China’s president Xi Jinping has a successor—himself. With this, Xi has re-stated the old dictum—now, political mandate is the basis of the economic mandate. The reactions to China’s recent constitutional amendments scrapping the two-term limit for the President (and Vice-President), ensconcing ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ as fundamental law and the ‘leadership of the Communist Party of China as the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ have ranged from mockery to disbelief to indifference. Chinese netizens showed their teeth, briefly. On the heels of the announcement, China’s netizens had a field day with clever puns and memes lampooning the decision. One social media image said something to the effect, ‘find the thing you love, and stick with it.’ Another rephrased a birth control advertisement saying that ‘twice is not enough’. All these came to an end when China’s sophisticated surveillance apparatus of ‘Little Pinks,’ (self-proclaimed patriots), ‘50 cent army’ (netizens on the Communist Party’s payroll) and clampdown on China’s microblogs took over with a ban on suggestive words and phrases such as ‘ascend’ and ‘Xi Zedong.’ But, many on the street, mostly the younger generation, continue to be appalled by the decision. “I’m worried, because if the Constitution could be easily changed, anything else can,” said a young corporate to this author. But, many of China’s laobaixing (China’s common man), much like India’s common man, couldn’t care less. “What matters to me is my daily bread and butter, not politics,” said another, shrugging his shoulders.
In the last hundred years, China’s political trajectory has undergone shifts —from Qing dynasty to the nationalists (1921), to the communist revolution (1949). Famously, despite their changing dispositions, these political shifts have unanimously claimed the Chinese Mencian (later Confucian) concept of the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tian ming) or ‘legitimacy to rule.’ China’s rulers, emperors to the ‘new emperors’ (the Communists) have sought refuge in ‘divine rights’ to promise of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to recently, economic moorings. All claim legitimacy because of the pursuit of China’s greater good—the goals of ‘fu’ (rich) and ‘qiang’ (strong), the magic words in China’s political lexicon. China’s Mao Zedong (1949-1976) interpreted the same by centralisation and extolling people to ‘eat bitterness’ for the sake of a better tomorrow—resulting in land reforms, birth control, uptick in literacy and control of common diseases.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) interpreted the same by distancing from the Maoist legacy of political repression. Deng moved with the times, loosening the state grip on citizens, marking the ‘retreat of the state.’ Deng’s logic was that a small measure of political liberalism and a largesse of economic reforms would lift all boats. Deng’s legacy evolved over the years with improvisations, additions into a norm, thus, establishing ‘quasi-formal’ political institutionalisation, largely in operation today. Xi has turned a new page, with Xi’s current model interpreting legitimacy in a new manner, in the ‘new era’. This may have been done at the cost of Deng’s prized legacy, which is rather ironical, given that China will be celebrating 40 years of Deng’s economic reforms and 40 years of smooth transition of power, both no mean feats, this year (1978-2018). Xi’s current model is a peculiar mix that incorporates both Mao and Deng. Called by observers as ‘Neo-Authoritarianism 2.0,’ it is best described as an ‘enhanced Deng Xiaoping model’ of ‘Mao measures’ (politically repressive, including the making of a personality cult) walking on the ‘Deng road’ (economically progressive) with ambitious economic goals.
As for the Xi in the political mould of Mao—centralisation has taken the form of institutional titles that Xi has taken upon himself. TIME (2016) called Xi, ‘Chairman Xi’, attributing the same to a personality-cult-in-the-making. Much in the manner of Mao’s ‘red book’, Xi’s ‘blue book’ is doing rounds. Xi has a fan club (‘Learning from the Xi Fan Club’ with more than 2 million members). A series of articles by Zhexin (the penname of Xi) is being actively promoted. And, songs that eulogise Xi, including one that says, ‘Grandfather Xi is our Friend’, are reverberating in small towns. Xi is also China’s new ‘Uncle’—‘Xi Dada’ casting him as an accessible, benign patriarch. The rationale for Xi’s strong leadership is attributed to China’s bureaucratic and administrative delays and China’s peculiar vertical and horizontal lines of control (tiao and kuai, top-down and local), which may scuttle economic goals.
China has not been able to ‘protect 7’ — 7% growth, and has shifted to a ‘new normal’ of slower, but qualitative growth. China’s double-digit GDP growth declined from 10.6 % in 2010 to 9.5% in 2011; and it was 6.9 % in 2017. Xi ambitious economic goals of economic revival include ‘Chinese Dream for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ includes reaching the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049) coinciding with 100 years of the Communist Party(CPC) and the People’s Republic (PRC); removal of poverty by 2020, ‘Make in China 2025’ (akin to Germany’s Industry 4.0 plan, 2012), innovative power by 2035 with a ‘world class’ PLA by 2050. Xi’s plans for economic revival are centred around the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), described as a ‘new stimulus model’, much like China’s old preferred model of ‘stimulating growth through investment, exports and subsidies to state-owned enterprises (SOEs), operating outside of China on a regional scale, via BRI.’ Other hiccups include restructuring ‘zombie’ state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the ballooning debt-GDP ratio at 260%. Described as ‘epic debt’, this will challenge China’s new central bank governor, Yi Gang.
But, in doing so, Xi has distanced himself from Deng’s gold standard of political mantras, the most important being collective leadership as a key political safeguard, particularly, given China’s one-party state. Another of Deng’s mantras that has been put on the backburner (for now) is generational succession as the model of transition of power. Different generation leaderships succeed from Mao to Deng (second generation), Deng to Jiang (third generation), Jiang to Hu (fourth generation) and Hu to Xi (fifth generation). The ‘fifth generation’ (born in the 1950s) is to make way for the ‘sixth generation’ leadership (born in the 1960s). The current team of China’s ‘Super Seven’ Politburo Standing Committee members (PBSC) belong to the ‘fifth generation’, and in order of hierarchy include Xi (age 64), Li Keqiang (age 62), Li Zhanshu (age 67), Wang Yang (age 62), Wang Huning (62), Zhao Leji (age 60) and Han Zheng (age 63)—all of them in their sixties.
Xi has also distanced himself from Deng’s ‘cross-generation designation of successor’. The key successor is picked out well in advance. At the 14th Party Congress in 1992, Hu Jintao (age 49) was elevated into the apex body Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), giving him a period of 10 years (1992-2002) for preparation of his responsibilities. China’s 25-member Politburo includes Ding Xuexiang (age 55), Chen Min’er (age 57) and Hu Chunhua (age 54). The rest of the 20 members are 60 and above. The young faces may be the faces to watch—but, of late, China’s political purges have been unpredictable. The logic of Xi’s political model is ingrained in China’s economic revival. Instead of securing the ‘mandate of heaven’ in economic revival, Xi has reversed the equation by seeking economic revival in the political mandate.
But China’s political currents are largely unpredictable. Historically, the greatest threat to political leadership has not come from the masses, thus, discounting the present day 750-million-plus netizens and the hundreds of thousands of isolated social protests (180,000 in 2010) or separatists a la Uyghurs of Xinjiang and Tibetans of Sichuan, Gansu and TAR, but from the classes or the elite. In that sense, whether Xi succeeding himself, is a safe bet within the party elite itself, is a leap in the dark.
Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal.