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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Xi whiz

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing on Oct. 25.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing on Oct. 25.Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

An emperor who is a dotard. A population in the grip of opium addiction. An economy held back by bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure. A culture fixated on past greatness but in fact hopelessly decadent. This was how Westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries regarded China. It is how the Chinese (not to mention most Europeans) now regard the United States.

Trumpery, the opioid epidemic, the administrative state, storm-ravaged cities, and the fantasy of making America great again — this is how the United States appears whether you watch CCTV (Chinese state television) or the BBC. Compare and contrast with the way China is portrayed nowadays in most Western media.

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Ever since President Xi Jinping’s triumphant appearance as the defender of free trade and champion of globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos back in January, there has been a striking trend: Those commentators most averse to Donald Trump also tend to be those most gushing in their praise of his Chinese counterpart.

Fareed Zakaria of CNN wrote almost rhapsodically about the implications of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which ended last week: “This party congress made clear that [Xi] is no ordinary leader,” he wrote. “[His] grip on power [is] far more secure than his immediate predecessors. . . . [F]or the rest of his life, Xi and his ideas will dominate the Communist Party of China.”

Xi whiz! But wait a second. We’re supposed to be impressed that, to quote The Economist, Xi Jinping’s “grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao”? Last time I checked, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his fellow citizens in a succession of Mao-made catastrophes: the 1949 revolution itself, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. If Mao is Xi’s role model, China is more likely to become a gigantic North Korea than the post-American colossus.

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So let’s get three things straight about events in Beijing last week. First, the Mao part. Yes, Xi is the first leader since Mao to have his “thought” (sixiang) put into the Chinese constitution while he is still in office. Deng Xiaoping’s “theory” (lilun) was not inserted until six months after his death. Moreover, in Chinese, “thought” ranks above “theory.” Only Mao and Xi are thought-leaders in the Chinese sense.

But what is Xi’s thought exactly? The relevant amendment to the constitution runs to nearly 3,000 words, but in essence it combines the familiar (“socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a euphemism for capitalism since 1982), with new themes introduced by Xi in the last five years: “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” green development, anti-corruption, and the Party’s primacy over the military. There is not much here that is Maoist. Replace the word “Chinese” with “Swedish” and it wouldn’t look out of place in a Scandinavian social democratic manifesto.

Second, the politics. Is Xi now all-powerful? No. He is primus inter pares on the seven-member standing committee of the Politburo. The new line-up of the committee announced last week confirmed this. Premier Li Keqiang remained and Wang Yang and Han Zheng joined, despite — according to students of factions within the Communist Party — being associated with former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Xi’s close ally, Chen Min’er, whom some experts see as a potential successor, was not on the list. Perhaps this was because Xi intends to break with tradition by seeking an additional five-year term after 2022; on the other hand, he respected the existing retirement rules by bidding farewell to anti-corruption “tsar” Wang Qishan.

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Third, we still don’t know what — if anything — Xi will do with his enhanced though not absolute authority. Key appointments in economic policy-making and financial regulation will not be announced until next March’s lianghui conference. Maybe the long-awaited structural reforms and financial deleveraging will finally arrive next year. Or maybe the vested interests within the state-owned enterprises will once again stave off the day of reckoning.

Two centuries ago, Westerners were right that China was suffering from stagnation and decline. Chinese observers can be forgiven for thinking the same about America today. Yet it is far from clear that China in 2017 has anything like the vitality and potential of Britain or the United States in 1817. Apart from anything else, what made the English-speaking world so dynamic in those days was the unparalleled economic and political liberty that had been established there.

Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralize the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people themselves. If Western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction.

Maybe, just maybe, the wonders of modern information technology can give totalitarianism a new lease on life. Thanks to political pliancy of the big Chinese tech companies — Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — the personal data of Chinese netizens are essentially available to the Party. And maybe, thanks to big data, economic planning can now work where previously it failed. But I would not bet on any of that. And, to judge by the amount of foreign investment wealthy Chinese are still doing, in spite of tightened capital controls, neither would they.

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Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”