the party-state. In central document no. 9 from 2013, the Chinese Communist Party lists “seven threats” and the first rejects Western constitutional democracy.
The concept of the “party-state” is in frequent use, but lacks clear definition. Until the collapse of the Soviet empire, comparative communism was a significant area of research. Five Leninist party-states – China, Vietnam, Laos, DPRK and Cuba – survived, yet there is little comparative analysis despite significant differences and varying levels of preparedness to reform.
While society may be diverse, the party-state at its core is mono-organizational, ultimately controlling and integrating all other political organizations and institutions, and can be said to rest on six pillars:
- Final political power rests with the ruling party;
- Control of army, armed police and police;
- Control of all appointments of importance within administration, state enterprises public institutions and the military;
- Ultimate control over the judicial system and the security apparatus;
- Civil society kept within the constraints of the party-state;
- Ultimate control over media.
China meets these six criteria by a wide margin. The party’s role has expanded under Xi’s leadership, more so than at any other time since Mao’s death in 1976. In a December 2018 speech, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of “reform and opening,” Xi reiterated the party’s determination to exercise control: “Whether it’s the government, the army, ordinary people or students, the east, the west, the south, the north or the middle, the party leads everything.”
With close to 90 million members and more than 4 million basic units, the party is ubiquitous in media and civil society, at companies and universities and, not least, in the armed forces. The elitist nature of the Communist Party is maintained through a complex system based on selection, loyalty and discipline.
“Stability” requires ever-increasing vigilance, and the technology that would force China to increase transparency has instead led to the establishment of a virtual control state, a “controlocracy,” to cite sociologist and political scientist Stein Ringen, based on the opportunities for facial recognition as created by artificial intelligence and more than 200 million security cameras. China has more than 800 million internet users, kept behind a Great Cyber Wall. The control system is tested and refined in Xinjiang, while Hong Kong and Taiwan are reminders of the vitality of democratic ideas. Many, including law professor Carl Minzner, wonder what will happen when “the surging tensions that ripple against China’s frozen facade come to the surface.”
The party’s obsession with stability, instinctive censorship and control is paralyzing, as illustrated by the tragic failure to heed warnings about the emerging coronavirus from whistleblower and physician Li Wenliang, now deceased.
China’s democratic challenge would have been greater and more immediate had the world’s democracies, not least the United States, lived up to their ideals, but the party-state is hardly the end of history, and the Soviet itch allows Xi no rest.
*Börje Ljunggren is former Swedish ambassador to China and Vietnam, an author and associate of Harvard’s Asia Center.