Last year was a challenging one for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) top leadership.
The party’s 20th National Congress in October last year marked the beginning of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) third term, making him the nation’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong (毛澤東), with his loyalists dominating the new politburo, the CCP’s leadership circle.
This development merges the success of a ruler with the fate of the nation, and signifies an intensifying trend toward greater control over the government, national security, society and the economy.
Gone is the old concept of pragmatism that had prevailed under former leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) economic reforms. From the 1980s onward, economic development and growth, rather than ideological purity, has become people’s desire, and thus the road to the CCP’s legitimacy.
Although Deng’s four modernizations improved the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, the CCP never relinquished its monopoly on political power. When people challenged the legitimacy of the party-state, Deng did not hesitate to call in the troops to restore control.
This is exactly what happened during the deadly 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. The tension between state and society remains an integral part of Chinese politics.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre remains the darkest stain on Deng’s otherwise extraordinary career, and a handful of CCP hardliners almost derailed his economic legacy.
Deng eventually neutralized his opponents and rescued the reform programs through an orchestrated, quasi-imperial “southern tour” of coastal economic zones in 1992.
Deng’s appointee, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who died in November, was thought to be a transitional figure, but he stabilized the Sino-American relationship, ensured a steady period of economic recovery, and continued to operate behind the scenes after handing his authority to former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in 2002.
Compared with Deng and Jiang, Hu was a technocrat who faithfully carried out effective policies to attract foreign capital to support China’s transformation and industrial growth. The Hu administration enabled China to quicken the pace of modernization and win support from nations the world over.
However, before Xi took the reins of power in 2012, the CCP had tightened control over domestic dissent. Xi has simply accelerated dictatorial trends in China and distinguished himself from his predecessors on the ideological front.
“Like other nationalist/populist autocratic leaders, Xi absolutely and unapologetically rejects the linkage of progress with liberalism,” US political scientist David Shambaugh wrote in his 2021 book, China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now.
Xi’s adherence to the power and control administered by the CCP resonates with Maoist politics.
Worse still, he has changed the CCP into “a military organization by giving orders to be followed, rather than as a collective organization with collegiality, feedback mechanisms, and procedures to curtail dictatorial practices,” Shambaugh wrote.
In times of peace and stability, this vertical ruling style projects an image of commanding leadership and guarantees an efficient control of public decisionmaking.
However, at the horizontal level, when everything begins to fall apart, this style of autocratic governance stifles the steady flow of credible information departments and agencies, and weakens the state’s ability to respond to crisises.
Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in late 2019, and a few months later when it became a global pandemic, Xi was determined to demonstrate the superiority of China’s crisis management against the West’s.
The Chinese state employed patriotic rhetoric and party propaganda to justify the use of stringent policies such as mass testing, regional lockdowns and travel restrictions as preventive measures during China’s periodic COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020 and 2021.
However, following weeks of urban protests against the stringent pandemic restrictions this winter, Xi early last month abruptly ended Beijing’s “zero COVID” policy in the midst of an explosive surge in infections.
As most Chinese welcome the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, high-risk individuals are still faced with a rising rate of infections.
While popular grievances persist and lurk under the surface of a seemingly stable regime, time will tell if Xi and his loyalists possess the tenacity for sustained governance.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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