China’s strongman Xi Jinping plots long march

China’s strongman Xi Jinping plots long march, by Greg Sheridan.

Under Deng, and then under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China’s leadership developed a wide range of institutions where power could be dispersed, at least a little. There is the party’s politburo standing committee. There is a range of separate institutions for the military. There had been a growing private sector in the Chinese economy that was to some extent separate from the government.

Since Xi first came to power in 2012, he reversed all those trends. The standing committee was slimmed down and no one was appointed to it who could succeed Xi, much less challenge his authority. Formal military leadership was fused with civilian leadership. The Communist Party decided it would continue to occupy the commanding heights of the economy. Not only that, notionally private companies were required to install Communist Party committees within their structures, and these committees came to be extremely powerful.

Xi has taken this campaign to its next logical stage. He is now in something like the institutional position that Suharto occupied for much of his 32-year reign in Indonesia. It is easy to forget that under Suharto the Indonesian state built up a large ideological and institutional structure around its dictatorship, the famous New Order. It was replete with institutes, books, theoretical foundations, ties to Indonesian history, genuine popular support. But as Suharto grew old he grew isolated and his judgment deteriorated. He reversed earlier trends of social liberalisation and the middle class became very impatient with him. He could not bring himself to leave office voluntarily and in an orderly way and so, when he was deposed, the whole New Order collapsed.

Compare Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Lee was no dictator but he understood that the system of governance he had created had to transcend him. So he retired from office and the leadership of his ­nation has passed along in an orderly way. No one now doubts the resilience of the Singapore system. …

Beijing … courted foreign direct investment assiduously for 30 years from the 1980s and often talked a good game about free-market reforms. But these were always strictly limited. Now Beijing has enough economic momentum of its own. Former senior US official Evan Feigenbaum argues that for some years now “economic reform” in China has meant making the bureaucracy more efficient, allocating investment more effectively, listening to local grievances, giving some limited autonomy to local government. But it has not meant root-and-branch adoption of a market model. …

It has also defied conventional political analysis by becoming more authoritarian as it has become more middle class. It uses nationalism to trump the normal democratic instincts of its middle class.

And Beijing uses economic growth to deliver legitimacy. It is extremely tough in its authoritarian suppression of open dissent. It has perfected the surveillance state on an industrial scale. …

Although the US remains vastly more powerful than China, you could make the case that Xi is now the most powerful man in the world. US presidents have term limits and their decrees are hemmed in, limited and often enough reversed by a rich panoply of autonomous institutions, from the congress to the judiciary to a fiercely independent media.

hat-tip Stephen Neil