With the closing of the 19th Party Congress, some have been quick to label this period the “Xi era”, and it’s easy to see why. Centralization of power, consolidation of strongman rule, bolstering national security and rule of law, rejuvenating the Chinese Communist Party, and extending China’s global influence – these are all hallmarks of XJP’s rule, and they are impressive. But we may be too quick in anointing this the “Xi era” simply because it is too early to know whether Xi’s policies will find broad-based support and make a lasting impact beyond his tenure.
Certainly the policies of Mao and Deng had such an impact, and their names are worthy of pinning “era” next to their names. But we should remember that five and even 10 years into the “Deng era,” it was by no means clear whether Deng’s reform policies would survive, particularly when confronted with the 1989 democracy protests. Now, five years into the “Xi era,” we know that he has centralized the policy making process and cemented his strongman status. But it is by no means clear that Xi’s particular approach to consolidating power has created a more stable and robust national security and rule of law regime, or rejuvenated the CCP, let alone put China on the socioeconomic path to achieving a moderately prosperous, and more equitable, society.
Looking back at the threats confronting CCP rule when Xi came to power, it is hard to fault him for centralizing power in Beijing and himself, because he attributed those threats to the fragmentation and decentralization of power in the CCP in the years preceding his tenure. Centralizing power, which went hand in hand with strengthening Xi’s own authority, was critical if Xi was to formulate quick responses to what he perceived as unbridled corruption and lax discipline within the party, and security threats inside and outside China’s periphery.
But the course that Xi chose came fraught with its own pitfalls. One is that this concentration of power, which was intended as the means to an end could easily become an end unto itself. In this scenario, Xi’s effort to strengthen the “rule of law” and rejuvenate the CCP ends up becoming the “rule of Xi” and destabilizing the party and the rule of law as institutions, as David Shambaugh and others remind us. This risk would become a reality if Xi were to go against party norms and keep leaders who have reached “retirement age” such as Wang Qishan in the Politburo Standing Committee (which Xi did not do), or staying on as General Secretary of the CCP for a third term. If so, then Xi would be guilty of committing the biggest irony of all: by seeking to rejuvenate the CCP, he would be undermining efforts made by Deng Xiaoping and his successors to strengthen CCP rule by strengthening collective leadership and leadership succession norms.
Even if Xi were not to go that far, his approach to politics and governance still runs the risk of not being sustainable because it may be unable to garner broad support. Unlike Deng Xiaoping’s rural and fiscal reforms which played to farmers and provincial leaders, Xi’s centralizing policies, particularly his anti-corruption campaign, have not had a galvanizing effect on local leaders or any other key constituency. In this sense, XJP’s governance approach has been more about building up his own personal authority and the authority of the Party than about cultivating support from key constituencies.
The big question then is whether Xi’s governance measures will outlive him when he steps down, either according to form in 2022 at the 20th Party Congress after serving his second five-year term, or by breaking form and serving a third term and then stepping down in 2027 at the 21st Party Congress.
This brings me to the crucial contribution of civil society to stable and legitimate governance. As others have pointed out, the concentration of power in central bodies and Xi, without feedback mechanisms from different segments of society, raises grave risks in a country as large and diverse as China. As China’s successful rural and private sector reforms of the 1980s and 1990s show, effective and sustainable policies require input and buy-in from local authorities and social actors who are unlikely to feel a strong sense of ownership over policies that are not beneficial to their lives. In direct contrast, disastrous policy experiments such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were the result of an overconcentration of power and inadequate feedback from the grassroots.
At an earlier point in time, Xi seemed to understand the importance of consulting with civil society in improving China’s governance. In the 2013 Third Plenum Decision of the 18th Central Committee on Comprehensively Deepening the Reforms, which was extolled at the time as being Xi’s signature statement and is now seen by many commentators as destined for the garbage bin, Xi recognized the significance of working with social actors in strengthening governance. Entire sections of the Decision discussed the importance of “consultative democracy” and “social governance.”
We will, under the Party's leadership, carry out extensive consultations on major issues relating to economic and social development as well as specific problems involving the people's immediate interests, and conduct consultations before and during the implementation of policy decisions. We will build a consultative democracy featuring appropriate procedures and complete segments to expand the consultation channels of the organs of state power, committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, political parties, and community-level and social organizations. We will conduct intensive consultations on issues relating to legislation, administration, democracy, political participation and social problems.
The section on “innovations in social governance” called for clarifying the rights and interests of social organizations and working with them to create mechanisms to prevent and resolve social conflicts. The language here was still state-centered, emphasizing the role of party leadership and adhering to the law, but the call for reinvigorating horizontal interactions between the state and society, rather than strengthening the state’s vertical management of society, was notable, unprecedented and yes even innovative.
Four years after the Third Plenum Decision, it is clear that Xi has turned his back on his own prescription for better governance, and instead condoned tightening controls over social actors, and silencing those who advocate for socioeconomic changes. There have been a few exceptions. The revised Environmental Protection Law which went into effect on January 1, 2015 allowed social organizations for the first time to file public interest lawsuits against polluters. In November 2015, facing historically high levels of labor disputes and strikes, Xi also took the official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), to task for becoming irrelevant to workers and called on them to reform to better represent workers. But these measures have been too few and more symbolic than substantive.
The tragedy of these last few years is that the voices that have been muzzled were not calling for revolution, instigating violence, or fomenting social disorder. They were instead constructive voices calling for practical, innovative ways to address official corruption, unpaid wages and social insurance, sexual harassment, pollution, and discrimination against ethnic minorities. The people calling for these changes were doing so out of a sense of responsibility to the nation, because they wanted to make China a more inclusive, equitable and just place very much in the socialist spirit. They were in fact the very voices that could help Xi craft better policies if he had listened to them and incorporated their ideas into his policies.
The challenges Xi and his new leadership team face after the 19th Party Congress are immense as Xi himself acknowledges. If he continues his current governance approach, he runs the very substantial risk of undermining the long-term capacity of the Party to govern by vesting so much power and authority in himself. Or he could use his immense power wisely and return to his original playbook of social governance, reaching out to social constituencies to give them a voice in shaping socioeconomic policies, thereby creating broad-based support that would strengthen their legitimacy and sustainability.