Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping’s relentless campaign of personal political aggrandizement was on display this week as the Chinese Communist Party’s 376-member Central Committee met for its Sixth Plenum.
The result, as expected, was more official promotion of Xi’s status as an equal of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping within the historical pantheon of People’s Republic of China leaders.
On the surface, this amounts to a recognition that Xi has been spectacularly successful since ascending to the top Chinese Communist Party and military positions in 2012. A deeper assessment, however, reveals that Xi’s accumulation of power does not correlate with his progress toward the solution of the large problems he inherited.
Members of the Central Committee are high-ranking party and state leaders, senior military figures and CEOs of state-owned enterprises. Technically, during the Sixth Plenum, the Central Committee’s task was to “review and approve” a resolution already unanimously approved by the smaller and higher-ranking Politburo in October. That assured approval of the resolution by the Central Committee.
This year’s resolution was unusual. Its topic is party history, the focus of only two previous plenum resolutions.
The first was in 1945, and aimed to resolve the “historical issue” of what Mao characterized as damage done to the party by “left-leaning opportunism.” The second historically-oriented resolution, in 1981, was a critique of the Cultural Revolution and an admission that Mao had made certain mistakes.
The 2021 plenum resolution is different from the previous two in both scope and tone: rather than addressing a problem from a particular era, it celebrates the achievements of the party during its entire 100-year history.
Most importantly, it extolls the greatness of Xi and explains why he continues to be the ideal man to lead China, which is clearly the resolution’s main purpose. Xi is campaigning for a third five-year term as paramount leader, which would begin with the 20th Party Congress in autumn 2022.
Despite appearances, Xi’s effectiveness in leading China toward the achievement of important national goals is questionable.
First, as analysts such as William Overholt have argued, Xi’s accumulation of extraordinary powers to himself is as likely to reflect his vulnerability as his supremacy. In his efforts to overcome powerful interest groups’ resistance to necessary economic reforms, Xi has cracked many skulls and made many enemies.
His self-apotheosis might stem not only from simple ego and ambition but also from a perceived need to ensure the protection of himself, his proteges and his policies after he is no longer in power.
Second, Xi’s hyper-authoritarianism, of which his personality cult is one manifestation, is a drag on efforts to fulfill China’s potential.
Having largely maxed out the gains achievable through the migration of peasants to factory jobs in the cities, China now needs to foster innovation in order to maintain its long-accustomed high economic growth rates.
Under Xi, however, the PRC government is working against innovation by placing party functionaries within the leadership of large companies, forcing productive employees to waste their time reading government propaganda and hitting up the private sector for “donations.”
Xi’s emphasis on ideological purity includes a crackdown on political discussion outside the parameters of the party line in academia and the press. Bringing more of the economy under central planning also leads to increased waste of resources and more instances of officials falsifying statistics to please superiors.
The question here is whether the costs to China of intensified Leninism under Xi are compensated by the gains that the exceptionally-empowered Xi has been able to deliver. The answer appears to be no.
Although one of the main tasks the party appointed Xi to accomplish was to give the market a greater role in allocating resources, Xi has on balance expanded state control over the economy relative to the private sector.
Now, Xi seems to be turning from capitalism to a form of socialism in which private enterprise serves the state, risking damage to China’s entrepreneurship and creative capacity.
China’s economic growth rate has slowed during Xi’s tenure. His policies have not substantially reduced China’s risk of becoming permanently stuck in the middle-income trap. The PRC under Xi has not come close to achieving the restructuring necessary to address the problems making the economy “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable,” in the words of former Premier Wen Jiabao.
Xi’s indulgence of nationalism at home has eroded China’s prestige abroad and led other governments to take steps toward isolating China. His government still encourages the Chinese public to think of the homeland as victimized and persecuted despite worldwide recognition of China as the world’s second most powerful and important country.
Xi might believe that only he can save China and that therefore, for the good of the country, he must first ensure his own political survival – even if it be through establishing a one-man dictatorship, a personality cult and a self-promoting reinterpretation of CCP history.
But regime security taken to an extreme becomes a threat to both national and human security. The North Korean government is a clear illustration of this principle: The DPRK is relatively poor, weak, unhealthy and oppressed – the price of its government’s ruthlessly combating all perceived challenges to the Kim regime.
Unfortunately for the Chinese people, Xi has made China a little more like North Korea by clamping down on healthy political debate and elevating political correctness at the expense of professional competence.
In the 1980s, the authoritarian governments of South Korea and Taiwan relented in the face of pressures and granted political liberalization. Thereafter, the formerly unopposed ruling parties accepted that they must win over voters through appealing messages and competent performance.
In each case, a candidate representing the previous ruling party won the first open, multiparty presidential election (Roh Tae-woo in South Korea, Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan).
Xi and his CCP, however, remain prisoners of Leninism. Despite the party’s proud and oft-repeated boast about dramatically raising the living standards of the Chinese people (albeit by abandoning the party’s core Marxist beliefs to adopt capitalism and integrate with the global economy), it still lacks the confidence to allow PRC citizens more control over their own destinies, through either free political discussion or fair multiparty elections.
And as the Sixth Plenum amply demonstrates, to make the case for his worthiness to rule Xi continues to rely heavily on the state’s message-control machinery, which rewrites history to praise the current leader while criminalizing dissenting views.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.