Politics is always about pomp and pageantry, but as pure, stultifying ritual few occasions can compare to the convening of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, which ended this week. No matter what is happening in China or the world, it always follows the same eye-glazing program—a “work report” that summarizes already-known plans; questionable proposals that are discussed to make it seem that a deliberative body is convening; gatherings of delegations that are unelected and largely powerless; and finally a press conference that is as real as a fight in a kung-fu movie.
And yet this performance is never without meaning. This year it was meant to highlight the inexorable rise of Xi Jinping as one of China’s greatest leaders in decades. He is soon to complete his first five-year term and is almost sure to be reappointed to a second term at the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the fall. This week’s session of parliament is a kick-off for this event, and its dullness was doubly important, meant to show just how powerful and strong a leader Xi has become, smoothly mastering domestic politics while facing down challengers like Donald Trump abroad.
But performances lend themselves to multiple interpretations. And after the recent session of parliament another reading emerges: that Xi might be one of China’s strongest leaders on paper—mustering an array of titles and able to silence dissent almost at will—but much less impressive when it comes to achieving reforms.
Xi, for example, is often compared to Deng Xiaoping, the man who ran China for about twenty years from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s. Deng derived his reputation as the dominant leader of the late twentieth century from his ability to keep the Communist Party firmly in control—think the Tiananmen massacre—but also to experiment with bold new economic policies. It was under Deng that China launched what are still its most substantive economic reforms, such as freeing up farmers from disastrously inefficient state collectives, closing down rust-belt factories, and setting the country on the path to joining the World Trade Organization.
Xi came to power offering a similarly broad range of reforms and pledging to “rejuvenate” the nation. But his measures have been limited to the classic nationalist-authoritarian-traditionalist playbook. He has pursued an expansionist foreign policy, occupying and militarizing vast reaches of the South China Sea, while at home he has cracked down on corruption and promoted traditional values.
A crucial part of this has been enhancing his own control. At a plenum of the Communist Party last autumn, Xi was elevated to a “core” leader, putting him on a higher plane than other leaders in the recent past—the idea being that China needed even firmer leadership to get through tough times.
During the recent session of parliament, this was reflected in how Xi and his image dominated domestic coverage of the event, even though the parliament is usually the place for the premier, Li Keqiang, to shine. Li seemed like an afterthought this year, and his press conference on Wednesday—usually the culmination of the session—was so low-key as to be almost irrelevant.
The sidelining of China’s premier, the nominal number two in the hierarchy, has been accompanied by another development that is slowly becoming clearer: Xi seems not to have appointed a successor. Because Chinese politics is not very well institutionalized, it is hard to say that this is significant at this point in the year, but it’s fair to say that most observers expected that a successor would have surfaced by now. The lack of one means either that the Party is divided (possible) or that Xi intends to elevate a loyalist closer to the Party congress so he can rule from behind the curtain once he retires in five years (likely).
So after five years of Xi, his main accomplishments seem to have been to consolidate his power while satisfying people’s desire for social change through crackdowns and promoting traditionalism. The problem is that these efforts come at the expense of actual reforms.
The government, for example, talks endlessly of China needing to improve its legal system. But the main legislation at parliament involved setting up a continental European-style “civil code.” In theory this could enshrine personal liberties and make the legal system work more effectively. But the problem isn’t a lack of laws; it’s the politicization of the system. All sensitive decisions are still made by Party functionaries, not independent judges. So the code is likely to be largely a tool to allow the Party more legal cover for ruling, rather than bringing it more under the rule of law.
Equally pressing is the need for significant economic reforms. State enterprises suck in valuable capital from the banking system, which continues to be state-run, to the detriment of more dynamic private enterprises. Urbanization has taken off, but is based on expropriating land at below-market prices. Farmers still don’t own their land or have meaningful land transfer rights. Rural residents still have a hard time getting full rights in urban areas. And of course censorship has become so overwhelming that even constructive criticism is increasingly marginalized, causing many moderates to lose hope that their voices can be heard.
The complete failure to reform the economy means that the government’s argument about low growth—that China’s economy has slowed only temporarily while the economy restructures—appears less and less plausible. Instead, what could be happening is that the country’s inability to reform further is sending it into the feared middle-income trap—a country that cannot take the next step to become a truly prosperous society.
Will any of this matter to Xi? His popularity could fall if the economy continues to stagnate, while property prices continue to remain far beyond the reach of ordinary people. But leaders like Putin have remained popular despite far worse economic situations thanks to overseas adventures and blaming foreigners for the country’s woes.
But what is clear is that Xi’s image as a strong and capable leader seems less and less believable. As the country enters its political season and Xi’s reappointment approaches, he begins to look different. Instead of being the transformer China needed, he might yet prove to be little more than a vigorous custodian of the status quo.
Ian Johnson reports from Beijing and Berlin. His new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, will be published in April. His essay in the January 19, 2017 issue was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. (January 2017)