Xi Jinping

A Dangerous Concentration of Power

A poster with a portrait of Chinese President Xi is displayed along a street in Shanghai
Personality cult is back with a vengeance in China. Source: Reuters.

Communist China has had two outstanding leadership figures in its history: one was revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, who became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China;  the other was Deng Xiaoping, the architect of major reforms who opened up the giant country to the world and initiated its economic ascendency. Now President Xi Jinping has elevated himself to same level as these historic figures.

The ruler had his ideology placed on the same footing as Mao’s by the most powerful cadres at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It was incorporated into the party constitution under the unwieldy name “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” But what is meant to be a symbol of strength is actually a weakness: Mr. Xi’s supremacy allows almost no contradiction, which makes the aspiring superpower vulnerable.

Communist China has experienced an impressive ascent. The nation worked its way up from a developing country to become the world’s second-largest economy. The reforms propagated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s were intended to pull back the state from society and the economy. He pushed back the work units that controlled the life of every Chinese citizen – where they were allowed to travel, who they were allowed to marry and what their healthcare looked like. Never before had the Chinese so many freedoms, so much prosperity and so much rapid growth under Communist leadership as they did after Mr. Deng’s reforms.

It was not for nothing that The Economist named Xi Jinping the world's most powerful man, ahead of US President Donald Trump.

But a contrary approach is emerging under Xi Jinping’s dominance. Although his ideology is not yet clearly formulated, there is no doubt that the absolute superiority of the Communist Party is paramount. The functionaries once made intra-party democracy a guiding principle. But since Mr. Xi has been in power, critical discussions have become increasingly difficult, even within the party.

The party police have punished more than one million cadres for corruption offences. At the same time, the cadres’ adherence to party ideology has become a decisive criterion. Today, party members are expected to be able to mechanically recite the autocratic ruler’s current slogans. Public contradiction is unwelcome. It was not for nothing that The Economist named Xi Jinping the world’s most powerful man, ahead of US President Donald Trump. This was not only an investiture, it was a warning, too.

Mr. Xi’s claim to omnipotence is not only limited to PRC officials. Chinese research institutes are developing strategies to allow ideology to be anchored in all areas of life. Even small children are introduced to the Communist Party’s world view at an early age. From a European perspective, this may sound frightening. But from the point of view of party strategists, it is, above all, efficient. The country works under the party’s leadership. Opposition takes time, debates drag on and obedience is just faster.

The entire country is being oriented toward these goals. Business owners and their employees too are busy memorizing the slogans of the country’s “paramount leader.” Being loyal to party principles becomes the key to success, not only in state-owned enterprises, but also in private companies. Those who excel receive a red telephone, which they can use to call other highly respected cadres.

Internetzensur in China
Internet users in China get subtle reminders that their every move is being watched. Source: DPA.

State-of-the-art technology comes into play when the classical approach is not enough. The country’s internet companies are helping to make the party and its control more efficient. More than 5 million people are no longer allowed to fly, and almost 2 million are not allowed to take trains. They were banned from travelling because they failed to meet the requirements of a new credit rating system. However, these drastic measures are only the beginning, with a nationwide system expected to be in place by 2020. The Chinese central bank is evaluating the payment data of more than 600 million people.

But the surveillance goes even further than that. High-resolution cameras monitor traffic, scan license plates and, in pilot projects, capture the faces of pedestrians. Voice-recognition systems are being developed to make it easier for the government to monitor conversations with computer-guided equipment in the future. These tools can do enormous damage if placed in the wrong hands.

Europe and Germany need a robust China. Its huge market has become a key growth driver for European companies. No problem, from climate change to globalization, can be solved without Beijing’s involvement. But to ensure that China can play a positive role as a major global power, the country also needs free discussion and open criticism. This is in both China’s and the world’s interest.

To reach the author: scheuer@handelsblatt.com.

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