China’s Stability Myth Is Dead
With Xi Jinping's great power comes great irresponsibility.
The announcement on Sunday that China would abolish the two-term limit for the presidency, effectively foreshadowing current leader Xi Jinping’s likely status as president for life, had been predicted ever since Xi failed to nominate a clear successor at last October’s Communist Party Congress. But it still came as a shock in a country where the collective leadership established under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was once considered inviolable. Xi, like every leader since Deng, combines a trinity of roles that embody the three pillars of power in China: party chairman, president, and head of the Central Military Commission. But like every leader since Deng, he was once expected to hand these over after his appointed decade, letting one generation of leadership pass smoothly on to the next.
It’s virtually impossible to gauge public opinion in China, especially as censorship has gripped ever tighter online. But among Chinese I know, including those used to defending China’s system, the move caused dismay and a fair amount of gallows humor involving references to “Emperor Pooh” and “West Korea.”
U.S. President Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 similarly prompted rounds of reflection about and criticism of American democracy. But the Chinese case merits significantly more alarm. For all the erosion of norms under Trump, he seems unlikely, despite the fears of some, to fundamentally change the way the United States is governed. Xi, meanwhile, appears to have entirely transformed Chinese politics from collective autocracy to what’s looking increasingly like one-man rule. This switch should leave everyone very worried, both inside and outside China. A country that once seemed to be clumsily lurching toward new freedoms has regressed sharply into full-blown dictatorship — of a kind that’s likely to lead to dangerous and unfixable mistakes.
The Chinese Constitution itself is a largely meaningless document, promising as it does freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and personal privacy. Amendments are frequent, proposed by a committee of “experts” and rubber-stamped by the National People’s Congress, China’s annual — and equally meaningless — parliament. Brave efforts to give the constitution genuine significance were crushed, as with any other attempt to curtail party power, in the early years of Xi’s rule.
But the most recent change signals something far deeper than the party’s primacy over the law; it spotlights the essential instability of the entire political system. For the last two decades, defenders of China have pointed to collective leadership and the smooth succession from one leader to another as signs that the country had solved the problem that bedeviled other autocracies such as the Soviet Union. The new leadership was established five years in advance of taking power, allowing strong continuity without the upsets of elections. The handover of power from Hu Jintao to Xi was considered a model of good rule, without the hangovers and struggles that continued for several years after Jiang Zemin reluctantly passed power to Hu in 2002.
Perhaps the system was always doomed, as soon as a cunning enough leader emerged — though Xi was not only skilled but lucky, utilizing the fall of his likely rival Bo Xilai to consolidate his own supremacy. There will be a certain grim amusement in watching intellectual apparatchiks scuttle to explain how their previous arguments in favor of collective rule have been superseded by the needs of the times and that strongman rule is now the only answer. As the New York Times’s Chris Buckley pointed out, Hu Angang, a regular and vocal apologist for the government, made collective rule the centerpiece of his book on the superiority of the Chinese political system — published in 2013, just after Xi’s initial ascension.
One of the surest signs of the change has been the intensity of propaganda in service of Xi in the last two years. This contrasts with the lackluster treatment of Hu, his predecessor, who was praised only pro forma. Xi’s virtues, meanwhile, are talked up in public at every chance, not just by state media but by businesses, local governments, and celebrities, all of whose continued prosperity depends on signaling their ability to follow the leader. Xi-ism is inescapable; in Tianjin this Lunar New Year, the traditional, sweetly cheesy floral zodiac display was replaced with praise for the Chinese leader.
Errors in depicting Xi, meanwhile, are harshly punished. Chinese media haven’t quite reached the level of Romanian media under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, where newspapers employed people whose only job was to ensure that Ceausescu’s name was never misprinted — but editors in China now assiduously double-screen every reference to make sure that each title is correct and no character out of place for fear of heavy fines and internal punishments. A TV host harmlessly mispronouncing the “ping” of Jinping resulted in footage of the incident being purged from the Chinese internet.
The end of collective leadership at the top, meanwhile, has been mirrored by the destruction of channels of dissent and disagreement throughout the country. The most obvious form of this is the gigantic crackdown on media and the internet. Arguments that were permissible in 2009 became impossible to make in newspapers by 2014: that China could learn from other countries; that political reform was possible; that pluralism, civil society, and adherence to the law were good things.
Investigative journalism, once tentatively permitted as long as it confined itself to local corruption, was massively curtailed. The relatively freewheeling atmosphere of Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-alike, was destroyed. It was replaced with private WeChat groups, only to see a crackdown on those last fall, with the administrators of groups threatened with imprisonment for any “anti-party” speech. A mildly insulting reference to Xi in a group message won the sender two years in jail while the lawyer who defended him in court was struck off the rolls. Universities once saw some degree of open debate; today absolute ideological rigidity is demanded.
But the destruction of platforms for open discussion has been matched with an equal but much harder to discern crushing of channels for dissent inside the party and government. Even internal documents are prefaced with the singing of praises for Xi. The intensity of the political purges initiated by Xi under the guise of anti-corruption efforts has silenced officials, even behind the doors of their offices, for fear of giving ammunition to their rivals.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, has always produced both open copy — for propaganda purposes — and internal reports distributed at different levels of the hierarchy. These were increasingly candid the more limited their intended readership. In the last few years, however, they’ve become far more cautious, self-censoring even for an internal audience, according to both provincial officials and Xinhua reporters. The Chinese equivalent of the U.S. State Department’s “dissent channel” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whereby even relatively low-ranking diplomats were able to send reports directly to the minister, was shuttered in 2013.
This bodes poorly for China’s decision-making both domestically and internationally. The previous system was brutal, repressive, and corrupt — but it also saw reforms, both political and economic, that made lives better. Most critically, it avoided unforced errors. At home, there was no repeat of the sweeping ideological madness of Maoism; changes were introduced slowly and carefully, tested at the local and provincial levels before becoming national policy. Abroad, China has avoided the waste and blood of foreign wars ever since the disastrous and brief invasion of Vietnam in 1979, a record of peace that the United States and Russia can only dream of.
The public record of China’s internal decision-making in those decades is pitifully scanty. But collective rule, and the ability to debate within the party and to sometimes listen to outside voices, undoubtedly played a powerful role. With power now concentrated in a single man, and with nobody willing to challenge him, the likelihood of calamitous mistakes has soared. The first great disaster of the Xi era may have already begun; the carceral archipelago of Tibet and Xinjiang could easily metastasize into the rest of the country in ways that would, at best, hamstring economic growth and cripple intellectual development.
And the fear that has silenced so many voices in Chinese society will keep spreading. During Lunar New Year this month, traditional fireworks were banned from Beijing — even down to the firecrackers thrown joyfully by small children. By itself, that could be passed off as a legitimate health and safety measure. But such was the worry about public gatherings that there were not even any organized displays of fireworks. For the first time in decades, the sky over China’s capital as spring arrived was dead, black, and silent.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer