At the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) the ruling Communist Party in China faced an existential problem. The excesses and the chaos of the Revolution had come about because the powers of the top leader, Mao Zedong, were boundless, he could do as he wished with the country at the drop of the hat, there had been too much concentration of power in the hands of one man.
The analysis that the party made then, after Mao's demise in 1976, was that Mao had too much unrestrained power.
However, the Chinese leaders in the late 1970s had come to power because of Mao's victory in the civil war in 1949 and were holding on power because of the party structure. Then too much power in the hands of one man could plunge the country into chaos, but to radically change the political structure would jeopardize Mao's heirs hold on power and possibly also compromise the then fragile equilibrium of the Chinese society and state in that crucial historical moment. China was then playing an important role containing the soviet threat in Asia shortly after the USSR had succeeded in expelling the US from Vietnam.
To address both issues, prevent future potentially chaotic situations like that of the Cultural Revolution and holding on the old power structure, the Chinese leadership organized a system of “collective leadership.”
This collective leadership was at first guided by Deng Xiaoping and a group of his comrades. However, after a while these men, all in their 70s, felt they did not have the energy to manage the country and organized a system of active leaders in charge of the day-to-day business. In the beginning, the head of this group of day-to-day leaders was Hu Yaobang, then after 1986 the head was Zhao Ziyang, and after Tiananmen in 1989 the head was Jiang Zemin.
However, Deng Xiaoping and his fellow comrades, despite being on the second tier, continued to have paramount responsibility for the guidance of the country. There was a system that de facto granted Deng and his comrades veto power over the decisions of the party secretary and moreover the elderly leaders could still actively push policies in one direction or another. This system in fact continued when Jiang Zemin relinquished his power to Hu Jintao.
We are not clear about the technicalities of the power of veto between the elder generation and the new generation in the passage between Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but definitely Jiang and his comrades continued to be only partly retired and to have responsibilities similar to those of Deng and his comrades from the 1980s to mid-1990s.
This system created a collective leadership that prevented the concentration of power experienced during Mao's times. However, with time this arrangement also made things extremely cumbersome in the decision-making process of China. Retired and non-retired leaders could protect specific vested interests, which de facto could override all rules and regulations for a stable market economy.
This political arrangement then created vested interests that advanced their agendas irrespective of market rules and polluted the economic atmosphere of the country. Companies were successful or unsuccessful because they fell under the right or wrong political umbrella and not because of their market merits.
This situation, if it carried on for a long time, would have completely derailed the Chinese economy.
President Xi Jinping has now broken the old political mold, although he remains within the framework inherited from his predecessors of the prominence of the structure of Communist Party. He is no longer taking orders from the older generations, be that of Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, and in so doing, he is cutting all of the old political shackles that were endangering the development of China.
His critics - often coming from the interest groups that have been attacked in Xi's anti-corruption campaign - complain that now the president has too much power, that his power is unrestrained, and that it could well create a situation like Mao's Cultural Revolution. However, there are enormous differences between present time and 40-50 years ago.
Fifty years ago, China was a totalitarian state - there was nothing outside of the party, no civil society, no market economy, and no companies. The country was completely isolated from the outside world. That is, Mao, besides having total control of the party, also did not have to take into account a market economy or foreign international community. This made his power in that period hard to imagine. China now is extremely different, and at least to a certain extent, Xi Jinping has an international community to be responsible to.
This is important politically and economically as 40% of China's GDP is in foreign trade. Moreover, there is a vibrant market economy with thousands of enterprises that can go poorly or well depending on official policies. His policy now is to restrain and check the power of state-owned enterprises and give more room to private enterprises.
The party rule has changed: there are now complex dynamics between center and localities, between different party departments. Chinese society has also greatly evolved since the 1970s, the possibility of massive social upheavals that could topple the party have greatly diminished.
This creates a dialectic in the market but also in internal and external politics, which de facto limits Xi Jinping's power in ways that Mao could not have fathomed. Moreover, the issue of checks of powers is important. He has now proposed the idea of the rule of law.
It is still unclear whether the party should be subject and in what measure to the rule of law, but the principle of the rule of law, the limitation of totalitarian power, is in theory even more effective than the principle of collective leadership of Deng Xiaoping's times. Having said that, Xi Jinping's position is not without risks. There are risks with too much concentration of power, which could cause Xi to be blinded by officials who are in his favor. In a system with concentration of power, lower officials tend to say things to their superiors only to please them, knowing well that their careers depend on their superiors' favor.
This can create a situation whereby the top leader is misinformed or not informed about what is happening in the country, and in turn create the premise for very wrong decisions. Moreover, the question is, how long is Xi Jinping in power for? Is he in power for 10, 15 years, or forever - all his life?
Concentration of power plus the extension of time of this concentration of power is a recipe for possible disaster. Russia's difficulties may be due to the fact that Putin has had too much power for too long and lost a clear grasp on international and national politics. However, in the short term, China does need to fight the interest groups and their patrons - and to do that China needs power concentrated in Xi Jinping's hands. Without that, interest groups and their patrons would disrupt the market.
And yet the fact that the political equilibrium founded by Deng and his comrades 40 years ago had to be largely overhauled proves that the underlying system is faulty and in the long-term unsustainable without major changes.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing.
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