According to certain sources, China’s apparent economic might is somewhat of a house of cards. As a massive world power, the nation has seemingly come to a steady balance of peace with the Western world. Active trade and reasonable accord with China has seemingly masked many of the injustices and compelled loyalty that the still-Communist nation has inflicted on its own citizens. President Xi Jinping looks like a nice enough guy, but the systems he has put in place to consolidate power while staving off Western-style democracy are nothing short of iron-fisted.
Should the economy in fact topple, as many have suggested, and unrest among the Chinese population become more widespread, it is likely that the uglier side of the Xi regime may become more difficult to mask.
When he took office in 2013, some hoped that Xi would lead China toward more Western-style means of ruling, imperfect as they may be. Instead, he has become a master of espousing rhetoric that reinforces his dedication to the Communist system, cracking down on government officials that could pose a threat to his power. He has even been quoted by the South China Morning Post saying "Just imagine how our party could be tenable if we abandoned [the spirit] of Comrade Mao Zedong. Our socialistic system...the whole country would fall into chaos.”
He has avowed the maintenance of the socialist system in ways that are more persuasive and innocent-sounding, too, which is part of the reason – along with that disarming smile – that he is rarely cited as a dictator or despot who has steadily consolidated his power. Again quoting the South China Morning Post, Xi explains his reasoning for resisting Western-style democracy in ways that seem almost to make sense:
‘Xi said cadres must "adhere to the central leadership of the party" and improve "overall coordination" to prevent the government from becoming "leaderless [and] fragmented."
The government must prevent "political fighting and wrangling between political parties," he said.’
For a nation of over 1.3 billion people, Xi’s point about strong leadership being necessary to rudder the ship isn’t necessarily wrong, but a closer examination of his ruling style shows that he is far from an enlightened leader open to true reform. And, most had hoped that he would implement true reforms within an economy that, because of the government-controlled currency and statistics, is opaque at best. Instead, China has adhered to economic policy that guarantees 8% GDP growth, resulting in bizarre ghost cities spread across the lightly populated Chinese countryside. Many see this “growth” in GDP as unsustainable and guaranteed to burst sooner than later, in a potentially devastating way.
As this Wilson Center chart shows via the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, economic reform falls below cultural strengthening of the ‘socialist’ cultural system on the Xi regime’s priority list:
Geopolitical Futures believes that Xi, while stabilizing the economy after a 2015 market crash – albeit somewhat artificially – is aiming to consolidate even more power before making even more sweeping ‘reforms’ to Chinese society. A period of relative freedom in China is, according to GPF, giving way to ‘China evolving from a country governed by consensus to a country ruled by a de facto dictatorship – a transition in keeping with China’s historical swings between authoritarian and decentralized rule.’
Xi, they believe, wants to instate an even more authoritarian form of leadership aided by the use of modern technology and facilitated through the use of bizarre, Orwellian means such as ‘citizen scores,' which the ACLU details in its frightening totality. The combination of a power-hungry regime and modern technology is an alarming one, and this ‘citizen score’ will take into account how loyal one is to the governing party.
‘In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like, such as about the Tiananmen Square massacre that the government carried out to hold on to power, or the Shanghai stock market collapse.’
Such measures serve as iron-fisted, compulsory means to insulate party leadership so that, even if the economy does collapse and the people find it fit to rebel, either through peaceful or violent means, the government will be more capable than ever of quashing dissent. This makes it clear why Xi prioritized ‘cultural reforms’ above economic ones.
It’s all about the power, of which Xi has plenty. But, like most leaders, you can never have enough power, or enough control, over your populace.
Just a bit more on the frightening nature of the ‘citizen score,' to let its Orwellian nature sink in:
‘Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores. Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it.’
And, as past Communist societies have foretold, the people seem to be embracing it.
‘Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.’
Perhaps they don’t understand the greater implications of such a citizen-police force conforming to the party’s views of how they should live their life, which includes refraining from any criticism of the regime. But they are also likely lured heavily by the benefits that come from a high citizen score:
‘Those with higher scores are rewarded with concrete benefits. Those who reach 700, for example, get easy access to a Singapore travel permit, while those who hit 750 get an even more valued visa.’
It’s economic enticement at its worst, because it is a means for instilling compulsory party loyalty that punishes and ostracizes those who dissent. This compelled loyalty does not stop at the citizenry. China is shrouded in secrecy, and though Jinping has done his best to hide the machinations of the inner political workings, it is clear to GPF that the systems of appointment are essentially kangaroo courts where those who align and remain loyal are rewarded.
‘The congress merely serves as a public coronation of the victors. The run-up to this congress has stayed true to form, marked as it was by sordid rumors of senior officials and by high-profile purges of powerful figures.’
Many see Xi’s crackdown on corruption as a means to eventually exert state control over every industry in China, making it into a true communist republic with Xi firmly entrenched at the helm. One cannot help but make the obvious connections to the tactics of the murderous Chairman Mao.
‘Another purpose is to reassert party primacy – over every state institution, every provincial government, every branch of the People’s Liberation Army, every state-owned enterprise and every private one – and in doing so to prevent any rival node of power from emerging.’ (GPF)
Xi has tried and convicted individuals with levels of power that had never been tried before. Each time, Xi’s allegations of corruption against high-ranking officials, from political opponents to the military and private energy sector resulted in their removal from power and/or imprisonment. The pattern is clear, and it should be very concerning to those who are familiar with Mao’s reign of terror.
Except Mao never had access to the technology that Xi does. And with true growth less guaranteed than it was before the global financial of 2008, Xi is ensuring that the Communist party remains as powerful as ever should a similar financial breakdown occur:
‘2008 also underscored that China’s run of guaranteed breakneck growth had come to an end. Its growth had relied on low wages and high global demand. Wages have since risen, and demand has since been unstable. Modern China is based on the promise of prosperity, and so when that prosperity declines, the legitimacy of the Communist Party declines as well. Xi and his elite supporters want to avoid this at all costs.’
It is easier for Xi to control the social and political systems in China than it is to guarantee the stability of the Chinese economy, let alone the world’s markets. So, while true economic reforms may come, few know what they will look like. And, if those reforms are not able to prevent a massive dip in the Chinese economy, Xi will be prepared through his control systems which have not been rivaled in Chinese history, not even by Chairman Mao himself.