On October 24, President Xi Jinping became the most powerful man in the history of China. At the National Conference of the Communist Party of China, the Party officially enshrined Xi's political beliefs in the Constitution of the Party itself, an honor that no living president has been given since Mao Zedong.
Xi and Mao have little in common, aside from their shared penchant for top-down rule that leaves little tolerance for dissent. Mao was above all a man of ideology. When his Great Leap Forward program led to tens of millions of deaths by famine, Mao refused to cede power to the critics emerging in the party. Instead, he initiated his Cultural Revolution, a bloody, decade-long purge that paralyzed Chinese society for years.
Yet within the system Mao created lay the seeds of its own destruction. The Communist Party of China has long argued that its system of governance is superior to democracy, because instead of allowing leaders to be chosen by fickle popular opinion, the technocratic Chinese system promotes only the people best equipped to govern effectively. Yet the leaders who were best able to grow the Chinese economy and raise standards of living did so—in direct conflict with Mao’s ideology—by liberalizing China's economy, giving people more freedom to run their economic affairs as they saw fit.
When Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the wake of Mao's death, he asked Chinese leaders to "seek truth from fact." This proved a powerful anti-Mao slogan: while no defender of the chairman wanted to acknowledge it, looking objectively at the way government policies impacted the economy meant rejecting the orthodox Maoist ideas that had caused so much harm. While the Chinese Communist Party still holds up Mao as a symbol, almost all its members now reject his economic ideology.
Yet Deng never held the same level of power in the government Mao did, and Xi now does. Why? The answer lies in what is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of autocratic government.
The great strength of democracy is stability. Even when incompetent politicians rise to power, it’s still possible to have faith in the system: in just a few years, the idiot will be voted out of office and the work of government will continue. Autocracy guarantees nothing of this sort. This is what terrifies the Chinese Communist Party. Its legitimacy is not founded on votes, but on the promise of economic growth, and officials fear a total overthrow of government if the Party fails to deliver.
This is why the Chinese Communist Party has turned to Xi as its savior. Xi rose to power at the head of a massive anti-corruption campaign, which was successful in both improving the governance of the party and in eliminating many of Xi’s enemies. This has provided the blueprint for Xi’s time in office: a cold, ruthless pursuit of both his own political power and for the interests of China as a whole, so long as the two coincide.
China today is assailed by a bevy of problems, including a $4.3 trillion debt pile and a decentralized political system that tilts power towards local governments. Should any of these issues come to a head, long-suppressed opposition could break into riots, and the Chinese Communist Party could see its rule over China threatened. That is why they have handed near total power to Xi. Unlike many Western leaders, and unlike his predecessors—even Deng—Xi has no room for ideology. He is wholly pragmatic in his pursuit of China's goals.
Take the joint naval operation between Russia and China in the Baltic Sea this year. The two nations should on paper be ideological enemies, and nearly the only thing they have in common is their rivalry with the US. Now both seem to share a similar strategy: using aggressiveness abroad to paper over instability at home.
Deng never had this same aggressive streak. He sought quiet reconciliation with the West, helping China join the World Trade Organization and integrate more fully into the global economy. Instead of appearing as a threat to the EU or US, Deng committed China to the axiom of "keeping a low profile and hiding one’s brightness." For Xi, however, the time for hiding is done. China's rivals seem loath to punish it for such transgressions as asserting their claim to the South China Sea, and by continuing to assert Chinese power, Xi can stir up nationalist sentiments that bolster a sense of unity under the CCP. The difference between Deng and Xi here is not about their ideology, but their circumstances. While Deng felt he had time to wait while China built its strength, Xi’s China is fragile, and must be aggressive or risk losing its momentum.
In pursuit of this goal, China has begun work on a military installment in the African nation of Djibouti, its first major base overseas. This comes as only the latest in a string of actions by China to increase its involvement with the continent. The choice of Africa may seem odd: China has no historical relationship with any nation on the continent, and building clout in Africa does little to further Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. Indeed, Chinese ambitions center less on building a permanent coalition of natural allies and more on punishing the failures of American diplomacy.
America has largely ignored Africa since Monroe. Donald Trump took months to appoint an assistant secretary for Africa within the State Department, leaving the administration without any formal strategy to address an entire continent. Whereas America has a long history of toppling regimes in South America, Asia, and the Middle East, we've been content to rely almost wholly on our soft power in Africa. When we do get involved militarily in Africa, it is only to fight insurgent groups such as Boko Haram as part of the War on Terror. Not only does this military aid only reach a few countries in Northern Africa, it functions more as an extension of our Middle Eastern policy than any specific concern with African affairs.
When America does seek to influence African leaders, we do so sparingly, relying on a few strategies. We will often provide diplomatic aid to bring an end to civil wars, like the one ongoing in South Sudan. Alternatively, when a dictator is entrenched, we attempt to influence them by threatening to limit their foreign aid if they don’t comply with certain human right objectives, for example. China has seized on this tactic, targeting their own foreign aid funding at African regimes that America refuses to do business with. The contrast is again made clear: America attempts to influence African nations towards its ideals, while China seeks only to do business.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative similarly targets countries often on the periphery of American ambitions, focusing not only on East Africa, but Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. The program is essentially a huge injection of infrastructure spending into dozens of developing countries, and it forms the centerpiece of Xi's plan to build Chinese soft power. The structure of the initiative demonstrates another unique Chinese advantage. While America would struggle to find companies willing to invest in these infrastructure projects, which are unlikely to be profitable, China has no problem twisting the arms of its domestic firms, many of which depend on a good relationship with the government, if they aren't directly government controlled.
With the advantages of top-down autocracy, however, come steep disadvantages. Xi refused to appoint a successor at the latest party conference, implying that he intends to stay on past his legal constitutional term. Xi has increasingly made it impossible to imagine a Chinese government without Xi at the head. Yet Xi would be better off remembering his predecessors. When Mao died (and Stalin before him), his ideological allies were overthrown before his body was cold, his cult of personality hollowed out to mere lip service. Xi’s pragmatism is a weakness in this sense. For all his flaws, Mao had a vision for China which still survives in the minds of his fanatical supporters. Xi wants the rule of the CCP to continue, but beyond that, little is clear.
So what happens if Xi Jinping suffers a sudden heart attack? It's difficult to say whether the Chinese Communist Party would survive just the immediate aftermath, even less so the long term. As China's economic growth slows, the party has a very narrow path to walk to stay in power. While the CCP might outlive Xi himself, it's hard to see how they navigate the tumultuous future ahead of them without a strong leader at its head, and it's unlikely someone with Xi’s reputation and political savvy emerges before the situation deteriorates.
What we do know is that the outcome will have global consequences. China is the world's second largest economy, and a recession there threatens to ripple across the world the same way the American mortgage default crisis did in 2008. The upside, though, is equally grand. China’s rapid growth has brought half of a billion people out of poverty over the last thirty years, and many more will follow even as economic growth slows. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Xi will be able to preserve the Party and keep the country stable as growth weakens.
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