Xi Jinping Refills an Old Prescription

The reforms called for by the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress have been, like so much else in China over the past few decades, part of an ongoing Chinese quest for national unity, wealth, and power. But, for those of us steeped in Western political philosophy, such Chinese policy prescriptions sometimes can seem to call for bouquets of confusingly contradictory reforms.

On the one hand, the latest explications of announced reforms call for greater latitude in the realm of individual life by relaxing the one family-one child policy; by reformulating household registration regulations to allow peasants greater flexibility to move into the cities; and by calling for an end to a despised extra-judicial form of punishment, “reeducation through labor,” which for decades has sent criminals and dissenters alike off to labor camps without court judgments, due process, or avenues of appeal. All of these reforms are being made out of a recognition at the top of the Party for an urgent need to relax some of the old and rigid structures laid down during the Stalin era under Mao, the better to catalyze greater “creativity” and “innovation,” two notions which obsess the new leadership.



What the Heck is China’s ‘Third Plenum’ and Why Should You Care?

Barry Naughton
China’s economy is already two-thirds the size of the economy of the U.S., and it’s been growing five times as fast. But now, China’s economy is beginning to slow and is facing a raft of difficult problems.  If China’s leaders don’t address...

On the other hand, President Xi also is calling for a dramatic streamlining of surveillance and security functions with a new “National Security Council” under his command and for centralizing nationwide financial reform efforts in a “small leadership group” also under his control. At the same time, he also has been cracking down on independent media voices, silencing outspoken academics, and arching his back against foreign critics. All of this may appear to be something of a contradiction. However, in a rather Yin/Yang sense, President Xi seems very much to be borrowing a page from Deng Xiaoping’s post-1989 playbook, namely, seeking to bring about radical economic reforms during this inflection point, while at the same time keeping a tight hand on all centrifugal social and political forces and, above all, on the prerogatives of the top leaders.

At first blush, the contradiction of these two endeavors seems hopelessly opposed, especially to Western eyes. But Mao, who was fond of the “unity of opposites,” would have thought otherwise. Indeed, most reformers who have quested, quite uniformly, after a wealthier and more powerful nation over the past century and a half would probably also agree with Xi’s latter-day formula. What leaders from Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen at the turn of the last century, and Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong in the middle of the century, to Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping in more recent times all have shared as a goal is not a more enlightened, democratic country, but a nation unified by nationalism and ruled by a single disciplined party that could galvanize China into meeting the historic challenge of becoming a wealthy and powerful, and thus respected, nation in the modern world.

Whereas Western developmental theorists always imagined that open societies were ineluctably bound together with open economies, Chinese nation-builders have turned this model on its head. China seems to proclaim that a closed society with relatively open markets is a more efficient way of generating wealth, power, and respect than an open society paralleled by an open market. And so, what appears to be a contradiction to Western democrats—a la Bill Clinton—who saw China as being on “the wrong side of history,” has a very different logic when seen from the vantage point of Chinese leadership circles in Beijing. Why? Because their goal is not to protect people against the tyranny of too much government, but to use efficient and authoritarian government to build a strong state capable of making a people weary of defeat and exploitation feel a sense of pride in the rejuvenation of their nation. A key part of this pride derives from showing that China once again can stand tall, even defiantly, among other “great powers.” If democracy and openness do not contribute in a utilitarian way to that great national quest, they will not play a meaningful role as goals in the sort of policy expressions we now see growing out of the Third Plenum. In short, it is the health of the national entity, not the sanctity of the individual, which is driving the C.C.P. leadership’s decision-making.



Westerners Aren’t the Only Ones Flummoxed by China’s Reform Plans

After the Third Plenum, a high-level meeting to discuss China’s future, ended on November 12, Beijing released a major document likely to affect many of its 1.3 billion citizens’ lives for years. Western media responded to the 5,000-plus character...

Sun Yat-sen warned a century ago, “The individual should not have too much liberty, but the nation should have complete liberty.” Most Chinese leaders after Sun, right up until Xi himself, have worried very little about the sanctity of the individual and a great deal about the sanctity of a strong state. Sun counseled: “If we want to restore China’s liberty, we must unite ourselves into one unshakeable body and use revolutionary methods to weld our state into firm unity.” Xi Jinping would doubtless agree wholeheartedly with Sun, as did Chiang, Mao, and Deng before him.

So, the dicta flowing out of the Third Plenum would seem to have a clear logic to Xi: Without a unified leadership, a strong single-party state, and a dynamic economy that can create wealth, there will be no power. And, without power, China will, as was the case for over a century past, remain weak, preyed upon by outsiders. Thus, the real thrust of the recent policy prescriptions is not to protect individual freedoms—except in so far as loosening the bonds a little bit may allow more innovation—but to keep the economic engines of China turning at high RPMs, and keep the Party enthroned as an even more powerful and effective custodian over the process of national rejuvenation. This was Deng Xiaoping’s goal during his heyday when “to get rich is glorious” became the watchword of the hour. It is still true today, albeit with a far greater emphasis on national, rather than individual, wealth.