To the countries of the Western world, where the ancient Greek traditions of democratic governance have institutionalized over centuries, China is a peculiar, if not an intimidating, case against the conventional truth that democracy is good for humanity. American exceptionalism tells us that democracy is essential for economic growth, for the establishment of a just legal system, and for human rights. However, this conventional truth has not been so conventional throughout history. Even the forefathers of Greek philosophy, like Plato and Aristotle, believed that democracy was the second-worst form of government above tyranny; instead, they believed in an enlightened oligarchy, which would employ its knowledge to achieve the greatest good for the people. Under Emperor Augustus of Rome, who progressively consolidated his power to declare himself as the ‘Savior of the Republic,’ the Roman Empire experienced an unprecedented degree of prosperity and progress, and was propelled into a new era of judicial, economic, and military might.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a twice-a-decade reshuffling of China’s political elite, is a robust testimonial to this case. As for all high-profile political events in China, grand measures were taken in preparation for the Congress, which included shutting down factories and restricting traffic to create temporary blue skies and clean air. The entirety of Beijing was covered in flame-red announcements for nearly two months prior, which made even those illiterate in Chinese to understand that something big and important was happening.
The highlight of the event was the three-and-a-half-hour opening speech made by Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the anticipated man of the hour. During this speech, Xi, an ambitious man that exudes the stature of a fatherly disciplinarian, laid out the future of China strictly under the control of the Communist Party.
“The Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong—and now it embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation,” Xi claimed. “[But] our mission is a call to action … let us get behind the strong leadership of the party and engage in a tenacious struggle.”
As he introduced a new guiding ideology of China in broad, aspiration rhetoric, he emphasized two key motifs: first, China will be the next global leader, and second, this cannot be done with dissidence. Continuing his previous five-year drive for war on corruption, he emphasized that graft remained the biggest threat for the survival of the party, and by extension, for the growth of the Chinese nation.
In his work report, he announced a wider reach of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a controversial political watchdog that has been spearheading Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption drive within the party. In the spring of 2018, the CCDI is to be complemented by the expected establishment of a state supervisory commission, which, unlike the CCDI, is able to legally prosecute and incarcerate suspected offenders on provincial, municipal, and county levels.
Critics of Xi have pointed out that he has been using CCDI to root out dissidents that are not faithful to the party ideology. Willy Wo-Lop Lam, author of Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping, is one of the many that accuse Xi of using the anti-corruption drive as a guise for eliminating key members of rival factions. “Xi Jinping has been successfully building up his own faction, the Xi Jinping faction, which has now displaced the Shanghai faction and the Youth League faction as the largest faction in the political party,” Lam said with an interview with NPR. The Shanghai faction was led by former President Jiang Zemin and the Youth League faction was led by former President Hu Jintao.
The CCDI has been notorious for its secretive, extrajudicial interrogation methods, in which party members accused of graft are allegedly subject to prolonged isolation, sleep-deprivation, and related abuses until confession. This process, called shuanggui, has been deemed as an internal disciplinary mechanism, without any transparent regulations to guarantee the rights of the detained. The Human Rights Watch reported in 2016 that those “summoned are deprived of liberty for days, weeks, or months, during which time they are repeatedly interrogated and often tortured.” After the interrogation, the CCDI then hands over the case to the state prosecutors, who often conduct trials behind closed doors.
Sun Zhengcai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing and member of the Politburo, was placed under trial by the CCDI in July and expelled from the party in September. At the time of the prosecution, investigators were quoted as saying that Sun had “abandoned the party’s aims, forfeited his political stand and seriously trampled on the party’s political discipline and rules.” In the work report presented by the CCDI during the Congress, Sun was accused of being a “careerist politician and conspirator” that posed “serious political threats.”
The accusations leveled against Sun—for which he is now awaiting criminal prosecution—strongly suggest that the core reasons behind CCDI’s accusations relate to Sun’s ideological departure from the Party. Other charges against Sun—which include accepting bribes, engaging in nepotism, leaking confidential party information, and being “bureaucratic, lazy and inactive at work”—seem to be addendums to justify the politically-charged nature of the prosecution.
Still, mystery shrouds the real reasons why Sun has departed from the Party. The important takeaway of his case is that Sun, who was once heralded as a rising political star, is now uniformly censured by almost all provincial and media representatives. Global Times, a Chinese state media with a populist-leaning, wrote of the decision: “An official must be politically loyal and strictly observe Party discipline and State law.”
To those familiar with the downfall of Sun Zhengcai, Xi’s emphasis on party leadership and supervision made during his speech—and the deeply reverent responses of attending representatives—was a reaffirmation of Xi’s ironclad grip on the reigns of China and the supremacy of Party ideology. In fact, Xi himself made it explicitly clear that there would be no democratic reforms in the near future. “No one political system should be regarded as the only choice and we should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries,” Xi declared, strongly alluding to the Western nations’ tendency to exert democratization on non-Western governing bodies. “The political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a great creation.”
However, Xi’s explicit claim against democracy—spoken in an eloquent, composed, and even domineering baritone of a father figure—was followed by why it was necessary for China, at this particularly critical juncture in time. Though in general strokes, Xi laid out an ambitious plan for China’s future: development would now focus on people’s well-being, while being mindful of coexisting with nature; domestic capabilities in advanced technologies would be strengthened; comprehensive reforms would be deepened within the judicial and law-enforcement bodies, and national security would be strengthened. And perhaps most unabashedly of all, Xi ambitiously declared that China would now be an active “constructor of global peace, a contributor to the development of global governance, and a protector of international order.”
While some observers have claimed that these statements are too broad to offer implementable strategies, Xi’s new goals for China come from a wholly justified place of accomplishments and power. Ever since the initiation of market reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China has experienced unprecedented economic growth averaging nearly 10% per year. This trend continued, albeit with great fluctuations, until 2013, when the GDP began its more steadied slowdown. The riches flowed into China and more than 800 million were lifted out of poverty. A 2017 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research states that while China’s inequality increased, “aggregate growth was also so large that even the bottom 50% average income grew markedly by +401% between 1978 and 2015.” Inequality, then, has not been so tangibly felt by everyday citizens.
Perhaps more critically, Xi has been a committed voice for dangers of climate change. A recent report by the New York Times states that China is ahead of its Paris Climate Agreement carbon emission reduction target—a glaring contrast to the withdrawal of the United States under Trump. According to REN21, the United Nation’s renewable energy policy network, China’s investments in renewable energy crossed 100 billion dollars in 2015.
While the United States’ Secretary of Rex Tillerson and President Trump has engaged in contradictory and mutually-weakening claims about the status of diplomacy towards North Korea, Xi Jinping has exchanged a public message with Kim Jong-un for the first time in over a year. “I wish that under the new situation the Chinese side would make efforts with the DPRK side to promote the relations between the two parties and the two countries to sustainable soundness and stable development,” Xi said. This note was sent as a response to Kim Jong-un’s congratulatory message for Xi’s securing of a second term. While the context for this exchange is relatively mundane and routine, its time of arrival after the 19th Congress and the weakening capacity of the United States’ diplomacy reiterates China’s expanding presence in the international order.
During the 19th Congress, this conception of Xi’s socialism—which entailed an ambitious drive for China to become the world’s leader in military, political, environmental, and economic fronts under the strict control and supervision of the Party—was labelled and written into the party charter as the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” This enshrinement of Xi’s name onto the constitution marks the ascension of his status to that of Mao Zedong’s, who remains as the only other chairman that was given the privilege during his lifetime.
The grandeur of China’s new direction and the complicated nature of problems that the country now faces may require and benefit from this centralized power. As the United States Congress under the Obama Administration has experienced, too much deliberation and dissidence can produce an impenetrable deadlock, which serves as an undeniably counterproductive force during periods of exigencies.
However, trade-offs are at hand: coherent change cannot be pursued with the incoherent rule but a rule too strong may create a condition for abuse. As of now, certain conditions and uncertainties have the potential to undercut Xi’s legitimacy. While many promises have been made at the Congress, it is uncertain where Xi will be able to take China over the course of next five years. The support of Xi’s quasi-authoritarian rule depends entirely on the prosperity it can produce for the Chinese people. If he can take advantage of the unprecedented coherence and strength of his political power to produce swift and tangible advances towards his goals, then he will be able to cement his legacy as the strong-willed leader that propelled China to the ranks of the giants. So far, Xi has proven himself to be on the right path.
Second, if continued at equal or greater magnitude, the Party’s human rights abuses will create further internal disequilibrium and hostile dissidence, which may foment political instability in the long run. As history has witnessed through countless revolutions, uprisings, and civil wars, forms of governance that foment political instability can’t stand the test of time—and China under the Party rule is not likely to be an exception. Until now, the skepticism and resentment that the CCDI’s questionable practices fostered among China’s educated elites and international observers have greatly diminished the irrefutably positive outcomes of its anti-corruption efforts. However, by reforming the shuanggui, the CCDI has the potential to become a wholly justified and necessary organ of the Chinese government that promotes transparency in an environment traditionally dominated by deals made in the dark.
Xi Jinping and the Chinese government are not without their faults. But China, in its sheer enormity and the complexity of problems it now faces, is a nation that can only move forward under a strong, all-encompassing leadership. Without this ironclad engine to propel the nation forward, China may easily fall victim to its festering problems of corruption, pollution, and population growth, as well as to its newly emerging problem of inequality and slowing growth. Democratic representation, at this moment in time, may only serve to slow down the process of problem-solving and produce irregularities in policy implementation.
Therefore, Xi’s task over the next five years will be to maintain a fine balance between forces that threaten his legitimacy and lead China through steady progress. Only after these five years will the international community be able to evaluate the merits of the good dictator.
Featured Image Source: Lintao Zhang via Getty Images