What the Xi Jinping era will mean for China and the world
The Chinese president wants to use authoritarian politics and high technology to create state control unprecedented in any state
This Sunday, the National People’s Congress in China voted on a constitutional change to end the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency. Few expected any surprises; the vote was heartily endorsed on a move that was evidently decided some time ago at the highest levels of Chinese government.
Deng Xiaoping gave a definition of China’s position in a comment made in the early years of China’s post-Mao Zedong reform. “Hide your greatness,” was his key piece of advice to his homeland’s leaders. Under Deng, and the 20 years of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as presidents of China, the country took a relatively restrained view of its place in the world. China had a veto in the Security Council of the UN but rarely used it. When Russia, the other major revisionist power of the northern hemisphere, invaded Georgia and eastern Ukraine, China said very little in public. The all-important task for Beijing was to grow the economy. And grow it has done, to its current position as the second biggest economy in the world.
Economic growth prompted new questions about China’s role—and who should shape that role. Late in the 2000s, Xi Jinping was proposed by the party as the successor to Hu. From his earliest days in office, it became clear that Xi would be a very different sort of leader from those the world had come to know.
Xi is no newcomer to politics. His father Xi Zhongxun was one of the most prominent generals in China under Mao, a status which led to his being purged and his family being exiled during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Xi was sent to the countryside and forced to do agricultural labour. Reports of the time suggest that he did not enjoy the experience, but that it may have also given him an understanding of the poverty that afflicted much of rural China, and encouraged an interest in rural poverty reduction which even his critics concede is sincere.
Also sincere, however, is his conviction that China needs a strong, personalistic leader. And the times have made Xi’s desire for strong central control less anomalous. Donald Trump has become the Western world’s most prominent example, but from Narendra Modi in India to Shinzō Abe in Japan and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, “strongman” leaders have become a global phenomenon. However, Xi’s ability to harness the capacity of an authoritarian superpower has given him powers beyond the imagination of a democratic society.
His most powerful weapon has been the one that has enabled him to combine political power with popularity: anti-corruption. Observers of Indian politics will know that anti-corruption emerges seasonally as an electoral issue, but generally fades quite fast. This used to be the case in China under previous leaders, who had to face the short-term reality that economic growth would bring illicit behaviour with it; “when you open the window”, Deng observed, “some flies will come in”.
Now, Xi wants to close the window. The CDIC (Central Discipline Inspection Committee) is the institution at the heart of Xi’s anti-corruption drive. Over the past five years, it has developed under vice-premier Wang Qishan as the feared and immensely powerful agency through which corrupt officials and business figures can be investigated. Senior military figures, tycoons and media figures have all been caught in the net. There is little doubt that Xi’s enemies are usually first in line as targets. But it is also clear that the campaign has been popular among the public. Insidious and widespread corruption has become a nationwide cause for anger, and seeing even some powerful figures being prosecuted has been helpful to Xi’s image.
However, the plans for Xi’s next phase of government involve levels of change that make the past five years seem minimal in comparison, both domestically and internationally. China plans one of the most comprehensive and penetrative systems of e-government in the world. The Aadhaar system in India, constrained by legal and political constraints, is a relative minnow in comparison with the Xi government’s plan for huge new changes.
In a few years, if all goes to plan, Chinese citizens will receive their social welfare entitlements through an electronic ID system. However, this system is also designed to keep political tabs on the population. Positive and negative scores for “social credit” may well become a reality under the system, allowing Xi’s government immense amount of social control.
China has seen the potential of the next generation of technological development, but also the importance of the government keeping close tabs on what goes on the internet. China has a huge community of paid internet monitors (nicknamed “the fifty-cent gang” for the amount they are allegedly paid per positive tweet about the government that they put out). The past few months have seen a push to shut down virtual private networks (VPNs) and other ways of accessing forbidden sites outside China; these sites are not just dissident networks but major players such as Google and Facebook, which are prevented from operating in China.
Meanwhile, the penetration of the structures of the Communist Party into all aspects of society is a key part of the next phase of political development in China. Even entities previously at one remove from the party, such as foreign companies, will now be expected to have party cells within their organization. The tentative moves towards a freer civil society with autonomous human rights organizations, legal practice and more open media, visible 10 years ago around the time of the 2008 Olympics, have been crushed.
The wider world will certainly see a difference in Xi’s China’s international engagement. One fluke factor above all has influenced China’s decision: the election of Trump as the US president. Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign, and his behaviour since, has caused both allies and rivals to reassess their relationship with the US. The Korea question, in particular, has caused a variety of unexpected changes in the region.
China and the US have long had differing goals in the region; for the US, a nuclear-armed North Korea has been unacceptable, whereas China’s bottom line is that the North Korean regime must survive to prevent the reunification of Korea on US terms, allowing American troops on the border with China for the first time since 1949. Trump’s decision to meet Kim Jong-un took the world by surprise (and probably took Kim by surprise too). However, if the end result is a guarantee of North Korean regime security, then the US will essentially have granted China and North Korea what they most desire: safety for a rogue regime with Washington agreeing not to interfere in its internal affairs (or, presumably, its murky business dealings abroad).
If the Korean problem is neutralized, that will give Xi much more room to concentrate on the international aims which he really wishes to pursue. These are encapsulated in the overall strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (“One Belt, One Road”). If enacted, this plan will see some $8 trillion worth of infrastructure distributed between western Europe and South-East Asia, with a particular concentration in Central Asia. It is a bold and ambitious project to try and move the Eurasian centre of economic and political gravity much closer to Beijing. But it runs the risk of alienating neighbours, not least India, which has shown growing alarm at the thought of Chinese-led initiative extending its influence in South Asia. This alarm has been strengthened by this year’s declaration of an 8% rise in China’s defence budget (which was already $144 billion per year), and last year’s opening of a naval base in Djibouti, giving access to the Indian Ocean.
In fact, Beijing is unlikely to launch a major provocation against India. Even in expansionist mode, Xi will be cautious about opening up too many fronts at once. Relations with Japan, a much more important factor for China in terms of Asia-Pacific security, have calmed down in recent months. With the US, China is content to let Trump’s erratic foreign policies, which have alienated or at least worried allies such as South Korea, weaken American power in the region. Meanwhile, China makes slow and steady advances in its overall goals, such as the military fortifications of islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
Xi is sometimes compared to Mao, or to the traditional emperors. He is none of those things. He is a thoroughly modern leader. Unlike Mao, he has no desire to bring about a cultural revolution that might lead to the destruction of the state from within. Instead, he wants to use authoritarian politics and high technology to create state control unprecedented in any state.
Xi is also convinced that he is personally necessary to the completion of the various projects, collectively termed “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, which is why he has moved to end term limits to his presidency. He may not be all-powerful; unlike Russia, China has a robust party political structure and there are colleagues who could easily become rivals if the economy fails. The maintenance of strong growth is crucial to Xi’s success, and it is not guaranteed.
But Xi will look out from Beijing and see a world where his own power seems assured, his country’s economy is growing for now, and his greatest rival, the US, is losing credibility and friends around the world. One imagines that at this moment, he is a happy man.
Rana Mitter is director of the China Centre at Oxford University.
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