APTOPIX China Party Congress
Chinese President Xi Jinping, front row center, stands with his cadres during the Communist song at the closing ceremony for the 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Andy Wong
China officially entered a new era in its history of Communist rule Tuesday, in which it plans to demand a larger role in world affairs and impose stricter rule on a billion Chinese. Both aims will push China’s rulers into greater confrontation in the international community and with their own people. History suggests both policies are risky, unstable and cannot last.
Faced with a choice between two risky steps, more decentralization together with more democracy, or more centralization together with repression of political dissent, the ruling Communist Party chose the latter approach, as summed up in the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”
Xi Jinping is both president of China and chairman of its huge Communist Party. By getting the party convention to adopt his “thought” as a part of its constitution he has put himself on equal footing with founder Mao Zedong, who ruled from 1949 to 1976. He has become more individually powerful than any ruler since Mao.
Xi has consolidated his power by purging rival party leaders, often on charges of corruption, and installing his own followers in the top positions of the Chinese military, which he is busily strengthening. There are reports that he recently crushed a move by some top party officials to overthrow him and that the plotters have been arrested.
But he has also gained a wide following among ordinary Chinese by his populist program of going after “tigers, flies, foxes” and property speculators, and by his jingoistic promotion of China’s military strength and territorial claims. Tigers are powerful officials who steal billions, flies are low-level bureaucrats and party officials who extort money from the poor, and foxes are the rich who stash their money abroad and flee China. Property speculators have forced up the price of housing in Chinese cities and driven the poor away.
“Xi Jinping thought” was summed up by the BBC as having already led him to “assert and expand” China’s overseas interests, for example, with the program of building military bases on contested islands in the South China Sea, creating a potential threat to freedom of navigation. He has placed more pressure against democracy in Hong Kong and clouded the future independence of the Hong Kong government. He has suggested a new Chinese drive to end Taiwan’s independence, and to further purge “corrupt” officials and military officers.
He also has called for “new ideas” and stressed the absolute power of the Communist Party in all aspects of Chinese life.
But President Xi also has had to contend with a slowing Chinese economy, instability in Chinese markets, a slowdown in exports, the potential collapse of a real estate bubble and other economic woes. In the longer run, China faces a demographic challenge because the now discarded one-child policy has left it with a large aging generation and a smaller work force.
Central command and central planning may be able to cope short-term with the market distortions that now plague the Chinese economy. But they have never worked in the long run, and China is eventually going to have to pay the price of giving one man so much power. Unfortunately, that action also will have serious consequences for the rest of the world.