27 March 2021

The New York Times: “The Land that Failed to Fail”

The world thought it could change China, and in many ways it has. But China’s success has been so spectacular that it has just as often changed the world — and the American understanding of how the world works.

There is no simple explanation for how China’s leaders pulled this off. There was foresight and luck, skill and violent resolve, but perhaps most important was the fear — a sense of crisis among Mao’s successors that they never shook, and that intensified after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as they put the disasters of Mao’s rule behind them, China’s Communists studied and obsessed over the fate of their old ideological allies in Moscow, determined to learn from their mistakes. They drew two lessons: The party needed to embrace “reform” to survive — but “reform” must never include democratization.

Another explanation for the party’s transformation lies in bureaucratic mechanics. Analysts sometimes say that China embraced economic reform while resisting political reform. But in reality, the party made changes after Mao’s death that fell short of free elections or independent courts yet were nevertheless significant.

The party introduced term limits and mandatory retirement ages, for example, making it easier to flush out incompetent officials. And it revamped the internal report cards it used to evaluate local leaders for promotions and bonuses, focusing them almost exclusively on concrete economic targets.

These seemingly minor adjustments had an outsize impact, injecting a dose of accountability — and competition — into the political system, said Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. China created a unique hybrid, she said, an autocracy with democratic characteristics.

Philip P. Pan

If these measures of economic reforms and increased accountability have indeed contributed to China’s decades-long success, current trends appear to head in the opposite direction. In 2018, the year this article was published, Xi Jinping pushed a change to remove term limits for the presidency from the Chinese constitution, thus allowing himself to potentially become president for life, a consolidation of political power not seen since Chairman Mao. The business environment has experienced a considerable chilling, with state regulators intervening to restrain a competing accumulation of power. The strained relationship with the United States and Western democracies will probably encourage Xi Jinping to more extreme actions, more authoritarian control, entrenching his conviction in the preeminence of the Chinese model.

Chinese aerospace workers wearing Long March-style uniforms
The pull of the past: Aerospace workers wearing Long March-style uniforms

There are of course other opinions, highlighting how fragile some of the foundations of the Chinese boom are – for example Foxconn’s failure to set up a US manufacturing site that reminded me of the grave disfunctions of previous Communist economies. Hard to say if China has reached the point where the economy is self-sustainable when faced with sanctions and growing international isolation, but I suspect it is quite far from it. No country can survive alone, not even one as big as China, no matter how much Xi Jinping promotes this concept. The Soviet bloc also considered itself ‘independent’ and self-sufficient, closed off from corrupting Western influences, and we know how fast it crumbled…

On Sunday, China moved to end a two-term limit on the Presidency, confirming long-standing rumors and clearing the way for Xi to rule the country for as long as he, and his peers, can abide. The decision marks the clearest expression of Xi’s core beliefs—his impatience with affectations of liberalism, his belief in the Communist Party’s moral superiority, and his unromantic conception of politics as a contest between force and the forced. Decades after Deng Xiaoping warned against the leadership of a single person, China is reëntering a period in which the fortunes of a fifth of humanity hinge, to an extraordinary degree, on the visions, impulses, and insecurities of a solitary figure. The end of Presidential term limits risks closing a period in Chinese history, from 2004 to today, when the orderly, institutionalized transfer of power set it apart from other authoritarian states.

China emerged from the chaos of the Maoist era precisely because it moved away from one-man rule and toward collective leadership, Carl Minzner, a China specialist at Fordham Law School, and the author of End of an Era, a new book on China’s authoritarian revival, told me. Even without meaningful popular voting, China’s political turmoil was curtailed by term and age limits and informal rules that require consensus. Start pulling out those very building blocks on which the entire edifice is built, and what is China left with? Minzner asked.

Evan Osnos

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