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2017-2018 Issue IV Editors' Picks World

“A benevolent unitary leader”? China’s Xi Tightens His Grip on Power

When French President Emmanuel Macron visited China in early January, he presented his counterpart, General Secretary Xi Jinping, with an unusual gift. Accompanying Macron was “Vesuvius,” an eight-year-old French horse that, according to an Élysée official, was supposed to represent a “symbol of French excellence.”

Analysts in China, however, had their own interpretation of the gift. To many, the horse—sturdy, robust, and locomotive—represented the combination of unassailable stability and unbridled ambition that has come to define Xi Jinping’s rule over China.

Never have those two qualities been more apparent than at China’s 19th Party Congress last October. In an unprecedented move, Xi neglected to appoint a successor to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Instead, he filled the Committee with relatively young party members who are all close allies.

Conventionally, Chinese leaders appoint five to seven elder, established Party members and one younger presumed successor who can use his time on the Committee to become familiar with his future responsibilities. According to most analysts, the distinct composition of the Xi’s Standing Committee suggests that Xi plans to stay in power beyond his current five-year term.   

Xi also used the Party Congress to reiterate his ambitious domestic goal of achieving a “moderately prosperous society,” roughly defined as a poverty-free state, by the year 2020. Both the scope of his agenda and strength of his grip on the Communist Party have led many observers to dub Xi the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Foreign media picked up on this narrative, with The Huffington Post asking, “Is Xi Jinping China’s New Mao-like Strongman?” and TIME, The New York Times and The Economist all pondering similar questions.

Comparing Xi with Mao understandably raises alarm bells amongst policymakers in the West, but people in China take a significantly more positive view. In fact, the Communist Party’s official position on Mao is that he was “70% good and 30% bad,” and many in China agree.

Despite being responsible for an estimated forty million deaths, Mao remains a popular figure in China, Bloomberg’s Chinese Bureau Chief John Liu said in an interview with The Politic. Xi has tried to capitalize on that popularity by invoking and emulating Mao often. Xi used the Party Congress to enshrine “Xi Jinping thought” into the Communist Party’s constitution—reminiscent of the language of Mao’s own “Mao Zedong thought.”

Harvard professor and China expert Graham Allison explained that this dichotomy—namely, the West’s fear of Xi and the Chinese people’s embrace of him—stems from the fact that many in China have fundamentally different views about government.

“In the West we believe that democracy is the best form of government, that’s an article of faith for people like us,” Allison told The Politic in an interview. “But the Chinese do not believe that democracy is the best form of government. They believe that the best form of government is what I call a limitless mandarin imperial rule.”

Allison elaborated that mandarin imperial rule refers to a purely meritocratic state, historically common in China, in which the most qualified members of society ascended to the roles of emperor and mandarin (advisor). These public officials were regarded as more intelligent and virtuous, and as possessing better judgement, than the rest of the citizenry. Allison likened the modern Communist Party’s structure to this “limitless mandarin imperial rule” and said that by eliminating the Party’s only checks on his power, Xi had almost turned himself into an pseudo-emperor.

Allison then explained, “[In China] they believe that the legitimizing principle for this party leadership, in comparison to democracy, is performance, not process,” Allison continued. “So we say that things have to go through a process, that democracy is a process rather than a product, whereas they say that the product is the product.”

This mindset, Allison explained, means that Chinese people are not just tolerant of Xi’s power grab—many, in fact, are actively supportive. This challenge to the presumed superiority of democracy is both ideological and pragmatic. The Chinese populace prioritizes results over process because parts of the country are desperately in need of the results that Xi is promising.

As he pursues his goal of poverty eradication, Xi must also reckon with a rapidly aging Chinese population. As John Liu described when speaking with The Politic, “There’s a feeling in China that the country has to get rich before it gets old. The economic issues of such an aging population are extremely far-reaching. Then you add in the debt problem and pollution, and you’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place. So there’s a feeling that if Xi has all this power, maybe he can push through the necessary changes that might not be popular or easy.”

While both Allison and Liu acknowledged the economic potential of Xi’s rule in the short term, they both expressed deep reservations about the impact of his power grab on the future of the Chinese political system and on Sino-American relations.

In particular, Allison was concerned by the loss of checks and balances. “In their system, they did roughly the same thing [as American checks and balances] after Mao by having collective leadership in which the nine members of the Standing Committee were seen as roughly equal and the leader, who was the foremost, but also he was the spokesman, and now that’s no longer the case. So I would say that’s a risk factor in their system.”

Allison explained succinctly, “Xi says: ‘I’m a benevolent unitary leader.’ And, of course, in Western political theory it is generally agreed that a benevolent dictator is the best form of government, the only problem is he usually doesn’t stay benevolent.”

Susan Shirk, a research professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and the chair of the 21st Century China Center, echoed Allison’s misgivings. “They used to have a system of what I call reciprocal accountability, where the top leadership appoints the officials on the Central Committee and then the Central Committee has the authority to chose the top leaders,” she said. “It’s sort of like the Pope and the College of Cardinals.”

Shirk continued, “But now the top leadership has much more power than the Central Committee, and they can get rid of them through anti-corruption and other tactics. On the other hand, the Central Committee only meets twice a year and does not, in reality, have legislative authority to challenge the top leadership—even though they’re supposed to have [that authority]. This system of power clearly leads to dictatorial rule, and China, maybe better than anyone else, knows how disastrous that can be.”

Shirk emphasized the power that Xi has amassed through his anti-corruption campaign. Crackdowns on corruption have been the preferred means of wiping out political opposition for dictators throughout history, and Xi is no different. Like most other anti-corruption campaigns, Xi’s crusade has been very popular amongst the Chinese people and has invoked profound fear amongst other Party members. Xi has used the campaign to eliminate any extra-parliamentary challenges to his power in the same way that he used the 19th Party Congress to eliminate avenues for other elites to keep him in check.

Allison fears that a lack of accountability may make Xi more erratic in the international theater. In May, Allison published Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, in which he posited that America and China could be (but probably are not) on a collision course for war.

Six months later, Allison said that the 19th Party Congress increased the possibility of a clash between the United States and China.

“I would definitely say that the Party Congress has made war more likely,” he told The Politic. “Many people argued at the time when I was drafting the book, and even in some reviews, that I was greatly overestimating Xi and his power, but I think that if you look at the Party Congress and the outcome, it is consistent with my analysis. Because he’s put forward such an ambitious agenda and will be more authoritarian at home, I imagine he will be much more assertive abroad. Therefore, you should expect the rub between the rising China and the ruling U.S. to be more imminent.”

Allison and Shirk are convinced that any short-term domestic stability that comes from an extended Xi Jinping government is destined to lead to institutional and international instability in the long run.

But for now, Xi will have to try and emulate Vesuvius. He will try to stride forward steadily, with the weight of Chinese progress almost entirely on his back.