The fate of China and much of the world is now dependent on the whims of one man, says Chris Ogden

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The clampdown on anti-lockdown protests in China have once again placed the country’s authoritarianism in the spotlight. The Government has now introduced ‘emergency’ level censorship of digital platforms, in an attempt to curb protests against the country’s strict COVID lockdown laws.

Underpinning this turmoil is the recent 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which marked the moment when President Xi Jinping assumed absolute power in modern China.

Xi’s ascent to total supremacy had first become visible in 2018 when the presidential term limit was removed from China’s constitution. Revoking the norm of a two-term limit, which had been in place since the late 1970s after the end of the Mao Zedong era, this change opened up the possibility for Xi to be China’s President for the next 20 years.

Observers noted how this effectively made Xi – who was born in 1953 – the ‘President of Everything’ in the CCP and the CEO of the modern People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Further echoing the earlier omnipotence of Mao, Xi’s rise to pre-eminence included the use of anti-corruption drives to purge his political rivals. Such a strategy was used against hundreds of ministers and millions of party cadres, as well as Zhou Yongkang, the former national security minister. It was accompanied by a nationwide crackdown on civil rights lawyers, activists and minorities; increased internet and press censorship; Xi’s writing of himself into China’s constitution; and producing his eponymous Xi Jinping Thought, a set of policies and ideas derived from his speeches and writings.

Such actions have been supplemented by a carefully crafted cult of personality that further resonates with memories of an omnipotent Mao.

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Dark Omens

Other echoes of the Mao period are also show by Xi’s apparent abandonment of several stabilising principles that have underpinned the CCP’s organisation since the late 1970s. 

These relate to notions of collective leadership, avoiding the over-concentration of power in one individual and seeing each CCP leader as being only a temporary guardian of power. 

In turn, notions of minority protection aimed to create an atmosphere in which all views could be held, and voiced.

In recent years, the CCP had actively diversified its membership to better represent the vastly different backgrounds of its 90 million-plus-members. The party further accepted capitalists after 2001, reflecting China’s fiscal liberalisation since 1978 and the centrality of economic growth to its current legitimacy.  Such diversification was carried out to underscore a crucial need for continuous political consensus building, so as to avoid power resting upon one leader, which had led communist parties to collapse in the former Soviet Union.

Xi’s actions have circumvented these features, placing his most loyal allies in the paramount political positions in China. By doing so, he also removed all other factions from key chief decision-making bodies. Instead of respecting existing norms and the compromises inherent in dealing with so many different factions, only Xi and his supporters are now of importance. 

This shift also included rejecting the ‘Shanghai Gang’ of former leader Jiang Zemin and the ‘Communist Youth League Faction’ of his predecessor Hu Jintao, who was publicly ejected from the 20th National Party Congress.

The Dawn of theAuthoritarian Century?

Chris Ogden

Heightening this highly Xi-centric form of power, the composition of the new Politburo Standing Committee – constituting the top leadership of the CCP – further maximises his control of the CCP. Xi’s growing control over the last 10 years has allowed him to dominate this selection of personnel. This includes across China’s military and security agencies, as well as the CCP’s organisational and propaganda systems. 

Highlighting his sidestepping of previously-accepted protocols, the candidate for China’s Premier – Li Qiang – lacks experience as a former vice premier, which was previously regarded as the requisite pathway for gaining such a role.

Relatedly, Xi’s unveiling in 2013 of a project to develop 50 to 100 new state-affiliated and international prestigious think tanks with ‘Chinese characteristics’ emboldens his control of domestic and international narratives. In turn, the building of the ‘Social Credit System’ that is designed to create a peaceful society of “socially harmonised and politically compliant subjects” has also enhanced broader themes of control and subjugation. After trials in Xinjiang, it now covers the whole of China, and is an omnipresent – and authoritarian – surveillance system supported by billions of dollars of state investment.


Forward to the Past?

The domination of the CCP and modern China by a single omnipotent leader, and his chosen loyalists and factions, raises the darkest spectres of the Mao era.

Xi’s contemporary desire for absolute political and social control also chimes with the CCP’s often highly centralised and – at its most extreme – totalitarian style of governance. A combination of these factors and volitions precipitated several major crises under Mao. 

These include the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, an economic and social campaign intended to transform the Chinese economy through the rapid development of the country’s agrarian and industrial capabilities. The campaign aimed to leap across the capitalist stage of development and achieve a socialist society. It ended in complete failure due to bad weather, poor communication and ill-placed ideological zeal, which arrested economic growth, intensified a widespread famine (that killed between 20 and 45 million people), and resulted in extreme shortages of food, goods and products.

In turn, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution sought to purify and preserve the ideology of the CCP in the form of hyper-Maoism, while purging any elements associated with former imperial China. The Gang of Four (which included Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing) further accelerated this radical commitment to the ideological purity of the CCP. In unison, the adherence and often-blind loyalty to Mao, resulted in widespread violence and instability across China. It also led to millions of people being persecuted, imprisoned and executed, as well as at least 1 million unnatural deaths and a badly malfunctioning economy. 

It is within this confluence of historical precedents and the present context, that the emergence of a damaging and even potentially catastrophic ‘Xi-Think’ is apparent. 

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Surrounded by unquestioning loyalists, ‘yes’ men and sycophants, China’s fortunes – and by extension the wider region and the world – will now depend largely upon Xi himself. His ego, personality and emotional impulses will become the key parameters within which policy is created and guided, rather than the rational pragmatic approach of earlier generations.

Xi’s insistence upon China’s frequently-impractical zero COVID policy points to obstinacy in times of crisis. The escalating protests across China are severely testing this approach. As the protests spread, they will force a doubling-down from the Chinese state via increased surveillance, enhanced social controls and the deployment of internal security forces – and potentially even the Chinese military – to reassert Xi’s and the CCP’s control.

This mindset will be further tested through critical foreign policy issues, such as the CCP’s historical mission to re-take Taiwan or the South China Sea, or escalating great power competition with the US. 

Dealing with such issues are being compounded by a serious economic downturn, which appears evermore likely in light of China’s property market collapse and growing youth unemployment.

Under mounting pressure, and with few dissenting voices, Xi may feel forced to unleash nationalist sentiments to deflect criticism and regain legitimacy. In such a scenario, military action against Taiwan would be more likely, which could precipitate regional instability that may escalate to include the US and her key regional security allies, such as Japan and South Korea. The wider consequences would be a sharp global economic depression, perhaps catalysing instability elsewhere.

The various political factions in China that have been cast aside by Xi’s recent power grab will also be disgruntled by their effective removal from power.  In this context, the possibility for internal instability will mount and mount, resulting in – perhaps multiple – coup attempts to reassert a more representative CCP. If the anti-lockdown protests become truly national and endemic, the possibility for a coup will increase exponentially, especially if CCP legitimacy is openly questioned. This may precipitate an extended period of tumult for both China and the wider Asian region, as well as the decline of its economy, which will have many serious global repercussions.

In the longer-term, Xi’s actions also point to a serious future crisis for the CCP in terms of who will become his eventual successor, and whether they will share his appetite for absolute power. Together, these factors may provoke another Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, or worse.

As tensions mount, Xi and the CCP may end up seeing a national totalitarian crackdown as the only effective way to respond to such mounting domestic uncertainties.

For these reasons, the world, China and the CCP would be wise to remember Mao’s adage that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”, which now may be personified by Xi Jinping.

Chris Ogden is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and the author of The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order

This article was previously published in German here

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