Whither Xi? Whither CCP? Whither China?

There are many questions about the direction in which Xi Jinping is taking China and CCP. A question left over from the World War II days is when will China democratize?  Even today, that remains a pertinent question for some observers, including CCP theoreticians.  Another – will CCP collapse?  Internal political weaknesses apparent from the Bo Xilai fiasco are now obvious to the world.  A third – is Xi Jinping a reformer (of sorts) with a master plan to restore China and purify CCP to ensure its dominance?  Will he have to destroy CCP in order to save it?

This is first of a series of posts perusing these questions.  Each post can stand alone.  This first post is just background reading – a set of references.  I briefly review work from well-known China hands, including Minxin Pei, David Shambaugh, Cheng Li, Willy Lam, Andrew Nathan, and Carl Minzner.  This is a long post, mostly for the reader who wants to read the original articles. Subsequent posts attempt to answer whither Xi, whither CCP, and whither China.

The list of posts is below. 

What you are reading is post is #1 -

Post #1– Some background reading – references and thoughts from insightful observers

            The Context for Mr. Xi’s ascension

                        The era of good feelings to 2012

                        The bumps in the road dating from 1989

                        The Xi mandate

            The Reading List

            The Contents


Post #2- Anxiety about the present, fears for the future


Post #3 - Question 1 - CCP authoritarian resilience … or not


Post #4 - Question 2 - Xi’s MO - Purifying CCP and the Chinese people – can Xi do it?

            The warning to cadres …

            The hammer comes down on the people …   

            The hammer comes down on the cadres … 

            Which is what?  


Post #5 – Question 3 - Does Xi have a plan … or even a solution?  

            Psychology of fear   

            All to what end?

            Failure due to hypervigilance


Post #6- Question 4 – Must China have democracy … or die?      

            The mantra – if p, then q; if development, then democracy

            Is democracy even a theoretical possibility?

            What are the prerequisites for democracy?  

            Can there be voice without democracy?

            United we stand, divided we fall  

            Some signs of cracks in the armor

            The middle income trap and democracy


Post #7 - Question 5 – Whither China’s economic development with no democracy?

            Contrapositive modernization theory – if not q, then not p - if no democracy, then

               no future growth


Post #8 - Question 6 – But how about innovation. Can you have that without democracy?   

            Sometimes destruction is not creative at all …

            But still …


Post #9- Question 7 - So no democracy, no resilience; heavy challenges. Now what?

            The economic trap

            The geopolitical trap

            The political trap

            Pei’s trapped transition

            The long duree of trapped transition

            Challenges beyond stagnation

            Watch the third tier and fourth tier cities, and young Chinese

            Challenges facing all of China, not just Mr. Xi

            Ameliorating circumstances

            Still …

            Outside China


            A new post-Xi trapped transition

            Durability of CCP


Post #10 - Question 8 - Hard landing - what of CCP when growth slows? 

            Economy, reform, rebellion     


Post #11 - Question 9 – What will happen when Xi is no more    




Whither China? post #1 -

Some background reading – references and thoughts from insightful observers

Below, I consider Xi-era comments by scholars of China politics and add comments of my own that help me understand Mr. Xi, his program, and near term prospects for China.  Included is discussion of the middle income trap, an economic construct that worries political leaders and economists in China and is one of those existential Chinese fears – that the system, the world, perhaps history, is rigged against China.   I begin by providing some context for Xi’s actions.


The Context for Mr. Xi’s Ascension

Early on, in 2011 and 2012, there was hopeful talk that Xi Jinping would be a reformer, continuing the Deng Xiaoping policies of opening up. The emphasis was on continuity, not change.  “More of the same, but better” was the idea.   Xi came up through the ranks.  He is a princeling, but was a sent-down youth in the Cultural Revolution and understands as well as anyone the challenges of leading China now.  Following is a little background on developments post-Tian’anmen.


The era of good feelings to 2012

In the prior Hu Jintao era, there was some slow but steady movement in the direction of greater economic and personal freedom.  Some Chinese were becoming rich, and some of those immensely so. There was some opening of freedom of speech and association, and foreign NGO were able to function. Everyone was working, the future for all was bright, and popular attitudes were absolutely positive.  For those who had experienced the Cultural Revolution – like Xi -  the changes were exhilarating.  China was on the right path.  Some troubles – environment, corruption, land theft, debt  – but these were manageable.  Growth could cure all ills, even transitions of leadership.  Such was the context of the Xi transition.

After bloodless transitions from Deng to Zhang Zemin, and then to Hu in 2002-2004, it appeared that intra-Party power struggles could be managed rather than erupting into open warfare; that the 2008 Olympics and other international events had put China on a path of incipient qualified membership in the community of most developed nations, and perhaps leadership; management of the Chinese economy gave the lie to western macroeconomic concepts after 2008; and while the internet was restricted, it was a nuisance rather than a threat.  This was the good side of macropolitics circa 2012.


The bumps in the road dating from 1989

There were worries from the Tian’anmen era as well.   Within CCP, there were serious discussions about Party stability.  Zhao Ziyang lost his job as Party leader for not coming down harder on protest.  Jiang Zemin took over the job as Party secretary partly because he tamped down protest in Shanghai at the same time.

The 1990s began the transition from small scale, rural, private development that characterized the 1980s.  The prior decade – from Deng’s opening to Tian’anmen - was the period of small “c” capitalist development in China. The Deng southern tour in 1992 ignited large scale development – the development zones, the export driven model.  Growth accelerated through the Jiang and Hu administrations, and the goal was always to grow bigger. The Party phrase coming out of the banking crisis of the late 1990s was “grab hold of the big, let go of the small.”  It is from this time that crony capitalism, big “C” capitalism, took hold.  Nearly all that we see now in China – all of Pudong development, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangdong, expressways and ports and airports and university expansion – began in Jiang’s term, with initial push from Deng. 

It is also in this time that the close relationship between government and business begat corruption and malfeasance so serious that CCP became fearful for its own survival.  Chinese culture expects the central government, and leaders, to be exemplars.  That was obviously not the case in the late 1990s, and only became worse during the Hu Jintao administration beginning in 2002.  Whither CCP? was heavily discussed at Central Party School and other high level institutes, and at Tsinghua and Beida.  Will corruption kill Party legitimacy?  A little corruption can grease the wheels of development, but how much is too much?  When does farmer and citizen anger and resentment at land thefts, pollution, and chengguan thug behavior build into a movement?


The Xi mandate

This was the environment of Xi Jinping’s ascension in 2012.  All agreed that he had to reign in CCP corruption.  All agreed that Chinese people were exhibiting loss of a moral compass.  All agreed that Marxism no longer inspired.  No one was persuaded to struggle now to build the socialist future.  Leaders were not charismatic, as were Mao and Deng.  In family growth terms, China was a 19-year old kid, big and strong but not mature, without socialization or good values.  CCP was the parent, and Xi the father.  What to do?

The beginning of the Xi version of the reform era began quickly.  Xi became General Secretary of CCP in November, 2012.   In April, 2013, the General Office – the CCP unit in Beijing charged with sending out CCP regulations, guidelines, entreaties, and news – sent out Document No. 9, another in a series of regular communications from Party leadership.  (Annually, Document No. 1 is always a statement of policy supporting farmers and farming, by tradition).

Document No. 9 was leaked to western media and quickly became infamous.   The document laid out for CCP members in some detail the seven western deadly sins, all presumably aimed at destroying CCP and China.  The list included promotion of free speech, free media, freedom of association, spreading negative stories about CCP, and questioning the path by which CCP is leading the people.  The document was quickly erased online in China, but the path of Xi’s reforms were now clear. 

At the third and fourth Party plenums, in 2013 and 2014, political and economic reforms were unveiled that led some to think that Mr. Xi had good modern western-oriented goals … all that speechifying about openness to the world and rule of law … just, he needed time, and power, to implement.  And in any case, the end justifies the means, right?  Daniel Rosen describes the wide range of reforms promoted in the 3rd plenum - Avoiding the Blind Alley: China's Economic Overhaul and its Global Implications

Xi took on the General Secretary job with some mandate for change and reform.  Some argued that Xi had to clean the Augean stables of corruption in the CCP and in the Chinese people before embarking on a program of real reform toward more freedom and openness.   Pointedly, Xi asked the assembled Central Committee early in 2013 why there was no “real man” to stand up to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, when Gorbachev let Soviet Communism slip into oblivion.  Even more pointedly, Xi sees himself as the real man in China.  His move to extend his tenure past 2022 is one such move, along with installing himself at the head of far too many “leading small groups” which direct policy from the top.  It is a Herculean task. 

Following is a partial reading list, and then some brief summary of each piece.  Most of the reading is in the form of articles rather than books. 


The Reading List

The articles are listed in not quite chronological order.  I think it is important to include Document No. 9, since it provides background for all else that is written.  There are three issues discussed in these pieces – whether CCP displays “authoritarian resilience” in rule, particularly in the Xi era; whether Chinese people are willing to provide the tolerance that authoritarian resilience needs; and whether China will democratize.


Document No. 9,  CCP Central Committee General Office –  Spring, 2013 (for background).   Warns CCP member to be aware of the seven deadly sins America is using to destroy the Party and China.

Philosophy and History: Interpreting  the Xi Jinping Era  Jiang Shigong, Professor of Law at Peking University Law School, published in the Guangzhou Journal in January, 2018, translated by Gloria Davies and published at The China Story from Australia National University.  Jiang intends his piece to be an authoritative statement of the new political orthodoxy.

The End of the CCP's Resilient Authoritarianism? A Tripartite Assessment of Shifting Power in China, Cheng Li.  Cheng Li is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.  This was written in 2012, just as Xi began his reign.

Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression? Willy Wo-Lap Lam.  Mar 24, 2015.  Willy Lam is professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Also, presentation at USC US-China Institute, May 19, 2015, on Xi Jinping's Unpublicized Agendas.

Xi Jinping: the game changer of Chinese elite politics?  Zhengxu Wang & Jinghan Zeng.  Contemporary Politics,  April 28, 2016.   Wang is a professor in the school of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University.  Zeng is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.

An Institutional Analysis of Xi Jinping's Centralization of PowerSangkuk Lee.  Journal of Contemporary China, 26:105, January 11, 2017.   Lee is a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) in Seoul, South Korea. He was a visiting scholar at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

What Does General Secretary Xi Jinping Dream About?  Tony Saich, writing in Ash Center Occasional Papers, August 2017,  at the Kennedy School.  

China's Coming Crackup  by David Shambaugh.  Originally in the Wall Street Journal in 2015, available at Rising Powers Initiative a project of the Sigur Center at George Washington University. Shambaugh is director of the China Program at George Washington University and author of the outstanding book China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (2007).  Long an insider at top levels of CCP hierarchy.  In 2015, the Chinese University of Foreign Affairs, run under auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, named him one of “America’s Most Influential China Experts.”   His new book, China's Future, published in March of 2016, details his position reversal. 

Authoritarian Resilience  Andrew Nathan, Journal of Democracy 14 (1), 2003.  Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.  He is a member of the group Human Rights in China, a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia.  Among his books is The Tiananmen Papers, co-edited with Perry Link.

End of an Era: How China's Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise  (Oxford University Press, 2018) by Carl Minzner, Professor of Law at Fordham, specialist in Chinese politics.    ChinaFile has an excerpt from the book, titled  Reversing Reform (March 8, 2018).  Also of interest is Minzner’s article at the Journal of Democracy, China After the Reform Era, available at SSRN.

Understanding China's Rise Under Xi Jinping  Kevin Rudd. Speech at West Point, Monday, March 5, 2018. Kevin Ruud, former Prime Minister of Australia and President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.


The Contents

An all too brief summary of each article, and some comments -


Document No. 9

This warning from CCP Central Office in spring of 2013 contains warnings to all cadres about the ways in which the west (read America) is seeking destruction of CCP and China.  Recommendations for noticing and interpreting the words and actions of foreigners are provided.  A list of the western sins –


  1. Promoting Western constitutional democracy: An attempt to undermine the current leadership and the socialism with Chinese characteristics system of governance.
  2. Promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership.
  3. Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation.
  4. Promoting Neoliberalism, attempting to change China’s Basic Economic System.
  5. Promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.
  6. Promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP and of New China.
  7. Questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.                                      Source: ChinaFile


Jiang Shigong - back to fundamentals

Jiang is writing to provide an authoritative account of Xi’s program in the new era. He interprets ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ based on speeches and writings and policy pronouncements.  In Chinese communist theory, Xi is simply following the path of inevitable history.  In good Chinese literary fashion, Jiang recounts history as Xi interprets it – China stood up under Mao, got rich under Deng, now powerful under Xi.   Xi proposes to get rid of the contradictions and discontinuities of the last 150 years - including the mistakes of the first 30 years of CCP rule - and create a new future for China that reconstructs the time when all nations paid tribute (mostly in money and goods) to the emperor and China was zhongguo - not referring to the ancient states of the middle Yangtze valley, but in the sense of the center of the world.

To do this, China must put aside discussions of war, revolution and class struggle to craft a narrative that will blend three elements - the positive aspects of Chinese traditional culture, the socialist commitment to equality, and capitalist economic efficiency.  This is the new era.

What is needed, what Xi wants, is to create a sense of wholeness, a sense of a Chinese character, of a unified Chinese story, that many authors have noted as missing.  China, it has been said, stands for nothing.  Sun Yat Sen said Chinese are like a handful of sand.  No coherence, unformable.  No unifying theme, in the way Americans might talk of "freedom" or even "e pluribus unum".   In this idea, Confucianism might be able to serve as a Chinese civil religion.

To accomplish such a unification, China must leave the past behind, turn its back on western values and forge a new Chineseness that includes rule by the party-state.  Back in the Hu Jintao era, CCP was getting a bad rep as corrupt and failing at leading the people.  Too much accommodation to western ideas, NGO, village level voting for leaders, openness to the internet.   Jiang notes -

 As a principled political Party, if the CCP loses the philosophical analytical tools and methods provided by Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought, it will lose the theoretical magic weapon - the popular support of the people, upon which all success rests. 

In other words, remember the mandate of heaven. 

After taking up the post of General Secretary, Xi Jinping posed a question that caused deep reflection on the part of the entire Party: when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union dissolved, why was there no real man among the twenty thousand members to protest the event?

No more of that.  It is back to the basics of Marxism-Leninism, CCP as the vanguard of the proletariat and the representative of the most productive forces in the society – pointedly, I might add, not representative of the workers and farmers supported by the "old Left" students at Peking University.

Now China will set an example for the world, and contribute a set of new development and governance concepts to the world.  This is Chinese wisdom applied to world problems.  It's all in the title to Xi's speech at the 19th Party Congress in November 2018 - ‘Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.’  

To accomplish the goals, one needs a strong leader - a strongman, if you will.  Xi Jinping, taking on the role of historical inevitability of struggle, has courageously taken up the mission of transforming China to its rightful role in history and world geography.  Jiang points out that Xi used the term "struggle" twenty-three times in his speech.

The deadline for accomplishing the unification and glorification tasks is 2049, the hundred year anniversary of founding of the new China.  From the Jiang article -

 One important reason why Westerners have difficulty understanding the theories of the CCP is that their way of philosophical thinking has been constrained by the metaphysical tradition of the West. They are accustomed to a logical process that proceeds from concept to concept, and hence cannot truly understand the Chinese philosophical tradition of the ‘unity of thought and action’.... Chinese traditional philosophical thought worshipped the idea of harmony expressed in the saying ‘the unity of heaven and man’ 天人合一. For this reason, Chinese people cannot completely understand the Western style of thinking that has produced subject and object, master and slave. 

Once we adopt the perspective of the international communist movement, the positioning of the Xi Jinping era can no longer be limited to Party history, the history of the republic or the history of Chinese civilisation. It enters the history of world civilisation through the international Communist movement. This means that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics must achieve universal recognition throughout the entire world…. The present great revival surely means that Chinese civilisation is spreading and extending itself into even more parts of the world. This undoubtedly constitutes the greatest historical mission of the Chinese people in the Xi Jinping era.

Jiang is a respected legal scholar; but he knows his limits.  He reaches into Chinese history, back to the Qing dynasty, for political reference, as did Xi in his speech.   But neither man goes back far enough in history.  For that, we need to consider the circumstances of literati officials in all of Chinese history, back to the Han.  Chinese officials have never derived the bulk of their income from official salary.  Bribes, extractions, tribute has been the bulk of compensation for hundreds of years.  In short, many Chinese officials have profited from their official positions – it is a cultural phenomenon, going back not 40 years or 70, but 2000; and Chinese people have always deferred to leaders, expecting them to take advantage of their position – that is what leaders do.


Cheng Li – chaos under heaven, but all is not well

Writing in 2012, Cheng Li at Brookings also suggested some clarification of the “authoritarian resilience” argument.  He saw a dangerous flaw in the willingness of western observers to see China as a monolith – akin to a model of the Party General Secretary in Beijing pushing buttons, and the rest of China instantly responds.   We see and hear from the elite; what we read from China is written by the elite.  But the far larger masses of Chinese people go unrecognized in the west.  Given all the damage inflicted on the general population over the last 70 years, the wider Chinese population no longer grants CCP the high moral ground.  The preferences, perquisites, and outright theft by the elite constitute crony capitalism, and the people know it.  Li says it is a mistake to see “resilience” as evidence of political legitimacy.   High level Party theoreticians, such as Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, Yu Keping, and Wang Changjaing (chairman of Party building at Central Party School) have all suggested that movement to democracy should not wait.  Even Wen Jiabao expressed the need to move in a democratic direction.  As far back as 2002, Li Rui, former secretary to Mao and outspoken liberal, commented on the economic and political progress –

Chinese and foreign histories prove that autocracy is the source of political turmoil.  As the collapse of the Soviet Union shows, the root cause is autocracy.  Modernization is only possible through democratization.  This is the  trend in the world …. This rule applies to every country – and every party.   (cited in Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition.  Page 4)

Li notes that to the extent CCP has some resilience, it is a wasteful delay of needed reforms.   Resilience lies in the Chinese people, and in the middle class, rather than in CCP.  His view, as of 2012, was that CCP needs to embrace democratic change if the Party is to regain public confidence.  This would include legal reform, judiciary reform, rule of law, more intra-party elections and further opening of the media.  His latest work  Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership  is more understanding of Xi's need to consolidate power in order to force these needed changes.  But power consolidation is not moving China in the direction Li finds necessary. 


Willy Lam – reversion to the mean 

In Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression? (2015) Lam saw a pogrom coming against liberal intellectuals in China, and civil society.  Xi, he said, is more Han Fei than Lee Kwan Yew (the widely revered father figure of Singapore).  Han Fei is the Legalist who advised emperors to use the law to crush enemies.   In the prior fifteen years, Lam saw a marked increase in the use of torture, detentions, threats via internet and street thugs (chengguan).  Use of such techniques of persuasion has only expanded since 2015.   Lam saw a marked departure from the Deng Xiaoping reforms.  Deng used collective leadership at the top of the Party; Xi has gathered an enormous amount of power unto himself alone.  Deng barred ideological campaigns;  Xi has recreated the mass line campaign, the America as threat campaign (of which Document No. 9 was only the first salvo), demanded ideological purity in university classrooms and textbooks, and forced members to hand write responses to Xi speeches, to make sure they have understood, and understood correctly, the truth being delivered to them. The Dawn of the Little Red Phone | China Media Project:

Deng advocated separation of party and government; Xi has withdrawn all power in every sector back to CCP.  Only the Party will lead in policy formation.  The State Council, ostensibly the Chinese legislature, will have only implementation powers, and really, less of those.  Essentially, this is retreat from bureaucratization back to a revolutionary style of management.   A summary of his views is in a presentation at the US-China Institute in 2015 -  Xi Jinping's Unpublicized Agendas.


Carl Minzner – reversion to the mean implies little hope for the future

In his 2016 book, Minzner provides a detailed account of reform in CCP and Chinese politics. The reform era began with the opening up policies of Deng Xiaoping, and continued through Jiang and Hu.  There was opening up in many respects, beginning with the ability of farmers to decide what to grow, where, and sell to a market for whatever price they could get.  There was tremendous reform of SOE in the late 1990s, along with changes in fiscal relations between Beijing and the provinces.  In general, one could describe a change from a revolutionary party to a governing party.  Ad hoc procedures were replaced by laws and regulations.  A company law permitting private enterprise (which had existed, but was legally ignored) came into effect in 1994.  Corporate law and securities law came into being.  Intra-Party democracy was used for legitimating promotions, and election of village heads was put into practice.  There was increasing openness in arts and media.  There was certainly no rule of law, as we understand it, but there were beginnings of citizen ability to challenge government rulings.  Along with the positive changes came deep corruption and widespread protests over government theft of land, environmental hazards, and official venality.

The rumbles of a reaction to more and more openness predated Xi Jinping, but he took on the helm of moral exemplar and leader of the pack – sort of a combination of Moses and Hercules, to lead CCP and China to the new era.

Minzner argues that Xi has reversed much of the openness created since 1978.  The administrative state has reversed course, as many CCP members see it, back to the time of the Cultural Revolution, when colleagues spied on each other and a wrong word in speaking or writing could sentence one to beatings, jail, or death.  Jiang and Hu reigned in the large SOE; Xi is promoting them as national champions.  The Party eschewed leader cults; Xi is promoting himself in just that way.  “Peaceful rise” was the theme for two decades.  Now, China has militarized the open ocean and made threats to countries and foreign individuals, even academics outside China, part of the game plan.  In my own mind – not Minzner’s – China is coming closer to being a pariah state.

In his  Reversing Reform  piece (ChinaFile, March, 2018), Minzner summarizes the problems facing Party and society, and concludes -

Now, to address these looming problems, China’s leaders are progressively cannibalizing institutional norms and practices that have formed the bedrock of the regime’s stability in the reform era. Technocratic rule is giving way to black-box purges; collective governance sliding back towards single-man rule. The post-1978 era of “reform and opening up” is ending. China is closing down. Uncertainty hangs in the air as a new future slouches towards Beijing to be born. End of an Era explains how China arrived at this dangerous turning point, and outlines the potential outcomes that could result.

Naturally, this is a problem for Chinese society. It robs social activists of the gradual evolutionary path toward becoming a moderate, institutionalized political force. But it is a problem for the rulers too. Absent effective internal or external checks, authoritarian one-Party rule has fused (since the 1990s) with the fastest accumulation of wealth in human history to produce vested political and economic interests that are both highly corrupt and deeply resistant to change—the Chinese analogue of the K Street lobbyist–U.S. Congress nexus, but without even the shadow of elections, judicial oversight, or a free press as checks.

Now put yourself in Xi Jinping’s shoes. You know that China faces deep economic and social challenges. You sense that the Party itself has gone badly astray. Yet you lack any external institutions to rectify it. Nor is there an alternative political force—such as the organized opposition movements that emerged despite authoritarian rule in Taiwan and South Korea—that you might employ as a counterweight. (Not that you would even remotely entertain that notion: the lessons of 1989 run too deep.) What would you do?

Here we come to the second reason for the shifts noted above. Xi appears to have concluded that his only path to a breakthrough requires him to tear up the existing rules—reversing many if not all of the partially institutionalized internal Party norms that top China scholar Andrew Nathan noted back in 2003. Politicized anticorruption purges of rivals. Centralization of power in his own hands. Cultivation of a populist image. An ideological turn toward nationalism and cultural identity. These are not mere transitory policies. For Xi, they are absolutely fundamental shifts necessary to address the crisis he sees facing China.

A new future is slouching toward Beijing to be born.


Wang and Zeng – how to know if Xi is a reformer or a budding despot

Wang and Zeng see Xi Jinping as a game changer, thinking along the same lines as Carl Minzner has.  They were writing in 2015 and early 2016, right before the sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October of 2016. 

Towards the end of the paper, we identify three potential changes to the Party’s power succession rules, which represent a critical test on how radically Xi is prepared to alter the rules of the game among the governing elite: (1) whether ‘67 stay and 68 retire’ rule will be violated in 2017; (2) whether Premier Li Keqiang will serve a second term; and (3) whether Xi Jinping is making arrangements in expectation of his own retirement in 2022. If he appears to be seeking to rule beyond the scheduled succession in 2022, for example, then he is really bringing back the Maoist spectre of personal dictatorship. We suggest that the 19th Party Congress, due to convene in autumn 2017, is the critical moment to test the robustness of the CCP’s institutionalisation.

A few months later, the verdict by their criteria was in – Xi is seeking personal dictatorship.  It was at the 6th plenum in October of 2016 that Xi marginalized his Premier, Li Keqiang, downsized and degrade the Youth League, and Xi obtained his “core” of the Party status, an informal title that means far more than any other in terms of demands for personal loyalty.  At the Party Congress in November, 2017, Xi removed the age limitations for serving as a senior official, giving himself authority to remain in power as long as he wished.  In Wang and Zeng terms, Maoist personal dictatorship is back. 


David Shambaugh – authoritarian, but resilient no more

Ever since 1989, many have predicted the impending collapse of Chinese Communist rule. But there are two reasons why Shambaugh’s China’s Coming Crackup was so noteworthy. First, Shambaugh has enjoyed good personal relations with leading Party officials. His books have been published in Chinese translation, and state media have often quoted his views. In January 2015, the China Foreign Affairs University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named him second on a list of “America’s Most Influential China Experts.” Second, Shambaugh previously held a more positive assessment of the prospects for Chinese Communist rule. Like Columbia University Professor Andrew J. Nathan, Shambaugh was seen as one of the main proponents of the idea of “resilient authoritarianism.”

Shambaugh now sees only danger ahead for CCP.  In a reversal of his prior views, he sees the Xi Jinping era as the beginning of the end for Party rule.  In March, 2015, he wrote about the  "coming China crackup" in the Wall Street Journal,  and described five features of that crackup –

The endgame of communist rule in China has begun, and Xi Jinping’s ruthless measures are only bringing the country closer to a breaking point.    Shambaugh says the crackup is much closer than one usually thinks, and will be highly unstable and unsettled, protracted and violent - 

First, China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en masse if the system really begins to crumble.

Second, since taking office in 2012, Mr. Xi has greatly intensified the political repression that has blanketed China since 2009. The targets include the press, social media, film, arts and literature, religious groups, the Internet, intellectuals, Tibetans and Uighurs, dissidents, lawyers, NGOs, university students and textbooks.

Third, even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions.

Fourth, the corruption that riddles the party-state and the military also pervades Chinese society as a whole.

Finally, China’s economy—for all the Western views of it as an unstoppable juggernaut—is stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.

He writes that, if China continues on the path of rigid authoritarianism that it has followed since 2009, it will inevitably fall into the same middle-income trap that has snared the majority of developing economies. Chinese society will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable, and without political liberalization at some point something will cause a “sudden rupture.” This is obviously completely at odds with the earlier idea of a resilient authoritarianism with capacity for adaptation.


Andrew Nathan – middle class as bourgeoisie – good or bad for CCP?

In January 2003, Nathan published an article titled “Authoritarian Resilience” in the Journal of Democracy. With this article, he coined the term.  He argued that the Chinese regime had made a transition to an authoritarian regime, but one that might endure.  He wrote: “Under conditions that elsewhere have led to democratic transition, China has made a transition instead from totalitarianism to a classic authoritarian regime, and one that appears increasingly stable.”   (This is a reversal of Nathan’s previous position, that post-Tian’anmen, China would democratize).

Shortly after the ascendancy of Xi, in fall of 2012, Nathan thought  that Xi would not be so different from other leaders - How Will Xi be Different?   “Change within continuity” is the way he saw the future at that point - maturation of the growing economy and growing sophistication of the elite and middle class.

In a Foreign Affairs interview  in 2012, Nathan pointed out that even though a lot of the “low hanging fruit” of modernization has been picked, there was still reason to think authoritarian resilience was possible.  In 2016, Nathan wrote The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class” in the Journal of Democracy, explaining why the middle class has failed to democratize; and, incidentally, explaining why authoritarian resilience is not the best model, but rather, a Chinese middle class that is silent, indifferent, and alienated.  Nathan cites Zhang Wei from Central Party School, writing in 2005, before the peak corruption under Hu Jintao and the Cultural Revolution feeling under Xi.  Speaking of the Chinese middle class –

Their political alienation is a forced rather than chosen political indifference; in contrast to ordinary political coldness, it is not a factor for stability.  It is instead a state of tense expectation, a kind of recessive state in which political expectations have not achieved release. A closed political order can suppress the enthusiasm for political participation while at the same time building up the force of a future enthusiasm for political participation. . . If one day political alienation turns into political participation, its pressure on the political order may be more dramatic than that of regular political participation.

Zhang Wei, Chongtu yu bianshu: Zhongguo shehui zhongjian jieceng zhengzhi fenxi [Conflict and uncertainty: political analysis of the middle stratum in Chinese society] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2005), 406–407.

In 2017, Nathan was still claiming that Xi needed to consolidate power to effectively deal with the multitude of crises, including the crackdown on dissent as a necessary response to crisis.  What crisis was that?  Andrew Nathan is an astute observer, and he seems unable to find the consistent China political story.  It is possible that Xi is that rarest of all authoritarian rulers, the benevolent despot who will open China to reform once he has consolidated power.  In 2019, still no signs of that.  But maybe Mr. Xi will need another five or ten or twenty years to do that.  What was that line from the Joe Hill song The Preacher and the Slave?  “’You’ll get pie, in the sky, when you die.’  It’s a lie.”


Tony Saich – stuck in the middle with Xi

Writing in August 2017 Saich sees Xi Jinping as inheriting many problems, several of them existential in nature for survival of CCP.  In addition to internal problems, the period of easy reform is over. Carl Minzner and Willy Lam would say Xi has reversed the pattern of reform, and world political and economic conditions are no longer cooperating so easily with China.  Saich is succinct, and I simply quote him below.  Saich agrees with all the other authors as to severity of problems.  He does not suggest solutions, although his mention of a theoretical conceivable transition to democracy seems out of line with the quality of his analysis.

The resulting challenges facing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping when he is confirmed for another five-year-term span political, economic, and international spheres. This leadership must both maintain a domestic focus to strengthen economic growth and avoid the “middle-income trap,” while also engaging in a host of regional and global actions to cement China’s position on the world stage. Internally, Xi has consolidated significant political power, and this has created significant tension among vested interests and competing centers of influence. Externally, for the first time in several centuries, the largest economy in the world is not Western and will be under a leadership that does not share the same consensual values and political structures as those in the West. Xi has outlined several priorities, including: increased CCP control over state and society; the promotion of traditional Chinese culture; the importance of Marxism as a guiding principle; historical revisionism and censorship; the promotion of nationalism; and the pursuit of an aggressive national anti-corruption campaign. Given these goals and sets of challenges, the outcome in China is uncertain and there exist a range of possible scenarios.

On assuming power, Xi clearly felt that the challenges facing China were so severe that drastic measures were required. Politics had to take preference over economics and there was the need for a fundamental shift in the development strategy. To meet his objectives, a disciplined, unified party was crucial to push through the next phase of reforms.    

For Saich, the middle income trap must exist not in Xi’s dreams, but in Xi’s nightmares.  His China Dream – Making China Great Again – is going to be need as much pain and suffering as the similar dream of our own dear leader. 


Sangkuk Lee – Xi uses complex systems analysis, but to what end?

In An Institutional Analysis of Xi Jinping's Centralization of Power, Lee suggests that Xi took advantage of public demand for reform, as well as the corruption of some top officials who happened to be rivals for power, to commence institutional change for the centralization of political power.   Lee, writing in 2017  –

To do so, Xi introduced new reform ideas – systemic thinking and top-down design, originating from complex systems theory – in the name of coordinating and comprehensively deepening reform. Xi eventually succeeded in justifying the centralization of power and the establishment of central organizations to deepen reforms comprehensively and coordinate internal and external security. As a result, Xi seized power while practically nullifying the principle of division of work.

Xi was able to weaken demands from younger CCP cadres – and Chinese people generally - for decentralization of power and amass more power to himself than any leader since Mao.  One can see this as a standard populist ploy – identify enemies, particularly those lurking within, and set oneself up as the savior.   Echoing Mao, if a few million die, but the Party survives …  The entire CCP will benefit from destruction of a few thousand.   Lee sees the application of complex systems design theory in Xi’s approach to reform and power.  Xi changed existing Party organizations in small but key ways, added layers of responsibility in Party and government, to wrest control.  Xi followed Mao in directing power to himself - "There is great chaos under heaven - the situation is excellent."  Confusion and reorganization work to Xi’s advantage.  In so doing, Xi obtained power over “party affairs (organization, ideology, and discipline), administrative affairs (economy, society, culture, ecology, health), legal affairs (legislation and jurisdiction), and military affairs.”  Lee made no predictions about the success of the Xi venture, or CCP generally.


Kevin Rudd – China is the big dog. Xi is a Marxist. Get used to it

In his speech at West Point in March, 2018, Rudd describes seven concentric circles of influence that China seeks to dominate, from daily life at home to international forums and organizations.  Xi’s response to the crises has been to crack down using ideology.  He ends by warning that China is already a more important power in Asia than the US – and, one might add, perhaps in Africa and South America as well.  American needs to learn to deal with that.

Few people seemed to have understood that a core part of Xi Jinping’s intellectual make-up is that he is a Marxist dialectician. This derives from the Hegelian principles of “thesis, antithesis and synthesis”. Or in Chinese Maoist terms: “Contradictions among the people”. This forms a deep part of Xi Jinping’s intellectual software.

Xi Jinping’s response to this dilemma has been a reassertion of ideology. This has meant a reassertion of Marxist-Leninist ideology. And a new prominence accorded to ideological education across the entire Chinese system. But it’s more sophisticated than a simple unidimensional ideological response. At least since the 2008 Olympics, which pre-dated Xi’s ascendency, Chinese nationalism has also become a parallel mainstay in China’s broader ideological formation. This has continued and expanded under Xi Jinping. And it has been augmented by an infinitely more sophisticated propaganda apparatus across the country, which now fuses the imagery of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese nation into a combined Chinese contemporary political consciousness.

The bottom line is this: in both reality and in perception, China has already become a more important economic partner than the United States to practically every country in wider East Asia. We all know where the wider strategic logic takes us. From economic power proceeds political power; from political power proceeds foreign policy power; and from foreign policy power proceeds strategic power. That is China’s strategy.


Next: Whither China? post #2 – Anxiety about the present, fears for the future