Wary of dictatorsChinese President Xi Jinping presented himself as one of the strongest modern Chinese leaders after he was re-elected to his second term in the recent National Congress of the Communist Party of China. He hosted a welcome ceremony for visiting U.S. President Donald Trump in the Forbidden City, home of Chinese emperors for 500 years, to not only impress his U.S. counterpart in an unprecedented red-carpet treatment amid tensions over regional hegemony, but also to paint himself as the most powerful leader in China after founder Mao Zedong.
It is a mystery how the unique socialist leadership structure suddenly gave way to the mighty power of a single man. From the secretive ways of a communist state, we won’t be able to learn how Xi seized full power for a long time.
He nevertheless would have benefited from the innate nature of communism. Mature communist states usually produce powerful leaders. A study into the fundamental dynamics of communism could help us understand an enigmatic China a little better.
The Communist Party is the most powerful establishment in a communist state. The party is run by the Central Committee, which comes under a small group, the Politburo. The political bureau is led by a single person. China’s governance structure also works on such a mechanism.
The so-called “democratic centralism” in a socialist system designed by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin is fundamentally different from free democracy in a capitalist society that upholds separation of powers. Centralized control and leadership inevitably breeds dictatorships. Well before the Russian Revolution, his revolutionary partner Leon Trotsky warned that Lenin’s formula for party organization could lead to a dictatorship. He argued that under Lenin’s model, a party organization will rule over the entire party, then the central committee over the party organization, and finally a single dictator over the central committee.
After the revolution and civil war, Lenin consolidated and wielded power greater than the Czar of the Russian empire he toppled. After the communist system became intact and Lenin died, Joseph Stalin cemented power greater than Lenin through his reign of terror. Post-Stalin collective leadership was formed after the execution of Stalin’s chief of secret police Lavrentiy Beria. His successor Leonid Brezhnev nevertheless enjoyed the longest rule — 18 years — after Stalin to wield equally mighty power.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who endured oppression from strongman Mao Zedong, institutionalized a group leadership structure in order to rein in the propensity to dictatorship in socialist ruling order. But his reforms had limits as they could not undermine the single-party system and power.
The Communist Party is at the top of the social pecking order in China. The party members, making up 5 to 10 percent of the population, enjoy various prerogatives. Fewer than 5 percent cannot command sufficient power over society, and a number greater than 10 percent could stoke internal conflict due to their lessened share of profits. It is how the Chinese Community Party has managed to survive so far.
In a stratified society, social rank is handed down. The elites of China’s Communist Party are offspring of loyalists to Mao. Hereditary succession to wealth and power can stir public disgruntlement.
The Chinese people have not enjoyed freedom of democracy, but nevertheless are freer in expression and behaviors with their economy in a globalized context. As a result, they would not willingly embrace their anti-democratic procedures. This poses a fundamental threat to Xi.
Xi Jinping has been addressing such challenges with two actions. One is stricter control and surveillance. Censorship over the internet is so rigid that the fictional dystopia portrayed in George Orwell’s famous book 1984 could become a reality in China. Beijing has strictly banned trade in bitcoin and cyptocurrency for fear of the digital deals going beyond state regulations.
The other tool Xi uses is nationalism. He fine-tuned the traditional propaganda machine. Chairman Mao whetted nationalism by declaring that China’s military might had defeated the United States in the Korean War. Xi promised the people that China will become the world’s strongest and wealthiest by 2050. Nationalist fervor would make China more inner-oriented and aggressive. On the external front, it would likely become more expansionist and assertive.
Therefore, Xi’s escalated power has various shadowy ramifications. They may affect the world gradually, but could be felt directly and overwhelmingly by small neighbors like Korea. There is not much we can do — just like the way we had to bear the blows from Beijing in retaliation over the deployment of the U.S.-led Thaad antimissile system. But we can surely make fewer bad choices if we understand China well.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 18, Page 27
*The author is a novelist.