By ending collective leadership, Xi Jinping revives the specter of chaotic power struggles.
Andrew Browne writes: Liu Shaoqi, one of Mao’s designated successors, died on a prison floor in his own filth. Another, Lin Biao, perished in a plane crash fleeing China.
Power transfers are how one-party systems threaten to come unstuck. High-level battles roiled Deng Xiaoping’s reign, too. The urbane Zhao Ziyang, ousted as Communist Party chief for encouraging pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, spent the rest of his days under virtual house arrest in Beijing.
Eventually, Deng hit on an alternative to winner-take-all contests: collective leadership, along with term limits. The party got a new lease on life. Deng’s signal innovation allowed China to focus its energies on getting rich.
By abandoning the first part of Deng’s formula, and calling into question the second, Xi Jinping has pitched Chinese elite politics into a potentially precarious unknown. For the first time in several decades, the succession question is up in the air; the just-concluded 19th Party Congress failed to appoint a next-in-line to Mr. Xi.
Will he stay on as leader-for-life? Nobody can say, although now that his “thought” is embedded in the party charter alongside Mao’s he is politically untouchable.
On this fragile basis, Mr. Xi proposes to build China into a modern socialist country by 2035 and a superpower on a par with the U.S. by midcentury, the centenary of the People’s Republic.
One-man rule has been a recipe for instability since Stalin’s day. Yet in a measure of the self-doubt that grips Western democracies today, a congress most notable for wrenching the country backward has been interpreted in some corners as a triumphal coming-of-age for the party, even a warning of the West’s impending eclipse.
“China is marching toward its perception of its global destiny,” writes Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister. “It has a strategy. The West has none.”
China’s confidence has been building in tandem with deepening political disarray in the U.S. and Europe. Faster than he could have expected, leadership in areas from climate change to trade have landed in Mr. Xi’s lap as the U.S. pulls back from its global commitments.
Some China watchers speculate that Mr. Xi may feel a successor at his shoulder will slow him in a historic opportunity to return China to its central place in the world. Of course, he can anoint one at any time; the Politburo is packed with his supporters.
So far, Mr. Xi hasn’t trumpeted this retro-Maoist political setup as something for others to follow. In his epically long speech to the congress, though, he did suggest that developing countries would be wise to adopt China’s economic model. Its accomplishments are undeniably impressive: Hundreds of millions have escaped poverty, China’s transport infrastructure outshines America’s and innovation is flourishing.
Yet the true test is to come. Apart from a handful of oil-rich emirates, not a single country has broken out of the so-called middle-income trap and achieved rich-nation status without adopting some form of political pluralism. South Korea and Taiwan are two examples of economies that took off at a similar trajectory to China’s under strongman rule, but made the final ascent to prosperity as democracies … (read more)