The rich get richer, the poor get the picture, in Emperor Xi’s China

The rich get richer, the poor get the picture, in Emperor Xi’s China. By Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs.

Shortly after the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, it was reported that Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, written in 1856, had become a “must-read” for senior CCP cadres. The book’s merits were most enthusiastically touted by Wang Qishan, the man at the helm of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and perhaps Xi’s closest ally.

Tocqueville argued that growing prosperity in 18th-century France had actually made it more difficult to govern the country. As people became wealthier, they also became more aware of social and economic inequalities and thus increasingly resentful of the rich and powerful. Attempts to reform the system only highlighted its vulnerabilities. Revolution followed, sweeping away the monarchy and aristocracy. Their heads literally rolled.

The CCP’s just-completed 19th National Congress showed the extent to which China’s leaders have taken Tocqueville’s insights to heart. Xi asserted his undisputed authority over his party and country. Xi consolidated his position during his first term, by reversing much of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy, including the opening of China’s economy, the separation of the CCP from government, and a low-key approach to foreign and security policy. …

Water contamination and scarcity, alongside carbon dioxide emissions and lethal levels of air pollution, are imperilling people’s health and jeopardising the sustainability of China’s economic performance.

Moreover, Chinese GDP growth, while welcome, is being fuelled largely by a combination of fast-rising debt and widespread property bubbles. Even Chinese researchers admit their country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. As the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, many are asking if this is what “socialism with Chinese characteristics” really means. …

Xi’s claim that China has found a better way to run a modern society and economy seems far wide of the mark. …

For years, there was a serious debate in China about the state’s proper role in economic affairs. One camp maintained that if the CCP relaxed its grip on the economy, it would inevitably lose control of the state. Others argued just the opposite: unless the party ceded more economic control, it would lose political power, as the economy’s contradictions multiplied and development became less sustainable. Xi clearly falls into the statist camp.

hat-tip Stephen Neil