Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will change China’s constitution so that he can stay on after the end of his second term. He chose to break with the two-term tradition set by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), one of China’s few checks on despotism. It provided some structure to the peaceful transfer of power.
Xi’s stunt is only the latest writing on the wall, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) return to a deeper authoritarianism had already made itself felt in Beijing for a number of years. The party has chosen power over China’s societal development.
In 2010, when I first stayed in China for a longer period, there was significantly more hope that China would gradually liberalize.
Rising prosperity created a growing middle class, one that is becoming increasingly educated and demanding. Many expected that the CCP would be pragmatic enough to give in. Citizens would be ever better informed and acquire more rights, while civil society, the media and universities would become freer and ever more open to the outside world.
However, since Xi came to power in 2012, the party is digging its heels into the sand. Political control of universities, media and non-governmental organizations has worsened, while the censorship and propaganda machine is running at full capacity.
Megalomaniac political projects are also back in vogue. Deng, who had to undergo Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) social engineering for 30 years, had once renounced such projects: Never again a leader with a great plan, please!
Yet Xi has a vision of a new “silk road” from China to Europe. The set-up is rather vague, but the main aim is to draw countries in Central and South Asia into the Chinese sphere of influence with infrastructure projects and investments. The project undermines the “free market,” as companies are under pressure to invest in what is primarily a political project.
China is also marching into an Islamic trouble region. If you construct infrastructure worth US$62 billion in Pakistan, as China plans, you will be drawn into the country’s problems.
Already in China itself, the party-state does not know what to do with non-Han Muslims. In the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims live, the party-state conducts a reign of terror. The New York Times speaks of a “dystopian totalitarian surveillance state,” and now that same party-state seeks to go further westward, deeper into the Muslim world.
My prognosis is therefore: Tensions will grow between the party and the urban middle class, and between China and non-Han people in the country’s expanding sphere of influence.
However, most Chinese and many Westerners mistakenly think that China is heading toward a golden future under the current regime. They seem blinded by the image of decisive leadership and underestimate the importance of societal pluralism, by which I mean independent science, journalism, professional organizations and trade unions; the free market; inter-party competition; and free public discussions. All that is either undermined or prohibited in China.
In China, to a much larger extent than in the West, power and prestige concentrate in a single organization, the CCP, and its elite, which has a finger in every pie. That is a legacy of both communism and an imperial tradition, with its elite Confucian mandarins.
However, China’s rapid development over the past 40 years was actually enabled by the liberalization process — the relative increase in societal pluralism since Mao’s death — but now Xi’s clan is again more of the old, controlling line, which puts a brake on China’s further development.
Of course, the CCP argues the opposite: China would do well exactly because the party-state so greatly harmonizes society. The “father-mother officials” (fumuguan, 父母官) take care of their child-subjects by protecting them against “inharmonic” ideas and impulses. The CCP can be trusted to use its power responsibly, because the leaders are so wise and competent.
Philosopher Daniel A. Bell, who teaches in China, writes in his 2016 book The China Model of a “Chinese meritocracy” — although I think that I know him well enough to say that he does not qualify Xi’s latest power grab as such, and probably opposes it.
The idea of a Chinese meritocracy is that Western voters, distracted by wild nonsense, often vote for bad politicians, whereas the party selects the best leaders through backroom processes.
Before the latest episode, Bell and other China-model defenders always liked to compare the “serene,” “strong” Xi with clumsy US President Donald Trump, but that comparison was misleading even before Xi’s despotic turn.
Yes, Trump is incompetent — but what do we actually know about Xi? Xi is even more of a princeling than Trump and flourishes in a sheltered party realm. He does not face the test of criticism anywhere. Everywhere, slimy officials await him with notebooks to write down his wise words.
Even if we were to assume that the CCP appoints the best administrators, the party-state’s massive societal footprint still undermines meritocracy in the rest of society. As academics with party connections are favored, faculty selection is skewed. As entrepreneurs with party connections have advantages, economic competition is polluted. Innovation, product quality and efficiency are less strongly rewarded, and so on.
A true meritocracy is pluralistic. Meritocratic means to reward in a differentiated manner in different societal systems, putting the incentives fully on developing excellence in specific arts and virtues so that the true masters can flourish. Political control and interventionism overwrite those differentiated evaluative systems with a single political hierarchy.
The ultimate problem is that Chinese believe too much in “total humans” — great leaders who are supposedly good at everything and are therefore able to intervene anywhere. This totalitarian tendency hurts Chinese society, but it might also eventually become the West’s problem.
We share one globalized world with a hyper-authoritarian superpower, one that is politically hostile to the liberal world order from which it profits economically and led by a man with boundless ambitions.
Eric C. Hendriks is a Dutch sociologist based in Beijing.
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