Must-read: The Economist: “Chairman of Everything”

Must-Read: I do not understand China. But it now looks more likely than not to me that Xi Jinping’s rule will lose China a decade, if not half a century…

The Economist: Chairman of Everything: “Two curious articles appeared in government-linked news media…

…The first [was] written in an allegorical style traditionally used in China to criticise those in power, in this case in the form of an essay praising the seventh-century emperor, Taizong, for heeding a plain-talking courtier… [and] called for more debate and freer speech at a time when China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been restricting both. ‘The ability to air opinions freely often determined the rise and fall of dynasties,’ it said. ‘We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all.’ The second article, in the form of an open letter, ran—fleetingly—on a state-run website. ‘Hello, Comrade Xi Jinping. We are loyal Communist Party members,’ the letter began. It called on Mr Xi to step down and eviscerated his record in office. The president, it said, had abandoned the party’s system of ‘collective’ leadership; arrogated too much power to himself; sidelined the prime minister, Li Keqiang; caused instability in equity and property markets; distorted the role of the media; and condoned a personality cult….

The historical essay was reposted on the disciplinary commission’s website (where it remains); it was clearly more than the work of a single disgruntled editor. The letter may have been planted by a lone dissident who managed to hack into an official portal, but it raised many eyebrows in China. The police have reportedly detained around 20 people…. When he became the party’s leader in 2012, more was known about Mr Xi’s family and personal qualities than about his politics. He was a princeling…. Mr Xi had spent almost 20 years in Fujian, a southern province far from political nerve-centres. More is now clear. As Geremie Barmé, an Australian academic, puts it, Mr Xi is China’s ‘COE’, or chairman of everything….

Mr Hu was a wooden leader whose rule was overshadowed by the retired Mr Jiang; Mr Jiang, while in power, had to bow to his retired predecessor, Deng Xiaoping; even Deng trod carefully for fear of upsetting fellow party elders. Mr Xi, like Mao, appears unfettered by such concerns. He wants the country to know it, too…. Mr Xi is no Mao, a man whose whims caused the deaths of tens of millions and who revelled in the hysteria of his cult. But he rules in a way unlike any leader since the Great Helmsman. After Mao’s death, Deng tried to create a leadership of equals in order to push China away from Maoist caprices. Mr Xi is turning from that system back towards a more personal one. Indeed, he is more of a micromanager than Mao ever was….

The anti-corruption campaign has involved a radical change in the unwritten rules that have held the party together since the near civil war that Mao inflicted on it…. The anti-graft campaign is popular with the public, which suffers hugely from officials’ corruption, negligence and incompetence (a scandal that came to light in March involved rampant corruption in the state’s oversight of the sale and use of vaccines). But it has dismayed officials, many of whom have responded with passive resistance and fear-driven inertia…. Mr Xi has also sown alarm throughout the 2.3m-member People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the collective name for the armed forces. He has arrested generals for graft who were once considered untouchable, announced a trimming of the ranks by 300,000, shaken up the outdated command structure and slimmed down the top-heavy high command. Any one of these moves would have been impressive…. Mr Xi’s willingness to take on these tasks simultaneously suggests remarkable confidence….

Both in his reforms of the PLA and in his fight against corruption, Mr Xi’s actions aim first and foremost at tightening control: both the party’s over the army and his own over the party. It is similar in other areas of politics…. Mr Xi is determined to reimpose discipline on a querulous society that in recent years, thanks to the rapid spread of social media, has become much better equipped to organise itself independently of the party and to evade official controls. In the war against dissent, however, Mr Xi is facing visible resistance. Ren Zhiqiang, a property mogul turned commentator, said the media should serve readers and viewers, not the party….

Mr Xi has been even more hesitant in his handling of the economy. Months after taking power, he proclaimed that under his leadership markets would play a ‘decisive’ role. Since last year he has begun to talk of a need for ‘supply-side’ reforms, implying that inefficient, debt-laden and overstaffed state-owned enterprises (SOEs)—ie, most of them—need shaking up. But his approach has been marked by uncertainty, U-turns and, occasionally, incompetence…. Mr Xi’s lack of clear focus on the economy, and his unwillingness to let people more expert in such matters (namely, the prime minister, Mr Li) handle it, have caused a series of errors…. Markets are unpredictable and no Chinese leader (including Mr Xi) has any experience of the way they work in Western economies. But it is also likely that Mr Xi’s desire to hog power is partly to blame…. Mr Xi understands power, is not afraid to use it and is willing to take risks. He understands less about the new complexities of a changing society and worries about social unrest, so plays safe. He does not understand the economy well, is not sure what to do and does not trust others to act for him.

The way Mr Xi rules has three broad implications. The first is that problems common to all dictatorships will grow…. Another implication is that it is no longer reasonable to argue that China is a model of an authoritarian country opening up economically without doing so politically…. The third is that Deng’s policy of putting ‘economic construction at the centre’ is no longer the country’s most hallowed guiding principle. For Mr Xi, politics comes first every time…. The success of Mr Xi’s rule will rest not just on whether he wins the battles he has chosen to fight, but on whether he has picked the right ones. Seen from the point of view of China as a whole, it does not look as if he has. Mr Xi seems bent on strengthening his party and keeping himself in power, not on making China the wealthier and more open society that its people crave.

April 5, 2016


Brad DeLong
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