Whither Xi? Whither CCP? Whither China?
China observers in many fields – economics, psychology, philosophy, health care, education, politics, business - agree that there are critical or life-threatening issues for CCP and Xi to address. They differ on the ability of CCP, via Xi, to successfully address the economic, cultural, and political concerns. The era of China as the big dog on the international stage in 2019 does not mask the severity of issues.
I want to touch on several political questions salient in China over the next three years – or ten, or twenty, as long as Xi lasts in power. First, is CCP resilient enough to withstand the pressures of modernization as well as the pressures of Xi? Does Xi have a game plan for reform? Many observers over the years, including senior Party theoreticians, have seen democratic reforms as necessary to future growth and CCP survival. Is that even feasible? Xi has now amassed more power than any leader since Mao, but created much uncertainty within China and around the world. Whither China with and without Xi? Must China come to democracy, or else?
This is a bit of a tall order. More experienced observers have written on these topics at length and in detail. I want to put some brief analysis all in one place – and make a suggestion about a coming trapped transition, a bit different from that offered by Minxin Pei and others. The existential crisis for CCP will not be economic, and it will come when Xi will no longer be the core of the Party. Xi is taking on a Herculean set of tasks, and he is no Hercules. First, some introduction. This is Post 2 in a series of 11.
Whither China? Post #2 –
Anxiety about the present, fears for the future
We are going to take as given that the Chinese Communist Party is anxious about preservation of its one-party authoritarian rule. Every authoritarian state has similar fears, if for no other reason than paranoia about assassinations, arrests, disappearances, outside forces, and internal disagreements. Think USSR under Stalin. Think Romania under Ceausescu, or North Korea.
In China though, such fears are not only those of the paranoid. Every dynasty eventually fell. Every communist regime was born in struggle and fear of retaliation. That was real.
There is an additional source of fear. CCP fears memory of its own past - persecutions of peasants and murders of landlords and “rightists” and starvations and mass campaigns in the days pre-1978 – and from its own present - corruption and disappearances and land theft and pollution and food impurities and censoring of thought. Even though memories of the famine and even Tian’nmen are fading, there are new insults to human dignity that anger ordinary Chinese.
Many Party theoreticians see greater openness, better defined rules and regulations as necessary for economic growth as well as stemming unrest. Beginning under Deng Xiao Ping, there was some gradual reform toward greater openness until the second half of the Hu administration. Perhaps, the famine and Cultural Revolution could be addressed in a more open manner. Perhaps some voice of the people could be heard in a way that preserves their human dignity. But since Xi Jinping became General Secretary, CCP actions are much more those of a frightened power and the tools of intimidation harsher and global.
The fears at the top are of citizen revolts from below. Even small protests can spread, just like in 1989. We speak of “Tian’anmen” in Beijing but there were protests and disturbances at more than 100 universities at that time. Citizens in the streets and some officials were cheering the students. The idea among the leadership is that CCP came close to falling at that time. Remember that in 1990-91, the USSR did fall. The CCP has studied Soviet failings closely. The most important conclusion from that research is intolerance for splits in the ranks. Disagreement is fine, as long as it is kept within the Institutes or Party Schools or, at least, out of the public eye.
There will always be policy disagreements. There will always be issues of personal gain at the expense of the state, promotion of friends and family in business and government, and competition for leadership roles. All exist all the time, and could lead to factional splits that could be a stimulus to popular uprisings. “United we stand, divided we fall” is as much in the minds of CCP leaders as it was for Benjamin Franklin and his cohorts after signing the Declaration of Independence. If ordinary people see dissension at the top, it is a good time to rush in. The appearance of unity and loyalty are always necessary in a single party state. As a matter of history, rebellions in China – of which there were many – always came from below, from farmers, and not from the literati, the educated bureaucrats who ran the empire. A rebellion from within CCP seems far-fetched to me; but dissension – well, that is another story.
There must necessarily be disagreement on policy and programs. To some extent, these disagreements can be represented by policy factions, as David Shambaugh described with seven policy factions contesting in Coping with a Conflicted China. What kind of rising power should China be? But policy is one thing, corruption and personal gain are another.
The Bo Xilai affair in 2012 exposed the dissension at the top, and gave the lie to pretentions of an omnipotent and masterful CCP governance. Popular reading in Beijing in 2010 was Leo Strauss’ The City and Man, which discussed the usefulness of the Noble Lie and authoritarian leadership. In 2012, it was Alexis deTocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, which explored whether reform attempts in a weakened regime would stabilize or destabilize the ruling elite. This was reading not for fun, but with a purpose. The question inside and outside of Zhongnanhai is whither CCP? Just about every China observer has opined on this topic. I cite some of them in Whither China? post #1. If you can’t spend hours reading varied opinions on the China future, perhaps brief summaries there would be useful.
For some, the idea of an anxious CCP is ridiculous. Even though every other major communist party has disappeared, the Chinese Communist Party remains. And CCP has weathered the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, Tian'anmen, disappearance of 40,000,000 SOE jobs in the late 1990s, and thuggish oppression from chengguan everywhere. The phrase, "Long Live Chairman Mao" actually means "(live for) 10,000 years!" Can CCP do it?