It must be said this bluntly: the Chinese Communist Party, which turns 100 this week, represents history’s most successful authoritarians.
So, why does President Xi seem so uneasy?
It is a time when no obvious challenges are emerging to his authority, and China has never enjoyed such international reach, economic strength or military might. Yet in a marked departure from his predecessors, Xi has been in a rush to tighten the screws on dissent, to expand technological surveillance of his people, to assert new controls over private business, and to vastly strengthen his party’s prerogatives and power.
It is this contradiction between China’s head-spinning authoritarian accomplishments and President Xi’s head-scratching nervousness about the future that is most worth watching as the systemic contest of our times unfolds.
Arrayed across from each other in these global sweepstakes for the future are the ruthless, technology-empowered efficiency of autocratic capitalism and the enduring (though dangerously challenged) attractions of democratic capitalism with its magnetic charms of individual rights and freedoms.
It is the question of our times whether these two systems, as represented by China and the United States, can agree to a set of terms that allows them to peacefully compete and sometimes even cooperate. Even if they do, one system or the other will emerge ascendant as the dominant rules-setter for an evolving global order. One or the other is also likely to emerge as the more successful provider for citizens’ needs.
While the fragility of democratic societies has been on full display in recent years, most dramatically on January 6 during the riot and violent attack on the U.S. Congress, it may be the less transparent challenges to President Xi’s ambitions that are more decisive.
This weekend’s Economist cover story lays out the contradictions.
“No other dictatorship,” it writes, “has been able to transform itself from a famine-racked disaster, as China was under Mao Zedong, into the world’s second-largest economy, whose cutting-edge technology and infrastructure put America’s creaking roads and railways to shame.”
At the same time under President Xi, adds the Economist: “The bureaucracy, army and police have undergone purges of deviant and corrupt officials. Big business is being brought into line. Mr. Xi has rebuilt the party at the grassroots, creating a network of neighbourhood spies and injecting cadres into private firms to watch over them. Not since Mao’s day has society been so tightly controlled.”
History suggests something has got to give if Xi continues to sharpen his repression at home and assertiveness abroad.
As Jude Blanchette writes in Foreign Affairs: “His belief that the CCP must guide the economy and that Beijing should rein in the private sector will constrain the country’s future economic growth. His demand that party cadres adhere to ideological orthodoxy and demonstrate personal loyalty to him will undermine the governance system’s flexibility and competency. His emphasis on an expansive definition of national security will steer the country in a more inward and paranoid direction. His unleashing of ‘Wolf Warrior’ nationalism will produce a more aggressive and isolated China.”
Yet recent history also shows that the CCP has demonstrated a ruthless resilience, brutal efficiency and ideological dexterity that has confounded its critics time-and-again and has allowed it to navigate Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 with its estimated death toll of up to 20 million, the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, the Covid-19 crisis of 2020 that China spawned and then slayed, and so much more.
Not long after he came to power, President Xi abandoned the studied patience of his immediate predecessors who had acted in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping in “biding their time and hiding their power” in their approach to world affairs. As they did so, the Communist party’s power over society also waned.
President Xi’s dramatic decision to change internally and externally have been a result of his own conviction that the United States and Western democracies were in relative decline.
Xi’s world view was colored by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Communist party in 1989 and 1990, a lesson that drives almost everything he does regarding his own Communist party, and also by his own struggle for power.
Back in 2018, he reflected on how it was possible for the Soviet party to collapse with its 20 million members, when with 2 million members it had defeated Hitler and the Third Reich.
“Why,” he asked. “Because its ideals and beliefs had evaporated.” He derided Gorbachev’s policy of “so-called glastnost,” which allowed criticism of the Soviet party line. The implication was clear: There would be no such openness under Xi.
Though he’s said less about the experience of his own rise to power in 2012, when the party was facing its biggest political scandal in a generation, he can only come away from it having learned how perilous infighting and corruption could be to holding the Communist Party together. His consolidation of power ultimately involved the disciplining of 1.5 million officials.
One can only understand his rush now to crush all possibility of internal dissent and seize all opportunity of international gain as the keen reading of his own political lifeline, measured against the emergence of the Biden administration with its efforts to reverse Western democratic decline and allied disarray.
Xi likely has only a window of about a decade before his country’s demographic decline, its structural economic downturn, and inevitable domestic upheavals threaten to reduce the historic possibility currently presented to him by his country’s technological advance, its geopolitical gains and his own current hold on power.
This man-in-a-hurry sees an inflection point to be seized, but only if he acts with a quick, decisive purposefulness and, where necessary, ruthlessness.
And under Xi, China isn’t only sprinting to seize a window of opportunity. Xi, Blanchette writes, at the same time has put China “in a race to determine if its many strengths can outstrip the pathologies that Xi himself has introduced into the system.”
In short, the test is whether authoritarianism’s most compelling success story can overcome its fundamental failings.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.