Xi for­ever

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Gwynne Dyer/Colum­nist Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries. Email feed­back to columns@glean­erjm.com.

THE CHI­NESE Com­mu­nist Party’ s( CC P) Cen­tral Com­mit­tee re­cently ap­proved a pro­posal that the coun­try’s pres­i­dent no longer be lim­ited to two five-year terms of of­fice and the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress rub­ber-stamped the change. That will be the end of three decades of con­sen­susseek­ing col­lec­tive lead­er­ship in the CCP. The god-king model is back.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has spent his first five-year term elim­i­nat­ing all his pow­er­ful ri­vals (gen­er­ally on cor­rup­tion charges), and now his vic­tory is be­ing en­shrined by a change in the con­sti­tu­tion.

Be­ing pres­i­dent-for-life cer­tainly wasn’t a good idea for for­mer Soviet leader Leonid Brezh­nev, who was also ef­fec­tively in power for life. In his case that was eigh­teen years. It be­came known as the ‘era of stag­na­tion’, and only seven years af­ter Brezh­nev died in 1982, the whole Com­mu­nist em­pire in east­ern Europe col­lapsed.

Alerted to the dan­ger of leav­ing some­body in power too long by the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party has kept its lead­ers on a short leash since the early 1990s. They got two fiveyear terms, no more, and they had to keep the sup­port of other mem­bers of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee or it might even be just one term.

It has worked pretty well, as dic­ta­tor­ships go. There have been no more ma­ni­acs in power like Mao Ze­dong with his crazy Great Leap For­ward and Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, which killed mil­lions and cost the coun­try two decades of eco­nomic growth. Dur­ing the past quar­ter-cen­tury of cau­tious, con­sen­sus-based pol­i­tics, China’s econ­omy has grown about ten­fold.

That pace of growth can­not con­tinue, no mat­ter who is in power, but it is very im­por­tant for the party’s sur­vival that the econ­omy does con­tinue to grow. There is cer­tainly no ev­i­dence that one-man rule will pro­vide that growth bet­ter than the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, so why (pre­sum­ing that he is a loyal com­mu­nist) has Xi de­cided to over­throw it?

Mere per­sonal am­bi­tion is one ob­vi­ous pos­si­bil­ity, but there is prob­a­bly more to it than that. Xi’ s fa­ther was com­mu­nist roy­alty – one of the founders of the party, and at one time its gen­eral sec­re­tary – and he him­self was a ‘princeling’ who spent his early years in very com­fort­able cir­cum­stances. Then in 1966, Mao launched the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion.


Xi’s fa­ther was ex­pelled from the party and pub­licly hu­mil­i­ated. He him­self was sent to the coun­try­side at the age of 15 to “learn from the peas­ants”, and ended up in a work camp dig­ging ditches. For some years he ac­tu­ally lived in a cave (al­though it had a door). But he sur­vived, and he was even­tu­ally to al­lowed to join the party, move back to the city, and go to univer­sity.

It all left a last­ing im­pres­sion on the young Xi. He knew that work­ing hard, keep­ing your nose clean, and even ris­ing to high rank can­not pro­tect you in an es­sen­tially law­less one -par ty state if party pol­i­tics takes the wrong turn. So he re­ally only had two choices: work to change the party into a law-abid­ing en­tity (which is prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble), or take con­trol of the party and keep it for­ever.

He has cho­sen the lat­ter course, and in terms of pro­tect­ing him­self it is prob­a­bly the right choice.

Xi no doubt jus­ti­fies his ac­tions to him­self by be­liev­ing that he is the in­dis­pens­able man for China’s mod­erni­sa­tion, but the ceme­ter­ies are full of in­dis­pens­able men. The longer you are in power, the more poor or at least sub­op­ti­mal de­ci­sions you make – and when the pas­sage of time makes the mis­takes ob­vi­ous, you are obliged to de­fend them, al­though a suc­ces­sor could just drop them and move on.

Xi is not likely to “do a Mao” and un­leash chaos in China. He is in­tel­li­gent and he works hard. But the mis­takes will ac­cu­mu­late nev­er­the­less, and stag­na­tion awaits.

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