Don't call it a spade
China doesn’t care about your opinion
Well, the news is out: Xi Jinping has become dictator of China for life. He’s the new Mao, a totalitarian ogre who will destroy human rights across the world.
Or so would the Western media have it. But that’s why you’re here reading my blog, of course, because you want a better take. Well this is mine.
What just happened? Well, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, the de-jure highest power of the land, made by 205 members, has proposed a series of changes to China’s constitution. Amongst them are the abolition of term limits for the 主席 President and 副主席 Vicepresident. Previously, since 1982, there was a limit of two consecutive terms for both offices.
What do the president and vice president of China do? The offices have no power. The constitutions, and any other law, give them no power. None at all. They are completely ceremonial.
So what’s the point? That’s a good question. China has a weird double structure, where the party and state are distinct entities, but have completely mirror structures. For every province, city and county, there is a government, with its governors and mayors and vice governors and vice-mayors. And then there’s a Communist Party committee for the same province city or county, with a secretary general. The secretary general calls the shots. The mayor isn’t an entirely ceremonial office, but it is completely subservient to the secretary general of the local committee. There has been lots of calls for abolishing this nonsense and just unify the administration, but the system remains in place.
The central government, the 国务院, has a “prime minister”, today Li Keqiang. That guy’s not ceremonial either, he wields substantial power. But for some reason, Deng Xiaoping in 1982 decided to put a President on top of the prime minister. I guess for diplomatic reasons. Foreigners don’t understand how Chinese politics work, not then and not now, so he wanted to make it easier to understand.
There’s this funny anecdote about the Second Opium War in 1860, when the British invaded Beijing and burnt the Qing Dynasty’s Summer Palace, but didn’t occupy the capital and left the Forbidden City alone. The Summer palace was the real place of government, had been for a century. The Forbidden City is narrow and urban and hot and hell, it was built by the previous dynasty. The Summer Palace was a country palace, away from the city, full of nice gardens and European buildings. But it was where the emperor lived, where all decisions were made. The British didn’t get it; they thought it was this country garden, so they burnt it, but left the Forbidden City alone so the Chinese government could get to work. He was a gentlemen and wouldn’t interfere with that.
So anyway, knowing how Westerners are, he having lived in Paris, Deng Xiaoping made the figure of the President, which has also coincided with the Secretary General of the Central Committee, i.e. the actual boss. So the actual boss and the fake boss have since 1982 always been the same. (ETA: Sorry, I got that wrong. During Hu Yaobang’s reign the President was Li Xiannian, a figurehead).
Well, not quite since 1982. Interestingly enough, Deng Xiaoping has never been Secretary General. Nor president. He was “chief advisor” of an “advisory committee” he came up with. The secretary general during Deng’s period of rule were Hu Yaobang and later Zhao Ziyang. Both renown liberals; Hu Yaobang is today hated by the nationalist right for ordering minority criminals to be treated lightly; Zhao Ziyang of course famously sided with the protesters at Tiananmen, for which he was sacked and detained. He died in house arrest.
Oh, there’s this other piece of power which Deng did actually hold formally. The People’s Liberation Army. He was chief of the Central Military Commission, which controls the military. He didn’t leave that for Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang. He kept that for himself, apparently forced by the army itself, who was not willing to obey those pesky liberal reformers he had put in charge of the civilian government. In 1989, after Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping somehow decided to formally retire and give the whole package, the Secretary General of the party, the Presidency and the Secretary of the Military Commission to Jiang Zemin. Jiang took the three posts by stages, and soon controlled all formal levers of power. Deng was still calling most of the shots until his death in 1997, but Jiang had formal, and soon real power over the whole country.
Henceforth the idea that the same man must control the three offices has become an institution in China, which they now call the “trinity”, 三位一体. Yes, that’s actual Christian vocabulary. I really hate this part of CPC rhetoric, but anyway. In the 1990s Jiang Zemin controlled all levers of power, the real one, i.e. the Secretary General of the party; the fake one, the President, and the military one. The Secretary General has no term limits. It’s not in the constitution, of course, that’s about the state. The party has its party statutes. And no, no term limits. Same for the military commission. No term limits. So the only term limits are those for the Presidency, which is the fake office. Of course it’s prestigious and all; but it has no real power.
This was some weird legal magic that Deng Xiaoping had done there. Jiang Zemin had the three offices now, again, party, state and army. True, fake, true. He kinda liked this idea of having it all. Jiang also spoke some English and loved, loved with a passion to hang out with foreigners and just brag with them on how cool he was. Go check it out, the guy’s funny. So anyway, Jiang Zemin could have it all, but only for two terms, 10 years. After that he had to surrender one, but not necessarily all. He could keep the actual offices of power.
So what did he do? He was quite smart. He was Secretary General from right after Tiananmen, in 1989. But he delayed access to the Presidency until 1993. So he could hold onto the three offices until 2003, 14 years of actual power. And that’s exactly what he did. He could have found some toady, some Medvedev, and give him the presidency. But he didn’t do that; he chose Hu Jintao, a boring but competent guy, and put him as successor. In 1998 he was made Vice-president. Then in 2002 gave him first the office of Secretary General, then the presidency in 2003. And in 2005 (he was in no hurry), he gave him the military command.
Hu Jintao was no match for Jiang though, and it’s widely acknowledged that Jiang Zemin till call the shots during Hu Jintao’s time in power. But then another 10 years passed. Jiang Zemin was getting old, very old. He’s 91 now. And people were getting fed up with his rule. The idea that Hu Jintao could play some game and hold onto power was just not in the cards. He wasn’t that kind of guy. Hu Jintao followed Jiang Zemin’s precedent, and in 2008 put his successor as Vice-president. That’s Xi Jinping.
Now you’d read a lot about who Xi Jinping is, whose faction he belongs to, how he got the post, etc. Most of what you read is probably complete crap. He was often called a “princeling”, a member of a faction made up of the children of old high-ranking politicians from the 60s and 70s. That’s not important. What’s important is what he’s been doing since he took office. In 2012 he took the office of Secretary General, then immediately the military commission. Hu Jintao wasn’t allowed to play there for a few years as Jiang Zemin had done. He surrendered it immediately. That gave signs that Xi Jinping was the real deal. Then in 2013 he took the presidency.
Since then Xi Jinping has unleashed a massive crackdown on both Jiang Zemin’s and Hu Jintao’s protégés. And he’s also jailed a big bunch of those princelings he was supposedly the leader of. Most famously Bo Xilai, who was this handsome, well-spoken guy who tried to outmanouver him out of sheer charisma and a very smart practice of making sure his friends were making a lot of money. Well, Mr. Bo is now in jail. Apparently writing daily (!) letters protesting about his outrageous treatment.
Besides cracking down on corruption, which he has undoubtedly done, Xi has also done a lot to tighten up the country. Most foreign journos would have you think that Xi is undoing the liberal legacy of his predecessors. But that’s fake news. Xi Jinping didn’t start internet censorship. He perfected it. Xi Jinping didn’t start the crackdown against restless minorities (there’s only two, Tibetans and Uyghurs). Hu Jintao started that as Governor of Tibet. Yes, that guy. Xi Jinping is only building on that legacy. China hasn’t had a liberal in government since Zhao Ziyang in 1989. What China had were timid leaders of few words, who outwardly seemed to accept the superiority of Western democracy. They then cracked down on human rights and whatever, but without talking about it. Very subtly and with the lights off. Western politicians liked that; it meant that the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t quite confident of its rule, and after a few time all the contradictions between rhetoric and reality would explode, giving USG and the Cathedral an opening into a market of 1.3 billion potential bioleninists.
That completely changed with Xi Jinping. He has completely changed the internal and external rhetoric of China. Now China has its own system of rule, which is different from Western democracy, and that’s a good thing. China does not believe in separation of powers, in freedom of speech. And human rights, well yeah, but China interprets that as for example, having low crime rates, area in which China can claim wide superiority over the West. Xi Jinping is also making bold claims for (maritime) territory and influence. It is taking no shit, and giving plenty.
It should be no surprise that this drives Western politicians crazy. China is now fairly rich, it’s buying property and high-tech companies across the world. China has made Southeast Asia it’s diplomatic backyard, made a strong relationship with Russia against the US. It’s practically vassalized South Korea, and eaten up so much of Taiwan economy that it’s independence-minded government is limited to approving gaymarriage and bringing Muslim immigrants in order to beg for some Western sympathy.
All while internally the party’s rule is tighter than ever. The standard narrative of Western democracy is that a developing economy creates a middle class, who then agitates for political rights. That may or may not be an accurate representation of the European experience, the revolutions of 1848 and all that. But it most certainly doesn’t apply today. Today we have the internet. The internet creates monopolies by network effects. And governments just can’t help themselves from merging with these monopolies. In the West, Google, Twitter, Facebook, are all arms of the cathedral. They censor, control and gather data for it. In China, Baidu, WeChat, Alibaba, are all arms of the Communist Party. The only difference is that in China, they are formally so.
And so Xi Jinping has now decided to do away with the term limits for President. Changing the constitution isn’t unprecedented. The 1982 constitution has been ammended 4 times already. Some changes were quite big. Recognizing private property, for instance. The changes this time though have a very obvious theme: controlling the damn party. Enforcing discipline. They say Xi Jinping is obsessed with Gorbachov and the fall of the Soviet Union. On why the CPSU dissolved itself. It won’t happen on his watch. He has created a new State Supervision Agency, a state-level agency, answering not to the government, but to the central committee, only to investigate illegal activity by public officials. That’s a very, very old Chinese tradition, but let’s leave it at that. The rationale is clear: all civil servants in the country must behave, obey orders, and stop trying to push for more power for themselves. It won’t happen.
The Communist Party of China has close to 90 million members. That’s bigger than the population of Germany. Coordinating and organizing 90 million people is no easy feat. Making sure they all obey order is borderline impossible. Civil servants in China have developed every way you can imagine to ignore the law and use their power to enrich themselves. The amount of money that civil servants in China have embezzled is in the trillions. And plenty have now families abroad, and many now kinda like liberal values. Everybody in China hates these people. Everybody in China has been scammed or cheated of victimized by some asshole politician. Well, if Xi Jinping wants to re-establish the legitimacy of the Communist party, and his personal rule, it is quite easy to see what his rhetoric is: People, I will protect you from evil politicians. I will jail them and get them out, and replace them with good people. That he has been doing, or he says he has been doing, and most people are quite content with it. The re-disciplining of the party has required cult-levels of ideological repression. The party media openly talks about the need for party members to have “faith”. It’s unseemly, but that’s how large organizations work. Or isn’t Facebook a cult? Have you seen Zuck talk?
Now, those local embezzlers are not happy. And those more or less honest business people who have fallen as collateral damage of the investigations are very much not happy about it. And everyone who just got used to liberal values, talking politics, and all that, are scared as fuck by internet controls and media censorship and talk of “faith in the party”. All these people have endured 5 years of Xi Jinping, and probably were thinking they only have wait 5 more years until Xi’s term limits come in. Then they could keep on embezzling money to buy Vancouver real-estate. Or go on gay-parties with drugs bought from Nigerians in Sanlitun. Well, tough luck. Xi Jinping is not going anywhere. That’s the message of the constitutional change.
People should have figured that out when talk started to come of “Xi Jinping thought” going into the party statutes and the constitution. Xi Jinping thought doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a badge. A badge that says: as long as Xi Jinping is alive, his “thought” is one of the guiding ideologies of the country. So even if he’s not Secretary General, any potential successor must follow his orders. His thought is in the constitution! Go ask the guy about what he thinks.
But it also happens that Xi Jinping is a formalist. He doesn’t believe in tricks. He wants everybody to know that he’s in charge, that he will be in charge as long as necessary, until he makes the Communist Party a disciplined organization without political machinations. No liberals will take power on his watch. China will not fall while he’s there.
This may or may not be scary by itself; but it has nothing to do with being “a new Mao”. Mao was not a dictator until 1966. And in order to become one he had to unleash the Cultural Revolution, where he physically killed every single enemy he had, and physically tortured about 90% of the party leadership. Mao did that precisely because he was not secure in his power. After 1959 he was removed from power due to, well, causing the starvation of tens of millions of people with the Great Leap Forward. He thought he would be purged and disgraced; and so he threw everything he had against the party. And he won. That’s what Mao did. Xi Jinping is in a completely different situation. He has comfortable complete power over all the country, and in an orderly and formal way. He has nothing to fear.
As many of us now, it is not from secure power that bad government happens. It is due to insecure power, which leads the powerful to mess with society in order to secure it. That is what the Chinese historical tradition calls 乱, “disorder”. Mao’s time was a disorderly time. Xi Jinping’s time, you may like, or not like, but it is most certainly orderly.
Now, a lot of people in China are kinda freaking out. Mostly liberal-ish college grads. If only because having a president for life does cut off some potential avenues for upward status mobility. And people hate that, of course, people want more status, more every day. If Xi is smart, he’ll open up the economy a bit, so that status-maximizers can put their energies in making money and not in selling their country to USG’s bioleninist outreach department. We’ll see.