Rejecting ‘Western’ democracy, China’s Xi consolidates power with new ideology


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China’s President Xi Jinping has created his own political ideology, in a step towards entrenching his position at the top of the Communist Party. Top officials have made multiple mentions of “Xi Jinping Thought” at the Communist Party Congress (above), the BBC reports:

The party is widely expected to rewrite its constitution to enshrine this theory before congress ends next week. The move would elevate him to the level of previous leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

An ideology named after Xi to guide China and the party would further consolidate his power, said Ryan Manuel, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Hong Kong. “This is a good umbrella for him to just keep saying whatever he wants and the system having to respond and study it,” he told Reuters.

According to Xi, China will push for political system reform and develop China’s socialist democracy, but it will never “copy the foreign political model” of Western liberal democracy, notes Jinghan Zeng, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College. Almost every party congress emphasizes this point, but this year, the party is driving it home as confidently and assertively as ever. Chinese state propaganda consistently warns that Western liberal democracy would only cause chaos and instability.

Xi did not explicitly condemn liberal democracy. That work was left to China’s state-run media, which frequently points out its shortcomings, says The Christian Science Monitor. “While some Western countries are stagnating and struggling,” says a recent report from Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, “China remains a beacon of stability across the globe.”

“The Chinese style of governance has gained global attraction,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research on public policy and society at the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, citing Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa as particularly susceptible to its influence. Closer to Beijing, some analysts have argued that China holds increasing sway in countries like Cambodia and Thailand. Longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, has overseen a political and press crackdown criticized by the West as Chinese support stays steady.

But the appeal of an alternative to liberal democracy may extend farther, Dr. Shi-Kupfer says. “It’s probably helpful in forcing us in the West to reflect on our democracies, but this is a governance style which comes with no moral foundation. I am worried that our self-reflection could lead us to deny values that I believe are universal.”

Xi has now been in charge of the Party and state for five years. While Xi’s presumed accumulation of personal power has been oft-noted throughout his first term, no clear “banner term” representing his ideological and political legacy had yet emerged as he approached his second, notes China Digital Times:

Ahead of the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, which is currently underway, analysts were eyeing the character of a likely amendment to the Party constitution as an indication of Xi’s true power: while previous top leaders have had their contributions to theory embedded in the Party charter, only the formidable former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have seen their names also included in the document. If Xi’s name becomes enshrined in the constitution, analysts say, it will indicate that his rule is at least as strong as Mao’s and Deng’s. The language used in a recently published state media report on the opening of the Congress suggests that Xi may indeed have accumulated a degree of power unseen in China’s Party politics since Mao Zedong.

Disciplinary state

“[Xi] spent his first five years basically dismantling the old system, which he sees as too lax, too corrupt,” said Claremont McKenna College professor Minxin Pei, author of China’s Crony Capitalism.

What Mr. Xi wants to build now, Professor Pei told the New York Times, is “a disciplinary state.” He continued: “It disciplines everybody. It disciplines the party, it disciplines Chinese society. And to enforce discipline, you have to have a very powerful security state.”

Chinese activists came under pressure in the run-up to the 19th Communist party congress as security agents fanned across the country to quell even the slightest hint of dissent, The Guardian reports:

Hu Jia, perhaps the most outspoken political activist still living in mainland China, said agents had told him he would be forcibly “travelled” from his Beijing home in the coming days. “Perhaps they will send me somewhere remote,” said Hu, who has been under almost constant guard since June.

“This crackdown has been going on for a long time and seems to really represent a vision of how society should be – that it should fall into line and should be unified. So I don’t expect a significant let-up after the congress,” said Andrew Nathan (right), a Columbia University political scientist:

Nathan said Xi’s crackdown was driven by a sense among party leaders that they were under siege from a disparate coalition of political foes including Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Xinjiang Uighurs, Taiwanese and Americans. The offensive would continue in the medium term, he predicted. But in the long run it was a perilous tactic: “The way [Xi’s first term] leaves me feeling in the end is: ‘Why is he cracking down so hard? What is he afraid of? And how can that amount of tension in society last?’”

“It leaves me feeling as though this level of social crackdown is not sustainable. Because people, in the end, have some kind of self-respect,” said Nathan, and board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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