Xi, Mao, and the Unraveling of Deng’s Reforms

Xi, Mao, and the Unraveling of Deng’s Reforms

Recently, the New York Review of Books published an insightful article by Andy Nathan, a leading China scholar and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Here are a few excerpts from Andy Nathan’s observations on the ways in which Xi Jinping is similar to, and different from, Mao, and how his power consolidation project has effectively ended the Politburo’s consensus-based framework set up by Deng Xiaoping. At the time of Xi’s accession to power in 2012, writes Nathan, Xi was “widely expected to pursue political liberalization and market reform. Instead he has reinstated many of the most dangerous features of Mao’s rule: personal dictatorship, enforced ideological conformity, and arbitrary persecution.”Let’s look at some examples.

“Any leader who confronts so many big problems needs a lot of power, and Mao provides a model of how such power can be wielded. Xi Jinping leads the Party, state, and military hierarchies by virtue of his chairmanship of each. But his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, exercised these roles within a system of collective leadership, in which each member of the Politburo Standing Committee took charge of a particular policy or institution and guided it without much interference from other senior officials.”

However, from Xi’s perspective, the problem with this consensus model started by Deng Xiaoping is that it did not “produce leadership sufficiently decisive to satisfy Xi and his supporters. So Xi has sidelined the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, except for the propaganda chief Liu Yunshan and the anticorruption watchdog Wang Qishan. He has taken the chairmanship of the most important seven of the twenty-two “leading small groups” that guide policy in specific areas. These include the newly established Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, which has removed management of the economy from Premier Li Keqiang. And Xi has created a National Security Council to coordinate internal security affairs.”

The path to power consolidation in the hands of one man is a slippery slope. One change in decision making structure leads to, and necessitates, yet another. Not surprisingly, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has antagonized many powerful CCP members, vastly increasing the risk of a coup. There even have been “rumors of assassination attempts. However… Xi has tightened direct control over the military by means of what is called a “[Central Military Commission] Chairman Responsibility System,” and he controls the central guard corps—which monitors the security of all the other leaders—through his longtime chief bodyguard, Wang Shaojun.3 In these ways Xi controls the physical environment of the other leaders, just as Mao did through his loyal follower Wang Dongxing.”

This is a fundamental deviation from the system set in place by Deng Xiaoping, where other Politburo members were in charge of key areas of administration.

“By overturning Deng’s system, Xi is hanging the survival of the regime on his ability to bear an enormous workload and not make big mistakes. He seems to be scaring the mass media and officials outside his immediate circle from telling him the truth. He is trying to bottle up a growing diversity of social and intellectual forces that are bound to grow stronger. He may be breaking down, rather than building up, the consensus about China’s path of development among economic and intellectual elites and within the political leadership. By directing corruption prosecutions at a retired Politburo Standing Committee member, Zhou Yongkang, and retainers of other retired senior officials, he has broken the rule that retired leaders are safe once they leave office, throwing into question whether it can ever be safe for him to leave office. As he departs from Deng’s path, he risks undermining the adaptability and resilience that Deng’s reforms painstakingly created for the post-Mao regime.”

Nathan says that Xi Jinping has “made himself in some ways more powerful than Deng or even Mao. Deng had the final word on difficult policy issues, but he strove to avoid involvement in day-to-day policy, and when forced to make big decisions he first sought consensus among a small group of senior leaders. Mao was able to take any decision he wanted regardless of the will of his senior colleagues, but he paid attention to only a few issues at a time. Xi appears to be running the whole span of important policies on a daily basis, without needing to consult senior colleagues or retired elders.”

Another sign of this trend can be read in the growing speculation that Xi “will seek to break the recently established norm of two five-year terms in office and serve one or even more extra terms.”

“He has had himself designated as the “core” of the leadership, a status that his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, did not take for himself. At this point in a leader’s first term we would expect to see one or two younger politicians emerging as potential heirs apparent, to be anointed at next year’s nineteenth Party Congress, but such signs are absent. One of the rumors circulating in Beijing is that teams of editors are compiling a book of Xi’s “thought” (sixiang), which would place him on a level with Mao as a contributor to Sino-Marxist theory, a status not claimed by any of Mao’s other successors to date.”

As a way of securing their long term political and financial insurance, many members of the Chinese aristocracy are investing their money in foreign companies, buying property in Europe and North America, and sending their children to foreign universities. “No wonder Xi’s regime behaves as if it faces an existential threat,” writes Nathan. “Given the power and resources that he commands, it would be reckless to predict that his attempt to consolidate authoritarian rule will fail. But the attempt risks creating the very political crisis that it seeks to prevent.”