Xi’s authoritarian push backfires internationally

Throughout his tenure, Xi Jinping has regularly quoted from the Chinese classics, Confucian ones in particular. Why is this? It is not necessarily because he is an expert on Confucianism but “he’s aware that the communist faith that animated generations of Chinese people since 1949 has dwindled near to nil.”…reports Asian Lite News

During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in mid-May, he said Russia and China are “jointly committed to promoting the establishment of a more democratic multipolar world order”. To countries that do consider themselves democratic, Putin’s notion was laughable, for both China and Russia are ruled tightly by autocratic rulers who have no intention of losing their grip on power.

In fact, Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS University of London, told ANI, “The biggest challenge China faces in governance terms is the concentration of power in Xi’s hands.”

Doctor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the US, concurred: “Xi Jinping has eroded norms and distorted the distribution of power throughout his decade-long rule…” For example, the State Council is now a mere policy-executive organ directly controlled by the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), with a reduced capacity for designing policy.

Dr Lam further noted a power shift in Beijing. “The so-called Zhejiang faction – a reference to officials who worked with Xi when he was party chief of the coastal province from 2002-07 – was formerly in the ascendancy. Now the Fujian faction – those officials with whom the supreme leader built his career and reputation from 1985 to 2002 in the coastal province opposite Taiwan – has more clout.”

The Hong Kong-born academic said the biggest beneficiary of this change has been fifth-ranked PBSC member, Cai Qi. As head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretariat and Director of the Central Committee General Office, he is in charge of state security and “party building,” which involves vetting officials to assess their loyalty to Xi.

Throughout his tenure, Xi has regularly quoted from the Chinese classics, Confucian ones in particular. Why is this? It is not necessarily because he is an expert on Confucianism, but Professor Anne Cheng, Chair of Intellectual History of China at the College de France offered one explanation at a Brookings Institution lecture delivered in Washington, DC on 22 May.

“I think he’s aware that the communist faith that animated generations of Chinese people since 1949 has dwindled near to nil. And so you need to replace it with some kind of national identity, discourse, and Confucianism is of course the most obvious” thanks to its iconic status in China.

Beijing : Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing, capital of China, June 19, 2023. (Xinhua/Li Xueren/IANS)

In contrast to the USA’s young nationhood, the CCP likes to point to China’s ancient history. Professor Cheng remarked, “This is such a paradox, because as far as I know…I always thought the CCP was a revolutionary party and Marxist Leninist. And when you see the same party claiming that we are the inheritors of 5,000 years of continuous civilization, I get confused!”

Communism considers itself revolutionary, and young-adult reactionaries set out to destroy Confucian ideologies during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Yet those same people are now in power and are restoring Confucianism to prominence!

Confucianism is an ancient tradition associated with a strongly hierarchic and historically immutable socio-political order. Professor Cheng said that modern China’s “Confucian meritocrats are surfing on the wave of democratic recession the world over”.

However, she described the approach of Chinese intellectuals and academics as “insidious”. “They pretend to take the problem of democracy seriously and, in fact, the interesting thing is that they have no other choice. Otherwise, China would be simply chucked out of the global community as a rogue state, like North Korea. And instead of accepting squarely and openly the notion that China is nothing but an autocracy, these Chinese ideologues are intent on showing that China has its own definition of democracy, which is even better and more efficient than the liberal model.”

The phrase “rule of law” has a different meaning in China. In the West, even governments are subservient to rules once they are made. In China, however, the government sits atop the legal system, and mediates rights to others. This is seen in the CCP’s ability to change laws, as exemplified by Xi abolishing term limits on his own leadership.

Nor does China like the concept of one person, one vote, for that implies people possess power and can be suspicious of the government. CCP defenders also argue that one person, one vote lacks effective mechanisms to take into account the interests of non-voters such as future generations. It argues that a Confucian-based system does not reject liberal democracy completely, but is best viewed as a development of it.

However, such Chinese advocates are only justifying autocracy, offering innumerable criticisms of Western political systems but failing to elucidate failings in their own. Professor Cheng concluded that “Chinese political thinkers have gained in self-assurance, if not in downright arrogance, to assert without any qualms the superiority of their model by surveying a whole century of Chinese reflections on the democratic potential of their own intellectual tradition”.

This exhibits itself in eager cooperation with authoritarian regimes like Russia, and other illiberal regimes in Central Asia to repress dissidents. Of course, its mightiest campaign is reserved for Taiwan as it politically and militarily coerces this “flourishing nation whose very existence disproves the CCP’s claims that Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy,” according to the French academic. “What I’m worried about nowadays in China is that this total control of the minds of the people…is not conducive to the innovation and development that China actually needs.”

Ryan Hass, Senior Fellow and Director of the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, participated in the same lecture. He does not think China has the capacity to achieve hegemony with its political and military heft. For instance, it is surrounded by capable countries such as India, Japan and South Korea opposed to the idea of Beijing being a dominant actor that dictates outcomes in Asia.

Hass further noted, “There are not people clamoring to enter into their country by any means possible. There are not countries seeking to emulate and become more like China. China’s public image, at least in the developed world, is at or near an all-time low, and China’s leaders are no longer able to benefit from the shadow of the future. Their period of rapid economic growth is behind them, not in front of them. There are more Chinese people leaving their country today to emigrate to other countries than at any other time since the end of the Tiananmen massacre.”

Haas pointed out that, “The fear they feel is very much from within.” It might well be called a people’s republic, but the people have no influence. This is also why China spends more on domestic security than it does on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The American shared, “I had an opportunity to travel to Beijing last week, and one of the things I was struck with was the frequency with which we received questions from our Chinese counterparts, including very senior Chinese officials, about whether the United States was falling apart. And this sort of speaks to both sides tending to see their worst in the other.” For example, they look at college protests in the USA and equate it with China’s 1989 uproar and think it a precursor of significant upheaval in American society.

Haas also noted, “I think that there’s an element of concern and anxiety about China trying to export elements of its governance model. You know, authoritarianism is the idea of privilege and authority at the expense of individual liberties.” The CCP would certainly welcome other countries to adopt aspects of their governance model, and it is providing material support to make it happen.

Mao sold China’s stability to preserve his own power. After that period of chaos, the mantra in China has been “stability” at all costs. However, Xi is treading in Mao’s footsteps. Dr. Lam of The Jamestown Foundation observed: “One recent development underscores levels of personalization and centralization of power within the People’s Republic of China that have not been seen since Mao Zedong. Namely, the promotion of Xi’s wife, the world-renowned PLA singer Peng Liyuan, who has the ranking of major-general, to the position of senior staff in the hitherto unknown Central Military Commission’s Cadre Assessment Committee.”

This little-known committee may have been formed after the COVID pandemic in late 2022. This year, Peng has been appearing more prominently in Chinese media, and she is undoubtedly in charge of vetting the loyalty of rising generals in the PLA. This used to be the job of the Political Work Department, further underscoring Xi’s growing paranoia.

Xi has recently been sacking proteges, indicating failings in his selection processes and judgement of character. Consequently, he has been prioritising personal connections and loyalty, even at the expense of competence.

Indeed, Xi is struggling to whip the PLA into subservience. He was able to install acolytes in top posts, aided by the PLA’s 2015-16 restructuring that furthered his purposes. Nonetheless, Dr. Lam pointed out, “The so-called ‘Xi Family Army’ is now beset with problems, however. The first sign of growing problems for this group (the term is a reference to the loyalty of the supreme leader’s handpicked generals) arose last August with the mysterious disappearance of then defense minister General Li Shangfu and the near-simultaneous absence from PLA functions of Li’s predecessor General Wei Fenghe.”

The PLA Rocket Force has been hit hard by disappearances too, and Dr Lam also highlighted the case of Lieutenant General Zhong Shaojun, Xi’s former secretary and speech writer. Although not actually a military man, he had risen to become Director of the Office of the Central Military Commission Chairman. Zhong has been quietly removed, perhaps after being blamed by Xi for the large number of PLA personnel failures.

Dr Lam pondered, “Xi’s removals of proteges and trusted military personnel suggest that he is concerned about his own security, as well as that of the regime. After all, the PLA is the bulwark of the party-state’s security … It is the main defender against both internal and external challenges to socio-political stability.”

The Jamestown Foundation academic further noted: “Xi cannot afford to see disloyalty among the top brass or a diminution of the fighting power of the military forces. This is ever more urgent as newer combat domains such as space and cyberspace come into strategic focus. However, by sacking his proteges, Xi has dented his authority and has fallen into the proverbial position of ‘seeing an enemy behind every tree and every stalk of grass’.”

Dr Lam concluded: “Crucial questions concern Xi’s capacity to exert unchallenged authority over the PLA, and whether he is receiving the best counsel on defence issues. This has become critical as the military and geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific region deteriorates by the day. Xi is understood to be committed to ‘liberating’ Taiwan during his tenure in power. Given the likelihood that Xi will win a further five-year term as party general secretary and commander-in-chief at the 23rd Party Congress in 2027, a decision on ways and means to ‘unify’ Taiwan seems likely before his last five-year term ends in 2032.”

Xi has reshaped the CCP’s hierarchy and the PLA, plus he is actively promoting his authoritarian style of governance around the world. However, many of his efforts are backfiring and that model is proving rather threadbare. Too committed to change trajectory, it seems Xi will only double down on his enforcement of ideologies and calls for political purity. Even if many Chinese at home cannot see the barrenness of Xi’s model, more and more in the West are growing cognizant of it. (ANI)

ALSO READ: UAE Prez Due in China


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *