Xi’s power grab in China reminiscent of Mao’s time

Martin Wolf: autocracy versus democracy is the defining clash of our times

Mr Xi has discarded the attempt by Deng Xiaoping to institutionalise checks on the power of China’s leaders — itself a reaction to the wild excesses of the era of Mao Zedong.

Mr Xi has discarded the attempt by Deng Xiaoping to institutionalise checks on the power of China’s leaders — itself a reaction to the wild excesses of the era of Mao Zedong.

 

Sometimes an announcement succeeds in being both unsurprising and shocking. It had long been evident that China’s Xi Jinping would not — indeed, could not — step down from power. He has made too many enemies, particularly through his anti-corruption campaign, even if he wanted to go, which seems unlikely.

Yet the announcement that the two-term limit on the presidency is to go, is still shocking. What seemed likely is now a fact. Mr Xi has discarded the attempt by Deng Xiaoping to institutionalise checks on the power of China’s leaders — itself a reaction to the wild excesses of the era of Mao Zedong. What is re-emerging is strongman rule — a concentration of power in the hands of one man. It now looks a bit like “Putinism with Chinese characteristics”.

Limits

True, even before this decision, it had been possible for Mr Xi to retain his positions as head of the party and commander-in-chief, indefinitely. The term limits applied only to the intrinsically less powerful office of president. Yet if he had lost the presidency, while retaining his other positions, a scintilla of doubt might have emerged over who was in charge. Mr Xi disliked this or, as likely, thought he could not risk it. He seeks power unbridled and undivided.

How is this momentous step – the move towards placing one man in absolute control of a rising superpower for the indefinite future – justified? Interestingly, it is not. The authoritative states: “The amendment is a vital move, made from the long-term experience of the party and country, to improve the institutions and mechanisms by which the party and country exercise leadership.”

So why is this a vital move? Because the “implementation of the structure will be conducive to the authority and centralised leadership of the [Chinese Communist party’s] Central Committee, and the guidance to the country and society by the party”. Thus, the party controls the country and Mr Xi controls the party — and so everything else, indefinitely. That is good, because, well, it is good.

Thus, the party controls the country and Mr Xi controls the party — and so everything else, indefinitely. That is good, because, well, it is good.

The move back from a collective leadership to autocracy negates the hopes of all those who believed a rapidly developing China would move towards democracy as, say, South Korea did in the 1980s. Yet China’s gross domestic product per head at purchasing power parity is already a little higher than was that of South Korea at that time. Today, the only rich autocracies are oil exporters. Singapore may be viewed as a “guided” democracy.

Whims

According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s GDP per head is now 84th in the world, nestled between those of Brazil and the Dominican Republic. But, if its economic rise were to continue, it would be a new kind of high-income giant.

Could Mr Xi’s growing power threaten that rise? Possibly. Autocracy exposes a country to the unchecked whims of one person. As years turn into decades, such concentrated power has too often turned sour, as the ruler grows increasingly detached from reality.

Mr Putin began as an economic reformer, but has now created a stagnant kleptocracy. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Chinese people have the experience of the Great Leap Forward and the cultural revolution to remind them of this great truth.

Nevertheless, experience and theory also show that it is possible for wise and far-sighted rulers, subject to minimal constraints on their power, to promote the development of their countries. Autocracy may work. But it is, at the least, a high-risk system, even in a country with a tradition of high quality bureaucracy, such as China. This is known as the “bad emperor” problem. Autocracy may be effective. But it may also lead to gross excesses.

This also ignores the moral qualities of democracy as a political system that recognises the dignity of individuals as citizens with a right to act in the public sphere as well as in a private capacity. Yet many Chinese people must now feel that democracy is in desperately bad shape. It is far harder to argue for the superiority of the democratic system, what ever its theoretical virtues, after the disasters of the past two decades — the Iraq war, the financial crisis, and the election of a man so palpably ill-suited to his position as Donald Trump.

Competition

Yet I for one still hold to Winston Churchill’s dictum that “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In the end, so long as a democracy remains democratic, with free and reasonably fair elections, the most ill-suited or timeworn leaders may be peacefully removed. That is invaluable.

Democracy needs to improve its performance if it is to regain the prestige it has lost, not just in the eyes of the wider world, but in those of its own citizens.

This shift back towards indefinite one-man rule in China, within the framework of an all-pervading Communist party, means that we are, once again, in an era of competition of systems, between democratic and — strange though it may sound (and indeed is) — communist capitalism. One implication is that the western democracies have to regard China not just as a rising great power, but as a strategic competitor. It is essential for China to be a partner over such challenges as climate change, world trade or global security. Indeed, in many of these areas, the direction of Mr Trump’s America First US is more worrying.

Nevertheless, in dealing with such issues as foreign direct investment, technological transfer and the role of Chinese businesses, western leaders must be cautious. In all these areas, the decision of Chinese businesses are subject to strong guidance by the Communist party and the Chinese state. This cannot be ignored. To the democracies, autocratic China is a partner, but not a friend.

Yet the most important implication of China’s increasingly clear political direction is what it means for western democracy itself. Universal suffrage representative democracy is still a young system. It is subject to the ills of demagogy, plutocracy and, not least, short-sightedness. Democracy needs to improve its performance if it is to regain the prestige it has lost, not just in the eyes of the wider world, but in those of its own citizens.

This will require a closer look within, at how the core institutions of the state, politics and the media work in today’s democratic systems. It will take renewed examination of the web of attitudes and restraints that help make a system of peaceful political competition achieve desired outcomes for the people. This is no easy challenge. But it has, once again, become our great task.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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