China’s Future: Comrade X and a Man Called Xi
by Gwydion M. Williams
The Western media saw the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China as giving President Xi personal and dictatorial power. This was repeated when the National People’s Congress removed the rule limiting the President to two five-year terms.
It is true that his power has gone beyond any leader since Deng. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has been added to the party constitution: ‘Thought’ having a higher standing than ‘Theory’. The official position is:
“The Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era builds on and further enriches Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development, according to a report delivered by Xi Jinping at the opening of the congress.
“The report listed 14-point fundamental principles of the Thought, ranging from ensuring Party leadership over all work to promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind…
“‘As China enters a new era, the CPC must write a new chapter of 21st century Marxism with a broader vision to achieve the goals set at the milestone congress,’ said Chen Shuguang, a professor with the Party School of the CPC Central Committee.”[A]
But this change blocks a possible return to hard-line Maoism. Or the pretence of a return, as with a once-prominent politician disgraced in 2012:
“The son of Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China, Bo Xilai is one of the ‘princelings’ of Chinese politics. He cultivated a casual and charismatic image in a marked departure from Chinese political convention. In Chongqing, Bo initiated a campaign against organized crime, increased spending on welfare programs, maintained consistent double-digit percentage GDP growth, and campaigned to revive Cultural Revolution-era ‘red culture’. Bo’s promotion of egalitarian values and the achievements of his ‘Chongqing model’ made him the champion of the Chinese New Left, composed of both Maoists and social democrats disillusioned with the country’s market-based economic reforms and increasing economic inequality. However, the perceived lawlessness of Bo’s anti-corruption campaigns, coupled with concerns about the image he cultivated, made him a controversial figure.
“Bo was considered a likely candidate for promotion to the elite Politburo Standing Committee in 18th Party Congress in 2012. His political fortunes came to an abrupt end following the Wang Lijun incident, in which his top lieutenant and police chief sought asylum at the American consulate in Chengdu. Wang claimed to have information about the involvement of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who allegedly had close financial ties to the two.”[B]
Reflecting on the matter, I found it significant when he formally fell from grace:[C]
“Bo Xilai’s removal comes just a day after the end of the country’s annual parliamentary session, the National People’s Congress (NPC), where his absence from a meeting sparked speculation about his future.”[D]
The ‘Wang Lijun incident’ occurred on 6th February. Bo Xilai was removed as Communist Party Secretary in the city of Chongqing on 15th March. This was an enormously powerful position: Chongqing is an inland municipal area with a population at the time of nearly 28 million:[E] now over 30 million. It maybe needed an informal consensus among a wider group of leading figures to removed him.
Before the scandal, he was on the Politburo and might have become a serious rival to Xi Jinping at the party’s 18th National Congress later in 2012. It might have been much harder in a Western-style political system, where expert opinions count for less and some politicians have survived amazing scandals:
“The flamboyant Bo Xilai is the nearest thing China has to a Western-style politician, correspondents say…
“Mr Bo had been expected to join the standing committee of the politburo – a nine-member body – which effectively runs China.”[F]
The USA has Trump, one of a wave of Populist leaders. Britain could get Boris Johnson. [And now indeed does have him, as at October 2019.]
Since Mao’s death, China has much more genuinely been ruled by Democratic Centralism. This was Lenin’s invention: a hierarchy of elected committees with an obligation to shut up and obey when a higher committee decides. Only at Party Congresses is everything theoretically up for grabs, and the Congress elects a Central Committee to be supreme till the next Congress.
In China, at least, the Central Committee then elects the General Secretary, the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee Also the Central Military Commission, which controls in detail the Armed Forces.
Though disputes are hidden from public view, they are genuine. The wishes of the current top leaders are not always respected.
When it comes to the crunch, the Central Committee ought to be able to overrule the Politburo. Often this would happen out of sight. But Khrushchev was able to use it to stay in power when Molotov and others tried to remove him and won an initial majority on the ‘Presidium’.
China’s National People’s Congress is the supreme state authority, but everyone understands that it is subordinate to the Party. Genuine disputes are not settled by votes cast there. Still, it would have been a gathering attended by everyone important in the Party, even if they were not officially a Delegate. I suspect that there was a lot of private consultation before it was agreed that someone as important as Bo Xilai should indeed be removed.
It may also have set a precedent for toppling other high-status characters on corruption charges.
Yet the move leftwards continued despite Bo’s fall: this too may have been a consensus decision. State-owned companies expand, and critics seeking to import Western political values are less and less tolerated.
Of course 2012 was several years into the West’s persistent crisis. They must have noticed the decision by democratically elected governments that the rich speculators must have their fortunes protected while the general public would bear the cost through Austerity. Since growth also stagnated, the Western model as twisted by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s must look less and less attractive.
The much earlier stagnation in Japan would also have mattered. In the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping and others were amazed at how Japan had grown during Mao’s years. But Japan’s major growth was already over by then. Things got worse when the Japanese weakly accepted more and more of the New Right consensus.
China wisely refused to lay itself open to the parasitic money-games of Global Finance. They avoided the damage done to Japan, and to the Asia Tigers in the crisis of 1997.
The fall of Bo Xilai may not have mattered much. I’d originally supposed that he was a genuine leftist. But one of his deputies seeking US protection collapsed that belief for me.
As for Xi, my judgement as of now is influenced by what was said when he first emerged as important, back in 2007. This is how the Guardian put it:
“When he was sent to the countryside at 15 and his father was jailed, Xi Jinping learned a lesson in political pragmatism that has helped to carry him to within a step of the pinnacle of power in China.
“Eschewing the turbulent fervour of the Cultural Revolution in favour of stable growth, he has spent the 30 years since working his way up the Communist party hierarchy. The rise has been unspectacular. So much so that until he took pole position on Monday in the race to lead a fifth of humanity, the party boss of Shanghai was less well known in China than his celebrity wife Peng Liyuan, a folk singer in the People’s Liberation Army’s musical troupe…
“Despite his pedigree as the son of a high official of the revolutionary era, Mr Xi’s elevation was a surprise to many politburo watchers, but it signals the growing strength of party ‘princelings’ and the diffusion of power inside the world’s biggest political party…
“Mr Xi was dispatched to the countryside to learn from the peasant masses. It was a bitter experience that helped to shape his views.
“‘In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion,’ he told state-run CCTV in 2003.
“He returned to Beijing to complete the first of his two degrees from the elite Tsinghua University. Unlike most recent politburo members he has a doctorate in law and ideological education…
“Officials such as Mr Xi have also come under suspicion because of the advantages they can secure through their family ties, but leading reformers believe they can be a force for change. ‘Most corrupt officials come from poor families. But Chinese royals like Xi have a spirit that is not dominated by money,’ says Li Datong, a former editor who was fired for refusing to toe the line of the propaganda department.
“In contrast to the autocratic rule of Mao Zedong, Mr Hu has had to balance the interests of rich and poor provinces, powerful families and patronage groups in choosing a successor. The favourite to become the next party leader had been Li Keqiang, the party boss of Liaoning who was a protege of Mr Hu’s for more than a decade. But he was too close to the president for the liking of other powerbrokers, such as former president Jiang Zemin, so Mr Xi became the compromise candidate.
“‘His rise is slightly unexpected, but he has broad appeal,’ said a European diplomat. His succession is not guaranteed. But if recent precedent is a guide, Mr Xi will probably be president from 2012 to 2022. Before then, he will at least start to become as much of a household name as his wife.”[G]
Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan joined the army as an ordinary soldier, but was most valued for her excellent singing voice. She performed frontline tours to boost troop morale during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts. She later gained a wider reputation, but presumably the military still see her as ‘one of theirs’. She even sang for the martial-law troops who crushed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, though this seems to have been officially dropped into obscurity.[H] I’d suppose that most of the army view themselves as misunderstood heroes who saved China from chaos – and I’d agree with them on this.
China’s leaders have mostly shunted military men out of the leadership (which since Deng’s day has had no women at the very top level). But they must be aware that the army is the one force that could end their rule, or step in to give victory to one faction in a party struggle. This happened with Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and much earlier with Ben Bella in Algeria. And many experts believe that the Soviet military were important both in Khrushchev’s rise and his fall. Were deeply divided during the Soviet collapse, and since then have done nicely out of corruption.
As for ‘princelings’, it is unclear how much that mattered. Neither Xi nor Bo Xilai had fathers who were leaders at the top level. The best-connected successor was Li Peng, deputy to Jiang Zemin and adopted son of the childless Zhou Enlai, Mao’s ever-present deputy.
The children of talented politicians may have genuine merits and have earned their place. Anyone listing the ten most effective and important British Prime Ministers would certainly include Pitt the Younger, whose father was also an unusually powerful Prime Minister. They could hardly fail to include Winston Churchill, whose father Randolph Churchill was far more important in British Tory politics than the fathers of Xi or Bo in China. And Neville Chamberlain, mostly seen as a disastrously bad influence as Prime Minister, was son of the highly influential Joseph Chamberlain who reshaped British politics.
Xi’s promotion might have been purely on merit. Still, if there was a general wish among the top thousand or so leaders to have a single strong leader to purge corruption, they might want someone who was personally honest, but had friends and relations and respected elders who had been involved in the corruption. ‘We need a ‘Comrade X’ to have unusual powers: Xi Jinping is a highly competent leader with everything we could wish for.’
(Incidentally, ‘Xi’ in Standard Chinese would probably be heard as ‘Si’ by a Briton, and was written as ‘Hsi’ in the older Wade–Giles system for Chinese names in English. While ‘X’ is pronounced by us as ‘ex’. The two instances of X in English would be unlikely to seem significant to Chinese, supposing they even put it so.)
However it was done, Xi was chosen. And has steadily gained more and more power.
There are parallels here with the rise of Putin, which the West sees as a baffling rejection of democracy. That Putin has repeatedly won reasonably open elections by huge majorities does not stop them calling him a dictator. They don’t understand that in the 1990s, they needed a repeat of the highly successful post-1945 Marshall Plan, whereby the Mild Corporatism of the USA successfully imposed an even better version of Mild Corporatism on its former foes.[I] West Germany, Italy and Japan remain firm friends, though Mr Trump may end this.
George Soros called for a new Marshall Plan at the time, but this was before he became enormously rich through parasitic speculation. They ignored him. The people who mattered decided that Russia and the rest of the former Soviet bloc should get the purest possible capitalism: something much purer than they had been allowed to do at home. And when this failed, they decided that the Russians were to blame for not being sufficiently obedient.
A major reason for the invasion of Iraq was the New Right’s belief that if they could rebuild a society from the bottom up, it would be a shining example for the awkward Arab World. I strongly doubt that the people who mattered ever believed the propaganda about ‘weapons of mass destruction’. These never amounted to much. They had been genuinely scrapped by Saddam in the mistaken belief that honesty was the best policy when dealing with the New Right.
Putin was raised up when Russia saw that it had been fooled and needed to make its own destiny. China has never been fooled, though they came close in 1989. China works out its destiny, with Xi currently the top man.
For China, I’d suppose that the broad leadership back in 2007 decided they needed a ‘Comrade X’ with enough power to root out some corruption and scare the rest into better behaviour. They would also have wanted to keep it limited, which would favour a man whose family had long been part of the leadership. And they would have been aware of the danger of the corrupt getting the army on their side.
Xi had already been a competent leader in two large rich Chinese provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, each larger than many European countries. He must have ‘ticked all the boxes’, or at least more of them that the plausible alternatives.
There was also the problem that a Top Leader limited to two five-year terms turned out not to be powerful enough to make decisive changes. There’s a widespread view that Hu Jintao, the leader before Xi, never fully established control of the party machine. Deng’s immediate successor, Jiang Zemin, was believed to have more actual power despite being formally retired. People opposed to the Top Leader’s policies could hope to outlast him. This may have been why the two-term limit for the Presidency has been removed.
Note that Xi is not ‘President for Life’, even though many Western news sources call him that. Various Republican constitutions have had a President for Life, who could not be constitutionally removed.[J] If the Wiki entry is accurate, there are none left, with Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan being the last. He was fairly lucky to die in office in 2006: many others have been unconstitutionally removed, resigned or been stripped of office by a constitutional referendum.
Xi himself is dependent on being re-elected, or might decide not to stand for another term. And unless Chinese politics change drastically, the real decision would be whether he gets re-elected by the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which is scheduled for 2022.
The same Congress would also choose the Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, which Mao held continuously from 1936. It has normally been seen as the post that the Top Leader must have. Deng held it from 1981 to 1989, and was able to choose and remove General Secretaries from this power-base. That was before the Presidency counted for much: it was only in 1993 that Jiang became President, signalling that the two offices would henceforth go together.
Jiang in 1989 was Deng’s third choice for General Secretary and presumed successor. He also chose to hand over the much more important post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission soon afterward. This may have been to ensure that Jiang would have secured solid authority over the military and gained personal loyalty from them when Deng finally died in 1997.
Many Western sources expected Jiang to fail and chaos to break out. You could even say that some hoped for it. And it might have happened: but Chinese politics actually stayed stable.
It was also seen as significant that Jiang Zemin stayed on as Chairman of the Central Military Commission for a couple of years after handing over the posts of General Secretary and President to Hu Jintao. Presumably there was some internal struggle to make him hand over the post: but the Party remains good at keeping its secrets.
A possible outcome in 2022 would be Xi keeping this post while handing over the posts of General Secretary and President to someone of his own choosing. Or he might get a third term but signal he would want no 4th term: it remains to be seen.
Xi’s power has increased slowly, presumably as more and more senior leaders find it acceptable, or else are removed. Seeing this and seeing the way in which US authority is in fast decline may explain why China has decided to change the rules on Presidential terms. Probably they will not now have a complete change-over of leadership in 2022, when they have their next Party Congress. This is seen in Western media as a power-grab by Xi: I see it more as the Party preparing itself for likely tough times.
Official commentaries stress the importance of concentrating power:
“It has been proved over history that a leadership structure in which the top leader of China simultaneously serves as the President, the head of the Party, and the commander-in-chief of the military is an advantageous and adoptable strategy.”[K]
And other things are being consolidated:
“It has long been a reality that China is led by the CPC. To be more accurate, the new article is written into the Constitution as a historical choice and a summing-up of the Chinese people’s experience. There has been a related statement in the preamble to the Constitution, but this has been challenged by some who are supported and instigated by overseas forces. In this sense, stressing the CPC leadership in the Constitutional amendment proposal was essential.”[L]
In the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, the West briefly hoped that China’s National Assembly might overturn party rule, as did happen in much of Eastern Europe later that same year.[M] That is no longer mentioned in the Western media– not exactly denied, but readers are nudged in an anti-China direction rather than encouraged to think. If you see the crack-down as a fight for survival, it becomes much less shocking.
There clearly is some Chinese fear of a repeat. One reform is a solemn oath that officials are now going to be required to take.[N] This may arise from the antics of opposition legislators elected in Hong Kong, who refused to take their own oath properly. Unlike the West, it seems oaths still have weight for many Chinese.
The existing anti-corruption work done by the ‘Supervision Commission’ is also being given a solid legal basis:
“China’s national supervision commission will be given a constitutional place…
“Making clear the legal status of the supervision commission as a national organ will significantly promote the full-scale supervision of public officers and press ahead with the strategy of comprehensively deepening reform, implementing the rule of law and strengthening Party discipline.”[O]
Law and actual power are being brought into harmony, but not in line with Western advice. With Trump in the White House and Britain in Brexit chaos, that is hardly surprising.
Xi’s unusual status does not make him comparable to Mao. Mao rose during the Long March, because the Party saw him as the only man who could save them. And he did save them. He then became the public face of Chinese Communism via Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, read by those who knew English and widely available in unauthorised Chinese translations. Perhaps boosted in that role by Sun Yat-sen’s widow, who maybe had a better grasp of propaganda, as I’ve suggested elsewhere.[P] And Mao’s essays in the 1930s and 1940s made sense of the world for many who had found China’s failures inexplicable.
To most Chinese in 1949, the Communists were Mao’s party. This was also the view of the new generation, when he launched his Cultural Revolution in defiance of the party machine.
Xi is also not comparable to Deng, who wholly overturned Mao’s system. Many in the post-Mao leadership would have been content with a guarantee that nothing like the Cultural Revolution would ever happen again. Deng at that stage was one leader among many, but become dominant by also encouraging a much wider opening up of the system to foreigners and private enterprise.
No one now has that sort of authority, and retired leaders still count. That Jiang Zemin still matters was signalled by him openly looking at his watch during Xi’s rather long speech. (That he also fell asleep may be due to genuine old-age fading.)
Before the 19th Congress, people had wondered Xi might overturn the convention on age limits for members of the Politburo:
“Speculations are mounting that 69-year-old Wang Qishan, the party’s top graft-buster and a close ally of Xi, will seek a second term. Wang’s fate has been closely watched to predict whether Xi himself will linger on beyond 2022.”[Q]
In fact, Wang and the other four elderly members of the Politburo Standing Committee did step down. But their five replacements were themselves too old to be plausible Top Leaders from 2022. On past form there should have been two men designated as the next pair of top leaders. Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua are often mentioned and may be the actual heirs.
What is clear is that Xi has enormous authority: the strongest leader since Deng. But I’d also suppose that this depends mostly on support from the top ranks of the Party. They needed someone to clean up out-of-control corruption, and this has been done. Limits on business and on dissidents are more a return to Deng’s values that a repudiation of him.
China also needs a strong leader for the critical period when China is in a position to end US hegemony. Interestingly, President Trump in his much-derided UN speech seemed to be dropping this hegemony, which had been tried and failed by Bush Junior and Obama, with Hilary Clinton expected to seek more of the same. He said:
“Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth.
“That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.
“I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.
“We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”[R]
He combined this with crude threats against Iran, but that might have been a negotiating position. ‘Let us take out Iran and we concede the rest’. On Syria he was lukewarm and could have been preparing the way for a climb-down. He also may still over-estimate US power – he was surprised to be laughed at when he boasted about how nicely the USA was doing economically.
China under Xi has so far refused to be intimidated by the Trade War that Trump has begun. He has also continued what Hu Jintao began – a general rejection of the Neoliberal outlook and an insistence that socialism is still the goal.
It has been largely overlooked that Hu Jintao did stop the steady rise in inequality that had begun under Deng:
Under Xi, it is now being conceded by the better-informed commentators that what Deng introduced wasn’t exactly capitalism:
“On one side is China’s model of authoritarian state capitalism in a Leninist structure with the Communist Party at its heart. On the other, a western model still not fully recovered from the financial crisis, but one based on liberty, individual freedom, and the rule of law.”[S]
“Both [US] parties and most economists accepted Beijing’s ‘innovation mercantilism’…
“These administrations didn’t act alone. They were cheered on by the stifling groupthink of the Washington trade and economics establishment, which, almost without exception, refused even to consider the possibility that Chinese economic and trade policies might pose a threat to the United States. The Washington elite-consensus view was and is that trade is always good (even one-sided free trade in which the other side is mercantilist); that while trade might hurt individual workers, it can’t hurt the overall economy; and that there is no difference between challenging foreign mercantilism and naked protectionism.
“Coupled with this rigid adherence to a strict free-trade ideology came the argument that China simply could not succeed with a state-run economy. Wasn’t it obvious? The Chinese leadership had clearly never bothered to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.”.[T]
“Warren Buffett, known as the ‘god of stocks’ in China, speaks highly of the country’s economic growth and is optimistic about its future.
“‘What they’ve done in the last 50 or 60 years is a total economic miracle. I never would’ve thought it could’ve happened,’ Buffett told Yahoo Finance’s Andy Serwer in Omaha earlier this year. ‘What I do know is they have found a secret sauce for themselves, just like we found the secret sauce a couple centuries ago.’
“Buffett says ‘countries will do it differently,’ referring to the fundamental differences between China and the U.S. politically and economically. China’s state capitalism emphasizes economic growth and social stability, with tight control over domestic politics and information. Since the economic reform in 1978, China has grown at a staggering pace of 9.5% per year and has become the world’s second largest economy. In the past five years, China’s GDP growth has slowed down but still achieved an increase of 6.9% last year, dwarfing America’s 2.3% increase.”[U]
Despite the fervent wishes of many Western commentators, the system remains healthy. And for now, President Xi is the right person to lead it.
This first appeared in a magazine called ‘Problems.
Issue 36, 4th Quarter 2018. November 2018
[U] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/warren-buffett-china-found-secret-sauce-183809314.html. More on this at https://gwydionwilliams.com/newsnotes-historic/2018-newsnotes/news-blog-august-2018/#_Toc522521056