The meaning of XI Jinping´s rise

25.10.17 Publication:

So we now know that President Xi Jinping is considered the most important, and thus most powerful, Chinese leader since the “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong, the man who led the Communist Party’s takeover of the country in 1949 and was China’s supreme leader until his death in 1976. We know this because delegates to the Communist Party’s great piece of political theatre, its party congress, has placed his name in the party constitution as the instigator of “Xi Jinping Thought”. But what does it mean? That is far less clear.

It certainly does not mean that President Xi is now going to make wild and reckless personal decisions like Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in agriculture in 1958 which condemned tens of millions to death by starvation, nor his “Cultural Revolution” in 1966 which unleashed violence all over the country. What it does mean, however, is that a long period of collective, fairly consensual government has now definitively been replaced by much tighter and stricter central control.

That stricter central control reflects a perception inside the Communist Party and its associated military leadership that corruption, factionalism and indiscipline over the past decade or more had been putting the survival of one-party rule at risk. But it also most likely reflects a period of confidence about China’s role in the world, now and in the future, which in turn reflects the feeling, which is probably accurate, that China stands to be the biggest beneficiary from the presence in the White House of Donald Trump.

There is an opportunity to be seized, and clear, powerful leadership is the best tool to seize it with. The country needs to be kept united behind the seizure of that opportunity, and other countries in the world, particularly in East Asia, need to be convinced that China knows what it is doing and where it is heading, over the long term.

The exact nature of the opportunity that is being created by American weakness, chaos, lack of predictability and loss of legitimacy is only just beginning to emerge. It will include a greater acceptance by Asian neighbours of China’s primacy in the region and its right to expand its strategic control over the South China Sea, for the only alternative to that primacy is fading away. It will certainly include an increased dependence on China among those neighbours for financial and security support.

It may, most dramatically, include a great danger that could also bring huge strategic gains: the danger of conflict between North Korea and the United States, a conflict with the potential for turning nuclear. But that risk of conflict could also provide the chance for China to intervene and to take greater control over North Korea, bringing it the gratitude of its neighbours as well as de facto control over the future of the Korean peninsula.

There are also other possible openings for increased Chinese influence: one is in Saudi Arabia, where Chinese capital is being sought for the nation’s oil company, Aramco. Another is in setting the rules for trade in the Asia-Pacific, following America’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement it negotiated with 11 other Asia-Pacific countries over recent years, but from which China had been excluded.

The opportunities opening up for China are potentially vitally important not just for that country’s future but also for its emerging status in the world. Could previous Chinese presidents have seized those chances? Perhaps: the party’s collective leadership has long displayed a strong strategic sense, even if its presidents and prime ministers have been dull and drab. Britain’s Prince Charles famously described them at the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 as a lot of “grey waxworks”.

Yet the point is that those waxworks had been leading China into trouble, a trouble from which it has not entirely emerged. After the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, the party preserved its rule by instituting a system of term limits and strict rotation of personnel, in order to disperse power and, it was hoped, to reduce the incentive for corruption. Meanwhile, tentative experiments in local democracy, at village level, were tried, and a greater effort was made to listen to public opinion.

These reforms may have earned the party a further two decades in power, but they did not solve the problem of corruption and they made the leadership indecisive. Those in powerful positions had to raise their billions quickly thanks to the term limits, and the knowledge that a job change or retirement would soon come had the effect of discouraging the top leaders from taking risks.

The lesson may well be that an authoritarian political system cannot survive without clear authority. Just as a person cannot be half-pregnant, so a dictatorial party cannot disperse power and dabble with democracy if it is to remain in charge. So President Xi Jinping, who first became president in 2012, has swung the pendulum sharply backwards towards highly centralised control.

In the logic of a Communist Party, this makes perfect sense. His harsh crackdown on corruption has proved popular, at least with those who have not yet been targeted. He appears to have seen off all potential rivals. And now he may well serve, either officially or unofficially, as China’s supreme leader for a lot longer than just the second five-year term that his predecessors served.

Xi Jinping is thus a man well placed to exploit a potential turning point in world affairs, as America’s role declines and China’s rises. This does not guarantee that he will succeed: China has plenty of domestic problems that need to be tackled, especially in economic reform. But if anyone could have the power to exploit that turning point and to meet those challenges, Xi Jinping is now that man.