Just How Successful Is Xi Jinping?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week, Arthur Kroeber, Editor of the China Economic Quarterly opined that “…the Chinese state is not fragile. The regime is strong, increasingly self-confident, and without organized opposition.” His essay, which drew strong, if divided, attention, cautioned in its title, “Here Is Xi’s China: Get Used To It.” Following below is a selection of responses, the first two of which poke respectful, cautionary holes in Kroeber's line of thinking. —The Editors


Arthur Kroeber’s essay is a good corrective for the mostly delusional idea that the Chinese government is about to collapse. He also lists a series of technocratic successes of the Xi administration, showing it to be a worthy successor to the Deng Xiaoping model of a development dictatorship. These successes have allowed the Communist Party to transform itself over the past four decades, as the political scientist Richard Lowenthal put it, from "utopia to development," while confounding predictions that regime change must follow.

It was also refreshing to read his point that not all problems in China are existential. For too long we've been told that economic growth must be at least 8 percent (remember those predictions?) or the regime would collapse. Arthur argues compellingly that while the government isn't legitimized democratically, it is able to deliver many services and probably has more support than people realize.

But it seems to me that Arthur buries his lede: halfway down, we're told that its system means China might not become a leader in technology or soft power, but that these "are costs the leadership has decided to bear."



Here Is Xi’s China: Get Used To It

Arthur R. Kroeber from China Economic Quarterly
The prevailing mood among China-watchers in 2014 was one of anxiety and skepticism. The year began in the shadow of Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Economic concerns quickly took over: by February the property market seemed...

Two problems. One, I suspect this tradeoff is news to many people in the government. We can all agree that it's unfair to expect China to be producing Googles and Apples at this point in its development, nor for its films to rival Hollywood's influence. But the government fervently believes that it has to innovate. It is pouring huge amounts of money into trying to become a technological and soft-power giant. The whole of northern Beijing is becoming a high-tech park, while the Beijing-Tianjin corridor is home to tens of thousands of people working for top-level government research institutes, charged with innovation. Perhaps this is delusional, but such an economic transformation is also widely seen outside the government as necessary for China's long-term economic health. That this won't happen is a bit surprising and, to me, is more the lede than the not-too surprising point that the CCP isn't about to collapse.

I think the essay is structured this way because the argument (and here I may be wrong but it's how I read it) is that these problems are long-term issues that can be addressed in the future. For now, Kroeber implies, China can grow and prosper with its current model. Leave the innovating and movie-making to the future.

There's some merit to this. I remember talking to the economist Barry Naughton in the 1990s and he wisely said that long-term secular trends like urbanization are going to keep China growing for another long while. That turned out to be true, and by the same token we can say that a technocratically led government can keep things on track, building more high-speed trains, bringing more people into cities, and restructuring the economy away from polluting enterprises. That should be good for many more years of growth.

The problem is that China's system isn't just an old jalopy that is doing the job and can be replaced when it breaks. Instead, it's like a performance-enhancing drug that is delivering successes but also damaging the body.

Recently I discussed this point with the political scientist Liu Yu. Liu wrote the 2009 bestseller Details of Democracy, a primer on the U.S. political system that helped establish her as a prominent public intellectual. One of Liu's main points to me was that Chinese, including the intellectual class, have already been badly damaged by government propaganda and disinformation. In her words, "deprogramming" people will take generations.

Of course, she said, Chinese are much better informed than a generation earlier, but government control of information is increasing, not decreasing. Most Chinese continue to inhabit a world where universities are mostly ignorant of foreign scholarship, scientific endeavors are primarily political pursuits, and only a small minority of people have access to halfway reliable accounts of how the outside world works.

These aren't problems you can easily reverse one day in the future. The longer the repression persists, the harder the shift will become—think of what Russia has turned into. Communism collapsed after seventy years but, twenty years after that, many still yearn for Stalin, think Putin is a great leader, and mostly don't care that they are annexing neighboring countries.

We used to think that China was better off because it jettisoned Maoism after 30 years, while the Russians had its totalitarian-authoritarian system much longer. This was true economically but politically the old system has mostly remained in place. After a 10- or 15-year period at the end of the Cultural Revolution when the state retreated from daily life, it began rebuilding the domestic security and censorship apparatus. Now it is almost assured to stay in power longer its Soviet counterpart, continuing to stunt society with a warped world view.

So, yeah, this is Xi's China and get used to it. That much I think we can all agree on. But that this system is getting the job done despite bearable costs—at that point I think we disagree. It's getting some of the job done, yes, but is leaving China a debt that will be far greater than the technocratic challenges of bad loans and over-investment.

There are no successful autocracies. The most charitable defense of Kreober’s recent argument that “China is a successful authoritarian developmental state which is now rich enough to start setting its own rules rather than just accepting other peoples” is that he is capturing a snapshot in time.

Indeed, at this moment it is a “strong, increasingly self-confident” regime “without organized opposition.” Yet all the signs point to this strength being purchased at the cost of longer-term fragility. It was only last month that people thought Putin’s regime signaled the arrival of a new political order.

Charles Tilly has observed that, “substantial increases in governmental capacity propel a broadening of rights when the essential resources for the government's operation come from the population within the government's jurisdiction.” China’s rise, then, should be generating a proportionate rise in the number of political stakeholders who feel they are owed certain rights and protections. The stakeholders span the spectrum from school teachers and rural migrants to Ministers of Public Security and mayors or Chongqing.

The Chinese Communist Party is not in an enviable position. The wheels are coming off the political cart. Beijing must manage a periphery (even the rich and urban periphery) that is restive and far too commonly violent, petty, and corrupt cadres, provincial bosses that don’t follow orders, and a generation of Chinese with new ideas of what political participation looks like. They are using a century-old discredited political model to implement a half-century old discredited economic model. To move towards democratization might well trigger the sorts of landslides witnessed in the collapse of the Soviet Union. To move towards totalitarianism is to generate even more political contention that demands suppression and fuels an eventual ‘release.’

Consequently, Xi is moving in precisely the opposite direction. As one Xi supporter noted, he “has adopted Leninist ideology not to return to the old Leninist path, but to suppress an explosion in political participation, and create a healthy, stable political environment for reform.” Xi’s China isn’t just non-democratic, it is de-democratizing from an already low baseline. On the authoritarian-democratic continuum, Xi is moving China closer to totalitarianism than any Party leader since Mao. Xi is digging in, centralizing power, and cutting off dissent both inside and outside the party. Any tiger, fly, blogger, or scholar that stands in the way must be crushed.

What we see inside the CCP is likely true of the Chinese polity in general: it is incapable of making political transitions without violence or turmoil. Deng Xiaoping arose through the purge of the Gang of Four, Jiang Zemin emerged through the purge of Zhao Ziyang, and would not originally relinquish military power to Hu Jintao. We now have a “old-style Party purge reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s with quota-driven arrests, summary trials, mysterious disappearances, and suicides, which has already entrapped, by our calculations, 100,000 Party operatives and others.”

If the past is any guide, Xi or his surviving clique will one day face the same fate. This arises because of the exclusivity of political claims in China—it is not Western observers, but the Chinese Communist Party that views civil society, dissent, and economic malaise not as ‘problems’ but as sources of ‘existential crisis’ to the regime. By making political claims even more mutually exclusive Xi is making Chinese politics even more contentious and incendiary. There are no successful autocracies. There are only autocracies that have not yet reorganized through democratization processes—finding viable pathways to channel political contention—and those that have not yet ‘released’ these contentious energies through collapse, purges, color revolutions, or collective violence.