The Limits to Chinese Political Power

(Photo by Twentyfour Students, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Twentyfour Students, Creative Commons License)

As China has become a larger player in the world economy and its influence in world political affairs has grown, the need to understand the Chinese political system and how political power is exercised within it has grown commensurately. Policymakers and markets around the world are now affected everyday by the decisions of Chinese political leaders in some way or other.

Many in the rest of the world are now in routine contact with their business partners, professional colleagues, family and friends in China on a scale unprecedented in human history. It is inevitable that they are increasingly sensitive to how the Chinese people view their political leaders and the process whereby they govern this massive polity. In these days of interconnected technologies, not even state security in China can long deny these exchanges if China continues to want the prosperity that derives from openness to the world economy.

China matters economically and politically and the way in which it is run matters more and more to the success of the stated aspirations of its people through its leadership and its extensive dealings within the international community. No wonder then that the importance of informed and careful analysis of developments in the Chinese political system is at a premium around the world today.

There are analysts, of course, and there are analysts, and not all deserve equal weight or attention. There are those who have made long professions of predicting political implosion and collapse in China, as the political system, through economic reform, has opened China to the rest of the world, and that industry has naturally expanded as China faces the challenges of the next phase of its economic reform and the response to its political presence externally.

In this week’s lead, when Carl Minzner an eminent scholar of Chinese governance suggests that ‘China is clearly moving to a darker era’, we need to listen and ask why.

Minzner characterizes this ‘darker era’ in two ways: a crackdown on lawyers, journalists and civil society activists; and a ‘steady breakdown of the authoritarian political rules of the game that have held sway since the beginning of the modern era’.

It is the second of these that worries him most. He thinks that Xi Jinping is trying to personalize institutional reforms, and argues that this personalization of institutional power will lead to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s ‘cannabaliz[ing] itself. Nathan Attrill has similar concerns, noting that Xi’s personalized leadership is attended by great risks.

What does this mean?

According to Minzner, the mechanisms by which the central state exerts power are steadily sliding towards de-institutionalized channels. These channels include: ‘cultivation of a budding cult of personality around Xi and a steady ideological pivot away from the Communist Party’s revolutionary socialist origins in favor of the “China Dream”, a revival of an ethno-nationalist ideology rooted in imperial history, tradition and Confucianism, and a revival of Maoist-era tactics of “rule by fear” including televised confessions and unannounced disappearances of state officials and civil society activists alike. Fear, tradition and personal charisma do not amount to institutional governance…The Party-state’s reform-era efforts to build more institutionalized systems of governance are being steadily eroded’.

Xi Jinping is undoubtedly a stronger and more high-profile leader than his predecessor Hu Jintao. He came to the leadership with the Party in some disarray over major scandals such as the Bo Xilai affair and facing a tide of concern about flagrant corruption across all levels of government. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been more thorough and far-reaching than the one Hu launched when he came to power. Xi has broken previous norms — specifically, don’t target Politburo Standing Committee members and don’t snatch people from overseas (or if you do, definitely don’t smirk about it). The committees that coordinate China’s diverse interests and make policy are now often reporting directly to Xi rather than to the nominal head of that policy area.

Minzner’s case is plausible. Xi’s centralization of power may have advantages in dealing with big issues but it also increases the risks of failure — and the risk of Xi’s being held personally responsible if things go wrong.

Minzner’s claim that the CCP is ‘cannibalizing itself’ is more provocative.

For starters, while leadership is essential to any state — more so in what is analytically unhelpfully characterized as an authoritarian state — there are limits to what Xi himself can do.

The centers of power and influence and the constraints on central power in China are real. Personalization of institutional reform has its boundaries. Xi is General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the head of the world’s largest political organization and, while constitutional constraints may be weak, the selectorate wields structured power on many levels. While Xi can disturb and change the incentives of Party members through his anti-corruption drive, his control over cadre behavior has its limits.

In consolidating a number of policy areas underneath him (including national security), Xi has undoubtedly increased the coherence in Chinese policymaking. He also invites himself to be held directly accountable should there be policy failure. At the popular level, this accountability is assuredly weak; there are no inclusive democratic elections. But within the Party, there is a more robust, if also still weak, system of accountability. And as we move into the first phase of leadership succession in 2017, it will matter, as it would matter in a democracy, how people beyond the Party think about how successfully the leadership has been traveling. Policy developments must be framed and assessed in the context of a more pluralist political system than is instinctively assumed of a one-party state.

Minzner speaks powerfully for many in both China and the West who see this as a ‘dark period’ of Chinese governance, where hoped-for progress towards a more representative system of government is very difficult at present to discern. But there are many shades in darkness that shroud easy judgment about the evolution of the Chinese political system.

China must be dealt with as it is — case by case, rule by rule, situation by situation. Seeing China clearly as it is, beyond whatever hopes and dreams we may have for its future, requires understanding and accepting the limits on anyone’s power to change it inside or outside the system, and working with the China we have, not the China that even President Xi encourages to dream of 50 or a 100 years hence.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article first appeared at East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.

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