Western China-watchers have given up hope that Chinese President Xi Jinping is some sort of closet liberal, projecting the appearance of being a committed communist only for the sake of consolidating his power so that he could open China to liberal democracy. Instead, they increasingly portray him as a power-grabbing strongman.
In fact, for the past two years Western media characterized Xi as either an authoritarian or a neo-authoritarian. Recently, the New Yorker described him as “China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao.” A Newsweek contributor opined, “Xi is leading China away from democracy.”
But they’re wrong.
The massive changes underway in China — from rapid urbanization, to the closing of coal-fired power plants, to the insuring of deposit accounts — are happening not because of some top-down, heavy-handed approach by Xi, but because of circumstance. Not only is Xi not as authoritarian as many Westerners have depicted him, but he faces a series of challenges that will continue to undermine the power he does hold.
Three issues prevent Xi from being an authoritarian leader. First, he is constrained by structural flaws in the economy. In order to keep China labor-competitive, he must contend with issues like a rapidly aging workforce, disenfranchised migrant workers and horrific pollution. To keep migrants happy, Xi has reformed the household registration program, which had limited their access to services outside their hometowns. He has softened the country’s one child policy to reinvigorate the workforce, and taken major steps to cut pollution, especially in Beijing. But continued problems demand prompt action to sustain China’s its economy.
Secondly, Xi ‘s political perch is not as powerful as it seems. Since taking the Party helm in 2012, Xi has amassed an impressive array of titles, becoming the only Chinese leader other than Hua Guofeng to simultaneously lead the Communist Party, the State Council and the Central Military Commission. He has consolidated his power in the Politburo Standing Committee, with Premier Li Keqiang the lone remaining member from the populist faction, with the remaining six, including Xi, all members of the elitist faction. Xi would appear to be in a position to do whatever he pleases.
Yet he can’t. Three of the elitist members in the Politburo Standing Committee answer to former president and influential Party member Jiang Zemin, 88. Even though Jiang and Xi are members of the same faction, their interests don’t always align — much like the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans. In matters like the investigation of Jiang’s close allies, Jiang holds more sway than Xi. Only after Jiang gave his okay could the administration depose and arrest then-security chief Zhou Yongkang on corruption charges.
Moreover, the new membership of the Standing Committee may have nothing to do with factions. The five new members may have been selected because they meet the age requirements. The strict seniority and retirement rules would have prevented these new members from ever reaching the top, had they been passed over this time around. The balance in the Standing Committee will shift in Xi’s second term, as the remaining Politburo members are mostly from the populist faction. Internal division will challenge Xi’s influence.
In addition to dealing with high-level party intrigues, Xi also struggles to keep cadre at the local and provincial levels motivated and functioning, despite having to give up many of the perks to which they had long been accustomed because of Xi’s efforts to root out corruption within the Party. I’ve seen firsthand what a difficult task that will be.
I recently visited a friend who is a mid-level provincial party official, based in Dalian. She picked me up in a domestic First Automotive Works sedan, instead of the black, late model Audi that had been the sign of a high-level cadre. After many apologies for not being able to treat me in grand style, we had dinner in a local night market. I picked up the check — a first! The main topic of conversation was her search for a job with a private, preferably foreign, company. She said without the perks, she wasn’t sure she would be able to provide for her family in a Party job. This sentiment is rampant within the Party, and Xi risks losing productivity and control at the provincial level and below if the Party is unable to compete with the private sector for recruits.
Corruption pervades the business sector as well. Xi has had to battle provincial governments that resent his efforts to establish top-down control over state-owned enterprises (SOEs), in order to control costs, eliminate over-capacity and earmark a greater share of their revenues to the Central Committee.
SOEs are difficult to supervise. Because they can be owned by municipal, provincial or special district party committees — as well as the Central Committee — they are prone to inefficiencies and corruption. Ghost employment is rampant, and provincial companies may duplicate the efforts of national companies — cannibalizing market share.
When one considers the systemic flaws in China’s social and economic structure, it’s clear that Xi is being driven as much as he is driving. If Xi is to maintain both Party rule and social stability, he must respond to all of these problems. His predecessor largely kicked these cans down the road. Xi does not have that option.
Bill Johnson is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, and a retired Foreign Service Officer. Bill was a philosophy professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy for 5 years. He served as the Senior Political Advisor for U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific from 2009-2011. Since his retirement, he has done consulting for the Naval Post-graduate School on China policy issues.