Björn Alexander Düben. Problems of Post-Communism. Volume 67, Issue 2. March/April 2020.
China watchers have long speculated whether Beijing is developing a genuinely new, exceptionally dynamic form of authoritarian governance. Recent developments suggest, however, that the Communist leadership under Xi Jinping is reverting to an orthodox form of personalist authoritarianism. This process accelerated in the run-up to the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress in 2017 and in its aftermath. The article investigates the extent to which Xi has eliminated key political norms and quasi-institutions that previously distinguished the consensus-driven collective leadership of the “China model” and allowed for a working power balance between different intra-Party factions, an orderly political succession process, and a relative predictability of intra-Party dynamics. It assesses the implications of this return to a personalist form of authoritarianism for China’s political and economic development.
China is going from strength to strength. Following nearly four decades of high economic growth and military modernization, the world’s most populous country has become a formidable great power. Beijing’s success has been built on the “China model”—a concept of heavily statist economic development and authoritarian single-party rule that appears to fly in the face of the long-standing academic consensus that authoritarian regimes are bound to encounter quasi-insurmountable obstacles when trying to develop their economies and societies beyond a certain point (Huntington). For decades, political scientists have suggested that, in order for a country to become a highly developed, complex economy, its political system must be based on the principles of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of civil liberties. None of these are present in China; but while traditional authoritarian regimes have long proven to be a recipe for bad governance and eventual stagnation, Beijing has bucked this trend for decades.
China is now an upper-middle-income country, and at its current rate of development it will soon be on the verge of becoming a high-income economy. In order to accomplish this, it has to move further up the value-added chain to high levels of productivity and escape the so-called “middle-income trap”—a hypothesized period of low-growth equilibrium following a country’s ascent from low-income status—that has impeded most emerging economies in their attempts to penetrate the high-value-added market. Newly industrialized countries like China are liable to be affected by the dynamics associated with the “middle-income trap” once they reach a mean income threshold of ca $11,000 per capita, at which point they lose their competitive advantages in low-wage manufacturing and need to grow their service sectors and promote the production of innovative, knowledge-intensive goods in value-added industries (Woo). For a variety of reasons linked to their underlying socio-economic conditions, this is a very difficult feat for authoritarian regimes to achieve. Historically, the likelihood of autocratic regimes being replaced by representative governments has therefore been greatest at the middle-income level, the so-called “transition zone” (Huntington).
The problems associated with the middle-income trap are not lost on China’s leaders. Already in 2015, then-finance minister Lou Jiwei stated that China’s chance of avoiding the middle-income trap was no more than 50 percent (Chen 2015). If China does succeed in surpassing middle-income status, it would enter terra incognita: with the exception of a half-dozen petrostates that generate nearly all of their growth from oil and gas extraction, as well as the mercantile micro-nation Singapore, no autocratically governed country has ever successfully transitioned to become a high-income economy.
Many veteran observers of China’s development, such as David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei, have claimed that Beijing’s refusal to liberalize its political system and to establish political structures that are highly institutionalized and rule-bound means that its prospects for further economic reform—and thus its overall political and economic future—will likely be bleak (Lampton; Minzner and Wallace). Some of these scholars have argued that China’s current political path is liable to lead to a gradual (or even sudden) decay of its system of governance (Pei; Li; Shambaugh). But in light of the country’s continued and seemingly inexorable rise, an increasing number of political theorists and economists have challenged the traditional academic perspective of China in recent years and have suggested that Beijing could prove an exception to established hypotheses about authoritarian regimes, since it has created a new kind of highly resilient and adaptable authoritarian system that promises to succeed where other forms of authoritarianism have failed (Bell; Pan; Jacques; Lai). Some of these scholars argue that Beijing’s model of governance—particularly the practice of appointing public officials on the basis of performance, rather than democratic elections—might be superior to liberal democracy, or at least more suitable for an emerging power like China (Zhang). As a rare non-democratic economic success story, China has become a model for many developing countries, which have sought to study and replicate its success. Beijing has recently begun to openly advertise its political system as a viable alternative to liberal democracy, with President Xi Jinping explicitly praising the China model as offering “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” (China Daily).
But notwithstanding the sheer rapidity of China’s rise and its constantly growing international influence, recent developments within the Chinese political system cast doubts on the widely held view of the China model’s apparent exceptionalism as a novel and uniquely progressive form of authoritarian governance. Instead, they reinforce the “orthodox” scholarly view of authoritarian governance in China and its pessimistic predictions for the country’s future prospects as an autocratic state. During the presidency of Xi Jinping, some of the core institutional foundations of the Chinese political system of the reform era have been progressively dismantled and, behind a façade of political reform, China’s system of governance appears to be reverting to a more orthodox form of political authoritarianism. While these processes of de-institutionalization advanced gradually in recent years, they have markedly intensified since mid-2017, and the political events during the subsequent months arguably constituted the greatest political change in decades and a watershed for reform-era governance in China.
The End of Collective Leadership
One of the key characteristics differentiating China’s reform-era political system from more “ordinary” authoritarian regimes has been its ability to ostensibly resolve certain core problems that all autocracies grapple with: how to balance the interests of powerful factions and cliques within the political elite, how to curtail the dominance of individual leaders, and how to provide for an orderly, anticipatory process of succession from one leadership generation to the next. Since the 1990s, China’s leadership has relied on a system of—largely unwritten—rules and conventions that have restricted the terms of top officials, established informal age limits beyond which they could no longer seek political offices, and maintained a fine-tuned factional power balance within the Communist Party’s top echelons. But since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, this unique political arrangement has been eroding. In its stead, Xi has steered China in the direction of a more personalized rule that has allowed him to amass disproportionately great power while it has unhinged many of the compromises and trade-offs on which the Chinese political system has been built. Under the Communist Party’s collective leadership system—the essential modus operandi of China’s political system since the beginning of the reform era—key policymaking bodies are supposed to make decisions on the basis of majority vote or consensus. But Xi has increasingly divested himself of the existing intra-Party checks and balances and established himself as the designated “core” leader who effectively has the final say on all major policy issues.
For decades, the long-standing power balance between different political factions has been one of the core ordering principles within the Communist Party leadership. Analyses of the promotion of provincial cadres in China, for instance, have repeatedly demonstrated that, rather than being based primarily on their economic performance, as is often assumed, cadre promotions have largely occurred on the basis of the strength of factional ties (Wong and Yu; Shih, Adolph, and Liu). Some analysts have argued that, by the 2000s, the Communist Party leadership had become dominated by at least two competing informal leadership factions or coalitions, which between them created something approximating a balance of power and an informal system of checks and balances and maintained a relatively equal allocation of seats and leadership posts in the Party’s top political organs (Li).
Since Xi Jinping came to power, this established intra-Party factional power balance has been substantially disrupted and power struggles between different factions have greatly intensified (Lam). Xi’s preferred device for decimating rival political groups and their patronage networks has been the sweeping Communist Party-led anti-corruption campaign, begun in late 2012. Accompanied by a self-congratulatory media offensive, the campaign has struck a chord with the Chinese public, and the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members seems to have led to an actual decline of overt corruption among Chinese officials, who were caught off-guard by the scope of the measures and have taken great care not to appear in the crosshairs of the investigations.
Nonetheless the campaign has failed to tackle the roots of the problem. Countless officials in China have sought membership of the Communist Party nomenklatura primarily as a means to advance their careers and benefit from the attendant privileges, and the concentrated attempt to drain illicit sources of income has shaken the Party to the core and opened deep fault lines within it. One of the Party’s principal dilemmas in pursuing the anti-corruption campaign has been the fact that, while the fight against graft is a popular initiative, truly addressing it inadvertently reveals how widespread corruption has actually been. China’s population has gained the impression that measures are taken to tackle corruption, but it has also realized how commonplace it is, even within the highest leadership circles. The campaign has boosted Xi’s personal reputation and popularity at the expense of the Party’s, since it has caused a measurable rise in the number of Chinese who believe that corruption is prevalent at the central level and among top leadership bodies (and not merely at the local level, where many had already witnessed it before). Xi’s popularity has not been dented by international media reports that his own extended family had amassed vast fortunes during his rise in the Party and transferred them to offshore tax havens, since these reports were rigorously censored in China (Branigan; Hatton).
Though it has had a practical impact on corruption, the campaign—which, until 2017, was spearheaded by Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s closest and longest-standing allies—has also served as a major pretext for selectively purging rivals of Xi within the Communist Party elite. The 2014 arrest of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of China’s supreme leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee, as well as similarly senior figures such as the former Politburo member and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou, violated the unwritten rule that retired top officials within the Communist Party are out of bounds of criminal prosecution by their successors, a move that has complicated the delicate process of political succession. Altogether, around ten percent of the members of the Eighteenth Central Committee were purged on corruption and other charges. Those targeted by the anti-corruption campaign have committed suicide in record numbers, and many officials have fled the country. The most senior party heavyweights felled by the campaign have been accused of forming interest groups and becoming involved in “political conspiracies,” which suggests that power struggles were as much of a factor in their downfalls as alleged corruption (Gan). Political allies of Xi have been conspicuously absent among the high-level Party figures prosecuted on corruption charges; and with the surprise appointment of Xi’s former associate Yang Xiaodu—previously one of his subordinates during Xi’s time as Party boss of Shanghai in 2007—as head of the National Supervisory Commission, the reorganized and unprecedentedly powerful national anti-corruption body, this will likely remain the case in the foreseeable future (Gan). Some senior Party figures have leveled harsh accusations against Xi for his authoritarian tendencies, but these were quickly suppressed. In January 2016, the Chinese government published a speech by Xi in which he condemned high-ranking Communist Party officials for having “carried out political plot activities behind the party’s back, carried out politically shady business to wreck and split the party!” Many analysts interpreted these words as indicating that Xi’s intra-Party rivals—some of whom were mentioned by name—had plotted a coup attempt to unseat him, before they were purged and arrested under the pretense of the anti-corruption campaign (Tatlow).
The Nineteenth Communist Party Congress
Since the 1990s, high-level elections in the Communist Party had always been highly predictable, with strict protocols in place to prevent surprise contenders from winning the vote; but Xi began to handpick officials based on their political factions and to defy consensus candidates in favor of individuals with direct connections to him (Nagai). He has systematically elevated loyal junior officials from his own personal network who had served him since the days when he was a regional official in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces to many of the highest Party, state, and provincial offices, at the expense of senior Party figures with ties to other factions (Nakazawa). Many of these appointees were lower-ranking Party members who were not perceived as having the requisite rank and experience traditionally considered indispensable for such senior offices.
The run-up to the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017 demonstrated the growing intensity of intra-Party power struggles. Some of the most senior cadres associated with the Communist Youth League—previously one of the most powerful factions in the Party, with close ties to Premier Li Keqiang and former president Hu Jintao—including the League’s chief Qin Yizhi, were demoted and excluded from participation in the Congress, effectively ending their political careers (Mai; Shi 2017; Nagai). Their predecessors had invariably been promoted to some of the highest offices in the Party. During the Congress itself, other Party heavyweights with ties to the Communist Youth League, such as China’s Vice-President Li Yuanchao, Propaganda Department head Liu Qibao, and State Council Secretary General Yang Jing, unexpectedly lost their seats on the Politburo and Central Committee, respectively, without having reached the unofficial retirement age. According to established Party protocol and the seniority principle, they had been in line to retain their seats or to be promoted (Zhou; Mai).
At the Nineteenth Congress, senior officials close to Xi not only gained most of the seats on the Communist Party’s Politburo and Central Committee; Xi was also able to install his loyalists in critical offices in the second and third tiers of the Party hierarchy, including the General Office (which serves as the Party’s nerve center) and the Secretariat (Gan). He also made an effort to attain maximum control over China’s top military institutions, where loyalists of former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin were removed or arrested over bribery allegations and replaced with senior generals firmly loyal to Xi (Buckley and Myers; Li). The Nineteenth Communist Party Congress was the site of the largest-ever turnover of senior military officers in the history of the People’s Republic (mirroring the turnover rate for civilian Politburo and Central Committee positions, which was also the largest at any Party congress since the Cultural Revolution). In addition, China’s paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police, was removed from the purview of the State Council and brought under the exclusive authority of the Central Military Commission—a move toward bringing all of China’s military under Xi’s direct control (Reuters).
In the run-up to the Nineteenth Party Congress, Xi also proceeded to sap the influence of retired Communist Party “elders”—former senior officials who, as part of the principle of collective leadership, had traditionally played a key role in coordinating the general direction of policymaking and the selection of future leaders (thus preventing the top leader from amassing too much personal power). Previously, one of the primary occasions for the “elders” to weigh in on important political decisions had been the annual informal Party conclave at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, a decades-long tradition that provided the main forum for building consensus among senior Party officials and retired leaders on important policy or ideological issues. Under Xi’s leadership, however, the significance of the conclave greatly diminished, and the 2017 Beidaihe meeting, which took place just two months before the crucial Party Congress, had reportedly become a mere “ritual” that did not include any informal gathering of current and retired leaders to discuss the state of the nation and the imminent leadership reshuffle, demonstrating the “elders'” fundamental loss of influence (Choi).
The Nineteenth Party Congress and its aftermath revealed the extent to which key mechanisms that had previously contributed to keeping China’s political system stable have been dismantled as Xi has proceeded to cement his personal power. On the surface, the Party’s established core institutions and conventions survived the Congress intact. Contrary to what many analysts had predicted, Xi did not install a majority of loyalists from his own faction in China’s highest policy-making body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. The Committee’s composition was regarded as an important indicator of how far Xi could get his way in promoting his political allies, and the final line-up of Committee members suggested that he was willing to make concessions to his intra-Party rivals and that political norms concerning the balance of power between factions and the principle of seniority still mattered. The five new arrivals on the Standing Committee were all seasoned establishment politicians who are well-connected in the highest Party circles. Only one of them, Li Zhanshu, was known to be a very close and long-standing ally of Xi (the two have been friends since the 1980s), while his new colleagues Han Zheng and Wang Yang have long had ties to rival intra-Party factions associated with former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively (Li). One of Xi’s closest allies and protégés, Chongqing Party chief Chen Min’er, whom many China watchers had expected to ascend to the Standing Committee, was merely promoted to the 25-member Politburo. Overall, Xi appeared to have opted for an approach to deciding the leadership line-up that privileged political stability and continuity and did not overtly challenge the Party’s underlying norms and conventions regarding the filling of its top posts.
Prior to the Congress, there had also been intense speculation that Xi might try to abolish the long-standing informal age limit for senior Communist Party officials, who are expected to step down at the next Party Congress after they turn 68. This retirement principle, which dates back to the 1997 and 2002 Party Congresses, is merely customary and there are no official rules on the matter, though senior officials in the past two decades have followed it faithfully. Mandatory retirement has been an important tool in limiting the dominance of the paramount leader and preserving the intra-Party power balance by facilitating the distribution of the most senior offices among candidates picked by different retiring leaders. In recent decades, the retirement principle played a crucial role in strengthening the power of the office, at the expense of the individual occupying it. But by late 2016, senior Communist Party figures close to Xi Jinping suggested that the principle of retiring leaders aged 68 or older from the Politburo Standing Committee might be suspended in favor of more “flexible” retirement rules for senior officials (Straits Times). Suspending the age limit for top officials at the Nineteenth Party Congress would have allowed Xi to retain one of his most important allies, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan—then 69 years old—in a position of supreme power. It would also have enabled Xi himself, then 64 years old, to lay the groundwork for an extension of his ten-year term as China’s paramount leader. But the Congress concluded without an obvious breach of the retirement rule, as Wang Qishan stuck with tradition and stepped down from his post on the Politburo Standing Committee on account of his age (though he retained a highly unusual degree of authority for a retired official and was given the rare privilege of continuing to attend the Committee’s meetings as a non-voting member) (Zhai).
A conspicuous breach of convention occurred, however, when the Nineteenth Congress concluded without revealing a designated successor for Xi. Previously, “odd-numbered” Communist Party Congresses had served as the stage for presenting the generational successor of China’s supreme leader (who, at that point, would be halfway through his ten-year tenure as president and general secretary of the Communist Party) and for putting this “heir-apparent” on a five-year “apprenticeship”—a practice that served to minimize the uncertainty of the political succession process. Xi, however, did not name an apprentice successor, and the line-up of the Nineteenth Politburo Standing Committee did not include any member young enough to rule for two five-year terms after 2022.
In the months prior to the Nineteenth Congress, some promising candidates for accession to the Party’s supreme leadership who were associated with Xi’s intra-Party rivals had been removed from the succession race. The most prominent “fatality” was Sun Zhengcai, often regarded as a protégé of former premier Wen Jiabao and former president Jiang Zemin, who was the youngest member of the Politburo and served as Party secretary of Chongqing, until he was suddenly removed from this post in July 2017 and put under investigation for “serious violations of Party discipline.” Sun, who was one of the few Party members of the appropriate seniority and age group to be eligible for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee and was viewed as one of the frontrunners in the race to succeed Xi, was the first incumbent Politburo member to be placed under internal investigation since the launch of the anti-corruption campaign. He was replaced as head of the Chongqing megacity (a post usually reserved for a Politburo member) by the more junior official Chen Min’er, a long-time associate and trusted protégé of Xi (Buckley). Another strong contender for Xi’s succession, then-Party chief of Guangdong, Hu Chunhua, who has close ties to former president Hu Jintao, failed to score a promotion at the Nineteenth Congress and remained an ordinary Politburo member. Xi’s own protégé Chen Min’er, who had been widely regarded as his preferred candidate to succeed him (Lungu), likewise did not gain a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Four months after the Nineteenth Party Congress, in late February 2018, any remaining doubts concerning Xi’s intention to prolong his personal leadership were dispelled when the Communist Party’s Central Committee formally proposed to amend the Chinese constitution by removing the line that stipulates that the president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms,” a proposal that was dutifully approved by the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the following month (Xinhua 2018; BBC News) (interestingly, no such change was made for the premier and vice-premier, whose constitutional limit of serving no more than two consecutive terms remained in place). In addition, the National People’s Congress also formally elevated Xi’s close ally Wang Qishan to the office of China’s vice-president—previously a largely ceremonial post, which Wang’s presence will likely invest with new power and authority (Denyer). Wang’s return to a leadership post was in contravention of the unwritten rule of not promoting officials aged 68 or older to senior political positions.
In itself, the formal removal of presidential term limits (which were first introduced in 1982 with the express intention of preventing lifetime appointments following the experiences of the Mao era) does not predetermine that Xi will opt to stay in power beyond the usual tenure period, but there is no evident rationale for having enacted this constitutional amendment other than to enable him to prolong his reign. Under the Chinese constitution, the president as the titular head of state does not have substantial political power, since the latter ultimately resides in the Communist Party. The position of general secretary of the Communist Party, which Xi also holds (alongside his third key office as head of the Central Military Commission), does not have formal term limits, though previous office-holders in the reform era had followed a convention to restrict their tenure to two five-year terms, mirroring the formal term limits of the presidency. The removal of the official term limits for the office of the president has eliminated the only formal, codified rule restricting Xi’s tenure beyond 2022, whereas the purely customary conventions limiting term times for the other two leadership offices that Xi currently holds would be relatively easy to circumvent. Another unwritten convention that theoretically limits Xi’s ability to retain his leadership role after 2022 is the informal 68-year age limit for senior officials. Although this principle was implicitly upheld at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017, senior officials close to Xi have stressed its unofficial and non-binding character (Straits Times), and Wang Qishan’s return to a senior political office in March 2018 suggests that the informal age limit will pose no serious obstacle to any future attempt by Xi to extend his time in office.
Xi Jinping’s Ascendancy Viewed Through a Theoretical Lens
The political changes enacted since mid-2017 in the context of the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress and the subsequent amendment of the Chinese constitution represent one of the most profound transformations of the principles of governance in China since the beginning of the reform era and an unprecedented reversal of political institution-building. Following years of speculation about Xi Jinping’s motives and the future of China’s model of authoritarian governance, these recent events have finally laid bare the extent of Xi’s turn to personalist rule. Xi’s efforts to suppress rival factions within the Communist Party leadership and to expand his personal power are unsurprising when regarded from the perspective of established theories of authoritarianism, democratization, and comparative communist studies. Theorists of authoritarian governance have long observed that one of the primary dynamics that can threaten authoritarian rule is the political decay of the regime (Kalyvas); according to their observations, over time the internal norms and cohesiveness of authori-tarian regimes inevitably progressively deteriorate, which is one of the main reasons why modern dictatorships have rarely remained intact over long periods of time (Geddes, Wright, and Frantz). The political decay of authoritarian regimes typically manifests itself in growing discord and power struggles among the ruling elites and a continuously declining belief in the regime’s guiding ideology among its core supporters. According to analysts of regime transitions, divisions among the ruling elite have historically constituted the most important factor triggering transitions from authoritarianism (O’Donnell and Schmitter, 19; Svolik, 4-5). Theorists of democratization such as Samuel Huntington have argued that authoritarian regimes will eventually enter an “adaptation” phase (the final stage in their development) (Huntington, 9), wherein their longer-term survival depends on becoming more inclusive (that is, it depends on “the extent to which the system institutionalizes procedures for assimilating new groups into the system”) (Huntington, 424). In recent decades, China’s Communist Party had made progress in this regard (for instance by opening up its ranks to private businessmen); but under Xi’s leadership the upper strata of the Party have once again moved in the opposite direction, promoting the entrenchment of a small political elite group surrounding Xi himself at the levers of supreme power and becoming less inclusive for different interest groups.
When viewed through the lens of established theories of authoritarianism, the measures taken by Xi to bolster his personal power—though some of them might lead to a short-term increase in stability and efficiency—are likely to prove destabilizing for China’s single-party regime in the long run. Theorists of authoritarianism have long pointed out the dangers of a growing personalization of leadership, which occurs when an individual leader succeeds in removing institutional constraints and expanding the power of the executive at the expense of his former allies. Barbara Geddes suggested that authoritarian regimes can be divided into at least three distinct types on the basis of how authority is structured within them, labeling those regimes that are centered around an individual and where power is primarily based upon relations with that individual “personalist” (Geddes, 121). In ordinary single-party regimes, the party organizations themselves can establish rules, organizational structures, and institutional links among elites, which create a certain degree of predictability and protection for their members (Smith). As researchers of personalist dictatorships have pointed out, “Within non-personalist authoritarian settings, leaders are accountable to ruling party elites, senior military officers, or an extended royal family. Personalist dictators, in contrast, have a very narrow set of backers—frequently a small clique of family or loyal friends” (Kendall-Taylor, Frantz, and Wright, 11). In authoritarian regimes, the primary constraint on an individual leader’s inclination to constantly expand his executive power and to grow increasingly dominant is the degree to which other members of the ruling elite are in a credible position to potentially depose him (Svolik, 54). In the context of the Chinese political system, however, this hypothetical ability to oust Xi has now become remote.
China’s reform-era single-party regime has often been cited as an ideal-type of a highly functional, semi-institutionalized authoritarian system of governance (Dittmer). As Xi is steering China firmly in the direction of an “ordinary” personalist authoritarian strongman regime, however, the results of his increasing dominance are potentially very problematic for the future of China and its neighbors. Analysts have long observed that those authoritarian regimes that are characterized by dominant leaders have tended to be more unstable and less resilient in the long run than those characterized by functional procedures for intra-elite power-sharing. The latter have proven better at dealing with the factors that have typically posed the greatest challenges for authoritarian regimes, particularly the question of leadership succession and power transfer. In personalist dictatorships, there are few, if any, institutionalized means for regulating succession and the elite conflict that typically ensues (Frantz and Ezrow, 26-32). In Xi’s China, the established mechanisms of leadership succession and retirement are evidently under threat, or have already been incapacitated, as Xi is positioning himself for an extension of his term as China’s paramount leader. The arrests and removal of numerous former members of China’s top leadership who had previously been regarded as practically unassailable (and safe from factional infighting) have undermined perceptions of personal safety among many members of the political elite.
Personalist dictatorships that provide minimal accountability and put minimal constraints on the leader’s decision-making have also proven prone to unpredictable, erratic, and risky policy moves and to invoking the image of external enemies as a rallying point for consolidating public support (Weeks; Frantz and Ezrow). “Personalist dictators also prioritize loyalty over competence and dole out government positions as well as promotions accordingly. This strategy decreases their access to accurate information, raising the risk of miscalculations,” as well as creating problems related to the manageable span of control (Kendall-Taylor, Frantz, and Wright, 11). Historically, personalist dictatorships have a very negative overall policy record compared to any other type of political regime.
How the China Model and Xi Jinping’s Ascendancy are Debated in China
In China itself, academic debates about authoritarianism and the perils of personalist leadership have had little resonance. Nonetheless, the general subject of the exceptionality of the China model has been extensively discussed by academics and intellectuals in Mainland China, and the recent changes in the country’s governmental institutions have likewise been the subject of some debate among Chinese scholars. The character and transformation of the top leadership structure has consistently been one of the most politically sensitive topics in China, and academic articles on this topic that are published in Mainland China very rarely diverge from the official government narrative. Divergent opinions on the events of the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress and the recent changes to the Party’s charter and the Chinese constitution have generally been excluded from the scholarly literature published there. Nonetheless, there has been a certain degree of open and controversial debate about the broader topic of China’s political and economic model, its relative strengths and weaknesses, its prospects and its exceptionality.
In the context of this debate, some prominent Chinese academics and intellectuals have adopted the position that there is indeed a unique and highly exceptional China model of political and economic development which depends on firm, authoritarian political leadership and represents the primary reason for China’s rapid rise. One of the most outspoken proponents of this view has been Fudan University’s Zhang Weiwei, who has praised the China model not only as distinct from that of the West, but in many respects superior to it. According to Zhang, the China model is characterized by strong, rational leadership, a focus on providing order and internal stability, and an externally open market economy mixed with macro-economic control that provides for gradual reform and constant improvements in people’s livelihood. In terms of political organization, it features a “national-type” political party (presumed to represent the interests of society as a whole, rather than those of a specific group), mechanisms of “consultative democracy,” and the selection and appointment of capable candidates on the basis of job performance (Zhang). In his most recent writings, Zhang has defined further characteristics of what he regards as a unique and self-contained China model that is practically superior to its Western competitors. According to Zhang, China’s rapid rise has exceeded the scope of what can be explained by Western theories, making it necessary to develop a distinct Chinese political discourse (Xu).
Zheng Yongnian, an influential Chinese professor at the National University of Singapore, has followed a similar line of argumentation, claiming that China’s growth has primarily been driven by the nature of its political system, which merges an advanced market economy with authori-tarian politics. According to Zheng, China’s mode of authoritarian political governance has proven capable of providing the social order needed for successful development, combining an effective protection of property rights with an extremely cautious attitude toward “Western-style” democratization and avoiding the latter’s purported bad consequences (Zheng). Other proponents of the thesis that the China model constitutes a highly exceptional model of modern governance, whose contributions have had a strong influence on the relevant scholarly debates in Mainland China, include Peking University’s Yao Yang and Pan Wei (Pan). Like Zhang Weiwei, an increasing number of prominent academics and public commentators in China have not only extolled the Chinese political system’s strength and uniqueness, but have also explicitly claimed its superiority over Western models of governance.
But a number of prominent Chinese academics have more closely followed the theoretical interpretations of their colleagues in the West and have long contested claims regarding the supposed exceptionalism of the China model. Tsinghua University’s Qin Hui, for instance, has argued that, while a “Chinese model” is to some extent recognizable, its economic and political foundations have not been unique. Rather, it has largely followed the Western development model but has taken particular advantage of the opportunities provided by globalization, mainly deriving its competitiveness from its “low-human-rights advantage,” that is, a combination of very limited political freedoms and consistently low welfare benefits for its citizens (Qin). Other Chinese academics have been more outspoken in their belief that a distinct China model of political and economic governance does not exist. Tang Shiping at Fudan University, for instance, has argued that China merely adopted an economic and political model akin to that which other emerging economies have adopted at a similar stage of development. In proportional terms, China’s rapid economic growth over the past three decades has not been significantly greater than that of its East Asian neighbors Japan and South Korea (which both eventually democratized) over a similar timespan in previous decades (Tang). Tang’s views echo those of Huang Yashen, who has similarly argued that China’s model of governance has not been unique, but has largely been based on its adoption of policies similar to those of other East Asian developing countries. As such, China’s model of political and economic development has essentially been a variant of the “East Asian development model,” focused on short-term GDP growth and social investment in a context of authoritarian political gradualism and economic reforms, but suffering from the same problems and shortcomings as other authoritarian developing countries (Huang). Other prominent scholars, such as Chen Zhiwu and Xu Xiaonian, have taken a similar approach, casting doubts on the existence of a distinct Chinese development model (Chen; Xu).
While the nature and potential exceptionality of China’s model of governance has long been controversially discussed in Chinese academic circles, the more skeptical views regarding the purported uniqueness of the China model have become increasingly muted in recent years. Compared to these abstract discussions about the China model, academic debates about the recent developments in the political power structure surrounding Xi Jinping and the potentially game-changing events of the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress and its aftermath, particularly the amendment of the Chinese constitution, have remained very restrained; few, if any, topics in recent Chinese political discourse have been considered more politically sensitive and few have been more prone to being censored and suppressed by the government. Those scholars who have publicly commented on these events have generally praised the recent developments, following a line of argumentation that is largely identical with the official position of the Communist Party. Leading Chinese academic journals, to the extent that they have covered this issue at all, have echoed this “officially sanctioned” view.
Those arguing in favor of the changes in the leadership structure and the de facto demise of the collective leadership principle have claimed that this provides China with more “stable, strong, and consistent leadership” at a time when it faces growing internal and external challenges. Their most common argument for the abolition of constitutional term limits has been that it makes it easier to keep the “trinity” of the three key leadership positions—Communist Party general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and state president—in the hands of the same person, since the office of the president was previously the only one subject to formal term limits (Cao and Huang; Mingpao). Among those making this argument is Zhang Weiwei, who has praised the constitutional changes while denying that they could enable Xi to become a ruler for life (assuming that the unofficial age and retirement rules would remain in place to prevent that) (Han). His colleague Zheng Yongnian claimed that the main purpose of the constitutional revision and the abolition of presidential term limits was to improve the institutional consistency and rationality of Party-state relations in China. While the Constitution of 1982 had stipulated a separation of the Party and the government, the recent amendment reversed this to legalize and deepen the institutional integration between them, promoting the formation of a distinct “division of labor” between the political institutions that differs from that in the West (Lin). Reflecting on the results of the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress, Zheng regarded them as an important, positive step in the process of political institution-building, particularly in clarifying the relationship between the Party and the government, since the Congress took the rational step of formally legalizing the Party’s leadership position (Zheng). Similarly, Wang Yiwei, an international relations specialist at Renmin University, argued that the strengthening of one-man rule is a way of maximizing the comparative advantages of China’s political system vis-à-vis the electoral volatility of Western democracies (Shi and Huang).
Articles expressing explicit criticism of the developments at the Nineteenth Congress and the subsequent constitutional amendment have generally been absent from scholarly publications and official media in China. Nonetheless, a small number of Chinese scholars, some of them well-known in academic circles, have published commentary containing guarded criticism of these developments, carefully navigating the narrow sphere of acceptable dissent and often couching their criticism in legalistic terms. The most widely discussed articles have been those addressing the change of China’s constitution. Although the amendment was only formally announced in February 2018, rumors about the planned changes had already been swirling around Beijing for much of the previous year. In November 2017, the influential academic journal Law Science published an article by Renmin University law professor Han Dayuan, one of China’s foremost constitutional scholars (Han). In the article, Han analyzed the Chinese constitution’s provisions limiting the length and number of terms of office for state leadership positions. Han strongly defended these constitutional limits and the rule that cadres properly retire, arguing that they had made it possible to overcome the previous system of lifetime tenure for political leaders and to prevent a recurrence of the long-standing problems associated with it (such as personality cults), while providing institutional guarantees for the peaceful and orderly transition of state power. At the same time, Han argued, the constitutional term limits also strengthened the historical process of replacing the “rule of people” with the “rule of law” in national politics. He pointed out that the Chinese constitution clearly stipulated that the state leader should hold his position for a maximum of two terms. He further argued that, under the constitution, the exercise of power has objective boundaries—certain basic rules and principles that must not be altered, lest the constitution itself be “destroyed”—and the term limit for top national offices constitutes one of these unalterable principles. In addition, according to the basic principles of constitutional law, even if the system of term limits was to be modified, such changes should only take effect after the current leader has retired from his post, in order to prevent state leaders from using constitutional amendments to break their own term limits (Han).
Already prior to the publication of Han’s article, Yu Chongsheng and Liu Yuanliang, two constitutional scholars at Wuhan University, had published a widely discussed article that adopted a very similar stance but was even more outspoken in its criticism of the personalization of leadership within the Communist Party and in its demand for constitutional term limits (Yu and Liu). According to Yu and Liu, the establishment of standardized term limits for leading Party and government cadres had enabled the smooth conduct and institutionalization of periodic, intergenerational power shifts between them, providing institutional guarantees for the long-term stability of the Party and the state. The constitutional term limits formed a necessary check on the power of individual leaders, who would otherwise be highly prone to abuse their authority. Yu and Liu criticized the assumption that stable, unchecked power can bring about efficient long-term development; in fact, they argued, such power tends to corrupt and to gradually gravitate toward autocracy. According to Yu and Liu, socialist countries have generally failed to assure peaceful transfers of power, largely due to the exalted role that individual leaders have played in the communist movement. It is a grave mistake to attribute the achievements of an entire party to a single individual, to ignore that individual leaders have shortcomings and commit errors, to prohibit criticism of leaders, and to concentrate power in their hands without creating adequate mechanisms to supervise them. In the past, this had led to an excessive concentration of power and a cult of personality which, coupled with the absence of term limits for leadership positions, meant that leaders were very difficult to restrain and supervise. According to Yu and Liu, the Cultural Revolution amply demonstrated the terrible consequences of this kind of personal autocracy and arbitrary rule. They cited Deng Xiaoping’s warnings about the dangers of an excessive concentration of power and of building the fate of the Party and the country on the reputation of just one or two people. They concluded that the stability of the Party and the country must never be entrusted to an individual leader but should be based on a collective leadership system. It was therefore necessary to oppose all attempts to extend the term limits of leading Party and government cadres in the name of ensuring political stability (Yu and Liu).
Yu and Liu’s article, as well as Han Dayuan’s similar but more cautiously worded piece, both elicited strong responses in Mainland China. They were widely debated in Chinese academic and intellectual circles, although none of the official media and major academic journals made any further reference to them. These critical articles were rare exceptions among the Mainland Chinese scholarly commentaries on the recent changes in the Communist leadership, most of which expressed unreserved approval of Xi Jinping’s increasingly uncontested personal rule, though a handful of other prominent Chinese scholars did raise similar concerns. At the annual meeting of the Constitutional Research Association of the China Law Society in August 2017, for instance, the Association’s vice-president, Tong Zhiwei, a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law, remarked that the possibility of amendments being made to the constitution was already being fervently (albeit informally) discussed among Chinese legal scholars. Tong himself adopted a clear stance, praising the constitution as a document that had effectively incorporated the lessons and experiences of past tyrannical rule and lawlessness and explicitly rejecting any comprehensive constitutional revision. He went on to stress the value and importance of specific constitutional provisions, including those stipulating that no state organ, political party, or individual can stand above the law, as well as the term-limit clauses for the political leadership, specifically the two-term limit for the president. Tong expressed apprehension that the rule of law and previous achievements in reforming the political system might be set back decades by a revision of the constitution, which should therefore be strictly avoided (Tong). Some of Tong’s colleagues, such as Chen Guangzhong, the former dean of the China University of Political Science and Law, also voiced concern about other aspects of the planned constitutional revisions, such as the establishment of a new National Supervisory Commission that lacks effective supervision and checks and balances (Chen).
But once the amendment of the Chinese constitution had been officially announced in February 2018, critical statements by Mainland Chinese scholars practically vanished from the public discourse. Following the announcement, government censorship of China’s social and mass media became especially severe and even the subtlest expressions of criticism of the move were swiftly erased. After the change of the constitution was officially concluded, Han Dayuan and other former skeptics refrained from expressing further criticism; Han instead joined other well-known Chinese legal scholars in expressing unreserved support for the constitutional amendment (Wang).
Economic Reform and the Perils of Personalism
The profound political changes China’s leadership is currently undergoing will likely prove particularly consequential at a time when Beijing is confronted with a pressing need for far-reaching economic reforms, in the face of a growing number of formidable economic challenges that have the potential to evolve into systemic threats to the China model. China’s official economic growth figures have shrunken to their lowest level in 27 years, and it is commonly assumed that these figures are substantially inflated, making the economy appear more robust than it actually is (Swanson). In December 2016, the director of China’s National Bureau of Statistics berated regional officials for frequently “falsifying” economic figures (Straits Times), and this was followed by revelations that the provincial authorities in at least three Chinese provinces (Liaoning, Jilin, and Inner Mongolia) had inflated fiscal revenues and other vital economic data by up to 20 percent over several years (Bloomberg). In China’s opaque command economy, where regional officials are put under constant pressure to meet high growth targets set by the central authorities and where their promotions are tied to reported economic performance, the fabrication of economic data has been a chronic and seemingly irresolvable problem, and the aggregate figure for the combined economic output of all Chinese provinces has long been significantly higher than the national GDP figure calculated separately by the central government.
China’s officials have struggled to navigate a changing economic environment where many once-reliable engines of growth are now sputtering. More than any other country in history, China has relied on investment to fuel economic growth, but in order to ward off long-term stagnation it has to shift from its investment-led development model to an internal-market-driven model based on domestic consumption. China’s economy is slowly undergoing a shift in this direction, with the investment share gradually falling, household consumption rising as a share of GDP, and the service sector now contributing more to GDP than manufacturing, but the overall pace of reform has been sluggish.
One of the greatest challenges facing Beijing’s economic planners is to restructure the bloated and debt-ridden state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which still account for about 30 percent of the country’s industrial output (Zhai). Irrespective of their lack of profitability and mounting overcapacities, China’s SOEs keep receiving generous bank loans and government support, making them largely immune to the normal laws of supply and demand. Instead of raising efficiency through systematic privatization, Beijing has aimed to further strengthen the Communist Party’s control of state assets and to merge large SOEs into even larger conglomerates, a strategy that has done little to address the underlying problems. In the steel sector, for instance, where overcapacities have been particularly tenacious, production continued to grow substantially throughout most of 2016 and 2017 amid a government-funded construction spree, and steel output set a new record in 2017 (Reuters). A key reason for Beijing’s relative failure to overcome the old fixed-asset-investment model and to curb the enormous excess capacity in many industrial sectors has been the existence of entrenched patronage networks of rent-seeking elites within the Communist Party, including the families of senior Party officials who for decades have personally profited from investment-led growth and who stand to lose tremendously in a revamped economy that involves the downsizing of large SOEs (Heath).
A closely related and even more pressing problem for China’s economy is the rapid rise in economy-wide debt. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to ca. 270 percent (Yao and Chen)—a much higher figure than in other countries at China’s stage of development—and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that household, corporate, and government debt in China will increase to almost 300 percent of GDP by 2022 (IMF 2017). GDP growth remains solid for now, but credit has grown much faster—a tell-tale warning sign of a financial crisis (Grenville). The level of corporate debt is particularly excessive, and has built up faster than in any other country in modern times; nonetheless, SOEs (which are responsible for around 70 percent of corporate debt) continue to enjoy implicit state backing, allowing them to obtain more funding from lenders (McMahon). Another feature of China’s planned economy that has made it increasingly reliant on short-term stimulus measures (thereby aggravating credit expansion and the debt problem) is the need to consistently meet the government’s official growth targets. While Beijing has tried to tighten control over credit, local governments and state banks have preferred to keep it flowing, and much of China’s annual economic growth continues to derive from record lending and government spending on infrastructure. The problem of growing debt has been exacerbated by a volatile, unregulated, and rapidly expanding shadow banking system that now forms a vital component of credit growth in China (with its asset size estimated to be equal to more than 80 percent of GDP), as well as a growing pensions shortfall in a rapidly aging society (Hung and Liu; Bloomberg).
In an unpredictable financial environment, many more Chinese citizens in recent years have tried to move money out of China than have tried to bring it in (Balding). Unwilling to ease its tight capital controls (which are more intense than those imposed by almost any other government today and have further intensified under Xi Jinping) (McDowell and Steinberg), Beijing encouraged its citizens to invest their money at home, particularly in real estate and in the budding but badly regulated Chinese stock market. But repeated stock market crashes in 2015-2016 deprived countless Chinese of their savings (NBC News), and an overinvestment in real estate has led to a construction bubble of potentially enormous proportions, which is particularly unsettling given the large portion of household wealth invested there (Chen and Woo).
China’s leadership has repeatedly identified the ballooning debt and the under-regulated financial markets as some of the most pressing problems facing the country, but it has so far failed to take decisive measures to tackle them. The Communist Party’s quinquennial National Financial Work Conference in July 2017 was expected to provide the occasion for the launch of a financial regulatory “super-institution” to confront these challenges, but its results fell far short of analysts’ expectations, which was attributed to “infighting between bureaucracies and a lack of agreement on how to reduce financial risk overall” (Cai). Beijing’s inaction on the debt front has rung alarm bells among international observers. The financial ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s both downgraded China’s credit rating in 2017, citing the rapid build-up of debt (Bloomberg). In July 2017, the investment bank Nomura published a report concluding that China and Hong Kong are the economies most at risk of a financial crisis in the next three years (Simpson); the following month, the IMF warned that China’s credit growth was on a “dangerous trajectory,” pointing out that out of 43 previous credit booms with similarities to China’s, “only five were not followed by either a financial crisis or a major slowdown in economic growth” (Walker).
Another seemingly insurmountable structural problem for China’s economy is the pervasive corruption. While the massive government-led anti-graft campaign seems to have led to a decline of the most overt forms of corruption, its results have been mixed at best, not least due to the discernibly partisan and politicized nature of the investigations among higher-ranking officials. Following their initial shock and awe over the sweeping new policies, China’s officials have developed various strategies to circumvent the anti-corruption measures (including systematic administrative “inaction”). Transparency International currently ranks China at a sobering 79th place on its Corruption Perceptions Index—having improved its score by only one point since 2013, when Xi Jinping became president (Transparency International). The Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which has coordinated the anti-corruption campaign, was forced to suspend and expel some of its own most senior officials after it emerged that they had abused their positions to take bribes, and in April 2017 the Commission had to step up a program to expose corruption within its own ranks (Reuters; Reuters). The two most effective remedies against institutionalized corruption and embezzlement—a free press and an independent judiciary (Brunetti and Weder; Wang)—have been consistently suppressed by the Chinese government. Meanwhile, China’s economy has been adversely affected by the shell-shock and uncertainties that the anti-corruption campaign has caused, as officials have grown hesitant to take the initiative in commercial ventures and seemingly indifferent to new business proposals for projects that they previously would have profited from (Wang).
The Prospects of Xiconomics
The macro-economic problems currently facing China are directly tied to the nature and modus operandi of the country’s political system, and they are developing in a way that broadly corresponds with the predictions of its liberal critics. These mounting structural problems threaten to undermine the foundations of the single-party state, since regime support has ultimately been sustained primarily by economic growth and pocketbook factors (“performance legitimacy”), rather than ideological enthusiasm or any form of broader “procedural legitimacy.” On many occasions, China’s leadership has expressed concern about these economic problems and affirmed the need for comprehensive supply-side economic reforms. But, as established theories of authoritarianism suggest, any coordinated efforts to overcome these economic challenges are ultimately hindered by deep-seated political forces in the Party state. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, for instance, established that, for states at China’s level of development, the relationship between politics and economics is an overarching concern. In order for such states to move up the value-added ladder and to become fully developed, their political institutions must be facilitative and inclusive, promoting market forces and autonomous civic actors (Acemoglu and Robinson). For some time, China seemed to have the potential to reform its political institutions along these lines, but recent developments suggest that it might be gradually regressing back to a pre-facilitative political economy.
The return to a personalist form of political authoritarianism under Xi Jinping has direct implications for the prospects for China’s economic development. Some analysts have assumed that Xi’s process of purging and side-lining rival intra-Party groups might accelerate the economic reform agenda, and they have expressed hopes that an even more strongly entrenched President Xi will now be able to advance much-needed economic and financial reforms more effectively (Tan). But it seems more plausible that Xi’s increasing accumulation of power will stifle meaningful reforms. Historically, personalist dictatorships have excluded specific groups of elites from power, removing incentives for those in power to be accountable and innovative, while rendering lower-ranking officials more hesitant to “stick their necks out” to autonomously make important decisions.
As Acemoglu and Robinson have pointed out, a precondition for the success of major liberalizing reforms of a developing state’s economy (such as the ones China has been trying to undertake) is the ability to deal with powerful rent-seeking elites that are faced with the loss of their power, status, and income, or even their personal safety. According to Acemoglu and Robinson, this has historically been most likely to succeed when the political elites in question were “highly entrenched” and hence unafraid of losing political power, whereas such economic reforms almost invariably failed in a political context (characterized by weak institutions) where the rent-seeking elites are insecure and where their power is threatened and they therefore resist and potentially subvert innovative changes (Acemoglu and Robinson). As the demands of the economy are changing, pressure on entrenched intra-elite networks that pose a barrier to meaningful economic reform continues to rise. Since the growing personalization of power in China has coincided with an intensification of intra-elite factional power struggles, significant parts of the political elites are feeling progressively more insecure about their status and their long-term political survival, and are therefore primarily focused on preserving power—a behavior that theorists of communist regimes like Zbigniew Brzezinski once associated with communist party-states in their final “post-communist authoritarian” stage of development (Brzezinski).
Instead of initiating the major liberalizing reforms that most economists have recommended and Chinese leaders themselves have continuously propagated, Xi Jinping has further tightened coercive measures and state micromanagement of the economy. Xi has effectively used the call for economic reforms and the need “to break through barriers to reform presented by ideological differences and vested interests” (Lee, 331) as a tool to further consolidate his personal power, though his policy choices have brought little in the way of effective reform. While Xi has repeatedly pledged to allow market forces to play a decisive role in economic development, the demands of Party control have consistently been privileged above those of sustainable economic development, and substantial economic liberalization has been perceived as a potential threat to political stability.
Under Xi, increasing internet censorship, worsening administrative pressure, and political interference in the justice system have restricted the operations of businesses and are among the primary factors prompting a growing number of foreign firms to relocate their operations away from China. Annual foreign direct investment inflows fell for two straight years in 2015 and 2016 and continued to drop in the first half of 2017, though the second half of 2017 brought a slight recovery (Tang). For the time being, China continues to depend on large-scale foreign investment, particularly in the high-end industries. The degree of automation in China’s industries remains low (by 2016, Chinese companies were using an average of only 19 industrial robots per 10,000 industry employees, as opposed to 531 in South Korea) (Meissner and Wuebbeke), as does overall labor productivity, which is 15-30 percent of the average in OECD countries (Woetzel et al). According to a recent survey of 400 U.S. businesses operating in China, one fifth of them have been redirecting investments planned for China to other destinations. Internet censorship is regarded as one of the biggest obstacles for business development, with more than three-quarters of the surveyed service firms complaining about Beijing’s restrictions on internet connectivity (Strub and Driscoll). Other reasons for the lackluster development of foreign investment include rising production costs, excessive red tape, a non-transparent regulatory environment, tightening capital controls, conflicts between industrial policies and national security laws, the insufficient protection of intellectual property rights, and severe restrictions on foreign involvement in many service sectors. Investors have also expressed grave concern about Beijing’s increasingly vocal demands to set up and expand Communist Party cells in all foreign and private businesses operating in China and to provide the Party with approval rights over business operations and investment decisions (Wu and Wong). An additional concern is the lack of judicial independence, a vital safeguard for business transactions. At the Communist Party’s Nineteenth Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping spoke at great length about the need to strengthen the “rule of law” in China (China Daily), but in practice Beijing’s attempts to improve the ability of the legal system to provide fair and efficient dispute resolution in commercial cases have largely faltered, due to the Party’s unwillingness to relax its firm grip on the courts.
China’s political system has undergone substantial changes. For years, China watchers have speculated whether Beijing might be in the process of developing a genuinely new, unprecedentedly dynamic and competitive form of authori-tarian governance. But the political changes enacted in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress in October 2017—which represent one of the most profound transformations of the principles of governance in China since the beginning of the reform era—suggest that the Communist leadership under Xi Jinping is reverting to an orthodox form of personalist authoritarianism. Xi has eliminated many of the key features and political norms that previously distinguished the consensus-driven collective leadership of the China model and allowed for a working power balance between different intra-Party factions, an orderly political succession process, and a relative predictability of intra-Party dynamics. For the most part, these informal intra-Party rules had only been in place for a short time, but many observers assumed that they had effectively become fixed and dependable quasi-institutions, marking the China model out as a unique variety of authoritarian governance. However, under Xi the ostensibly fixed institutions of collective leadership have gradually revealed themselves to be more flexible, pliable arrangements of convenience that are not capable of withstanding the pressure generated by a determined, charismatic leader. Xi’s disposal of the reform-era political rules will probably reverberate through China’s entire system of governance, setting a precedent that will make it increasingly challenging to maintain established limits for the tenure of all other officials as well.
Regarding China’s recent development through the lens of established theories of authoritarianism, the increasing slide into personalism under Xi Jinping, though it was by no means preordained, does not come as a complete surprise. A core assumption of many of these theories is that an absence of firm institutions to constrain an individual leader’s executive power will create a situation where political power is prone to be excessively concentrated and potentially abused. It is noteworthy that this concern has not just been raised by Western theorists, but was shared to some extent by Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders of the reform era who, following Mao Zedong’s totalitarian reign, strove to create certain protections against individual rule and excessive concentrations of power. Ultimately, however, these protections were neither fully institutionalized nor rendered tamper-proof. In some respects, the current slide into personalism arguably appears less surprising than the preceding period when China’s political system allowed for the operation of a range of quasi-institutional safeguards against the personal accumulation of power, under continued single-party rule. This degree of institutionalization was unusual for an authoritarian regime, and the safeguards were not anchored in a more substantial and comprehensive system of checks and balances. The fact that these quasi-institutions nonetheless survived relatively intact for many years appears to be largely attributable to the personalities and convictions of Xi’s predecessors. Statements by Deng and other leaders of the reform era suggest that the initial efforts to create quasi-institutional restraints on personal power were linked to the perception (and personal experience) of the excesses of Maoist rule (Yu and Liu). But Xi came to power more than 36 years after Mao’s death, and the perceived lessons of Mao’s totalitarianism appear to hold much less sway now than they once did. Today, the Communist Party’s awareness of the mounting macro-economic challenges facing China—which have been relatively openly discussed in Chinese leadership circles—has led to the widespread conviction that the existing system of governance requires a significant overhaul. More liberal reform strategies have largely been ruled out, however, including those that have traditionally been deemed most advantageous for countries at China’s stage of development, since they are seen as potentially endangering the stability of single-party rule. The leadership has thus been confronted with a dearth of available recipes for further political and economic development. Under these circumstances, Xi’s initial rise and his ability to consolidate power arguably derived in large part from the fact that he offered promises of change and the overhaul of seemingly ossified Party structures.
Whether or not Xi genuinely regards himself as a reformer, very little of what he has done so far indicates that he is putting the country on a trajectory of substantial economic or political reform. The return to a personalist form of authoritarianism has direct implications for China’s economic development. At present, Beijing is facing mounting macro-economic problems, including a rapid rise of debt, the apparent inability to restructure bloated SOEs and to reduce overcapacities, massive capital outflows, a growing real estate bubble, persistent corruption, and the unreliability of growth statistics. These economic problems are largely rooted in the nature of China’s political system. Analysts of authoritarian regimes have long stressed the problems that commandist, dictatorial states face in sustaining advanced, complex economies, particularly as they approach the threshold to becoming high-income states. For a long time, however, China seemed to be an exception. In the face of its innumerable gainsayers, China’s model of development has proved stubbornly resilient, and its sheer size has provided it with advantages that few authoritarian powers previously possessed. But Beijing is now experiencing many of the economic problems that critics of its political system have long foreseen. Instead of pushing for further liberalization and purposefully implementing the economic reforms he had frequently announced, Xi has pursued a strategy of reinforced authoritarianism, and the structural economic reforms that China requires appear relatively incompatible with his brand of personalist governance. Overall, Xi’s policies demonstrate that, even in the most sophisticated and dynamic authoritarian states, informal rules and intra-elite “checks and balances” that ostensibly provide for the self-policing of those in power will erode over time, and they ultimately cannot be a substitute for formal, transparent, independent political institutions. By amassing more power than any other Chinese leader in the reform era, Xi has been steering China firmly in the direction of a “conventional” authoritarian strongman regime, devoid of effective institutional guide rails, that might prove progressively incapable of overseeing one of the world’s leading economies and one of its most complex societies.