Saturday, April 23, 2016

China: The logic - and danger - of centralized political power

Andrew J. Nathan, the eminent China expert and professor of political science at Columbia, reviews several books about Xi Jinping in the May 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. He points out the great paradox that the man who many hoped would be a liberal reformer turned out to be a power hungry dictator reaching back on the methods and style of Mao Zedong rather than Deng Xiaoping, who designed a system of bureaucratic competition in the party and state apparatus. Xi's father had been purged by Mao and persecuted both before, during and after the cultural revolution.

Under Deng Xiaoping, the elder Xi pioneered the open-door reforms in the southern province of Guangdong and played an important part in founding the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. In 1987 he stood alone among Politburo members in refusing to vote for the purge of the liberal Party leader Hu Yaobang. 
But like many princelings, the younger Xi feels a deep loyalty to Mao and the world he created:
the children of the founding elite see themselves as the inheritors of an “all-under-heaven,” a vast world that their fathers conquered under Mao’s leadership. Their parents came from poor rural villages and rose to rule an empire. The second generation is privileged to live in a country that has “stood up” and is globally respected and feared. They do not propose to be the generation that “loses the empire.”
But more importantly, China's economic and political system is facing a serious of fundamental challenges, both domestically and internationally, slowing growth, unemployment, financial instability, corruption, political unrest, and enormous environmental problems. The international problems China is facing can partially be seen as a way for the Communist Party leaders to redirect the anger fuming at home, but is also a result of China's growing economic and military power, which will lead to an adjustment of the global balance of power.
Any leader who confronts so many big problems needs a lot of power, and Mao provides a model of how such power can be wielded. Xi Jinping leads the Party, state, and military hierarchies by virtue of his chairmanship of each. But his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, exercised these roles within a system of collective leadership, in which each member of the Politburo Standing Committee took charge of a particular policy or institution and guided it without much interference from other senior officials. 
This model does not produce leadership sufficiently decisive to satisfy Xi and his supporters.  
This paradox of the reformers is not new and not specific to China. When the old feudal economic-political system was undermined by trade and emerging capitalist forces in medieval Europe, they ran into roadblocks setup by the old system, and it often took the centralized power of the nation states and their kings to open up the lines of communication and trade. And then came Napoleon who spread capitalism and his Code Napoleon that replaced the feudal rule by man with rule by law.

China has historically oscillated between periods of strong central power and periods where the provinces and sometimes warlords grabbed power from the center. Similar cycles continued during and after Mao's rule. Huge challenges domestic or from abroad was followed by centralization of power, which over time led to stagnation or disasters such as the "Great Leap Forward," which in turn was followed by attempts to decentralize the system. Deng's reforms aimed at decentralizing China's economy, while preserving the core political system. It was terribly successful, but it changed China to a degree that made the old communist-confucian bureaucracy ever more obsolete. 

China so needs the Fifth Modernization Wei Jingsheng and other democratic reformers called for back in 1979 and then again in 1989, but the paradox is that an opening could lead to chaos and political fragmentation, which is something the Chinese leaders fear more than anything.

One would like to think that the son of a reformer, whose family suffered under the dictatorship, would be prone to accumulate power in order to break down the old and corrupt political system, but it seems unlikely. Nathan concludes his essay with a warning.
As the members of the red aristocracy around Xi circle their wagons to protect the regime, some citizens retreat into religious observance or private consumption, others send their money and children abroad, and a sense of impending crisis pervades society. No wonder Xi’s regime behaves as if it faces an existential threat. Given the power and resources that he commands, it would be reckless to predict that his attempt to consolidate authoritarian rule will fail. But the attempt risks creating the very political crisis that it seeks to prevent.

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