West’s ‘China fantasy’ a conceptual failure and strategic blunder


A top-level meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has endorsed President Xi Jinping as a “core” leader, giving him equal billing with late supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, official media reported on Thursday:

Members were urged in a communique issued at the end of a plenary session of the party’s powerful Central Committee to “closely unite around the … Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core”….It also called for stricter party discipline amid reports that one million officials have been punished for corruption since Xi came to power.

The proposal to designate Mr Xi as the “core” of the party generated deep opposition when it was first floated earlier this year, The Financial Times adds:

Many in the party and the broader public argue that China can only be effectively governed by an authoritarian leader. But others fear a return to the irrational rule, restrictions on individual liberty and economic stagnation that accompanied the Communist party’s extreme consolidation of power under chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s and 1960s……. Consolidating his own power as the “core” of the party shatters the power-sharing arrangement among party elders… [which] has kept China politically stable in recent decades but is also blamed for corruption, inefficiency and bureaucratic resistance to Beijing’s priorities.

“Gaining the core leader status certainly implies Xi is more powerful than before the plenum and more powerful than his two predecessors [Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao] at the same stage of leadership. But that was the case even before he gained this new status,” said Steve Tsang, a Sinologist at Nottingham University.

Recent developments confirm that the West’s “China fantasy” amounted to both a conceptual failure and a strategic blunder, argues James Mann, a resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The fantasy got the dynamics precisely wrong: Economic development, trade and investment have yielded greater political repression and a more closed political system, he writes for The New York Times.

“This amounts to a new China paradigm: an intensely internationalized yet also intensely repressive one-party state,” Mann contends. “China provides the model that other authoritarian regimes, from Russia to Turkey to Egypt, may seek to replicate.”

“Democratic governments around the world need to collaborate more often in condemning Chinese repression — not just in private meetings but in public as well,” he adds. “Why should there be a one-way street in which Chinese leaders send their own children to America’s best schools, while locking up lawyers at home?”

As Xi looks to institutionalize his signature anticorruption campaign with stricter disciplinary rules, few expect him to restrain the country’s ultimate authority: the Communist Party, The Wall Street Journal reports:

“The challenge is whether the party can establish a more structured supervision system that’s less arbitrary and less dependent on the will of individual leaders,” said Li Chengyan, the director of Peking University’s Research Center for Government Integrity Building and a party member…..

A recent study by two Chinese researchers suggested that a sustained and far-reaching anticorruption drive may prove detrimental to the party’s reputation, The WSJ adds:

Ni Xing and Li Zhu, a professor and a doctoral student respectively at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, wrote in China’s Journal of Public Administration in June: “If local governments overflow with corruption, people will gradually attribute responsibility to the center as they perceive the center’s management failures to have led to such a state of affairs.”

Evidence from social science and history suggests that China is entering a “transition zone” that will threaten its capacity to maintain both authoritarian rule and high levels of economic growth, argues Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. The fall of one-party rule generally occurs in two phases: a prolonged period of decay, followed by rapid breakdown, he writes in Transition in China? More Likely Than You Think for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:

Like other autocratic regimes, China’s Communist Party will find its survival imperiled as the country enters the upper middle-income, or “transition” zone, where most non-oil autocracies have historically fallen. Compounding this, China exhibits many of the key symptoms of regime decay. These factors suggest that regime breakdown will occur, and will likely proceed via “refolution”: limited initial reform, followed by revolution…..Unfortunately, the primary drivers of this process will be internal; given that the West has no real political leverage over China, outside actors can play no more than a secondary role.

“Our best preparation for such an outcome, therefore, is in the intellectual realm,” adds Pei, the author of China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (2016). “We must start thinking the unthinkable—an exercise that we failed to perform before the fall of the former Soviet Union, and before those of many other decaying autocracies as well over the last four decades.” RTWT

China’s ideological deficit

If China’s leaders are so worried about the infiltration of Western values, does that mean that China’s official ideology, when it emerges more fully, will be pitched emphatically in opposition to Western values? the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen asks.

Whatever the new official ideology, it probably won’t stand overtly in opposition to Western values a la the Soviet Union, says Damien Ma, co-author of In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade.

But it will likely be defined as what it is not — that is, not Western — rather than what it is, other than simply being ‘Chinese’,” he says, adding that “I’m not sure that China is particularly interested in exporting its ideology or values.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email