BERLIN – Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong.
From a Western perspective, these changes may look trivial. After all, the CPC’s political monopoly remains untouched, leaving no possibility for genuine democratization. But for China – which will soon be the world’s largest economy and one of this century’s two superpowers (along with the United States) – recent developments signal a return to a disastrous past. Xi’s formal elevation to the same stature as Mao implies a transition from authoritarianism to personal dictatorship. Given the enormous increase in China’s power and strategic importance since Mao’s rule, this change will have far-reaching implications for the rest of the world.
For the time being, the CPC seems to have managed to combine its one-party system with Western-style consumerism. Communist ideology has been pushed into the background by mass prosperity and individual wealth, resulting in a successful hybrid system combining elements of both a market economy and a state economy – all under the CPC’s sole and absolute control.
To be sure, China’s swift rise from a developing country to the leading economy of the twenty-first century has had its downsides, not least widespread official corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. But as long as the CPC keeps it commitment to pursuing broad-based social advancement, “core interests” like unchallenged control over Hong Kong and Taiwan, and increased international influence, there will be no real risk to its rule domestically.
Moreover, the CPC leadership has already recognized that something needed to be done about the corrosive corruption, the scandalous distribution of wealth, the confrontation with America that started during Donald Trump’s presidency, and the increasing power of the country’s private sector. Successful entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, the co-founder of the Alibaba Group, were gaining too much influence (from the CPC’s perspective) and becoming too dependent on the US capital market.
When some leading Chinese private-sector figures even dared to express their opposition to domestic policies openly, they obviously crossed a red line and became a threat to the state’s (and thus the Party’s) control over the financial sector and the broader economy. For the CPC, a change in direction was clearly needed. According to Xi, the Chinese hybrid model that has developed since Deng now needs a fundamental readjustment and social reorientation to account for the escalating political confrontation with the US and the decline of the economy’s growth rate.
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But it remains to be seen how the Chinese hybrid model will fare with a politically weakened private sector and a public sector (state-owned enterprises) that has been ailing for some time. China is still posting impressive growth figures (especially compared to Western economies), and it managed to recover very quickly from the COVID-19 crisis. The question, however, is whether its growth trajectory – which will continue to weaken as a result of demographic trends – is sufficient for meeting the country’s goals and ambitions.
Will Xi’s course correction consolidate CPC control without sacrificing any of the country’s economic dynamism, or will it derail China’s global rise? If it does succeed, the West’s own internal debates over regulation and redistribution would surely intensify.
Against this background, Xi is betting everything on a transition from collective leadership to indefinite one-man absolutism – despite the disastrous results of that approach under Mao. For China, now an economic giant, to resurrect it speaks to the weakness of the country’s political system. Mao used the Cultural Revolution to attack the Chinese political elite, with the aim of destroying and then renewing it on his own terms. But that was in the 1960s, when China was still wretchedly poor, not a global superpower. Its internal power structure and its national ambitions are increasingly incompatible, and it is here that the great risk of instability lies.
At first glance, dictatorships seem more decisive and assertive than democracies, with their cumbersome processes of deliberation and consent. But this is an illusion, because most authoritarian regimes are in fact consumed by their leaders’ fear of losing power. The more that a dictatorship acts on this fear by centralizing power, the more brittle and unstable the whole edifice becomes.
Genuine systemic stability would require the exact opposite approach: a broadening of the government’s base of support. That is the principle that China is now in the process of abandoning under Xi. That will make Xi’s China a less predictable partner.