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Xi Jinping, the Innovative Restorer

BLOG - 1 October 2019

Two decades ago – it feels like a century – this writer heard a prediction by an observer of China: the Party would lose its grip because its communist DNA was fragmenting, while civil society exercised pressure from within China. We identified Communism with a society of scarcity and with very low productivity of capital. Since the West admitted China into WTO and made it a key component of the global value chain, it followed that Communism would melt inside the growing market economy. China’s central plans had never controlled the whole economy: they included only 150-200 products, when the Soviet Gosplan dealt with 1500 to 2000 products. Agrarian collectivization had lasted only 25 years in China – barely a generation, not enough to create a society of Socialist workers. The pull of Western ideas was always immense, from 19th-century reformers to the May 1919 modernizers, and to elites who went abroad under Deng Xiaoping. Occidendalists had to win the day against chauvinists.
 
Nothing could have been further from what has happened. It is indeed against the prophecy of CCP decline and what he saw as a drift to the West that Xi Jinping bases his action. True, he found some of his toolbox inside the surviving Party-state. Deng had refused the separation of the Party from the state. Zhu Rongji, who is still seen as a liberal reformer in the West, had in reality given back control of China’s budget to the state center. Even if the murderous mass campaigns of Mao’s era had disappeared, there were repressive movements launched throughout the Reform era.

The lesson Xi Jinping has drawn from that era is not to abolish or change the Communist Party, it is to run it.

But Xi Jinping has gone much further. After gaining power, he named Gorbachev as the arch-enemy. In his most recent known speech, he uses the word "struggle" 56 times, and also the expression "great struggle", which has been resurrected from the Cultural Revolution since 2012. His official CV never fails to mention his degree in Marxist studies – actually, a reportedly tepid dissertation on agrarian economics.

Xi, like Gorbachev, never studied abroad, and Gorbie was in charge of agriculture before his meteoritic rise, while Xi’s early trip to the United States was to the farm state of Iowa. Why did Xi turn out to be the anti-Gorbachev of China? Of the two, Xi is much closer to the terrible legacy of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Raised in Zhongnanhai – the paradise of top leaders and their families in the 1950s – he was purged, while other members of the family suffered even more. Sent to the rural highlands of Shaanxi – where Mao had gained his power inside the CCP of the 1930s, he has explained later that hardship makes cadres hard as steel. The lesson he has drawn from that era is not to abolish or change the Communist Party, it is to run it. And the methods he uses inside the party apparatus are inherited, but not particularly from Mao, although Xi likes to cite vaguely the Mao mystique. It is Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s former alter ego whom he purged ruthlessly, that Xi follows: running the country like an army, waging implacable campaigns against corruption and moral sins to purify the Party, promulgating laws and rules as instruments of the Party’s will. But never, never allowing for the rise of grassroots movements or spontaneous agitation. Mao reveled in chaos to destabilize his adversaries. Xi, like Liu, dreams of absolute control. All do have in common the practice of frequent purges, which under Xi are often based on the fight against moral sins. Purges are the modus operandi of Leninism since 1917. Under Xi’s watch, a term such as "two face individual" which was first a classic of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s has come back in political use.
 
Before he "rejuvenates" China as he claims, Xi is the Party restorer of the 21st century. With this have come other restorations. Xi has ended the criticism of the Mao decades by proclaiming that the first 30 years of the PRC (1949-1979) are as worthy as the three decades that followed. Mao’s portrait will not be taken down. Nor are his statues being put back in place, except in some hick local districts. Xi enforces amnesia regarding the dark side of Party history, while promoting the slogan "remember where we came from". It is the restoration of China to its glorious imperial past and to its rightful place under the sun that is emphasized, with a new twist since 2017: China’s place is in the world’s first row on every count, to be reached by 2049.

Xi’s bid for restoration is combined with a passion for technological innovation and social engineering. Xi has no visible economic ideology, but rather an "anything goes" approach to growth. It fits a man who has run Zhejiang province: a place full of small entrepreneurs and rich peasants disciplined by the Party-state, that nonetheless achieved 15 % growth rates when Xi was in charge. The truth is that Xi does not believe in economists, but in technicians – including engineers of the soul. This, and the advent of the digital revolution, is what has made his restoration of Party control and personal power effective.

Xi’s bid for restoration is combined with a passion for technological innovation and social engineering. Xi has no visible economic ideology, but rather an "anything goes" approach to growth.

Big science and technology projects, acquiring innovations from abroad are not novelties – all his predecessors since 1978 have pushed these. But Xi has seized the digital and AI revolution, and promoted these tools for control. One big problem of the Chinese state was its weak presence at the grassroots – not enough financial or human resources. Mao made up for this with mass movements, enlisting "activists" and splitting the population into adversary categories. Even that was not so original, Mao learned it from the Peasant Movement Training school where he taught in 1926 – based on the textbooks of the Krestintern, the rural arm of Moscow’s Third International. Instead, Xi emphasizes digital control, for repression and for wider goals. In the first category, Xinjiang and the mass surveillance, re-educative internment and jailing of Uyghurs and Kazakhs stand out as a totalitarian experiment. Electronic surveillance, predictive algorithms, and pre-emptive action support the Party: who needs Mao’s Red Guards and mutual spying when digital techs do the job for you? Social credit schemes have a wider impact. They are effective tools to reward compliance with laws and regulations, and to punish errant behavior: the recipe is good for companies as for individuals. In a society that underwent collectivization and mass campaigns, trust is very low. Digital technologies replace trust, and bring security and stability to the individual – as well as to the Party-state, of course.
 
Digitalization has not stopped there. It has transformed China’s distribution sector and communications, once backward and ineffective sector, into the world’s largest e-commerce and social media: every Chinese made an average 50 mobile cash payments in 2018, and the dominant social media platform, WeChat, has 1,1 billion users. Even with the difficulty of analyzing such raw data, it means that the economy and society are becoming transparent to whoever controls the digital tools. In China, it unequivocally means the Party-state, and Xi sits at its apex.
 
This strength could also be his weakness. There is a surfeit of control from the center. Xi had himself designated as the "core" of the Party, and now receives the same honorary title for "leader" that was once Mao’s privilege. Every cadre, official, entrepreneur, expert or teacher is vulnerable to an accusation. NGOs are shriveling. The best recipe for longevity in Xi’s China is "not to stick out as a nail", as a Chinese proverb goes, but instead to live and work in obscurity, blending with the political environment.
 
Xi Jinping may use a Marxist title and use a Leninist vocabulary, but he also wears a Brezhnev longcoat. So long as growth continues, it provides de facto legitimacy to his rule. As growth falters, Xi will have to summon all the resources of nationalism to justify a regime that is both rigid and highly intrusive on one of the most individualistic populations on earth.

 

Copyright : Greg BAKER / AFP

 

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