International observers have hailed the 13th National People’s Congress of China as historic and significant. During the congress, which ended March 20, delegates rubber-stamped a constitutional amendment to remove the term limits for the president and vice president. President Xi Jinping now has the option to remain in power for the rest of his natural life.
Contrary to popular expectations of a global convergence on liberal democracy, the 21st century has brought an expansion of authoritarian leadership, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Russian President Vladimir Putin also falls into this category, having recently won a fourth six-year term in office. Is Xi’s rise to one-man rule in China part of the same global trend that has enabled these leaders’ ascendancy?
The answer is no. Instead, two constant factors in the internal logic of Chinese politics can explain Xi’s dictatorial tendencies.
Protecting the Leninist Core
Despite China’s dazzling economic success and social transformation since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the fundamental objective of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC’s) leaders has remained unchanged: to preserve the Party’s power. Perhaps there was a time, after Mao’s death but before the Soviet Union’s dissolution, when some communist officials briefly wondered whether one-man dictatorship might threaten the Party’s long-term rule. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, apparently as a result of internal political reforms, quickly brought Party leaders back into unity. When the entire Eastern Bloc fell just after Deng Xiaoping’s violent response to the Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party resolved to tighten its hold on power in the country.
Beyond its enduring primacy in Chinese politics, the other constant in the Communist Party is its Leninist core. According to professor Richard Pipes, an expert on Soviet history, “(Vladimir) Lenin organized his government on a military model: Soviet Communism and its emulators militarized politics, subordinating it to a central command.” This structure was the secret behind the success of the former Soviet Union in the 20th century, and it’s the reason for what professor Andrew Nathan has called the “authoritarian resilience” of the Chinese Communist Party in the 21st century. The system, Pipes writes, “by virtue of its ability to mobilize all human and natural resources, proved effective in fending off direct physical challenges to the regime.”
The Reality Behind Reform
The greatest confusion about China in the international community stems from a misunderstanding of the country’s so-called “reform” efforts in the post-Tiananmen era. Many in the West hoped that the reforms would amount to an acknowledgement of the fundamental problem that led to China’s self-destruction in disasters such as the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution — namely, authoritarianism. But a cryptic reading recommendation that Vice President Wang Qishan (who, like Xi, may now also stay in office for life) once made to his fellow Politburo Standing Committee members tells a different story. Wang’s endorsement for Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution, published in 1856, apparently suggested that true reform in China would plunge the country into chaos.
Along with its ideas about reform, the very name of the Chinese Communist Party also continues to cause confusion. It is counterintuitive that the Party would be willing to sacrifice its fundamental beliefs to keep its system of government intact. Yet this is exactly what has happened in China. Beijing’s brand of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is in fact a euphemism for authoritarianism. Consequently, a return to one-man rule in China will never be a surprising outcome so long as the Party depends on its militarized internal political structure. It is, in fact, very probable, if not inevitable.
The president, like his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, holds the top positions in the Party, the state and the military. Unlike his two predecessors, however, Xi has decided not to turn this power over to anyone else, ever. And there is no power that can force him to do so.
Mightier Than Mao?
Now that Xi has cemented his firm control over his country, some consider him to be the most powerful leader in the history of the People’s Republic of China, second only to its founding helmsman, Mao. But just how does Xi’s power compare?
Xi inherited a Chinese Communist Party that was no less powerful than under Mao’s rule — but one that was streamlined to adapt to the 21st century.
Like Mao, Xi faces no internal opposition in sight — an accomplishment that distinguishes him even from the Party’s last strongman, Deng, who sometimes made compromises to balance the competing powers within the communist establishment’s old guard. Nevertheless, major differences set Xi and Mao apart. The foremost is that Mao was a rare leader who, by the sheer radiance of his charisma, could claim political legitimacy. He never needed institutional support for his rule, nor did he care about constitutional amendments. Without the same charisma, Xi must rely on the state and Party apparatuses to institutionalize his power. Xi, moreover, lacks the kind of direct influence on the hearts and minds of millions of people that Mao commanded. As a result, he could never hope to spontaneously mobilize the masses with a single action in the way that Mao’s swim in the Yangtze River energized the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1966.
That’s not to say, though, that the current president can’t pull off feats on the same magnitude as Mao. A look at the corruption campaign that has become Xi’s crowning achievement offers some insight. Xi and his corruption czar (and now vice president), Wang, have been deliberate in choosing their targets. While winning public approval for rounding up “tigers” and “flies” alike — that is, officials in the upper echelons of power as well as those below — they also conveniently destroyed their existing opponents and struck terror into the hearts of any potential challengers. The Party’s underlying centralized power structure not only made this campaign possible, but it also grew stronger as a result.
Xi inherited a Chinese Communist Party that was no less powerful than under Mao’s rule — but one that was streamlined to adapt to the 21st century. Under his guidance, the Party still can and will mobilize all the human and natural resources in China to achieve its aims. And relative to those of Mao’s China, the resources available to the country today are incomparably more vast. China now boasts the world’s second-largest economy, as well as a burgeoning military. Xi has much more hard power at his disposal on an international scale.
The final question regarding Xi’s elevated status, then, is what he will do with it. Is his power a means to an end, or an end in itself? The answer lies in the nebulous, all-inclusive idea of Xi’s “China Dream.” So far, no one has been able to spell out exactly what the dream includes. Yet no one, not even a great helmsman such as Mao, can reach an objective that exists only in the abstract. In its perpetual motion toward an unattainable destination, the Party, the vanguard of the “China Dream,” inevitably becomes the goal.
However ambiguous his “China Dream” may be, one thing is clear: The “New Era” the president has proclaimed in his country is the Era of Xi.