China’s Maoists are rejoicing as President Xi Jinping tap dances toward the left. They aren’t wrong to be happy; China seems to be moving ever farther away from western democratic models. On January 5, The New York Times featured a strong write up of the ongoing trend:
Two years into a sweeping offensive against dissent, Mr. Xi has been intensifying his focus on perceived ideological opponents, sending ripples through universities, publishing houses and the news media and emboldening hard-liners who have hailed him as a worthy successor to Mao Zedong.
In instructions published last week, Mr. Xi urged universities to “enhance guidance over thinking and keep a tight grip on leading ideological work in higher education,” Xinhua, the official news agency, reported.
In internal decrees, he has been blunter, attacking liberal thinking as a pernicious threat that has contaminated the Communist Party’s ranks, and calling on officials to purge the nation of ideas that run counter to modern China’s Marxist-Leninist foundations.
“Never allow singing to a tune contrary to the party center,” he wrote in comments that began to appear on party and university websites in October. “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.”
Xi’s path to consolidating power in China has been swift, smart and sure, but a lot of it looks like a smoother, turbo-charged version of Bo Xilai’s old agenda back when Bo was ruling Chongqing and aiming for the top job himself. Bo’s case was an interesting one. Bo seems to have thought that the faceless collective leadership the Communist Party adopted following Mao as a way to prevent another period of crazed dictatorial rule had reached its sell-by date, and that the people had grown tired of bland, faceless leaders. China wanted an Emperor, not an Imperial Regency Committee of indistinguishable, secretive bureaucrats and officials. Being a patriotic sort of person, he was willing to step up to the plate.
Bo cracked down on corrupt officials (at least on the ones who weren’t in his corner), and also called for a revival of Maoist slogans and righteousness. In contemporary China, appealing to the Maoists and fighting corruption is a way to make a politician look like he is against the corrupt establishment and for the little people. The combination electrified the country when Bo tried it, and gave him a visibility and popularity beyond any of the bland party cadres in the collective leadership.
By sounding like a populist and reaching out to the public, Bo made himself a formidable national figure. But he also made lots of enemies. Too many powerful people liked the status quo which he was trying to upset. The faceless apparatchiks, the princelings and the bureaucrats who feared the end of the collective system decided to bring him down before he could take power. Now Bo and his wife are in prison, and his son is in exile abroad.
Xi seems to have played a much smarter game. He made no waves as he rose quietly through the ranks. He looked like an able and ambitious chairman of the board, but not a bomb thrower. He seemed like the safety play, someone who would operate the existing Chinese system of shared leadership and decisions by consensus, not try to overturn it.
Once in power, Xi didn’t alarm anybody quickly. Instead, President Xi introduced a few important but not completely revolutionary campaigns—a drive against official corruption, the nationalization of some private industry, stricter control of foreign firms—then let the momentum build. None of the incremental steps seemed particularly dramatic, but little by little they turned into the most thorough housecleaning in China for decades. And being the master of that housecleaning process gives Xi progressively more power over his colleagues and rivals.
As the purge claims more victims and more senior victims each month, Xi has also begun to deploy Bo Xilai’s strategy of Maoist, populist rhetoric. The populism legitimates the purge, and China’s leftists are rushing to Xi’s support just as some of them once supported Bo.
Nobody (conceivably not even President Xi himself) knows what the goal of it all is. Possibly Xi is a true reformer and modernizer who wants supreme power because nothing less will allow him to carry out the task of reconstruction he envisions. Or he may share Bo’s apparent belief that China needs an emperor to navigate the treacherous shoals ahead, and has chosen a more workable path to fill that role. Or it may be that the logic of Chinese power politics has little by little led him in a direction that he never expected to take.
But whatever his intentions, he is changing China in some very interesting and not altogether positive ways. Certainly, the message has gone out to the rich and the powerful that the state has the power and the legitimacy to step in and take them down whenever it wishes. Private property in China exists at the whim of the state and, especially, at the whim of the leader of the state.
This is Putinism with Chinese characteristics: oligarchs who are loyal and in favor can hold wealth and power in Russia, but the Kremlin can wipe anybody out at will. Westerners sometimes look at this approach to governing and see it as pure cronyism or corruption, but from both Beijing and Moscow it can look like a kind of synthesis between communism and capitalism. Like capitalism, the economic system incorporates markets, which have proven to be much more efficient that the old style of state planning. But as in socialism, all property ultimately belongs to a state that is apart from and above civil society, and that can create or destroy private fortunes as it chooses. In neo-communist Russia and China, the means of production are ultimately owned and controlled by the state and the leadership, but not, for the most part, operated directly by the state.
This is dictatorship, but it can be populist and popular as well. After all, in both China and Russia there is a well founded public presumption that most of the wealthy got their money illegitimately; when the state strips oligarchs of their wealth, the average person applauds because a villain is getting his just deserts. The populism is important; the old communist regimes had, at least in their early stages, ideological legitimacy that the current ruling parties in Russia and China have a hard time duplicating. Putin leans hard on Russian nationalism, with the Russian Orthodox Church rallying the faithful on his behalf. China has nationalism, too, but it has something else. The Communist Party of China still holds power, and Xi can appeal to the legacy of Mao and to the bureaucratic and grass roots organization of that party to help build the consensus the new system needs.
Twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both Russia and China seem more bent on consolidating authoritarian, populist, and anti-liberal regimes than in building anything like western rights-based states. As Bo Xilai believed, Putin had demonstrated and Xi now seems to be discovering, such states work best when they revolve around a single, powerful leader. In some ways this is postmodern feudalism: the ruler at the top holds all property at his disposal, and assigns lucrative fiefs to loyal vassals who respond with service. The 21st century is likely to show us what this latest alternative to liberal capitalist democracy can do.