In the world’s most populous nation, everything comes back to President Xi Jinping
The five-yearly Communist Party congress that took place in October 2017 not only cemented Xi in power until 2022, it raised him to the status of a cult, so much so that many suspect he plans to overturn convention and seek to remain in control beyond that date. While he cannot be president for more than two terms, according to the constitution, there is no limit on how long he can continue to be general secretary of the Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is where real power lies.
The Central Committee meeting that took place before the congress described Xi as being “‘at the core” of the Party. This is rhetoric of a kind that has not been heard since the death 20 years ago of Deng Xiaoping, the author of the reforms that have transformed the Chinese economy. But if that appears to hark back to the days of musty sloganising, Xi has been adept at projecting himself in the age of social media. He has also courted popularity by cracking down on corruption in the Communist Party.
Critics point out, however, that the anti-corruption campaign has also been an opportunity to weed out opponents in the Party. In Deng’s day it was assumed that economic liberalisation would, however gradually, lead to political relaxation. Xi, by contrast, seems determined to prove that prosperity and repression can go hand-in-hand. Intellectuals and dissidents have been silenced, and for good measure any lawyers who seek to defend them have been disqualified from practising, if not jailed themselves.
By successfully curbing social media and the internet, Beijing has comprehensively disproved the once widespread notion that they were impossible to control, and would therefore automatically act as a force for liberalisation. China has even gone to the lengths of banning the Disney cartoon image of Winnie the Pooh, because Chinese satirists claim Xi resembles the fictional bear.
The last Chinese leader to wield as much power as Xi was Mao Zedong. But at that time the country was poor and chaotic, thanks not least to Mao himself, with his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Now it is the world’s second largest economy, and has global ambitions. In his speech to the congress, Xi made this plain. China had entered a “new era” where it should “take centre stage in the world”, he said. Its rapid progress under “socialism with Chinese characteristics” meant it should act as a model, “a new choice for other countries”.
When the United States, the only economy larger than China’s, has a president as erratic and unconcerned about international leadership as Donald Trump, some analysts – and not just in China – believe it is no exaggeration to call Xi Jinping the most powerful person in the world. What does that mean for the international order?
While Trump tears up trade agreements and pulls out of the Paris climate change accord, some have found it reassuring that Xi stands for economic openness, free trade and environmental protection. But that is accompanied by a new readiness to impose China’s will abroad. This comes in two forms: economic sweeteners such as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which promises huge investment in transport links across a wide swathe of the globe, but also a military build-up, most notably Beijing’s rapid militarisation of the South China Sea, which causes nervousness well beyond the country’s Asian neighbours.
When Xi looks at the world’s other main economies, from the fractiousness of US politics to the upheaval of Brexit and continuing problems in the Eurozone, he must feel confident. But the economy is slowing, due both to weakness in overseas markets and fiscal controls at home, threatening the implicit bargain under which the Chinese people remain docile as long as the Party delivers prosperity. There are other dangers, not least that the permanent crisis over North Korea gets out of control.
Heaven forbid that China should ever again experience the disarray of the Mao era, because if it were to happen again, the effects would be much more far-reaching. But it is unhealthy, both for his own country and the rest of the world, that so much should depend on one man: Xi Jinping.