Roderick MacFarquhar reviews two new books in the current New York Review of Books (8/13/15): Xi Jinping's The Governance of China (Beijing Foreign Language Press, 515 pp.) and Willy Wo-Lap Lam's Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression (Rutledge, 323 pp). MacFarquhar is an elder statesman worth listening to, and what he has to say is scary.
Xi Jinping looks like an earnest and well meaning fellow. He is only the second leader of the Chinese communist party to be "clearly chosen by his peers," says MacFarquhar. The other was Mao. Selected as the general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012, and president of China in March 2013, he also chairs the new Central National Security Commission that oversees the army, the police, and all foreign-related and national security agencies, as well as the Central Military Commission. He has created and chairs a new Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, and he has assumed leadership of leading groups on foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology. As a result, Xi has a mandate and—for now—tremendous power.
The question is to what end will Xi wield this power, and how?
Xi speaks of the "Chinese dream" as a righteous rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but he lacks a positive ideology.
[T]he Chinese dream is too distant to arouse "mass fervor" among citizens whose personal dream is to be able to afford an urban apartment or their son getting a good job after college. As for "socialism with Chinese characteristics," Deng Xiaoping's justification for putting Marxism on the shelf, any educated Chinese knows that the nearest facsimile to that can be found only in Singapore. Taiwan could be labeled democracy with Chinese characteristics. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics? Hong Kong. And China? 1.3 billion people with Chinese characteristics. There is no ideological there there.But while China lacks a positive ideology, Xi knows what he wants to run away from: Western enlightenment values.
Without a substantive positive ideology to grip the Chinese people, Xi has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six "false ideological trends, positions, and activities" emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese.What are these six “false things” Xi is afraid of? They are constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, (i.e. journalism that challenges China's principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline); and historical soul-searching.
Xi is afraid of these Western values because he thinks they could challenge the hegemony of the CCP. Xi's highest value is to prevent the CCP from falling by the wayside like the Soviet communist party did. Here is MacFarquhar again (internal quote is Xi):
According to Xi, an important reason why the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Soviet Communist Party collapsed was that "their ideals and convictions wavered .... Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party , and a great party was gone.... In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist." Xi clearly intends that the members of the CCP should have their ideals and convictions strengthened and he will be the "real man" who will lead the resistance to infiltrating Western doctrines.But is the ideal of self-preservation of the CCP (at the expense of civil society, recognition of universal values, human rights, and a reflective press) really what’s best for China? Or is this primarily good for the privileged members of the CCP and their hangers on? And what will they do to hang onto that power?
Xi wants to strengthen the rule of law. It is one of the four governing principles coming out of the last national party congress. But, says Rogier Creemers in a recent East Asia Forum article, “China’s legal reforms will not pursue the development of a legal system premised on individual autonomy and representation.” Rather, the law in China is seen by the CCP as a tool for progress towards outcomes determined by the CCP at the top.
To us in the West, it is axiomatic that “rule of law” without individual rights, without due process, without a civil society, without a commitment to some universal values, and without space for honest self-reflection is empty rhetoric. A legal system whose overt purpose is to achieve outcomes determined by senior party officials is not “rule of law,” it is “rule of the CCP.” Just ask the 220 civil rights workers who have recently been arrested, with some of them being repeatedly tortured.
To us in the West it is axiomatic that entrenched and unchecked one-party rule for 66 years must inevitably lead to massive corruption. And so it has. MacFarquhar notes that “If corruption among the well over 80 million Party members is as widespread as Chinese leaders imply and the Chinese people believe, then tens of millions could be involved.”
The Chinese economy is opaque. But it seems many formerly Chinese public companies have been turned over to party members and their families to compete overseas as private companies, and to act as quasi-private monopolies within China. See, e.g., the story of Shanghai Construction Group. Many party members and their families have gotten very wealthy in the process. Economic progress has been astounding, but the fruits of this progress have not been shared by most. In excess of 900 million people in China live on less than $5.00/day. So without universal values, without a civil society, without an outlet for dissent, what will happen when China enters economic recession? When pushed by dissent borne of economic disappointment, will Xi try to stoke the fires of nationalism with provocative moves in the East and South China Seas?
Xi has set himself the laudable task of stamping out self-dealing corruption in the CCP. But without moving away from one party rule, without moving towards honoring some universal values, without a civil society, and without a meaningful rule of law … I say he’s on a fool's errand.
In order to push through reforms, Xi needs widespread support from party leadership as well as party footsoldiers. What does he have to convince them to give up their entrenched privileges? To sell out their corrupt friends and family? It seems likely that Xi will run into foot-dragging and outright opposition. If he starts going after the politically powerful to dismantle the personal empires they and their families have built using their party CCP positions and connections, he will make himself politically vulnerable.
Xi is willing to have the state summarily arrest and torture people to prevent soul-searching about the role (and performance) of the CCP in China. He wants to prohibit an open and accurate look at the history of the CCP from the Great Leap Forward, to the Cultural Revolution, to Tiananmen Square. He rejects civil society and universal values. He wants to preserve one party rule.
This cannot bode well for when the economic downturn comes.