Is China’s Xi falling into the traps that Deng Xiaoping warned of?
The 'core' leader's ambitions may actually reduce his willingness to cleanse the system or recalibrate growth drivers
Oh, to be a fly on Xi Jinping’s wall. Many Sinologists would pay dearly to be just that as the leader of the most populous nation digs in for a very long reign.
Me? I’d like to see if there’s also a Donald Trump calendar on that wall – one counting down the 1,034 days left in his chaotic presidency.
While Chinese President Xi doesn’t tweet, President Trump overshares. The @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed is all “id,” in the Sigmund Freud sense – a portal to Trump’s inner child. Xi, by sharp contrast, is all “superego” – a more stable sort who resists his public impulses. Because of Xi’s reticence, who knows if he’s aghast at Trump’s erraticness, trade wars and bromance with Vladimir Putin, or thanking his lucky stars. Trump, after all, is making China’s global standing great again, day by day.
Either way, Xi must be looking ahead to January 2021, when Trump vacates the White House (if investigations don’t oust him sooner). But Xi may be setting himself up for an own goal. The most obvious is him also going the full Putin.
The exploits of Trump’s idol in Moscow are well known. The unproductive and ruthless petrostate Russia has become bears Putin’s fingerprints. Then there are The Donald’s ham-handed efforts to Putinize America – attacking the media, the judiciary, any lawmaker who doesn’t vote as instructed, loading his cabinet with sycophants. Not to mention morphing the White House into a boardroom to enrich his family and cronies.
But Xi risks dragging Asia’s biggest economy down a perilous path. For all the pageantry in Beijing this month, the National People’s Congress boiled down to Xi sidelining the Communist Party and aggregating absolute power around himself.
Much ink has been spilled about what Xi’s imperial presidency portends for Beijing politics. What, for example, is Premier Li Keqiang’s role, if any, in the political-industrial complex Xi is constructing? But more attention should be paid to how Xi is stepping into a trap of which Deng Xiaoping warned. Deng, the architect of modern China, feared the “excessive concentration of power” and saw unchallenged “leadership of a single person” as a recipe for mistakes.
Every blow to the status quo means fewer riches flowing into the pockets of party bigwigs looking over Xi’s shoulder
Xi is clearly a cagey operator and smart tactician. But the Group of Seven nations and world markets are left hoping that he is as smart and visionary as he thinks he is.
Much has been made, too, of the economic “dream team” Xi assembled this week. Promoting Harvard-educated economist Liu He and naming Yi Gang central bank governor are seen as risk-off signals that Beijing will wean the US$12 trillion economy off excessive credit, debt and smokestack industries. But there’s a big caveat: Xi must give these policymakers a long leash to raise China’s game.
Modernizing the economy means swinging a wrecking ball at state-owned enterprises and shadow-banking institutions. Every blow to the status quo means fewer riches flowing into the pockets of party bigwigs looking over Xi’s shoulder. That raises an obvious paradox. Xi needs rapid growth to maintain legitimacy and avoid pushback from the party, or even a political uprising that clips his wings. But any move by the dream team to recalibrate growth drivers will push demand sharply lower and leave fewer illicit money flows to go around.
It follows that Xi’s ambitions may actually reduce his willingness to cleanse the system, just as Deng feared. A first step toward beating China’s addiction to unproductive investment is scrapping the annual growth target. Xi’s decree that the economy must continue growing 6.5% means local government officials, all vying for his favor, will do more to make their numbers than reform China Inc.
Nor are we sure of the true nature of Xi’s anti-corruption putsch. Is it a broad, methodical program aimed at ending rent-seeking and upping Beijing’s Transparency International ranking or a Putinesque ploy to punish rivals? One reason to worry it’s the latter: a freer media and a less policed internet, you’d think, would be Xi’s ally in rooting out graft. Xi veered sharply the other way.
The end of presidential terms means even less accountability. It’s inconsistent with Deng’s emphasis on the rule of law and building strong, globally credible institutions. Perhaps Xi will make a go of it and prove us naysayers wrong. Clearly, there are no flies on the man. But oh, to be one on that wall in the meantime.