Now that the Chinese National People’s Congress has voted — 2,958 to 2 — to abolish presidential term limits, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) could rule indefinitely, rather than completing a tenure of two five-year terms in 2023. To what degree is Xi set to become the all-powerful ruler many observers predict?
China-watchers have been debating the character and extent of Xi’s power since the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th National Congress in October last year. One indicator has been the enshrinement of his ideology, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” in China’s constitution.
With Mao Zedong (毛澤東) being the only previous Chinese leader to have his eponymous “Thought” constitutionalized, some argue that Xi is now the most powerful leader since Mao.
Of course, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) — who presided over China’s era of “reform and opening up” for two decades, beginning in 1978 — was also lionized with “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was Deng’s signature policy.
However, Xi’s explicit mention of a “New Era” marks a departure from Deng, indicating that the era of reform is over.
In contrast to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of 40 years ago — a rural, agrarian nation emerging from the Cultural Revolution — today’s China is an economic and political superpower with a rapidly urbanizing and technologically advanced society.
Xi’s New Era thus represents a milestone in China’s long search for “wealth and power.” Instead of “opening up,” Xi’s China will be “going out” to the world.
Yet how should this New Era be viewed in the context of modern Chinese history and what might it reveal about the nature of Xi’s power?
In the 20th century, China was governed by three regimes: the Qing Dynasty (清), Republic of China and the PRC. The history of the PRC is further divided into two periods: the Mao era (1949 to 1976) and the reform era.
How this history was perceived changed over time. During the Mao years, the Republican era — with its “united front” politics and the development of civic society — looked like a brief interlude between periods of autocracy.
Yet, during the PRC’s reform period, it was the tumult of the Mao era that looked like the aberration, even to the CCP, which sought to distance itself from what it called “leftist mistakes.”
With the success of Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China’s economic miracle appeared to confirm that it was firmly on the path toward development and modernization.
Changing perceptions of China’s trajectory have been reflected in the US’ relationship with it. During World War II, China was the US’ ally. Indeed, in 1943, the wife of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) testified before the US Congress about how then-US president Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” applied to a China at war with Japan.
However, the belief that the relationship was based on shared values was dashed by the CCP’s victory in 1949, leading to the suggestion that the US had somehow “lost China.” Such hopes were revived, to some extent, with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and, later, the reform era. Believing that economic development and a growing middle class would lead to political liberalization, the US again engaged with China.
This hope was reinforced through the 1990s and 2000s, when Chinese officials began to experiment with elections at the village level, and the CCP leadership changed regularly after two terms. China joined the WTO and hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
As the journalist Jim Mann once said, it was the expectation of political reform that underlay US interactions with China, even after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Yet, over the past decade, that expectation has been called into question. While China’s per capita income was rising and its middle class growing, democracy did not arrive. Political scientists stopped predicting the CCP’s collapse and began asking instead why the one-party authoritarian state has been so resilient, and whether the period of reform and opening up had come to an end.
As Xi’s “New Era” shows, the answer is a resounding yes.
Consider the rise of digital technologies. Instead of allowing the Internet to result in greater freedom, China constructed a “Great Firewall.” It has also developed what political scientists call “digital Leninism,” in which technology enables an unprecedented level of state surveillance.
Similarly, China’s market economy has not grown increasingly privatized. Instead, the government has maintained control of the most important state-owned enterprises and private enterprise serves state priorities. In the realm of politics, democratic experimentation is confined to the local level, permitted only insofar as it strengthens CCP rule.
So was the reform era yet another aberration in China’s history, not unlike the Republican period? One way to approach this question is to imagine modern Chinese history as resembling the double-helix structure of DNA, comprising a strand of openness and one of authoritarianism.
For example, many think of the reform era, especially the 1980s, as a time of pluralistic political discourse and an increasingly vibrant civil society, but it was also defined by adherence to Deng’s “four cardinal principles”: the socialist road; the people’s democratic dictatorship; the leadership of the CCP; and Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
Just as Deng presided over China’s reform and opening up, he presided over the Tiananmen Square massacre. Similarly, the Republican era had new universities and professions — including lawyers — but it also had Chiang’s “White Terror” and the conservative “New Life” movement.
In short, even when the Chinese tapestry featured a reformist weft, it was always woven into an authoritarian warp. In Xi’s “New Era,” it is the authoritarian strand that is dominant. History will tell whether a recessive strand of openness might persist.
Denise Ho is a professor of history at Yale University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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