Under Xi Jinping, a return in China to the dangers of an all-powerful leader
David Shambaugh says Xi has proven himself to be a visionary leader, but by systematically dismantling the institutions and rules set up by Deng Xiaoping to protect the country from the excesses of strongman rule, Xi is setting a dangerous precedent for the future
The revelation that the National People’s Congress is likely to strike the constitutional clause limiting China’s president and premier to two five-year terms has rightly triggered worldwide speculation that Xi Jinping will remain in office far after the 20th party congress in 2022.
This now seems entirely likely – unless he unexpectedly succumbs to health problems or is overthrown. Both of these possibilities are unknowable, but stranger things have occurred in Chinese politics in the past (and even during Xi’s tenure) and should not be ruled out.
What are the consequences of this revelation – which was actually anticipated by a number of China watchers – for understanding Chinese politics today and into the future?
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In terms of China’s political system, this move is one more in a series of Xi’s “de-institutionalisation” and “deconstruction” of the political reforms Deng Xiaoping initiated nearly four decades ago, beginning with the third plenum of 1978. Deng very clearly concluded that the madness and tragedies that China endured under Mao Zedong, primarily from 1957 to 1976, were in large part due to the steady erosion by Mao of the institutions and procedures the Communist Party had built in the mid-1950s.
Deng himself did much to build these party and state institutions, which were intended to lodge policymaking firmly in a collective leadership and institutional environment. In this regard, Deng was a true Leninist. But Mao was not, as he deeply distrusted bureaucracy and bureaucrats.
For the last 20 years of his life, Mao waged war against China’s bureaucracy – and against Zhou Enlai, Deng, Liu Shaoqi, Peng Zhen and other senior leaders who sought to build the People’s Republic on a strong institutional foundation. The Cultural Revolution was the epitome of Mao’s anti-institutional impulses and nearly destroyed the country.
When Deng and others regained control of power after 1978, they set about trying to reconstruct the institutions and procedures that Mao had destroyed. This included Deng’s conclusion that term limits were necessary to constrain absolute power.
The recreation of the state presidency in 1982 also had to do with Deng’s concept of separating party and state – from then until the 14th party congress in 1992, the positions of state president and party general secretary were separated. Following the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy and purge of Zhao Ziyang, the concept of separation of party and state has never been revisited by the Communist Party leadership.
While Deng sought to strengthen party rule, he also believed in constraining it and its paramount leader. These Dengist reforms lasted 30 years – until 2012, when Xi came to power.
Since then, Xi has systematically sought to roll back the collective and consensual leadership model; delegitimised the institutional decision-making system (which has resulted in a frozen bureaucracy); taken over all of the “leading groups” in the senior party hierarchy; unleashed a severe crackdown on civil society; and concentrated all power in himself. He has also permitted and encouraged the construction of a Mao-like personality cult around his persona.
Xi dominates the party, he dominates the military, and he has circumscribed the role of the State Council premier to a great extent. He has systematically purged other institutions – such as the Communist Youth League – that could serve as an alternative power base for those seeking to challenge him.
The People’s Liberation Army high command has also experienced Xi’s wrath – with over 100 generals and more than 4,000 general officers having been purged, ostensibly for corruption. Four former high-level party Politburo members now sit behind bars (Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Guo Boxiong, Sun Zhengcai), and more than one million cadres have been swept up in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
Xi’s actions and the clear concentration of power in himself reveal a return to the patriarchal mode of strongman politics that was characteristic of the Mao era. While many in China recall the horrors of the Mao era, Xi has many times spoken wistfully of that period. Thus, as China has now fully moved into the 21st century as a global power, internally it has substantially regressed to an antiquated political system of 50 years ago.
To be certain, Xi is a strong, confident and visionary leader. Also, five years ago when the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era drew to a close, recall that many observers inside and outside China called precisely for strong and purposeful leadership as the Hu-Wen era had represented “10 lost years”. Under Xi, China certainly now has that.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – as Xi has articulated a coherent vision for China’s future. But Xi’s wilful overconcentration of power in himself, and his concomitant deconstruction of institutions and procedures that were established to constrain such power and avoid it ever being concentrated in a Chinese leader again, are both a reversal of the past 40 years of policies and a very dangerous precedent for the future.
As Lord Acton pointedly observed in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
David Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science, and International Affairs at George Washington University, and author of China’s Future