At present, China’s internal political situation is evolving in counter-trend to the principles established in post-Mao era. Such an evolution should be analyzed while considering the peculiar situation China is currently living.
According to professor Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, “Trump, Brexit, the rise of the extreme right and left again in polities throughout the democratic world…made domestic Chinese politics even more fixated on stability and on avoiding any kind of uncertainty and risk,” and “Xi is the symbolic figure at the center of this, the person whose leadership everything hangs on.”
Hence, the recent developments in the Western democracies may have provided the Chinese Communist Party with the reasons to seek further stability and continuity.
However unappealing it may sound, having a strong, long-serving leader may be a good thing for China; an assured policy continuity benefits its predictability and stability, leading to an increased earning of the political capital Xi needs to introduce urgent financial and social reforms. All this will boost up Chinese economy, confirming its role as a regional and world power.
But continuity and stability come at a price, and this is evident from the political strategy President Xi is following in order to ensure his grip on power; indeed, the construction of his authority has been a process which lasted for years and which followed two interconnected lines: the creation of a cult of personality and the undertaking of a series of actions and campaigns to practically concentrate the power in his hands.
Concerning the first mentioned aspect, the intensity of the cult of Xi’s personality can be compared just with that of Mao Zedong. State media continuously emphasize the role and actions of President Xi, and this resulted particularly evident during the last year’s Chinese Communist Party Congress, which some observers ironically described as a “one-man show”. This culminated with the inclusion of his name and ideas in the Party Constitution, an honor which has just lied with Mao Zedong so far.
On the other hand, President Xi’s power does not reside just in the ideological and moral domain; as I wrote before, he also took concrete actions to ensure his authority.
In the past five years, Xi introduced an anti-corruption campaign, which he used to marginalize his competitors.
Meanwhile, he started to centralize bureaucratic power in his hands, for example by introducing the National Supervision Commission, whose main aim is to control that officials effectively implement Communist Party’s directives; otherwise they will be guilty of “corruption by inaction”.
The consequences of this approach became evident last November and December; in that period, officials in Northern China banned the use of burned coal in enterprises and households in order to achieve Xi’s pollution reduction targets.
This resulted in a doubling in natural gas prices, the failure of businesses, and millions of people who were left without adequate heating during winter.
The coal ban was finally removed, but its negative consequences could not be avoided.
In the while, some interesting questions concerning the future of China have started to emerge. Should Xi effectively succeed in becoming a lifelong leader, what will it be, after the end of his era of power?
While it might seem too early to think to life after Xi, China has already started imagining how it would be. When a great leader dies (as China has already experienced after Mao passed away), the power vacuum which results from this occurrence frequently leads to “a damaging power struggle upon the death of the supreme leader.” (Francis Fukuyama)
One of the more likely eventualities is that another authoritarian will succeed him. And should a truly dangerous dictator come to power, he would find no limits to its rule: no time constraints, weak institutional countermeasures, and a public not used to political mobilization…while ruling at the same time on the second global economy and on the most populous country of the world.