After Repression, Revolt?

After Repression, Revolt?

Xi Jinping has consolidated power to a degree not seen since the days of Mao. But the rigid system over which he presides may be more fragile than it seems.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, August 2017. Photo courtesy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr.

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State
by Elizabeth C. Economy
Oxford University Press, 2018, 360 pp.

End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise
by Carl Minzner
Oxford University Press, 2018, 296 pp.


In March 2018, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) voted to revise the country’s constitution and eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency that had been in place since 1982. Xi Jinping, whose second five-year term as president is scheduled to end in 2023, is now positioned to remain China’s paramount leader more or less indefinitely.

The constitutional change was, in some ways, a formality: Xi holds not one office, but three—he is simultaneously president, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although “president” puts Xi on par with other world leaders, it is his status as head of the party that confers the greatest power on him in China. That role has no term limits, though Xi’s two immediate predecessors—Hu Jintao (in office 2002–2012) and Jiang Zemin (in office 1989–2002)—each relinquished the general secretary position at the conclusion of their presidential terms. Xi was never formally required to do the same, but the elimination of a time limit on his presidency, coupled with the fact that he has not clearly identified a successor from within the party ranks, almost certainly means he intends to stick around.

In removing term limits, the NPC unleashed a flood of headlines in the foreign press about China’s “president for life,” with commentators pointing out that the sixty-five-year-old Xi could potentially remain in charge for several decades. (Xi has hardy genes: his father, early CCP official Xi Zhongxun, survived war and political exile to die at the age of eighty-eight, and his mother is still alive in her early nineties.) The prospect of Xi running China indefinitely alarmed many who have spoken out against the increasingly authoritarian political environment he has cultivated since he became general secretary in late 2012.

Under Xi, the CCP-led party state has arrested lawyers and social activists, increased censorship, and decreased the space available to those seeking even moderate changes in the political system. He has carried out a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign within the party—which, though very much needed, is also a convenient means to take down his political rivals. Xi’s government has imposed tighter control over the former British colony of Hong Kong, which was handed over to China in 1997 but, as a Special Administrative Region, was supposed to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047. In Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west containing a large population of Uyghurs (a primarily Muslim group with stronger cultural ties to Central Asia than Beijing), the state has undertaken an all-encompassing campaign of “de-Islamification.” Perhaps as many as a million Uyghurs have been moved to internment camps, where they undergo programs designed to strip away their ethnic and religious identities and cultivate loyalty to the CCP.

These moves are all closely associated with Xi, who has consolidated power in ways not seen since the days of Mao Zedong (1893–1976). Xi is not just the leader of the People’s Republic of China; he is its “core leader,” a special designation bestowed by the CCP to signal Xi’s place alongside Mao, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), and Jiang (the colorless Hu Jintao pointedly did not receive the “core” appellation). Xi has placed himself at the top of many “leading small groups,” which oversee different aspects of the government’s work, such as relations with Taiwan and cybersecurity, and operate above the bureaucratic departments nominally responsible for those matters. Xi’s reach within the party state is so extensive that Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé has dubbed him the “Chairman of Everything.”

The PRC is not the only country that has seen a shift toward authoritarian one-man rule in recent years. Xi stands alongside other nationalist strongmen such as Narendra Modi in India, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Many of the measures carried out in China—repression of nongovernmental organizations, rejection of foreign involvement in civil society, heightened oversight of the press—parallel actions taken in those states and others.

Yet, as China legal scholar Carl Minzner argues in End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise, what is notable about Xi’s ascent is that he is the type of leader top CCP officials sought to prevent from ever taking control of the PRC again after Mao. They never wanted to see a repeat of his mistakes; when he died in 1976, the country he had led since its founding in 1949 lay ravaged by a decade-long upheaval formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao’s chief objective in launching the Cultural Revolution was to purge his political enemies and re-secure his grip on power, but the campaign had extensive collateral damage. Universities closed, economic activity withered, and social ties were frayed as neighbor accused neighbor of counterrevolutionary thoughts and actions.

With Mao’s passing, Deng and other high-ranking CCP officials—many of whom, including Deng and Xi’s own father, had been purged during the Cultural Revolution—sought to steer the PRC back on course. In 1978, they ushered in the Reform Era, which was characterized by an emphasis on economic development and a move away from charismatic one-man rule. While Mao’s China had often been closed off from the rest of the world, Deng sought engagement with the international community. This would be an era, he said, of “reform and opening up.”

The 1980s and 1990s saw a flurry of government reforms, paused only temporarily in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As other communist regimes collapsed, the CCP analyzed where they had gone wrong, concluding that complete political liberalization could sink the ship. Limited governance reforms, however, offered the possibility of channeling and resolving citizen grievances within the system; the party state would maintain oversight and show itself to be responsive to the will of the people. By the turn of the twenty-first century, it seemed the CCP had managed to develop a system of what political scientist Andrew Nathan termed “resilient authoritarianism,” in which the state was secure enough to permit civilian political engagement at its lowest levels, through village elections, civil society activity, and judicial adjudication of disputes. At the top, competent technocratic leaders worked together in a system of consensus rule, with the president/CCP general secretary occupying a first-among-equals position.

It was in this era of what Minzner calls “partial political institutionalization” that Xi Jinping rose through the party ranks. During his ascent, Xi saw what Minzner states other CCP officials also realized: every small reform made the public want more. Not necessarily democracy, nor the complete overthrow of the party state—although a few high-profile activists did fight for such radical changes—but more accountability on the part of local officials, more freedom to express dissenting views, more of a sense that the law applied equally to everyone. Reform was a genie released from its bottle, and by the early 2000s the CCP leadership recognized that it had to recapture and re-cork it before people started pushing for concessions that would eventually undermine China’s one-party system.

During the decade of Hu Jintao’s leadership, officials began to walk back the once-promising reforms, each of which has now been “systematically neutered,” Minzner writes, in the name of social stability and maintaining the CCP’s grip on power. “It isn’t that positive reforms don’t occur,” he notes, but that those minor alterations are “cut off at the knees whenever they appear on the verge of producing momentum toward deeper institutional reform.” The CCP leadership has developed a hair-trigger reflex in response to any suggestion of mass organization or spontaneous action outside its institutional boundaries; the state is quick to clamp down on anything it is not completely sure it can control.

The PRC’s turn away from reform began long before Xi’s arrival in office, but he has broadened the scope and increased the intensity of these authoritarian moves during his time at the top. Yet as Minzner convincingly argues, this implementation of greater CCP control could, perversely, bring down the very system it is meant to maintain. As the state crushes or coopts alternative channels of expression, those with grievances have nowhere to turn, and even moderates who seek only the resolution of a single issue can be seen in the government’s eyes as radical activists. Those who do not fit in the rigid structure created by the party—Hong Kongers with an independent streak, Uyghurs who wish to practice their religion without the government’s oversight—are treated as threats to the nation itself.

In the short term the party state can arrest protesters, censor posts on social media, and otherwise quell dissent, but its ability to maintain this hardline approach in the long term is uncertain. Minzner thinks that China’s political system is headed toward a “hard landing,” warning, “When prospects for gradual reform are stifled, pressure for revolutionary change rises.”

The worst-case scenario for the CCP is largely absent from political scientist Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. Economy gives little consideration to the longer arc of the post-Mao period; her gaze is firmly set on the first five years of the Xi era. The “third revolution” of the book’s title suggests that Xi has ushered in a new age. Mao led the first revolution, resulting in the founding of the PRC, and Deng declared that the post-1978 reforms signified a “second revolution” for the country. While Minzner posits that the CCP has entered a period of stagnation and possible decline, Economy argues that the CCP, led by Xi, is solidifying its position through a new set of reforms distinct from those of the Reform Era. Her intent in the book, she writes, is to answer two questions: “What is the Chinese leadership seeking to accomplish with its policy reforms and what has it accomplished?”

Xi’s policies and actions, Economy argues, are meant to reposition the country, both domestically and internationally. The PRC is shifting from a dependence on low-end manufacturing to an emphasis on high-tech innovation, and the CCP seeks to facilitate this transition through the promotion of promising industries, such as electric vehicles. The government’s “Made in China 2025” program provides support and substantial funding to high-tech ventures, which the leadership hopes will become globally competitive within a few short years. But, as Economy demonstrates, the state’s attempt to spur innovation from the top down creates market distortions and inefficiencies, as the government throws money at companies (many of them lumbering state-owned relics of the Mao era) and refuses to let any of them fail for fear of the unemployment and social instability that might result. Xi might be steering China on a new course, but he has not changed the overall structure of the system.

Xi has been, in some ways, more successful in the foreign relations sphere. At a time when the United States is retreating from its long-standing leadership role, the PRC is inserting itself into other countries, most notably through a wide-ranging foreign aid, trade, and infrastructure program dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Under Xi, the PRC is creating new institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, that offer other countries an alternative to participating in those traditionally led by the United States and other liberal democracies. The PRC’s neighbors are generally happy to see the country take the lead in promoting regional economic development, though they are less enamored of China’s newfound assertiveness in security matters. Taken as a whole, Economy writes, Xi’s agenda “represents a reassertion of the state in Chinese political and economic life at home, and a more ambitious and expansive role for China abroad.”

But this, she says, is “reform without opening up,” a change from the openness toward engagement characteristic of Deng’s day. The PRC is now strong and confident enough to dictate its own terms with other countries and foreign companies seeking to do business in China. Over the past two decades, for example, it has created what Economy calls the “Chinanet,” a walled-off and censored internet where users cannot access websites on the CCP’s blacklist (including many foreign media publications) and social media posts are subject to deletion if they mention sensitive subjects or express views too critical of the Chinese government. Despite the restrictions of the Chinanet, the lure of the Chinese market is strong: both Facebook and Google have indicated their willingness to create censored versions of their products if the PRC will grant them access. (To date this has not happened, and both companies have been subject to criticism in the United States for even considering the possibility of playing by the CCP’s rules.)

Deng’s approach to reform necessitated a partial retreat by the CCP from economic and political matters at lower levels of society. Although the state never removed itself completely (the One-Child Policy implemented under Deng, for example, imposed restrictions on the most intimate decisions a person can make), the logic of the Reform Era was that China’s development would be achieved through unleashing the productive forces of its citizenry. Xi’s party state has reasserted itself, with a panoply of top-down economic directives, policy decisions, and political campaigns. Although in the short term this causes friction, Economy argues that Xi and the CCP are playing a long game: “The government’s preference for control rather than competition . . . often yields policy outcomes that appear suboptimal in the near term but have longer strategic value.” Xi is making China into a formidable global power, she writes, and the United States and other countries must learn to deal with the PRC as it changes under his leadership.

In 2007, political scientist Susan Shirk dubbed the PRC a “fragile superpower.” Taken together, End of an Era and The Third Revolution demonstrate how accurate both elements of that term remain. Economy shows the many ways in which Xi Jinping and the CCP are working hard to extend China’s reach in the world and secure its economic position as it moves forward. Xi is, no doubt, the most powerful leader China has seen in decades, and he can use that strength to keep a firm hand on the country as he guides it into a new era of development and leadership.

But Minzner provides a sobering and more persuasive diagnosis of an underlying fragility in a political system that cannot tolerate dissent or competition. Economic development alone will not quiet the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong or erase the memories of Uyghurs sent to internment camps. Firm directives to follow the policies of the party state will not satisfy journalists or lawyers seeking to hold the country’s officials to account for their actions. And the CCP no longer provides a safety valve for public discontent; it has eliminated almost all avenues to resolve problems within the state structure. Under Xi, Minzner writes, the CCP has returned to “Rule by fear, tradition, and personal charisma.” Even with unlimited terms in office, how long can Xi and the CCP rely on that trio of tactics to maintain their place at the helm?

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a writer and historian of modern China. She is co-author, with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, of the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018).