Rumours of leadership splits abound around party-congress time in the Chinese Communist Party.
Xi Jinping is set for a convention-breaking third term at the top when the party meets for its five-yearly congress sometime in October or November. If he were in trouble, as the rumours report, it probably wouldn’t be at congress time. Historically, leadership eruptions occur outside set pageants like party congresses and plenums. Party bosses didn’t wait for a polite debate and vote at a congress or plenum to fell Hu Yaobang in 1986 and Zhao Ziyang after the Tiananmen massacre. The numbers in a small group at the apex of the party decided their fate in the heat of the crisis.
No doubt there’s plenty to fuel rumours about dissatisfaction over the present policy in the party: in particular the end of economic reform and the re-emergence of the state sector. At the same time, the most vibrant sector of the economy – the digital – has been tamed. Covid lockdowns have flattened economic growth. Social conformity is in. Academic enquiry has been quashed. Censorship has tightened.
But China’s party leaders are unlikely to have problems with this clampdown. Their aim is to stay in power. By the time of Xi’s rise in 2012, economic reform was at the stage where it required a loosening of controls that would have threatened party leaders’ power to control events. Business and corporate leaders needed autonomy to act in the best interests of their firms and shareholders, and not necessarily in the interests of party bosses. Long-term business requires the stability of a predictable legal framework, not one at the behest of party-leadership caprice.
We shouldn’t wonder at this mindset. Too often commentators speak as if Chinese leaders are guided by the economic imperatives and public-opinion signals that operate in a western democracy. This is largely because those at the interface with foreigners are that diminishing cadre of sleek western-trained technocrats, who seem to think like us.
Far better to see Chinese party bosses’ guiding light as akin to Venezuela’s Maduro, or Kim Jong-un, where a discount on public prosperity is acceptable so long as they can continue to carve up the economic spoils with fellow caste-members. With spending on domestic security exceeding the defence budget, they can have high confidence that that state of affairs won’t end soon.
Unrealistic, too, is it to imagine that a cadre of enlightened economic reformers is on the verge of a return to power, as growth and vibrancy falter in Xi’s party-led economy. In fact, their influence has been winding down since the death of Deng Xiaoping. The social relaxation that emerged in the 1990s continued long into this century, helped by the imperative to look human during the holding of the 2008 Olympics, is slowly fading. Another constraint on a full-on onslaught on the West’s preoccupations like genuine market freedom and human rights, was China’s campaign to get into the World Trade Organisation. Entry there was a massive asset in countering the pressure every year from America ahead of congress’s renewing most-favoured-nation (MFN) status.
But the signs were all in evidence of the end of reform, in particular in the campaign by party princeling Bo Xilai, with high-level army and public-security backing, to overturn the succession that those who had clustered around Deng Xiaoping had put in place.
Even more privileged princeling, Xi Jinping, won that confrontation. But probably only just. His now permanent purging of senior party figures, and incessant calls for the PLA to obey party leadership, all suggest a degree of job insecurity extraordinary after two terms in power. He’s kept his job by adopting the policies of his defeated opponents. First, he’s reasserted a worn-out ideology that no one believes but vocal adherence to which even more makes for a good yardstick for loyalty. He’s enforcing the sort of social crackdown that appeals to the military mentality for whom non-conformity, effeminacy, falling birth rates, and the chaos of the free market, are a sign of irreversible decay. Calls for shared prosperity were Bo’s and hark back to the socialism of the fifties and sixties. Similarly in Xi’s litany is party leadership of the economy and the dominance of state enterprises, as growth-defeating and initiative-stifling as such a policy ultimately is.
The problem for a reformist come-back is the army. Lack of depth there has always been their problem. While Deng was alive, reform policy was safe, even if his lieutenants like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang weren’t. Deng had army credentials that went back to the liberation struggle. He had fought in the frontline, even if as a party political commissar. But his links with serving officers ran deep and became even stronger as they all fought to save their skins against Mao’s red guards. Post-Mao, he could call for economic liberalisation, for some to get rich first, knowing his second-field-army comrades would protect his back.
But jejune reformers like Zhao Ziyang, whose proposed reforms threatened the party’s hold on the commanding heights of the economy, never had the confidence of PLA generals. By the end of reformer Hu Jintao’s general-secretaryship in 2012 support for reform had run its course. The army had openly humiliated Hu in front of foreigners – America – by keeping him in the dark on army moves and developments. It would no longer support the chaos of reform. If Xi Jinping was to survive he had no alternative but to appease it.
Still, why is Xi Jinping looking to be president for life? Why will the party ultimately support it? Probably for the same reason the party supported Stalin in Russia and Mao in China. Xi’s opponents have an interest in party stability, even if it means acquiescing in his ascendancy. The succession to Xi Jinping in 2012 had been very destabilising. And while there is no doubt many in the party even now who see themselves as future supreme leader, none of them has the depth of support to sustain a successful challenge. Xi at least has had vicarious army support through those clustering around his senior PLA father.
A president for life buttressed by an infantile personality cult is a small price to pay to keep one’s status and one’s snout in the trough. Mao’s eternal leadership and absurd personality cult didn’t keep his colleagues from trying to put him on the shelf. It took the chaos of the cultural revolution to make them all realise they were better settling for him at the apex than to have the party destroyed. Many today are probably thinking the same way.
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