In his exercise of power at home, Xi Jinping is often ruthless. But there are limits to his daring
Apr 2nd 2016 Economist
Shortly before the annual session in March of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, two curious articles appeared in government-linked news media. The first, published in a newspaper run by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s anti-graft body, was called “The fawning assent of a thousand people cannot match the honest advice of one”. It was written in an allegorical style traditionally used in China to criticise those in power, in this case in the form of an essay praising the seventh-century emperor, Taizong, for heeding a plain-talking courtier. The article called for more debate and freer speech at a time when China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been restricting both. “The ability to air opinions freely often determined the rise and fall of dynasties,” it said. “We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all.”
The second article, in the form of an open letter, ran—fleetingly—on a state-run website. “Hello, Comrade Xi Jinping. We are loyal Communist Party members,” the letter began. It called on Mr Xi to step down and eviscerated his record in office. The president, it said, had abandoned the party’s system of “collective” leadership; arrogated too much power to himself; sidelined the prime minister, Li Keqiang; caused instability in equity and property markets; distorted the role of the media; and condoned a personality cult.
No one knows who wrote either the pseudonymous essay or the anonymous letter. But their timing was striking, coming just as China’s political elite was gathering in Beijing, and just after several other examples of public criticism had surfaced. The historical essay was reposted on the disciplinary commission’s website (where it remains); it was clearly more than the work of a single disgruntled editor. The letter may have been planted by a lone dissident who managed to hack into an official portal, but it raised many eyebrows in China. The police have reportedly detained around 20 people in connection with the case, including several employees of the website. Their response suggested that they feared the letter was more than just a flash in the pan, and that tough action was needed to prevent discontent with Mr Xi’s leadership from spilling into the open.
When he became the party’s leader in 2012, more was known about Mr Xi’s family and personal qualities than about his politics. He was a princeling, as many in China describe the offspring of the first generation of Communist leaders (Mr Xi’s late father served as a deputy prime minister under Mao). This helped him get the top job: the veterans who picked him thought that princelings were more committed than anyone else to Communist rule. Mr Xi himself was regarded by his associates as ambitious and incorruptible. But little else was known. Mr Xi had spent almost 20 years in Fujian, a southern province far from political nerve-centres.
More is now clear. As Geremie Barmé, an Australian academic, puts it, Mr Xi is China’s “COE”, or chairman of everything. Like his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Mr Xi is head of the party, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of state. But he has also acquired a series of other titles which they did not have, such as head of a committee that he set up to steer “comprehensive reform”, and of another one he established to oversee the country’s security agencies. Mr Hu was a wooden leader whose rule was overshadowed by the retired Mr Jiang; Mr Jiang, while in power, had to bow to his retired predecessor, Deng Xiaoping; even Deng trod carefully for fear of upsetting fellow party elders. Mr Xi, like Mao, appears unfettered by such concerns.
He wants the country to know it, too. Mr Xi has encouraged the revival of a term that was invented by Deng to describe strong leaders such as himself and Mao: the “core”, or hexin. Mr Hu had meekly avoided using the term to describe himself, in order perhaps to convey a sense that the party was moving beyond strongman politics. Mr Xi has no such scruples. This year official media have reported on the kowtows of numerous provincial chiefs who have hailed him as the party’s hexin.
By tolerating, if not encouraging, such flattery, Mr Xi comes close to violating the party’s charter, which prohibits “any form of personality cult” (a rule introduced in 1982 to prevent a return to the frenzy and violence once spawned by worship of Mao). Adulation of “Uncle Xi” in the official media looks like an even more blatant transgression. This year’s four-hour televised gala for Chinese New Year—one of the country’s most-watched shows—included extravagant praise of Xi Dada, the sobriquet’s form in Chinese.
Mr Xi is no Mao, a man whose whims caused the deaths of tens of millions and who revelled in the hysteria of his cult. But he rules in a way unlike any leader since the Great Helmsman. After Mao’s death, Deng tried to create a leadership of equals in order to push China away from Maoist caprices. Mr Xi is turning from that system back towards a more personal one. Indeed, he is more of a micromanager than Mao ever was. Mr Xi tries to maintain day-to-day control over every aspect of government. He might be compared to Philip II of Spain, on whose desk in a palace near Madrid all the problems of his 16th-century empire landed in the form of endless letters requiring response. Unlike Mao, who had a mischievous sense of humour and enjoyed sparring with ideological foes such as Richard Nixon, Mr Xi is reserved and unsmiling—despite a carefully scripted publicity campaign that depicts him as a football-supporting, moviegoing, baby-kissing family man with a glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan (Peng Mama, as fawning official media call her).
Most observers have tended to assume that, with all his power, Mr Xi can do more or less as he likes. However, important decisions he has made in recent months suggest something more complex. Concerning high politics, Mr Xi is ruthless and bold, and takes calculated risks. Dealing with society as a whole, he is willing to make changes but is more cautious. And with the economy, he lacks a sense of direction. Policy is confused and there have been numerous mistakes. Mr Xi is not an all-conquering strongman. He gets his way only in some areas. Across a broad spectrum of society, his policies and iron-fisted authoritarianism generate much resentment.
Start where all politics in China does, with the party. As a provincial chief in coastal Zhejiang from 2002-07, Mr Xi had been known for the vigour of his fight against official corruption. Even so, the scale and persistence of the nationwide anti-graft campaign he unleashed in 2012 on becoming China’s leader has been surprising. In 2015 alone graft-busters said they had punished 336,000 officials, the highest number in 20 years. The numbers being jailed continue to climb (see chart, which shows named offenders), despite howls of anguish from officials high and low who fear being hauled away. Rather than face the party’s sometimes brutal interrogators, who eschew such niceties as lawyers, some have preferred to take their own lives.
And though Xi be but little, Xi is fierce
The anti-corruption campaign has involved a radical change in the unwritten rules that have held the party together since the near civil war that Mao inflicted on it. In an attempt to attract recruits and rebuild the party, Deng and his successors had often turned a blind eye when officials (most of whom are members) lined their pockets. Crackdowns tended to be short-lived and rarely affected the most powerful. Mr Xi, by contrast, has been relentless—even banning party members from joining golf clubs (how they must pine for the 1980s, when one general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was an avid fan of the sport). Lest they whine, Mr Xi has also reminded them that party members are banned from “irresponsibly discussing the party centre’s major policies”.
The anti-graft campaign is popular with the public, which suffers hugely from officials’ corruption, negligence and incompetence (a scandal that came to light in March involved rampant corruption in the state’s oversight of the sale and use of vaccines). But it has dismayed officials, many of whom have responded with passive resistance and fear-driven inertia. By the middle of last year, less than half of the government spending budget for the six months had been used up. Huge efforts had to be made to spend more in the rest of the year. Yet some officials are afraid to do anything that might attract graft-busters’ attention.
Mr Xi has also sown alarm throughout the 2.3m-member People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the collective name for the armed forces. He has arrested generals for graft who were once considered untouchable, announced a trimming of the ranks by 300,000, shaken up the outdated command structure and slimmed down the top-heavy high command. Any one of these moves would have been impressive, given the PLA’s ability to make life difficult for political leaders whom the generals do not like. Mr Xi’s willingness to take on these tasks simultaneously suggests remarkable confidence (inspired, perhaps, by greater familiarity with the PLA’s ways than his two immediate predecessors enjoyed: early in his career Mr Xi was an assistant to a defence minister).
Both in his reforms of the PLA and in his fight against corruption, Mr Xi’s actions aim first and foremost at tightening control: both the party’s over the army and his own over the party. It is similar in other areas of politics. Mr Xi has presided over the biggest crackdown on dissent since the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, arresting hundreds of civil-rights lawyers, academics and activists. He has tightened controls over the media, including by making it much tougher to use software that allows access to the huge number of websites that are blocked in China. Mr Xi is determined to reimpose discipline on a querulous society that in recent years, thanks to the rapid spread of social media, has become much better equipped to organize itself independently of the party and to evade official controls.
In the war against dissent, however, Mr Xi is facing visible resistance. Ren Zhiqiang, a property mogul turned commentator, said the media should serve readers and viewers, not the party. This was an unusually direct attack on Mr Xi by a well-known party member and a fellow princeling (Mr Ren’s father was a deputy minister of commerce under Mao). Censors reacted by closing Mr Ren’s social-media accounts and by purging the internet of numerous messages in support of him. Caixin, a Beijing-based magazine, responded to the censors’ removal of one online story about the need for freer speech by publishing two more about the article’s disappearance. Those too were deleted. This week Yu Shaolei, a senior editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, a widely read newspaper, resigned in protest against censorship.
In social policy, however, Mr Xi has been trying to cast himself as a liberal, albeit a cautious one. This has been evident in his loosening of controls on family size (all Chinese couples are now allowed to have two children instead of just one) and his limited easing of restrictions on rural migrants’ access to urban public services. Both policies urgently required reform: the shortage of children means that China’s population is ageing fast; the controls aggravated distortions in the sex ratio. The country’s household-registration, or hukou, system, which is used to define who is given access to subsidized health care and education in cities, has created a huge social divide. It has also broken up the families of millions of migrants whose children cannot go to school where their parents live.
Mr Xi could have removed family-planning controls altogether, as some Chinese demographers have urged. He could have made it easier for rural migrants to obtain urban hukou. Instead, he has tinkered, creating a nationwide system of residence permits, and allowing the biggest cities where migrants most want to live (such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) to set their own restrictive conditions for being granted hukou.
Mr Xi has been even more hesitant in his handling of the economy. Months after taking power, he proclaimed that under his leadership markets would play a “decisive” role. Since last year he has begun to talk of a need for “supply-side” reforms, implying that inefficient, debt-laden and overstaffed state-owned enterprises (SOEs)—ie, most of them—need shaking up. But his approach has been marked by uncertainty, U-turns and, occasionally, incompetence.
It is true that some prices have been liberalized. In the second half of 2015, more market-friendly systems were introduced for setting exchange and interest rates. But the reform of SOEs has barely begun, stymied by the vested interests of SOE managers and their political friends, by fear of increasing unemployment, and perhaps by Mr Xi’s own oft-stated belief that the party should keep its hold on the main economic levers. There are few signs yet that loss-making SOEs will be shut down or that any will be subjected to real competition.
Mr Xi’s lack of clear focus on the economy, and his unwillingness to let people more expert in such matters (namely, the prime minister, Mr Li) handle it, have caused a series of errors. Policymakers, including Mr Xi, talked up the stock market a year ago and then engaged in a doomed attempt to prevent its fall in the summer. They introduced and then hurriedly scrapped ill-designed “circuit-breakers” to calm market jitters. They caused global anxiety when they failed to explain what they were doing when they began tinkering with the exchange-rate regime.
Markets are unpredictable and no Chinese leader (including Mr Xi) has any experience of the way they work in Western economies. But it is also likely that Mr Xi’s desire to hog power is partly to blame. This has confused officials. Once they would have sought guidance from the prime minister, who is supposed to be in day-to-day charge. But last year Mr Xi’s new task-force on reform was trying to exert control. The mishandling of the stock market and currency changes was the result, in part, of leadership confusion.
Mr Xi’s diffidence in such areas may stem from the mandate he had from the elders who helped him into the jobs he now holds: a broad spectrum of retired and serving leaders and their powerful families who felt that without a helmsman of his mettle and commitment to the party’s survival, the party might collapse. (The Soviet Communist Party ruled for 74 years—a record for communism that China’s will reach just after Mr Xi is due to step down in 2022). They wanted someone who would keep the party in power and strengthen its grip on the army. They were less agreed on how far or how fast to proceed with reforms involving huge numbers of people and widely divergent interests. SOE reform could cause millions of job losses. Loosening hukou restrictions could overwhelm public services. So, bureaucrats fear, could abolishing family-planning rules.
In short, Mr Xi understands power, is not afraid to use it and is willing to take risks. He understands less about the new complexities of a changing society and worries about social unrest, so plays safe. He does not understand the economy well, is not sure what to do and does not trust others to act for him.
The way Mr Xi rules has three broad implications. The first is that problems common to all dictatorships will grow. In such systems, if the man in charge makes mistakes, they are likely to be all the more damaging because they are less likely to be reversed. This was evident in the stockmarket debacle.
Another implication is that it is no longer reasonable to argue that China is a model of an authoritarian country opening up economically without doing so politically. Mr Xi has increased control over the political system, but economic liberalisation has stalled. At the moment, the two are moving in lockstep in the wrong direction, to China’s detriment. The third is that Deng’s policy of putting “economic construction at the centre” is no longer the country’s most hallowed guiding principle. For Mr Xi, politics comes first every time.
Some optimists still argue that Mr Xi believes the time is not yet ripe for bold economic change but that, once he has cleaned up the party, he will be able to turn his attention to economic reform. In this view, a critical period will come after a party congress due late next year. At that meeting, Mr Xi will put many more of his loyalists in positions of authority. But it is just as likely that he will continue to dawdle on reform, because opposition to it will have become entrenched. It is rarely possible to change course sharply after several years in power.
Either way, the success of Mr Xi’s rule will rest not just on whether he wins the battles he has chosen to fight, but on whether he has picked the right ones. Seen from the point of view of China as a whole, it does not look as if he has. Mr Xi seems bent on strengthening his party and keeping himself in power, not on making China the wealthier and more open society that its people crave.