For prior posts in this series, see Whither Xi? Whither CCP? Whither China?
Whither China Post #5 - Question 3 - Does Xi have a plan … or even a solution?
The incurably optimistic saw wily manipulation in Xi’s moves. He had to first clear away the obstacles to real reform. With that accomplished, he could then open up the financial system, float the currency, open the economy to foreign service businesses, eliminate capital controls, and maybe … just maybe … move toward greater freedoms.
Maybe Xi was just taking advice from Sunzi in the Art of War on dealing with enemies -
1:23 - If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are
united, separate them…. Xi has acted quickly, from the day of his installation, to remove enemies and put fear into the daily life of cadres. No close colleagues of Xi have been taken in the anti-corruption campaign.
2:5 - Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays…. There have been no long delays, no wasted time due to “collaborative governance” as under Deng and Jiang and Hu. Xi is the core of the Party, leader of far too many “leading small groups.”
6:12 If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground. All we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way…. The anti-corruption campaign certainly qualifies as something odd and unaccountable. There have been anti-corruption campaigns before, but they lasted a year or two before fading away. This one is still virulent, and is convicting people of behavior that was standard operating procedure for many years before. The Discipline Inspection bureau usually conveniently looked away.
7:19. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt…. This is the current method of operation of the Discipline Inspection bureaus. There is only a text – “please come to a meeting” or a confrontation while walking out of one’s apartment. Then, nothing. No communication. One has been disappeared – or, as some in social media now say, one has been harmonized. CCP justice comes first, and is far more feared than government justice.
Sometimes, direct action is necessary; but often it produces unintended consequences. Indirection, particularly in confused or difficult situations, is better. Sunzi told us that in the Art of War, 1:18 - all warfare is about deception, particularly when systems are fluid. In the threat to Japan over the Diaoyu Dao (Senkaku Islands), in the anti-corruption campaign, in threats to cadres, in crackdowns on social media, the internet, foreign businesses, Uighurs, threats to Taiwan and Hong Kong, Christians and Muslims, Mr. Xi is clearly not following the Sunzi advice. He is plunging ahead, not at random but certainly on many fronts at one time. Xi is forgetting Sunzi -
5:5 - In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory…
5:6 - Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.
On the one hand, clearing the path seemed like a wise move. On the other, with threats to provincial and local officials, combined with excessive concentration of power at the center in the hands of Xi, there comes much less willingness on the part of local officials to undertake any reforms or policies that were not expressly demanded by the top. Local innovation in policy, a resilient CCP tactic of the last forty years, has ended. Local paralysis has begun. In a previous post Xi, CCP, DJT, GOP - Part 1 - Government and Party I talked about a dinner party in 2015 with CCP midlevel officials who are former students of mine. All were from Zhejiang, where Xi was party leader, and I expected some expressions of support from cadres who might benefit from Xi programs. But all were – surprisingly, to me – unhappy with Xi. Even then, it seemed the only path was further repression.
Xi is doubling down on oppression in every niche of China. In recent years, Chinese government expenses for internal security have been greater than expenses on the military, which expense itself been rising at a rate much greater than GDP growth. The Xi solution is a piling on to purify, which generally means get rid of western influences and exerting more central control. So if past levels of internet control did not work, add more controls. If past levels of control of social media did not work, construct a social credit score system. If foreign NGO were becoming pesky, define them away. If nationalism was becoming too dangerous a source of meaning for Chinese, establish a new cult of the leader, the core of CCP, Mr. Xi himself. Piling on means doing more of what you did before in an attempt to procure success.
But will more of the same be enough to usher in the “Chinese Dream,” which Xi has defined as the “great renaissance of the Chinese people”? If Xi is aware of the urgent appeals of top intellectuals for reforms toward greater political freedom, he does not seem to have been moved one bit. The well-known blogger Han_Han is speaking for millions of disgruntled Chinese when he encapsulates the plight that is gripping China: “(the Party) taught us cruelty and power struggle in the first few decades- and greed and selfishness in the ensuing few decades. Our culture and traditional morality have been shattered. The same goes for trust among us. Gone too is any sense of faith and consensus.”
Psychology of fear
In a classic work in psychotherapy, and negotiation, and management – Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (Norton, reprint 2011) Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (WWF) explored two model of change. One could be looking to change a domestic relationship or a battlefield situation. They characterized one of the models as “more of the same” – if a goal cannot be achieved using current methods, then pile on. Use more of the same - money, force, power, threats – to achieve results. If advertising is not increasing sales, then double the ad budget. That can work. But sometimes more of the same does not work. When that happens, it might help to change the game. WWF define this as changing the paradigm, reframing the problem or the way of understanding the problem. If advertising is not increasing sales, then change the media, change the product or the target market. This always involves a deeper understanding of the reasons for not changing. Richard Nixon, staunch anti-communist, could foster peace in the world by going to China in 1972. This, in fact, is what complex adaptive systems, like political organizations, must do to survive.
So, if politics in 2012 appeared frozen, with economic and institutional reform frustrated by the vested interests that dominated CCP, what to do? To unleash abilities to change, Xi Jinping had to break the existing norms and destroy the factions and networks that controlled levers of change in much of the economy. Dramatic action seemed justified, and CCP politics has always tolerated swift reversals of policy as new leaders stake their claim. But drama for the sake of drama reminds everyone in China of the bad old days of the Famine and the Cultural Revolution.
The reform measures, if that is what Xi intended, have now become “more of the same,” and now have gone too far. As Minzner puts it, “China’s reform era is ending. Core factors that characterized it – political stability, ideological openness, and rapid economic growth – are unraveling.” The time of experimentation with reforms in governance, in meeting the needs of ordinary Chinese, is over. The reform post-1978 is ending, and China is once again closing down in a paroxysm of one-man rule. Minzer’s book End of An Era, (Oxford University Press, March, 2018) argues for the closing of the Chinese dream. I might clarify – the dream of Chinese people is closing; Mr. Xi’s dream of Making China Great Again is unfolding every day.
His dream is likely to lead to a CCP nightmare. Xi needed to change the game. Instead, he has persisted in more of the same in nearly all respects. He has moved directly when some indirectness, at least some deception, some allowance for atonement for past sins, might have accomplished as much with less fear, less anxiety in the world. Further openness would have exposed much of the poor behavior Xi was trying to correct without the totalitarian tactics.
One tactic of deception that Mr. Xi has introduced is to put more moving parts into the machine, and then control the moving parts. Xi has done this with the new leading groups and gathering power unto himself. There is a new government National Supervision Commission that merges anti-corruption efforts of the Party Discipline Inspection Committees with government action. This reduces the influence of provincial leaders in anti-corruption efforts, but also centralizes all work in Beijing and will put control of secular law in the hands of CCP. Ministers, provincial governors and Party leaders, SOE leaders can propose, but now only Xi can dispose. He may choose to act, and he may not. All is uncertain. Unfortunately, this form of deception by Mr. Xi only creates more fear, more anxiety in his most direct clients, that of CCP members. That plays to Xi’s strength, but at fearful costs. Without good information from below, and sycophancy among senior officials, one is reminded of the prelude to the Great Famine – when proscribed information and frightened officials led to the deaths of 40,000,000 Chinese.
Xi, like a modern business oligarch, sees warfare as his true profession. Sunzi should truly be a guide to strategy and tactics. But politics at this level of power can only be warfare when it is relatively intimate – a few political enemies, like Bo Xilai, to eliminate. Xi is conducting warfare against the 90-odd million CCP members who signed up years ago, with different expectations and now, complex commitments. At the same time, Xi is conducting battles against immorality and lack of common decency on the street.
Corruption is as much a part of Chinese politics as rice is a part of the culture. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, it has been estimated that official salaries for provincial officials were perhaps 5% to 10% of their total remuneration – the rest coming from local fees, exactions, bribes, and gifts and corruption of various sorts. And it is widely understood that concerns for others are limited to family, neighbors, guanxi network – and not so much outside of those. Perhaps the era of social media has only brought to a wider audience the crassness one sees daily on the street.
Thus Xi is trying to purify a 2000 year old tradition. Good luck with that. More to the point, what is Xi’s end game? Can CCP survival be a decades-long mission? The current mission is already creating enemies, cultivating fear and mistrust, and stirring resentment in the populace. They appreciate the anti-corruption campaign, but they dislike being blocked from video games and being told to read stories of Xi, stories by Xi, and pronouncements of Xi. For the first time in a generation, people are fearful of losing jobs or not being able to find one.
When is enough tightening? To what end? Xi wants more a powerful China, but at home he is creating a middle class that is aggrieved and sullen. Abroad, he is getting a China of which the international image is that of “liars and bullies” - in OBOR, in pollution fixes that aren’t, in the threat of ZTE and Huawei. China is not viewed as incompetent, as the US might be viewed, but worse – the intentional liar, cheat, bully. Neither Trump nor Xi will make their country great again. China’s continued economic rise will be sullied by governing, home and abroad. Abroad, China becomes like the landlord – the rent must be paid, but no one would be sad to see the landlord go.
All to what end?
Xi’s only real plan is crackdown, but there is no exit strategy. By changing the CCP constitution and the then the Chinese constitution, he has assured his stay in power past 2022, which is useful for himself – better to be the despised leader in power than the despised leader out of power. In this interpretation, Xi is acting reasonably skillfully to enact his program. He has a couple of significant failures, however, that may doom his approach – he has trapped his enemies, leaving them not only in a loyalty or nothing position, but also poisoning any decision that subordinates do make, since without rule of law, any decision can be found faulty. It might be too much to ask Mr. Xi to think of the management of change, and how that should be applied to CCP. Such a modern western concept would be too much for a traditional organization like CCP. But Sunzi, and the 36 Stratagems, were available to Mr. Xi. Now, his organization is increasingly hollowed out, and more fragile than when he arrived.
Why would Xi make such obvious mistakes? Mr. Xi was charged with reform; he understood that he needed to act quickly; but in his haste, perhaps he has become overextended.
Failure due to hypervigilance
Mr. Xi is a man with a mission. Not only is he charged with saving CCP at a critical time in its history, but along the way he must morally purify CCP members and the whole of the Chinese populace. Xi has determined that he is the man to do this – hence permission for leader adulation in every form. Xi is, in a word, messianic. If he cannot be Hercules, perhaps he is the savior.
Even saviors can get overextended. In Luke 5:12-16 - Yet the news about him spread all the more, and enormous crowds collected to hear Jesus and to be healed of their diseases. But he slipped quietly away to deserted places for prayer.
Xi has set himself up for making decisions in every part of the economy, every part of the culture. He is coordinating a vast machine, himself at the controls, but there are too many moving parts, too much coordination to be done, too many variables to consider. Party leaders have been anxious about survival since Tian’anmen in 1989, and the threats are getting worse. Time pressure is salient. If Mr. Xi were Dutch, we might say he has too many fingers in too many dikes.
Irving Janis and Leon Mann wrote the classic decision-making book in 1977 – Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment. If Mr. Xi were being profiled as an example in their book, they might describe him as being hypervigilant, a particularly defective form of decision making. Hypervigilance can result from having too many critical problems to confront with too little time for analysis. A result is hyper sensitivity to all surroundings, and simultaneously trying a little bit of all solutions, hoping that something will work.
A quick description of hypervigilance –
However, certain conditions such as sudden, unexpected threat or time pressure may give rise to a hypervigilant pattern of behavior. In contrast to vigilant decision making, a hypervigilant pattern of decision making is
characterized by (a) nonsystematic or selective information (b) consideration of limited alternatives, (c) rapid evaluation of data, and (d) selection of a solution without extensive review or reappraisal. According to Janis and Mann (1977), hypervigilant decision making represents an impulsive, disorganized pattern of decision making: The hypervigilant decision maker's "thought processes are disrupted . . . his thinking becomes more simplistic. He is likely to search frantically for a solution, persevere in his thinking about a limited number of alternatives, and then latch onto a hastily contrived solution" (p. 51). Thus, hypervigilance is viewed as a "defective coping pattern" in which "the decision maker will fail to carryout adequately the cognitive tasks that are essential for arriving at stable decisions" (Janis, 1982; p. 73).
In Vigilant and Hypervigilant Decision-making, by Joan Johnston, James Driskell and Eduardo Salas in Journal of Applied Psychology, 82:4, 1997.
Janis and Mann describe hypervigilance as pattern of coping with stress – in this case, the stress of saving CCP and China from both its own flaws and those imported from outside. It would not be farfetched for Xi and his officials to see themselves as another thin Red line – although red in political theory, not waistcoats.
Sometimes, hypervigilance in pursuit of goals can work. At the level of purifying the Chinese people, perhaps not. If changing the game, fundamental reform is needed, then what to do? Is democracy a path for China?
One could see CCP response to conditions, post 1989, and particularly now with Xi, as panic responses. Faced with intense pressures at home and abroad, with new problems arising daily, the party decided to grant superpowers to one individual, who at least understood the severity of the crisis. In response, Xi chose not the adaptive response techniques of complex systems theory, but the “fight or flight” response of animals in fear. CCP cannot do flight – they cannot simply walk away, so fight is the only option. Isaiah Berlin gave us the model – the fox or the hedgehog. In high stress, one can choose to be a fox, which knows many things and can adapt to change; or one can be a hedgehog, and simply do what one has always done when faced with a crisis – burrow deeper. The Chinese term might be 死马当成活马医 si ma dang cheng huo ma yi taking a dead horse (as if it could be) a cured live horse
The hedgehog - burrowing deeper into authoritarianism
For much of the last forty years, CCP has shown itself to be quite adaptable to local conditions – it played the fox very well. But there is now a new species of CCP animal – the hedgehog.
By way of burrowing deeper, Xi has created many new small leading groups; put himself at the helm of most or all, giving himself impossible responsibilities; made extraordinary efforts to put rivals in jail; nullified his prime minister, Li Keqiang and the State Council, ostensibly the “cabinet” of the Chinese legislature; destroyed the factions in CCP that supported a climate of privilege, but also brought some alternate views to the forefront of political consideration; brought the hammer down on every element of civil society that was nascent in 2012 – speech, association, NGO working with marginalized groups, internet discussion; reminded media of who they really work for, CCP; created fear in universities by secretly policing what faculty say in class; removed “western” textbooks from universities, along with some western teachers; behaved not always aggressively, but thoughtlessly, in foreign affairs in the South China Sea, the East China Sea; threatening foreign researchers in their home countries; descending on the Muslim population in Xinjiang with concentration camps; closed churches and threatened priests; put attorneys and writers and artists in jail for representing their clients and trying to speak freely; criticized Chinese women who date foreigners, warning them that the boyfriend could be a spy; threatening Chinese students who speak freely when abroad, by threatening them or their families; stirred a dangerous nationalism among youth, many millions of whom will be unable to find marriage partners as a result of the one-child policy and abortion of female fetuses; and along the way, created a cult for himself, in violation of Party ideas since Deng. Rather an impressive set of accomplishments, in a negative way.
William Overholt in China's Crisis of Success sees Xi not as a strong leader, the strongest since Mao, but as one who is terrified and weak. How else to explain the crackdowns within the CCP and outside, and the belligerence outside?
One of China’s current problems is that shared national fear of collapse has given way to complacency and some hubris. ... As fear segues into confidence, the willingness of the population to endure terrible stresses dissipates and so does the motivation of the leaders to take great risks.
It is hard to see what the Xi plan would be for China and CCP. There are so many policy adventures in so many arenas. With the negative consequences of so much of what Xi has done, one can only conclude that Xi is only secondarily interested in either CCP or China. Xi, alone, has the full attention of Mr. Xi. How like Mr. Trump on public morality on foreign affairs on harmony and trust on tariffs and tribute on stability and on internal harm to party and governance. Mr. Xi will no more Make China Great Again than will Mr. Trump with his Make America Great Again. Both came to power with support for change, and that required destruction of old relationships, old customs, old patterns. But this is not creative destruction. For Xi and CCP, this is a Chinese version of the American Vietnam conundrum at Ben Tre – “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”