China is devolving into one-man authoritarianism. That might not be a bad thing.
On Wednesday, October 25, President Xi Jinping, announced his roster for the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) as he began his second term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This lineup did not include a clear successor, which made many journalists and global leaders anxious about the future of China and Chinese international relations.
There are a lot of signs that point to an authoritarian China. First, the lack of a nomination for a successor shows that Xi plans to extend his rule, possibly indefinitely. In addition, all of his appointees are ardent Communists, which means that there would be no opposing parties in the PSC. In particular, Wang Huning, the appointee for leader of party propaganda and ideology, has been known to champion neo-authoritarianism, a doctrine advocating for a singular strong leader during periods of change (i.e. he would promote and support Xi’s consolidation of power). Xi is apparently filling his administration with yes-men. But, this is not the first time that China has had an autocratic leader.
A Brief History of Chinese Authoritarianism
Back in 1949, the Chinese Communist Revolution leader Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. As he initiated reforms such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao was alarmed to see an overwhelming rejection of his work. For the next few years of his rule, he focused on suppressing any opposition so that he could work without being hindered by hostility. He imprisoned all so-called “rightists”—anyone who opposed Communist rule—and stifled the democratic freedoms of his people in doing so.
After Mao died in 1976, Hua Guofeng took over as Chairman of the CCP, initiating an era of reform-minded leaders. Hu Yaobang, Hua’s successor, began dismantling the remnants of Mao’s regime. Slowly, the most obvious authoritarian aspects of Mao’s China were purged from the governmental structure, and the title of Chairman of the CCP was retired. Thus, the authoritarianism of Mao did not persist.
The reason why Xi’s move was so alarming to western leaders and analysts is that it brings China one step closer to a Mao-like authoritarian regime. Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics, explains that Xi is rejecting the western “democratic” model in favor of a socialist “developmental” one. Tsang argues that this could be a threat to the freedoms of the Chinese people because their government is showing signs of devolving into a one-man rule. This puts China closer to countries like Russia and Venezuela, which worries many democratic countries.
How This Could Benefit China and the World
While many have been critical of Xi for this step in a clearly authoritarian direction, there are clear national and global benefits and strategic advantages to his move. By strengthening his own power, Xi is eliminating the possibility of contenders to his rule—and in doing so he can focus on advancing China’s aims. For years Xi has championed his Belt and Road Initiative, a program intended to rebuild the Silk Road, the ancient trade network that extended over Eurasia. Xi can focus on infrastructure projects such as these (as well as furthering the Chinese economy in general) without worrying about dissenters. So while the Chinese people might lose certain freedoms that are prone to disappear in an authoritarian regime, their economy could benefit immensely from getting more attention, which would hugely improve daily life.
If China’s economy is thriving, not only will the Chinese people benefit, but also all of the countries that are connected to it. The main goal of the Belt and Road Initiative is to create a stronger trade network with primarily, but not limited to, countries in Asia. A stronger China would mean a stronger global trade network, which would be an enormous boost for the international economy.
What does this mean for the United States?
Xi is promising to end poverty by 2020, and if he successfully consolidates his power, he could make substantial progress towards this goal. Meanwhile, the very issue that Xi Jinping hopes to root out—dissension—is currently plaguing Western democracies. We have witnessed the polarization that has come as a result of President Donald Trump’s presidency; our country is caught up with infighting and factions due to our fixation on democracy.
In addition to our bipartisan struggles, Trump currently champions an isolationist foreign policy—meaning that the United States is destroying its fiscal and diplomatic connection to other countries. This not only serves to separate us from China, but also paves the way for China to fill in the position of global superpower. Trump has also indicated his desire to pull out of international trade agreements, and the United States could fall far behind China in economic growth and be left out of the newly refurbished trade network.
How can we avoid this potential for economic decline? Rather than condemn Xi for his move towards autocracy, perhaps it suits our interests—and the interests of the global community as a whole—to look at the situation in China as advantageous. If we attempt to strengthen our economic ties with China, America’s economy, as well as the global economy, could profit.
But doing so will require a sense of judiciousness on our part. While the loss of democratic freedoms is concerning, perhaps we have to look past it for the moment and think of the economic benefits.
Noa Levin is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.
Noa Levin is a third-year Political Science major and Human Rights minor from New York. On campus, Noa works as a research assistant for Professor Paul Staniland and as Communications Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She has previously served as a Policy Research Lead for Neal Salés-Griffin’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago, and this past summer, she interned at the U.S. Department of State. In her free time, Noa enjoys watching Seinfeld and bullet journaling.