Westerners extolling all-powerful Xi Jinping are missing three important points
Niall Ferguson says America’s decline has left Western observers awed by Xi Jinping’s authority, even though they have no idea yet how effectively, or ruthlessly, he may use that power
An emperor who is a dotard. A population in the grip of opium addiction. An economy held back by bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure. A culture fixated on past greatness but hopelessly decadent. This was how Westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries regarded China. It is how the Chinese (and most Europeans) now regard the United States.
Ever since President Xi Jinping’s triumphant appearance as defender of free trade and champion of globalisation at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, there has been a trend: commentators most averse to Donald Trump tend to be most gushing in their praise of his Chinese counterpart.
To The Economist, Xi is now “the world’s most powerful man”. Xi offers a “long-term view of China’s ambition”, declared The Financial Times last week. “This president has an iron grip on power and a strategy to reach global pre-eminence.”
Fareed Zakaria, of CNN, wrote almost rhapsodically about the implications of the 19th party congress, which ended last week: “This party congress made clear that [Xi] is no ordinary leader. For the rest of his life, Xi and his ideas will dominate the Communist Party of China.”
To the author of The Post-American World, the implications are clear. “These changes are ... occurring against the backdrop of the total collapse of political and moral authority of the United States in the world. China [has] signalled that it now sees itself as the world’s other superpower, positioning itself as the alternative, if not rival, to the United States.”
This point was seemingly lost on Trump, who tweeted that he had called Xi “to congratulate him on his extraordinary elevation”.
We’re supposed to be impressed that, to quote The Economist, Xi’s “grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao”? Mao was responsible for the deaths of millions in the 1949 revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. If Mao is Xi’s model, China is more likely to become a vast North Korea than a post-American colossus.
Let’s get three things straight about events in Beijing last week. Xi is the first leader since Mao to have his “thought” put into the Chinese constitution while he is still in office. Deng Xiaoping’s “theory” was not inserted until after his death. Moreover, in China, “thought” ranks above “theory”.
But what is Xi’s thought? The relevant amendment to the constitution runs to nearly 3,000 words, but in essence it combines the familiar (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”) with new themes introduced by Xi: “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”, “green development”, anti-corruption and the party’s primacy over the military.
‘Xi Jinping Thought’ enshrined in the party charter
Not much here is Maoist: “We shall give play to the decisive role of market forces in resource allocation ... advance extensive, multilevel and institutionalised development of consultative democracy ... [and] enhance our country’s cultural soft power.”
Second, the politics. Is Xi now all-powerful? No. He is primus inter pares on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. The new line-up confirmed this. Premier Li Keqiang remained, and Wang Yang and Han Zheng joined, despite being associated with former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
Third, we still don’t know what Xi will do with his enhanced authority. Key appointments in economic policy and finance will not be announced until March. Maybe long-awaited structural reforms and deleveraging will finally arrive. Or maybe vested interests within state-owned enterprises will again stave off their reckoning.
If the Chinese are lucky, Xi will turn out to be an enlightened absolutist, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. If they are unlucky, he will be another emperor who fondly dreamt of controlling a fifth of humanity. Worst case – but least likely – he’s Mao 2.0.
Maybe modern information technology can give totalitarianism a new lease of life, as big Chinese tech companies make available the personal data of all Chinese netizens. Maybe, thanks to big data, economic planning can work where previously it failed. I wouldn’t bet on it. To judge by the amount of foreign investment wealthy Chinese are making in spite of tightened capital controls, neither would they.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power