Xi Jinping's strongman politics is China’s 'new normal'

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After Xi Jinping took power in China in 2012, he promptly began a series of purges and ideological crackdowns that have set the tone for his rule.

To some experts, this is only a temporary problem. According to them, Xi Jinping’s strongman politics represent a deviation from China’s long-term path of reform and opening up, a reference to the relatively liberal economic and political policies begun under Deng Xiaoping more than four decades ago. In this optimistic view it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the next Chinese leader will revert back to this policy. Because Xi cannot rule forever, they argue, more liberal-minded Chinese and foreigners can simply wait him out.

For instance, long-time China-watchers David Lampton and Thomas Finger maintain that Chinese politics has two distinct governance traditions: one that prioritizes “national and regime security over economic growth” and the other that prioritizes “the gains to be made through interdependence and openness.” In their telling, Xi Jinping “embraces the first,” while a future Chinese leader might well opt for the second.

The University of Hong Kong’s Jiwei Ci agrees that “there is no reason to believe that political affairs will not resume their ordinary course in a post-Xi China.”

So does Robert Daly, the Kissinger Chair at the Wilson Center. He argues that Xi “represents a major strand in the Chinese braid — the nationalist, isolationist, paranoid, totalitarian strand. But there are other strands — including that of liberal internationalists — that are equally thick. They are just not in the ascendancy right now.” He makes the case that “Chinese progressives have not gone away” and that “the pendulum will swing again.” 

But the hope that Xi Jinping’s increasingly totalitarian China is likely to “swing” back toward liberalization after his eventual passing is almost certainly fool’s gold.

This is because what some see as different “strands” of governance are not as distinct as they might appear. It is worth remembering that party cadres overwhelmingly blessed Xi Jinping’s accession, not because they hoped he would liberalize the country, but because they wanted a strong leader to clean up their system.

Back in 2011 and 2012, corruption and rent-seeking were endemic, eating away at party legitimacy. As a result, a consensus emerged both within the Chinese Communist Party and among the populace that it was necessary to crack down on malfeasance, enhance party cohesion, reinvigorate ideology and reassert control over the economic sphere. 

“The swift shift from collective leadership to strongman rule during Xi Jinping’s early years in office…was the result of a widely shared consensus among China’s ruling elite that the regime was facing a severe crisis that necessitated a return to such rule,” explains Nimrod Baranovitch. Indeed, as Yu Zeyuan of Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper observes: “Xi seized on the people’s abhorrence of corruption, and with unprecedented boldness. This struck fear among the corrupt as well as his opponents within the party, and won him widespread praise.” 

Simply put, the selection of a strongman was very much part of the plan, not a deviation from it.

It has also become a common refrain that Xi Jinping’s authoritarian governance is a departure from that of predecessors Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who instead sought to balance power among competing voices. This argument presumes that China’s past leaders would not have preferred to have the type of unitary control that Xi now exercises. In fact, all three struggled with rancorous factional politics and power-sharing arrangements that obliged them to make concessions to rivals. 

Throughout the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s cycles of economic and political openness and tightening were the result not of his preference for collaboration and compromise, but rather the necessity to navigate competing pressures from the rivalrous conservative and liberal members of his coalition. Hu Jintao was also compelled to balance between his “Youth League Faction” and Jiang Zemin’s powerful “Shanghai Faction.”

Indeed, these competing elements within the party did constrain executive decision making. But in Beijing, these limitations were widely seen as hurdles to, rather than aspects of, effective governance. There was also a profound sense of disappointment in China’s leader at the time, Hu Jintao, who was regularly criticized for his “inaction.” “China is nothing close to harmonious,”  Zhang Ming of Renmin University lamented as Hu was stepping down in 2012. Conflicts and contradictions have become worse. In fact it is reaching a crisis point.”

Seen in this light, it is not Xi Jinping’s desire to consolidate decision-making in his own hands that distinguishes him from his predecessors, but rather his success in exerting his authority over his unwieldy comrades.

Furthermore, the foundations of China’s extensive internet controls — which Xi Jinping has built upon — were created in the early 2000s under Hu.

“Hu’s regime…showed little tolerance towards political opposition, rounding up the most vocal dissidents and social activists, putting them in prison, under house arrest or making them disappear for weeks,” as CNN reported back in 2012.

Under Hu, the party also kept traditional media outlets on a leash while expanding its supervision over the hundreds of millions of bloggers who were forced to register using their real names. Xi has invested in the social surveillance and control mechanisms established by his predecessors, who were hardly supporters of free expression.

Indeed, perhaps the most important reason to resist the siren song of unfounded optimism about China’s future political trajectory is the unprecedented power and scale of the country’s AI-driven techno-totalitarianism. China now has hundreds of millions of cameras linked to supercomputers that can identify persons of interest to the state in real time. These systems are now fully institutionalized and deeply integrated with the security state at every level.

It is hard to imagine how even the most liberal-minded future Chinese leader could uproot such a system. Rather, with each passing day, China’s high-tech surveillance systems (from payment systems to ride hailing to shopping and food delivery) will collect ever more amounts and types of personal data. And if China remains a techno-totalitarian state, it cannot, by definition, become a more free and open society.

Rather than go “back to the future” after Xi (who may yet rule for decades), China is unlikely to liberalize. In the absence of a succession plan, the reins of power are most likely to end up in the hands of a Chinese version of Vladimir Putin — some currently anonymous apparatchik within the security state apparatus who understands how to wield power in the system.

Joshua Eisenman is a senior fellow in China Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, where Thomas Sexton is a junior fellow in China Studies.

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