Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 9
October 2022 will be remembered by chroniclers of the twenty-first century as an inflection point in Chinese history. The P.R.C.’s upcoming decennial government transition of power (or lack thereof as will happen this year) will play a consequential role in China-U.S., China-World, and China-China relations for years to come. It will be the official launching of a new/old path for China that has been at least ten years in the making.
Xi Jinping Looks to China’s Future
Xi Jinping (age 69) is about to embark on a new term as China’s leader. He is expected to be (pick one or more) selected-approved-elected-anointed to a third five-year term at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party beginning one week from today. This is big news.
When the People’s Republic of China came into being in 1949, Mao Zedong was her charismatic and dominating leader. He remained that until his death in 1976. In part due to the excesses and trauma of those almost three decades, China began charting a revised path in the late 1970’s when led by Deng Xiaoping.
Term limits on the country’s President were formally enacted into law, a policy on similar term limits for the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was adopted, and a more institutionalized governmental structure was established. In China, the country’s leader is not only the President and head of state, but he is also the General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Under the new laws and policies, the overall leader of the country was limited to two five-year terms. This was the case with Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and Hu Jintao (2003-2013). In the case of current leader, Xi Jinping, it was originally expected to also be case (2013-2023). However, as part of Xi’s increasing power and control over the levers of government and Party since 2013, the term limits provision was eliminated in 2018, the CCP policy has been set aside, and general age limits on leaders are not being followed in this instance.
This non-leadership-change change at the 20th National Congress comes at a time of resurgent ideological control in China, as well as increasingly strict, top-down control of the economy and society. Xi has developed and imposed an expansive cult of personality reminiscent of Mao. Xi Jinping Thought is enshrined in official documents, in policy, and in propaganda. Xi is the apex of the Party. In China, truth is what the Party says. History is what the Party says. Reality is what the Party says. This is what the Party says. This rings with not-so-subtle Orwellian overtones.
As Xi embarks on his third (of maybe more) terms, the question is whether his brand of governance and control will be able to tame the many issues facing China while preserving and continuing China’s growth, or if these storms will ultimately overwhelm the success, wealth, and power that has been synonymous with China over the past several decades. Xi is powerful, but he is not without internal challenges within the government and Party. In addition, China has a long tradition of rebellion when the population is pushed too far.
China is the second largest economy in the world. Her military is advancing by leaps and bounds in strength and ability and scope. There is world-beating R&D and technology and wide engagement with countries far and wide. There is also pronounced income/wealth inequality, spiraling quality of life issues, a leaky economy cratered by the Zero Covid Policy, and ill headwinds on the global stage. China is at once both confident and not, stable and not, successful and not. The country frequently presents as a huge contradiction. The only straightforward answer when it comes to China typically is that there are no straightforward answers.
China’s Communist-Marxist-Leninist model is the antithesis of that espoused by the Western system of individual rights with multi-party politics. The Chinese government believes in collective rights that are led unquestionably and uniformly by the Chinese Communist Party. In the words of a (fictional) Vulcan science officer, words by the way whose use in the following context would likely be offensive to (the also fictional) Star Fleet, “logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
China promotes this mantra to an extreme in justifying efforts at ensuring domestic stability and preservation of Party control. This collective philosophy is the impetus behind trying to enforce one language and cultural system across multiple Chinese nationalities and regions. It is the bedrock beneath a policy and program of individual and group social repression extending from an entire population in Xinjiang to Hong Kong. It is the rationale for stepping in economically to reign in some of the largest companies in the world and temporarily silencing an influencer who may not have known how he ran afoul of the powers in Beijing.
The stated goals behind Chinese government pronouncements are often worthy. Everyone should have a baseline quality of life, including housing, education, and employment. It is not healthy for the gap between the Have’s and Have Not’s to be overly excessive, and opportunity should be available widely. Improving society, economy, and environment are positive energies for a country to promote. The trouble usually lies in the execution of these desires, particularly when a political system veers too forcefully in one direction at the expense of nuance and flexibility.
People’s Daily, the CCP’s official newspaper, recently carried an article asserting that “’China actively promotes the construction of a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation, explores new models of state-to-state exchanges, and actively builds global partnerships,’….” Russian international affairs analyst, Andrew Korybko, commented that “…by urging a ‘democratisation of international relations’ Beijing was reflecting its view that Washington is ‘anti-democratic’ in pressuring developing countries in the Global South to change their models of governance, which were culturally and politically specific.”
China’s international efforts are not a surprise. They are what all established, former, and growing superpowers want to do and are doing. This being said, there are consequences. In China’s case, bellicose foreign diplomacy, economic targeting of those who offend, sophisticated espionage, global efforts to influence those of Chinese heritage abroad, and territorial expansion in the South China Sea and elsewhere--all of these have and are causing attitudes toward China to harden in many countries around the world, particularly in the West. If they reach a tipping point, how Xi Jinping responds in his third term will be telling. Thus far, indications are that he will likely continue on the same course of doubling down and digging in.
There are scores of well-thought-out analyses of Xi Jinping and prognostications for the future of China. The truth is, however, that no one knows what will happen. For some, his third term (and maybe more) will lead to even greater autocracy and dictatorship with “tragic” results for China. There are those who believe that the economic and systemic issues plaguing China, including loss of confidence by the populace and investors, will crush the country no matter who is in charge. And there are those who say do not underestimate the Chinese and their system because the CCP has managed to survive all this time and always finds a way.
No country operates in a vacuum. Each has its own interests and plays off others in trying to hopefully best position itself for success, power, and influence. In this strategic game, China is going all in with Xi at the helm.
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Very good observations
China is a country of so many facets. Sometimes it is a real challenge to figure out what is going on!!
Andrew: This is perhaps your most outspoken reflection on Chinese leadership that I can recall. As always, your commentary is measured with specific and relevant backup allusions and information. Your perspective is appreciated! Hal