Will Xi Jinping’s new era of one-man rule bring the progress China desires?
Cary Huang says President Xi Jinping is meeting the demand for a return to ‘strongman’ politics, but this also risks repeating the tragedies of the Mao era. In today’s world, no nation can truly modernise under such a system
China’s party congress every five years has often been a defining moment for the country’s development. At the just-concluded 19th congress, President Xi Jinping heralded a “new era” of Chinese politics, suggesting the start of a new political cycle.
State media has immediately indicated that this is “Xi’s era”, the third in China’s communist-ruled history, with Mao Zedong’s rule between 1949 and 1976 the first era, and the post-Mao era under Deng Xiaoping and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the second.
This new era marks the resurrection of Mao’s one-man rule and symbolises the death of Deng’s two most important political legacies: the consensus-building “collective leadership” and an orderly power succession mechanism.
The congress opens the door to Xi’s long-term rule, as his stature was elevated to a status parallelling Mao, getting his name and thinking enshrined in the party’s theoretical pantheon. Also, with no clear successor, Xi is set to dominate decision-making for years to come, putting 1.4 billion people, the world’s second-largest economy and an emerging nuclear-armed military power largely in the hands of one person.
Before Xi, Jiang and Hu were among the world’s most powerful politicians, even compared with their peers in the Group of 20. Yet Xi has amassed much more power than his predecessors and showed that he is a decisive leader. State media has propagated the need for strongman politics, not only to manage but to transform China and meet the many unsolved challenges at home and abroad at this historic juncture. Xi has also cited the lack of a strong leader as the reason behind the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Xi might aim to outshine Mao and Deng by leading a “Chinese rejuvenation”.
But such an effort goes against the trend in political restructuring since Deng, who on several occasions warned that an overconcentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of the collective leadership.
Jiang and Hu aimed to expand “intra-party democracy” as their goals of limited political reform. Xi’s populist-style rule and charismatic leadership prove that the party is unable to institutionally limit such centralisation of power.
Unlike Mao, who founded the republic, and Deng, the architect of China’s reform, Xi, with just five years in power, lacks the achievements and charm needed to gain respect among party elites. Thus, Xi may rely on fear rather than love to maintain his grip on power. Such a structure is likely inject political instability and uncertainty into the system, and risk a power vacuum should the strongman leader suddenly become ill or die.
It was Mao’s brutal dictatorship, resulting in millions of deaths due to famine and political purges, that prompted the leadership as a whole to end “one-man rule” and install collective leadership following his demise.
In political science, there are many terms synonymous with “one-man rule”, including authoritarianism, autocracy, tsarism, absolutism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, Stalinism and tyranny. These all suggest a political system governed by a single individual, but also indicate that under such a system, freedom, civil rights and rule of law hardly exist. The worst fear is that a nation under such a system might face an Orwellian nightmare, repeating the tragedy of Mao’s reign.
In the real world, no country can modernise economically and socially under a system of one-man rule, as all developed economies are free democracies underpinned by constitutional checks and balances.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post