Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assumption of supreme leadership seems to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party has finally reached the impasse long predicted by its critics. It may no longer be able, as Minxin Pei wrote in “China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy,” to “build broad-based social coalitions to pursue its policies and defend itself.”
Rule by autocratic decree invariably strangles the possibility of new ideas and innovations -- what advances the process of social and economic change and makes it tolerable for many. Unfortunately, those Chinese who lament their stultifying authoritarianism and look for alternatives in the Western heartlands of democracy will be disappointed.
Donald Trump’s inability to outline and realize a constructive vision for his country is now evident. Much less noticed, and equally dangerous, is the intellectual paralysis of Britain’s Conservative Party, presently floundering in the rough waters of Brexit.
Long before the disastrous referendum on European Union membership in June 2016, the party was obsessed with austerity -- a policy now dropped since it has become politically toxic. After losing her party’s majority in an election that she need not have called, Prime Minister Theresa May has struggled to control her ministers, who not only squabble among themselves but also openly contradict her.
The sense that the Tories were heading for a shipwreck deepened last week as a cabinet minister reported the defense secretary for sexual harassment, forcing the latter to resign. But indiscipline is merely one sign among many that the Tory cupboard of ideas, barely replenished since Margaret Thatcher’s revolution in the 1980s, is now pitiably bare.
Tory stultification is made worse by Britain’s fanatically right-wing press, which remains heavily invested in an imperial fantasy of British self-sufficiency. The Daily Mail, which denounces even senior British judges as “enemies of the people,” is no less committed to boosting radical Tory Brexiteers than Xinhua is to cheerleading Xi’s “China Dream.”
An over-friendly press only helps make the Tories look comically hidebound. Take for instance, the Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hardline Brexiteer and media darling. The high-born, devout and honey-voiced Rees-Mogg, who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion (even in the instance of rape), seems a throwback to the Victorian past, when Britain was indeed the most powerful imperialist country on earth. In fact, Britain is a different country today, with a young and diverse population that is largely liberal and secular, and whose patience for figures like Rees-Mogg is limited to BBC’s television dramatizations of 19th century novels.
Moreover, the spell of Thatcherism has been broken. With inequality becoming politically germane, the Tories, the traditional party of landowning aristocrats and the affluent in general, suddenly look very vulnerable. As their party struggles to manage its growing contradictions, the Tories could do worse than pick up some tips from the CCP, which has brilliantly improvised in order to maintain its power and legitimacy in an increasingly capitalist China.
It did so, as even trenchant critics like Pei concede, by building broad-based social coalitions -- a remarkable but little-discussed feat in the period after Mao Zedong and before Xi Jinping. In the 1980s, the party that under Mao was the exclusive preserve of peasants and factory workers began to court rich businessmen and middle-class professionals. It began to reduce its control over decisions the Chinese people take in their private lives. And it broke from Maoist-style campaigns of ideological propaganda that had merely entrenched foolish dogma.
The Chinese party-state resorted to extreme violence in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But what helped the CCP survive the collapse of the Soviet Union and many other Communist states was not so much violent repression as pragmatic policy-making. Lacking the legitimacy bestowed by regular elections, Chinese leaders paradoxically had to work harder and think faster on their feet. The party’s ideological flexibility and caution explains how the CCP managed, within a single generation, to transform China on a scale never seen before in human history.
These unprecedented achievements of Mao’s heirs were at least partly the result of “guerrilla-style policy-making,” marked, as Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry, two scholars of Chinese politics, have written, by “secrecy, versatility, speed, and surprise” -- wholly unlike the rigid austerity program and the dead-on-arrival Brexit proposals of the orphans of Thatcher.
Many of these advantages of quick thinking and ad hoc adjustment may be lost as the CCP abandons its traditions of collective leadership and consensual decision-making. It remains to be seen whether Xi Jinping can by himself build the broad-based social coalitions that his party needs in order to survive.
But the lesson from the extraordinary success of Mao’s heirs thus far is clear for Thatcher’s successors: Keep up with the times, be flexible and learn to improvise -- or die.
By Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.