By Amir Taheri
Chinese President Xi Jinping last week informed the 19th Congress of the ruling Communist Party that China is ready to seek a more active presence in the international arena. Three factors may have contributed to his decision to bring forward his world leadership bid. The first concerns Xi’s desire to ever so gingerly build up his status within China’s political system.
He wants to be something more than his predecessors Hu Jintao, Hu Yaobang, Li Xiannian and Hua Guofeng were. Xi’s ambition is to surpass even Deng Xiaoping, the “strongman” who, many believe, made the new China possible. Xi may not be able to aspire to the status that Mao Zedong, the father of the People’s Republic, attained, but he wants to get as near to it as possible.
Putting the leader above the melee is crucial in a system based on highly centralized command and control. After Mao’s death, Hua, though a decent leader, never managed to get above the melee. That enabled Deng, who had emerged from banishment during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to make an unexpected comeback and seize control of the levers of power by relying on the military. While Deng was alive, it mattered little who played the role of president. After his death, none of those who assumed the presidency managed to raise their status above the party factions.
Because the top layer of China’s ruling elite consists of a few hundred families with revolutionary credentials, the system they run requires a father figure who has the final word on all key issues. After Deng’s death, the “revolutionary families” agreed on a formula under which each generation holds power for 10 years then bows out of the stage. The rotation formula allowed more people to nurture ambitions while waiting their turn to exercise power. For the first time, Xi now feels he can assume the role of father figure with no clear limit to his tenure. This was highlighted when the Congress decided that his “thoughts and teachings” should become integral parts of the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Before Xi, only Mao had received such a distinction in his lifetime, and Deng posthumously. Xi believes that such a role is vital for the preservation of the current power structures. This is why he speaks not only of the next five years, which under the old formula remains out of his tenure, but spells out his vision for decades to come. Such a vision, he believes, provides the stability and certainty that China needs to project its new power in the global arena.
The second factor that Xi has in mind is the need to revisit the Communist Party’s narrative. Between 1949, when Mao seized power, and the 1970s, when it became clear that Maoism had failed, a narrative based on class struggle and the fight against imperialism – effacing the “humiliation” inflicted by Western powers – was used to give party rule some legitimacy.
With Deng’s reforms, the narrative changed into one of improving the material conditions of the masses. On that account, China has undoubtedly been a spectacular success. The slogan “Increase Gross Domestic Product” (GDP) has become a reality, as the country has experienced an incredibly high growth rate for almost two decades. With an annual GDP of around $12 trillion, China is now the world’s largest economy after the US, and is expected to surpass it by 2023. The modernization of China’s infrastructure is truly phenomenal. The country now has the world’s fastest trains, and is building 80 new airports. More importantly, at least a third of the population – some 400 million – has been pulled out of abject poverty for the first time ever.
China’s economic miracle, though impressive, is not unique. France achieved its “miracle” under the mild authoritarian rule of Napoleon III. Newly created Germany did the same under the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. The authoritarian Meiji era chaperoned Japan into the modern world.
Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and even North Korea’s Kim dynasty have shown that by mobilizing resources – no matter how meager – for specific results, an authoritarian regime can achieve its lofty goals. But rapid economic growth, as other authoritarian regimes have found, has its downsides in the form of an emerging middle class that soon demands political liberties, and the gangrene of corruption that might run out of control.
Thus Xi feels that the Communist Party can no longer justify its monopoly on power with sole reference to economic success. So what better than claiming a global leadership role to flatter the Chinese masses, and persuade them to steer clear of politics and enjoy the fruits of their economic success?
Interestingly, Xi told the Congress that China could promote its “model of governance” as an alternative to Western democracy. A majority of ruling elites in the world today would be more comfortable with the “Chinese model” of central control than the American model of perpetual infighting and cultural-political civil war.
The third factor that Xi has in mind is the growing vacuum left by America’s inability or unwillingness to play its traditional world leadership role in the past decade or so. Under former President Barack Obama, who believed the US had not always been a force for good on the global stage, America was put in strategic retreat mode. Under President Donald Trump, this retreat has continued under the new “America First” slogan. Filling the subsequent vacuum is not easy. The EU is beset by internal contradictions, highlighted by Brexit. Russia would love to see itself in the driving seat, but it lacks the economic power and cultural dominance to make much headway beyond its nearby environs. All that provides China with an opportunity that Xi seems determined not to miss. But global leadership is not just a matter of aspiration. It requires cultural charisma, soft power, scientific and technological innovation, networks of social and political contacts worldwide, and a solid military machine with global reach – all things that China may not be able to offer. Nevertheless, Xi has declared his nation’s ambition, so watch this space.
(The author Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books. Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.)