Xi Jinping is no Mao Zedong, but like the Great Helmsman, there’s none stopping China’s ‘Great Leap’ 2.0

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The 20th congress of the Communist Party of China (PCP) ended last month. Expectedly, general secretary Xi Jinping has rewritten all norms, conventions and done away with even a semblance of legality to install his trusted acolytes in every tier of the CPC’s labyrinthian power structure. Xi has embarked on a precedent-crushing third term as China’s president, and it appears that he will continue to occupy the highest offices in China’s state, party and military for decades to come.

Xi has also salami sliced the norms in CPC’s constitution. The latest clutch of revisions — approved and adopted at the choreographed party congress — further upholds his status as the “core leader”, bolsters the personality cult, and makes the mammoth organization — the ruling party in China’s one-party authoritarian system — an extension of his will. This is an enormous and unprecedented centralization of power in the hands of one man who leads the world’s presumptive superpower.

Unsurprisingly, comparisons between Xi and chairman Mao Zedong have become more abundant. This comparison is erroneous. Despite cornering bottomless power, and despite party cadres starting to refer to him as the ‘lingxiu’ (leader) — a term of reverence reserved hitherto for Mao — Xi is no Mao.

In their recent article for Wall Street Journal on the “secret prisoner swap” between Canada and China that saw Beijing release the two kidnapped Canadian citizens in exchange for Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, journalists Drew Hinshaw, Joe Parkinson and Aruna Viswanatha describe Xi Jinping, who plays a crucial role in the entire incident, thus:

“In meetings with Western leaders, Xi seldom joked and rarely smiled. He usually began with a monologue of talking points almost identical to his public statements. He so resolutely stuck to scripted remarks that his interpreter simply read aloud from a prepared English text. When finished, Xi would ask, ‘Don’t you agree?’ White House officials analyzing transcripts from closed-door talks often struggled to understand whether Xi had said anything of substance beyond his prepared statements.”

Mao still enjoys a demigod status in the Chinese party-state. He was charismatic, dynamic, volatile — a philandering sociopath. James Palmer of Foreign Policy describes Mao as a “half decent poet” who could write “pithy aphorisms”. Mao went after his foes with animus. Xi is a dour, boring, yet relentless autocrat who believes in silent purges and meticulous preparations. Xi has weaponized the bureaucracy that Mao despised and has established his writ with the crushing deadweight of banal tediousness.

Mao thrived in chaos, Xi is the manifestation of painstaking order. And as Taiwan-based scholar of Chinese elite politics Shikha Aggarwal tells me, “unlike Mao, Xi derives his authority from the party.” For Xi, the party is the vehicle of power, and he has moved all the chess pieces patiently over a decade to finally arrive at a point where leave alone resistance to his agenda, the entire party is now the tip of his spear.

Whatever factionalism still exists, and it will, given the claustrophobic nature of Chinese elite politics, has been rendered subterranean and almost non-existent.

Leaders whose careers were linked to the Communist Youth League (CYL), a rival faction to Xi and his coterie, were ruthlessly removed even if they were competent and had pledged their fealty to Xi.

For instance, Hu Chunhua, one of the vice-premiers of state council, a rising star in Chinese politics, was widely tipped to enter the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Some speculated that he could even succeed Li Keqiang as the premier. Though a protégé of former Chinese president Hu Jintao, Hu Chunhua (or Little Hu) had sworn his allegiance to Xi.

As it turns out, ‘Little Hu’ was not only denied a PBSC seat but was also booted out of the 24-member Politburo. He now lies in the 205-member Central Committee. The 59-year-old was of the right age and considered an able administrator. South China Morning Post says Hu Chunhua “has been a loyal enforcer of Xi’s grand poverty alleviation project and has promoted trade amid disruptions.” His prior links with the CYL perhaps came in the way.

Similarly, Premier Li Keqiang, whose market-friendliness and reputation as a ‘reformer’ made him a darling of the western media — some even called him a ‘counterweight’ to Xi  — was unceremoniously dumped from the PBSC. So was Li’s ally Wang Yang, apparently a “top contender” for the premier’s job and designated a ‘liberal’. Age wasn’t a problem for both. In any case, Xi has ripped up all age-related norms. Both Li and Wang paid for their association with the CYL.

A look at their replacements in PBSC makes the shift clearer. Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai who oversaw and enforced the most brutal lockdowns anywhere in the world, has been ranked second in PBSC, an informal setting that indicates the likelihood of his succeeding Li Keqiang as the premier in March next year. If he does, then Li Qiang would be the first premier since 1976 to have got the job without being a vice-premier — that Willy Lam of Jamestown Foundation described as “totally against party convention”. “Somebody who becomes premier must be vice-premier before,” he told Reuters.

So disastrous and horrific were the Shanghai lockdowns it was speculated that Li Qiang has blown his chances of career advancement. We now know better. In effect, the very brutality and strictness that stupefied the world about Shanghai’s Covid measures may have helped Li land his promotion — strict adherence to Xi’s ‘Zero-Covid’ policy at the cost of implementing viscerally unpopular decisions.

Or take the case of Cai Qi, 66, whom not many had predicted to make the PBSC cut but the fact that he did, sent analysts scurrying for reasons and settling on the fact that the Beijing party chief is one of Xi’s closest allies with a relationship that goes back at least two decades. By way of qualification, says Financial Times, “Cai is known for energetically displaying his loyalty to Xi and might be in contention to lead the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.”

What emerges is a scenario more complicated than ever. Under Xi, the opacity of Chinese elite politics has increased manifold. Whatever little outsiders could have perceived about China’s policy direction by deciphering personnel changes has become even more difficult because power negotiation has been replaced by Xi’s overwhelming authority and loyalty has become the sole currency. Xi has not only upended all norms and practices, he has obliterated any traces collective leadership.

According to Aggarwal, “we see a total/complete decimation of both the Shanghai clique and the CYL. While factionalism has a negative connotation across all political cultures, in Communist systems it paradoxically also serves as a mechanism to exercise checks and balances on the central leadership.

“The 20th PB/PBSC is an echo chamber composed of people who owe their allegiance to one man,” she tells Firstpost.

Given China’s one-party Communist system, instead of ideological differences, sectarian loyalties are the determinants in equations of power balance. By disempowering rival factions and propagating his own political lineage, Xi has engineered a homogeneity that he hopes will lessen the chances of political instability.

The flip side of this utter domination by one triumphant faction is that Xi will increasingly rely on technocrats and domain experts to fill his cabinet since political hacks and operatives are either neutered or considered too much of a threat.

Here, too, technocrats with whom he has prior experience of working together and whom he trusts completely would be favoured over others. As Hsi-Ting Pai of ASPI writes in The Strategist, “a group of the party’s economic experts who have previously supported market-oriented policies and were perceived as friendly to the private economy were either eliminated or retired from the politburo, including banking regulator Guo Shuqing, central bank governor Yi Gang, finance minister Liu Kun, and ‘economic tsar’ Liu He.”

The PBSC almost entirely consists of his loyalists, and some such as Ding Xuexiang, a trained mechanical engineer, have been inducted into the inner sanctum despite lacking in experience as a party secretary or governor. The low-profile Ding has a history of working with Xi. He had served as political secretary when Xi was in charge of Shanghai and since 2014 has acted virtually as Xi’s chief of staff, accompanying him in recent trips abroad.

According to Nikkei Asia, 18 of the 24-member Politburo, in charge of the party’s various policies, “were either connected or owed their promotion” to Xi. The rest “are technocrats from the health, foreign and other ministries” who have “expressed loyalty to Xi”. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/China-s-party-congress/China-s-new-Politburo-United-only-by-loyalty-to-Xi-Jinping

Xi’s team is not incompetent. However, it does appear that meritocracy has given way to absolute loyalty as the most important attribute for a seat at the high table. It is also questionable whether his handpicked technocrats will have the requisite freedom to act in dealing with China’s most pressing challenges — be it the sinking economy, demographic crisis, joblessness among youth, a tanking real estate sector (https://www.yicaiglobal.com/news/sales-at-china-top-100-property-developers-sink-record-28-in-october) and the worsening US-China relationship with its various ramifications. The Joe Biden administration’s export controls on semiconductor technology, for instance, is expected to cripple China’s push towards self-sufficiency in technology and innovation.

Xi’s refusal to entertain even a token power equilibrium has rendered the rest of the top leadership meaningless. This trajectory also militates against CPC’s creed of being a ‘meritocratic’ regime that delivers good governance, unlike, as the party likes to claim, the chaos of democracies.

As former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale says in an interview with Firstpost, “Deng Xiaoping’s vision of reform-and-opening up through decentralization of power is being supplanted by Xi Jinping’s credo of a centralized unified leadership” (and) “political loyalty appears to have risen above professional qualification is terms of promotion to higher office.”

That doesn’t automatically mean ineptitude or policy paralysis. Pliant men may implement Xi’s policies better. And that is exactly where the problem lies. Xi has relentlessly stressed on “common prosperity”, which loosely translates to a stress on wealth distributive policies more than wealth creation. He has shown a propensity to assert greater state control over the economy — a perceptible shift away from the more market-oriented policies of his predecessors — and has matched his ideas with action by ringing in wholesale personnel changes.

As Jacques deLisle of Foreign Policy Research Institute points out, “the Party Congress embraced the Xi-era approach where the state, of course led by the party, plays a large role in investing in science and technology and innovation, selecting what sectors, firms, research institutes, and universities will receive the state’s considerable largesse and policy support.”

In combination with staunch loyalists in key positions, this indicates a freer hand for Xi. The inevitable turn towards a more intense ideological control over the economy has spooked the investors, and they responded by triggering a historic meltdown in Chinese stocks the day after the top leadership was revealed. Beyond the purview of state control and censorship of information, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng China Enterprises Index capped its worst day since the 2008 global financial crisis and the yuan slumped to a 14-year low.

Chinese economy, that continues to remain upended by Xi’s obsession with ‘zero-Covid’ policy, turned in a 3.9 per cent growth year-on-year — a far cry from the CPC’s stated aim of 5.5 per cent. Analysts say it could slow down even more.

While economy remains sluggish, Xi indicated a clear shift from development to securitization of the economy. As Bloomberg points out, he mentioned the word “security” no less than 91 times in his opening addresses to the party congress, compared to 55 times in the last edition.

In his work report to the party congress, Xi indicated that China’s moment of “strategic opportunity” has ended, and “various ‘black swan’ and ‘gray rhino’ events may occur at any time. We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.” His top prescription in dealing with these challenges: “Upholding and strengthening the Party’s overall leadership.”

Evidently, the slowdown in Chinese economy and the increasing friction with the United States has the potential to interfere with CPC’s social contract with the Chinese people, and may delegitimize a regime that promises development, economic prosperity and political stability. The risk becomes greater in the context of a closed authoritarian system where one man enjoys unbridled political domination.

It isn’t a surprise to note, therefore, that the 20th party congress also signaled Xi’s paranoia and expansion of the boundaries of surveillance state. He said “we must make all-around efforts to tighten Party discipline. We will urge leading officials, especially high-ranking ones, to be strict with themselves, earnestly fulfill their responsibilities, and conduct rigorous management within their jurisdictions” and threatened that “regarding violations of party discipline, each and every infraction identified must be strictly investigated and handled.”

Xi also simultaneously moved to strengthen the party’s security apparatus. Two security officials, one a former spy master, has been inducted into the upper echelons of the party. Chen Wenqing, a 62-year-old former minister of China’s dreaded ministry of state security (MSS), became a member of the 24-member Politburo, marking the first time a former spy chief has joined the party’s apex decision-making body, reported Axios, while Wang Xiaohong, the head of the ministry of public security, China’s national law enforcement agency, retained his seat in the 205-member Central Committee.

According to SCMP, Chen is expected to head the party’s top security body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and along with police chief Wang will sit in Central Secretariat that runs the party’s daily affairs. The report adds that “over the past two decades, the body has never had more than one official from the security sector, and sometimes none.”

It is evident that having cornered absolute power, Xi fears internal subversion and external threats. Concentration of power is directly proportional to insecurity. Xi warned that “we will enhance our capacity to prevent and mitigate major risks and will remain on high alert against systemic security risks. We will crack down hard on infiltration, sabotage, subversion, and separatist activities by hostile forces.”

As and when Chen joins the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the watchdog for law enforcement, judicial and the security apparatus, the MSS may receive more resources and intensify its operations. Xi’s surveillance state will turn increasingly even more claustrophobic where frank exchange of ideas and information becomes impossible. This may have grave implications for policy. In addition, Xi is also letting himself come under immense pressure, because in absence of even a façade of collective leadership, failures can no longer be blamed away.

The other risk factor of autocratic rule is that in absence of honest information flows — no one may dare tell Xi the truth if things go south and risk getting purged — dictators are likely to take more bad decisions than good ones. While the execution of policies in such a system may be faster and more thorough, eventually the chokehold on feedback will elicit mistakes.

Such a thing may already be happening. Associated Press finds after interviewing a dozen Chinese academics, businesspeople and state journalists that China’s internal system, of giving frank feedback in secret reports meant only for the party leadership, is breaking down because under Xi, it is “risky for anyone to directly question the party line even in confidential reports.”

While it would be premature to conclude that Xi is likely to get only bad information, the risks of such an eventuality is quite high. From a policy perspective, that means chances of bad or radical policies getting implemented are higher in absence of any constraints. Xi is no Mao, but quite like the party founder whom he tries to emulate, there will be none stopping ‘emperor’ Xi if he were to implement another ‘Great Leap Forward’. We shall soon know.

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Xi Jinping is no Mao Zedong, but like the Great Helmsman, there’s none stopping China’s ‘Great Leap’ 2.0
Xi Jinping is no Mao Zedong, but like the Great Helmsman, there’s none stopping China’s ‘Great Leap’ 2.0
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