China’s One-Man Show

Isabel Hilton

This month, Xi Jinping was effectively made president for life. What should we make of this and Xi’s long-term ambitions for China?

China's President Xi Jinping is seen on a large screen over delegates as he joins a session of the National People's Congress to vote on a constitutional amendment at The Great Hall Of The People on March 11, 2018 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer / Getty

Interview by
Doug Henwood

In early March, the National Peoples’ Congress repealed the two-term limit for the Chinese presidency, a measure originally instituted by Deng Xiaoping to prevent the reemergence of a cult of personality around the Chinese leader. Xi Jinping, the current president, is now China’s undisputed master.

In fact, Xi already holds the country’s top three offices: in addition to the presidency, he’s also general secretary of the Communist Party and head of the military. Now he can hold these posts for as long as he draws breath. What does this all mean? And what are Xi’s long-term ambitions for China?

To learn more, Doug Henwood spoke to Isabel Hilton, an editor and journalist with extensive expertise in Chinese affairs. The full interview is available here.

Consolidating Power

Doug Henwood

Xi Jinping has just been declared something like president for life in China. Precisely what does this entail, and what does it mean?

Isabel Hilton

Well, it’s a slightly curious move. As you may recall, Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer, was trying to set in place a series of structures in the Chinese state and in the party that would guard against any one man attaining the kind of power that Mao Zedong had attained and the bad things that can follow from that.

So, he instituted a number of measures. One was a move toward a more collective leadership, and the other — the one that’s relevant here — is the tradition that a Chinese president could serve two terms, each of five years, so that after ten years, essentially, he had to step down.

This has a number of knock-on effects. If you know that you have to step down at the end of ten years, you moderate your behavior. You don’t want to have a whole set of enemies waiting to get you. So, the tenor and tone of the administrations that followed Deng Xiaoping were altogether calmer than during the era of Mao Zedong.

Term limits also solved the question that has bedeviled China’s politics, which is the question of succession. All through the imperial period — 2,000 years of naked power struggles and succession struggles — you see the bad effects of not having a constitutional succession process. And we saw it also in the first years of Chairman Mao, when every person who was named number two, and therefore could be expected to succeed Mao, ended up either dead or in jail.

It’s a recipe for instability, and it’s a curious move at this point.

Doug Henwood

Where did it come from? Was there a great upsurge among his colleagues and comrades, or did he lead the way to this declaration?

Isabel Hilton

It’s certainly being presented as by acclamation, but, if you track what Xi Jinping has been doing the last five years, there’s no doubt that this was a carefully prepared part.

He’s had five years of wounding his enemies through the anti-corruption drive. He’s had a process of taking back state power into party hands and a really massive personality cult — the elevation of Xi Jinping and his sort into pole position in the party. So, you’ve got a structure that has changed direction in the last five years, where the party is very much back in control and Xi Jinping is very much back in control of the party.

Now, having said that, why did he need to be president for life? The powerful positions in China are party general secretary and head of the military commission, and he holds both of those posts, which are not time limited. So, there must have been another reason why he felt that this position was essential to his consolidation of power.

There are a couple of possible explanations for that. One, it dovetails very well with an international role. As president, he gets to interact with other presidents, whereas as general secretary it’s a little more complicated to meet Queen Elizabeth or a US president.

The second possibility is that although the post is not the most powerful in China, nevertheless to have someone else occupy it might give a platform for opposition. But now he dominates all three major political roles in China for the foreseeable future.

Doug Henwood

What about the relation between the party and the state? Is the state subordinate to party?

Isabel Hilton

Yes, completely and explicitly so. The first clause of the constitution — which theoretically gives the citizens all kinds of rights — says that the Communist Party leads, so, all of those rights are grace and favor given by the party and the party can withdraw them.

The anti-corruption drive, which has led a lot of people into prison and stripped them of their assets and so on, was a party-led process whereby a party member could be taken into the party’s disciplinary procedures, which can be pretty rough. And at the end of several months of silence, they would be produced for a court to rubber-stamp their sentences. Now this is being reformed, in some ways, to incorporate the judicial processes. So, you’re seeing a steady takeover of state functions by the Communist Party.

Doug Henwood

I assume that there is certainly a lot of corruption to pursue in China, but I imagine the pursuit of the malefactors was fairly selective, right?

Isabel Hilton

There’s no shortage of corruption. Without pushing this analogy too far, if a member of the mafia is arrested and charged with a crime, you don’t really ask if he’s a criminal. You ask how he lost his protection. And if someone went down during this anti-corruption drive, the question was which power did he represent? Which faction did he represent? Why him and not any number of others?

It was a very useful instrument for Xi Jinping to silence the opposition. It does have a downside, though, because you have a bureaucracy that you rely on to run the country, and after too much of this kind of thing, the bureaucracy sits on its hands. It’s not going to resist him explicitly, because that would be dangerous, but there’s a lot of passive resistance going on in China.

Xi Jinping has undoubtedly made a lot of enemies, which may mean that he couldn’t step down safely even if he wished to at some point. So, it’s a process with mixed blessings, and it doesn’t address the systemic causes of corruption, it just means that you are vulnerable if you lose your protection.

Celestial Empire

Doug Henwood

Let’s talk about some of the policy goals. I’ve been hearing for at least a decade that China wants to switch the economy away from exports toward more domestically oriented consumption. Is any of that happening?

Isabel Hilton

Yes, it is. If you look at the proportion of services in the Chinese economy, it does appear to be going up. You see some closing down of excess capacity, but not enough. There’s also a drive to export quite a lot of that capacity through the Belt and Road process.

And the really difficult problem is growth. Such growth as we have had in the Chinese economy has been largely fueled by debt, by borrowing, and now debt levels are really quite high. If you were to have an effective bankruptcy procedure you would probably have quite a lot of triage at this point.

It’s not really clear how the state is going to deal with that going forward. There have been some measures to clean up what they call gray banking and shadow banking sectors, where financial instruments of the kind that caused so much trouble in the Western financial system were devised by local authorities and by state-owned enterprises in order to go on fueling their growth. You can’t run like that forever, and that is one of the problems that Xi Jinping is going to have to address

Doug Henwood

People do make some calamitous announcements about the collapse of the Chinese financial system, and with it the real economy. Do you think the Chinese can manage it?

Isabel Hilton

They’ve managed it before. They did have an absolutely catastrophic state of banking some years back, and they cleaned it up. The Chinese state still has relatively deep pockets. They have the power to stop a kind of cascade collapse, which would cause tremendous drama because the Chinese investor — or the Chinese bank-account holder — is very quick on the streets when the money isn’t there anymore. If you look at how investors reacted to the stock-market crash eighteen months ago, they were out there demonstrating, saying, “Where is my profit?”

So, this is pretty sensitive stuff in terms of the general population. The risk is Xi Jinping, who has essentially said to people, if you stay out of politics, we will make you materially better off — that’s been the message since Tiananmen in 1989 — may not be able to deliver the kind of growth that will allow people to feel that they can afford to forget about politics. It’s going to be much trickier if you have an effectively stagnating economy.

Doug Henwood

What are China’s ambitions as Trump gradually cripples American standing internationally?

Isabel Hilton

“Thank you very much, President Trump,” I think is what they’re saying in Beijing. They hardly have to lift a finger to be seen as a responsible power these days. But there have been a few missteps.

The Chinese have tended to overreach, and I think that that’s probably not good for China as it learns to exercise global leadership. So, for example, when British prime minister Theresa May went to China, the Chinese demanded that she sign a kind of blanket approval of the Belt and Road project. Well, no serious Western politician is going to do that.

And if you see the state of play between Australia and China lately, there is a lot of Australian anxiety and pushback about an undue exercise of Chinese influence in the form of influence buying in political parties, intimidation of Chinese students, intimidation of Western academics who don’t follow the party line, and so on.

China is trying to maintain the same image of party leadership in the world that it maintains in China. That’s complicated. If China is to grow up as a global power, it’s going to have to learn to take criticism and not be so extremely sensitive.

This is a learning process. China is becoming both a hard power and a soft power, and, if the Belt and Road project is to proceed, China is going to have to assume responsibility for security in places like Afghanistan, Waziristan, Balochistan, let alone, you know, Xinjiang territory and those connections through to central Asia. China is going to have to do quite a lot of fairly rapid learning about how you manage global assets and how you protect infrastructure investments in a world that’s not necessarily friendly.

Doug Henwood

What’s China’s ultimate vision? What does it want?

Isabel Hilton

I think the ultimate vision is a restoration of the sense that China is the center of its world. That was the way China felt about itself for many centuries, partly because it didn’t really go very much farther. There was a brief period in the Ming Dynasty when ships went up and down the coast of Africa, and there was always land-based trade along the Silk Road, but China was content to treat the states and its neighbors in the immediate region as tributaries that paid homage to China as the great regional power. It was 20 percent of the world’s economy, which is pretty much where we’re heading back to.

China wants to restore that position, but it also wants to preserve its own system of government against rival systems of government. In pursuit of that, China is steadily setting up parallel institutions. Its own, as yet small, multilateral investment bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is devising rules that suit China rather than rules that have been part of the postwar order.

I think we’ll see China increasingly building a world that suits China, but trying not to overreach.

Doug Henwood

How do they read the bellicosity coming out of some of the people around Trump who clearly think of China as a scary enemy?

Isabel Hilton

Well, I think China’s pretty used to that, certainly in most political campaigns. There’s an understanding that American politics needs an enemy, and they have been the choice lately. I don’t think China contemplates for a moment that they are likely to come to an armed exchange. You know, this is a reasonably sensible leadership, and nobody gains.

I think they’re kind of alarmed by Trump’s unpredictability, but otherwise Trump suits them pretty well because the dilution of American standing and influence in the world is an opportunity for China. If it went too far, China’s anxiety would be that it would have to step up prematurely to restore order and guarantee trading conditions and all those things that China still depends on.

So, I don’t think it wants Trump actually to push the United States off the cliff, but to weaken its standing.

Doug Henwood

It sounds like China has a very serious leadership class that can think about long-term issues with a considerable degree of rigor and clarity at a moment when those faculties seem to be lost in Washington, and New York, and London. Is that a fair impression?

Isabel Hilton

It’s true that they have a serious political and administrative class. You don’t get to the top of China without years of training running your small town and then your province. We don’t see Chinese politics because it all happens inside the party, but that doesn’t mean that the politics is not there, and that there are not factions and there are not power struggles.

So, Chinese politics can look pretty serene on the outside and then suddenly erupt into the most extraordinary bloodletting. It’s like a Tudor court on a bad day. Certainly people have had a lot of experience and training, and if you do hold all the power, you can do quite a lot of long-term planning without have to face an election. That has its advantages, but untrammeled power can lead to untrammeled bad decisions. It depends on how that leadership is exercised.