Sun, Mar 11, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Xi’s party puts power over society

By Eric C. Hendriks

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.

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