Has Xi Jinping Changed China? Not Really

Xi Jinping has had an eventful early spring. After he abolished presidential term limits and was unanimously elected—if it can be called an election—to serve another term in that post, Xi got the world’s attention again by holding a meeting with Kim Jong-un. Xi was also in the spotlight when he addressed the 2018 Boao Forum for Asia, promising more openness in the face of a looming trade war. Many observers now seem convinced that Xi has changed China and maybe, even, the international order. But has he really?

In the 70 years since the establishment of the Communist regime, numerous changes have taken place in the social, economic, legal, and psychological spheres. Yet the Party’s essential political role of leading a Party-state under strict one-Party rule has not changed, whether under collective dictatorship or a personal one. The Party’s absolute control over the military, judicial system, Congress, and bureaucracy, as well as its suppression of dissidents and activists who promote democracy, has been constant for 70 years. The Party’s control over the media, ideology, public opinion, and education—almost all of the public sphere, with the exception of the Internet—has also undergone no fundamental change. The Party also controls the economy, social groups, and religions. And while market economics, some folk activities, rights defenders, and house churches have managed to carve out a tiny space for themselves, they don’t come close to constituting a challenge to the Party. When measured against the basic ingredients of a totalitarian state as described by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Xi Jinping’s new totalitarianism and Mao’s old style of totalitarianism don’t differ by all that much.

This year is the 40th anniversary of China’s “reform and opening” policy. While commonly seen as a key step in China’s modernization on the economic front, what reform and opening has really meant is that for 40 years political elites have colluded with businessmen in a Party-controlled, crony capitalist market economy. Under this kleptocratic system, the assets of regular citizens have never been afforded any institutionalized protection. On the ideological front, the Party has monopolized the media, created no-go zones in scholarship, instituted a brainwashing-style education system, established the Great Firewall, and persecuted intellectuals for their writing. On the legal front, the Party has always ridden roughshod over the law. Black jails, forced disappearances, torture, secret police, surveillance, judicial corruption, controlled elections, forced demolitions, and religious persecution have all been rampant. These abuses are a key element in the Party’s system of control. China’s Constitution on paper makes beautiful-sounding promises for human rights and basic freedoms, including a right to vote, equality, freedom of speech, belief, and association. But it’s clear that the Party’s rule of law is merely an empty promise. The Constitution didn’t guide the Party toward a rule-of-law democracy, but as Stein Ringen, a professor at Oxford, has documented, China is adopting a “sophisticated totalitarianism.” This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.

Of course, the abolition of the presidential term limit was something Xi Jinping pushed hard for, but he seems to have had few other options. His first term was spent on anti-corruption campaigns, as well as military reform, purging the Internet, and cooking up a cult of personality, all in order to eliminate opposing voices and centralize power around himself. Eliminating Zhou Yongkang; violating the unwritten rules of immunity for Politburo Standing Committee members; getting rid of two former Central Military Commission vice chairmen; taking out potential successor Sun Zhengcai; abducting one of the major bankers for the Party elite, Xiao Jianhua; assuming control over the Deng Xiaoping-clan-linked Anbang conglomerate—all of this is sure to have sent shockwaves through the Communist Party. The “tigers” who were targets of his anti-corruption campaign of course would hate Xi and plot their revenge. It must have been clear to Xi that if he ever lost power, reprisal would be swift. A system of lifetime rule was the obvious solution.

Peering beneath the surface, to deeper historical trends, it seems that for the Communist Party, as an autocratic system, personal dictatorship is a common means of dealing with crises. The Party faced, on the one hand, an accumulation of post-1989 new social energies—in the form of the Internet, the market, the spread of liberal ideas, the rights defense movement—and on the other hand, official corruption, conflicts between officials and citizens, an ecological crisis, a crisis in social morality, and many other crises. For the past several years, the economic dividends China has been able to harvest from favorable demographics, cheap labor, and globalization have been all but exhausted. Economists predict GDP growth will slow. The Communist Party already eliminated democratization—whether gradual or sudden—from its menu of options for responding to crises. And so all it is left with is strengthening centralized power and enhancing the forces of repression.

From the perspective of the Communist Party itself, turning Xi Jinping—who comes from a “red” revolutionary pedigree and is dedicated to the preservation of the “red” dynasty—into a lifetime leader, may very well be a calculated response to the extremely complex circumstances the Party faces in the near future. In 2013, Xi, in alarm and anger, used the phrase “nobody was man enough to stand up and resist,” in reference to the failure of Soviet leaders to prevent the collapse of their communist regime. Five years later, he is now announcing to the world that he will be the one—the grand helmsman—to seize this key historical moment and save the Chinese Communist Party.

The Party’s technical totalitarianism is already beginning to take shape: networked stability maintenance, big data, facial recognition, DNA collection, Party control of the market, strengthening of the secret police, stoking nationalist sentiment, expanded control of the media and Internet, mass arrests of rights activists, a personality cult around the leader. . . Most of these methods are a gradual expansion of what was already emerging under Hu Jintao: the expansion of secret police capabilities, for instance, was becoming an important component in the Party’s overall control of popular opinion and activism. Put another way, Fascism with Chinese Characteristics is now taking form. One Party, one Führer, one Xi Jinping ideology.

Some have called the constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits “turning back history.” But a closer look shows that the Communist Party, since it took power in 1949, has always been heading in the opposite direction of the trend of history—Xi Jinping has simply slammed his foot on the gas pedal. Xi’s rein has really not had as far-reaching an influence on Chinese politics, economy, and society as many claim. The biggest impact of Xi Jinping has been primarily psychological: the Chinese public and intellectuals who still harbor illusions about the Communist Party, friends of the regime, and the “panda huggers” in the West—political leaders and experts alike—who have long carried water for the dictatorship under the false assumption that markets and “engagement” policy would inevitably lead to democratization, are now all at something of a loss.

The New York Times reported that “The abolition of the two-term limit for the presidency, which could make Mr. Xi China’s ruler for life . . . has punctured the hope that China would become ‘a responsible stakeholder’ in the global order.” Stein Ringen says that “China should be categorized as a totalitarian dictatorship and the West should not continue to ride the fence.” Xi’s ascendancy to the throne took place right when Western countries were gradually growing suspicious of China’s expansionism, and becoming wary of its threat to democracy and freedom around the world. Although the decades of accommodationist and appeasement policies toward China in the West are still far from having been properly re-evaluated and adjusted, psychological and intellectual shifts have risen to the surface over the past few years. A recent spate of reporting on Chinese political influence in Australia and New Zealand is demonstrating one form this kind of adjustment can take. How this shift in thinking will flow through to scholarly and diplomatic discourse, and then influence the China policy of the West, before finally affecting Xi Jinping and his regime, is still uncertain. But the world has to be watching closely, for obviously, Xi’s China and Xi’s global order mean nightmares for many.