Opaque though China’s system of government may be to outsiders, there’s wide agreement that the initiatives announced in recent days are no ordinary course correction. President Xi Jinping has brought more levers of power under his control and is moving methodically to erase the distinction between the Communist Party and the state.
It’s a bold new direction, as Xi himself declares. His ambitions are far-reaching. What does his project mean for China’s prospects, and for the world?
Xi’s strategy recognizes enormous challenges facing the country, and could make some of them easier to overcome: By centralizing power, he may indeed advance China to greater material success and full superpower status. But his methods involve great risk. Whatever happens, Xi is choosing to stand alone, and will own the outcome.
As the National People’s Congress began, attention concentrated on the decision to end presidential term limits, allowing Xi to stay in office beyond 2023. To be sure, this fits the broader pattern -- yet it isn’t the most consequential of the changes underway.
That’s because the presidency is the least important of the three commanding posts atop the Chinese system. The other two -- head of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission -- aren’t constitutionally limited. Xi holds all three positions, and after 2023 could have continued to run China with a follower appointed to the role of president. That, in fact, was what many analysts expected would happen.
More important is the raft of changes that Xi had previously embarked on and others that, with this congress, he has now put in train. Xi has already acted decisively against corruption in government, confronting a growing problem inherited from his predecessors. Now he’s applying the same strategies to his broader agenda, creating an official body that will allow “discipline inspectors” to scrutinize not just party members but all state employees for probity and diligence in carrying out government orders.
As part of the biggest government restructuring in years, two key financial-regulatory commissions are to be merged, and the central bank will gain new oversight powers. This focus on financial reform is well-judged, and indeed overdue, because instability owing to excessive debt, inflated asset values and poorly supervised shadow banking is one of the greatest threats to China’s growth. If Xi’s centralizing strategy means this nexus of dangers will be more effectively confronted, well and good.
Yet Xi’s revolution is a gamble. In much of Asia, systems lacking the West’s liberal norms and institutions have accomplished remarkable things -- and China, since the reforms undertaken by Deng Xiaoping starting in 1978, is the most astonishing example. But elsewhere in the region, enduring success has so far involved two elements that Xi appears to have set his face against: sufficient internal rivalry to keep policymakers on their toes; and a path to political liberalization, so that one day it might be possible to accommodate a more prosperous, better-educated and increasingly opinionated populace.
Deng was an autocrat as well as an economic reformer, but he nodded in this direction. He favored a separation of sorts between the Communist Party and the government -- that is, between ideology and bureaucracy. In principle, such separation provides for greater transparency and professionalism in the executive, with officials judged by results rather than by ideological soundness. It could also have allowed, in the fullness of time, for a plausible transition to a more liberal form of rule.
Xi has declared, in effect, that the Communist Party and the state are to be as one. (The merger is far-reaching: Already, the party representatives embedded in companies to keep an eye on business decisions are expanding their activities, even within foreign businesses.) For the sake of greater control, Xi therefore runs the risk of tolerating or even encouraging bad decisions -- through an absence of rivalry, or because policies will be shielded from scrutiny and deemed articles of faith.
It remains to be seen whether Xi’s revolution will succeed, or if his insistence on control will prove self-defeating. What’s less in doubt is that his project has no place for political convergence on liberal principles. Part of what the US and its allies have to come to terms with is a challenge to their way of thinking. Xi seems out to prove nothing less than that China’s model is superior -- not for the time being, not until China’s most pressing problems are fixed, but for as far ahead as one can see.
Editorial by Bloomberg