The challenge of Xi Jinping’s Leninist autocracy

Like George Kennan’s long telegram, Martin Wolf lays out the challenges facing the West:

Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” Thus in 1956 did Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, predict the future.

Xi Jinping is far more cautious. But his claims, too, are bold. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era,” the general secretary of the Communist party of China told its 19th National Congress last week. “It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” The Leninist political system is not on the ash heap of history. It is, yet again, a model.

China has succeeded where past socialist systems have failed. Primarily because Deng Xiaoping recognized that a centrally planned economy was too inefficient. Instead he opted for a system that combined an open free market economy with tight political control. Effectively, a free market system ruled by an autocracy.

What are the implications of China’s marriage of Leninism and market. China has indeed learnt from the west in economics. But it rejects modern western politics. Under Mr Xi, China is increasingly autocratic and illiberal. In the Communist party, China has an ostensibly modern template for its ancient system of imperial sovereignty and meritocratic bureaucracy. But the party is now emperor. So, whoever controls the party controls all. One should add that shifts in an autocratic direction have occurred elsewhere, not least in Russia. Those who thought the fall of the USSR heralded the durable triumph of liberal democracy were wrong.

Will this combination of Leninist politics with market economics go on working as China develops? The answer must be: we do not know. A positive response could be that this system not only fits with Chinese traditions, but the bureaucrats are also exceptionally capable. The system has worked spectacularly so far. Yet there are also negative responses. One is that the party is always above the law. That makes power ultimately lawless. Another is that the corruption Mr Xi has been attacking is inherent in a system lacking checks from below. Another is that, in the long run, this reality will sap economic dynamism. Yet another is that as the economy and the level of education advances, the desire for a say in politics will become overwhelming. In the long run, the rule of one man over the party and that of one party over China will not stand.

It is likely that the Chinese “model” will collapse under its own weight, as its inherent weaknesses are exposed. But the West cannot afford to bury its head in the sand and ignore the rising threat.

History has shown that a combination of autocracy and economic power is dangerous for global stability. Untempered by the restraining influence of an effective democracy, autocracies tend to treat their own citizens harshly and their neighbors even harsher. Respect for rule of law, whether domestic law or international law, becomes subservient to the goals of their leaders.

Look no further than Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe or China in Tibet and the South China Sea. Whether the objective is establishing a sphere of influence, a defensive cordon or global hegemony, rule of law and respect for the rights of others are the first casualty.

Autocracies are not to be trusted.

As Martin Wolf says “China is our partner. It is not our friend.”

The challenges to the West are clear:

  1. Get it’s political house in order
  2. Protect its intellectual property
  3. Ensure a level playing field on the economic front
  4. Don’t tolerate gradual encroachment and erosion of Western democratic standards

Source: The challenge of Xi Jinping’s Leninist autocracy

11 thoughts on “The challenge of Xi Jinping’s Leninist autocracy

  1. ozmick says:

    Chinas’ massive advantage is that their autocratic political system (whilst inherently corrupt – Xis’ own anti-crruption campaign has also been levelled primarily at his political opponents) enables China to implement economic and social planning on a long term scale. This gives China the advantage of a coherence in economic planning the West can only dream of.

    In the meantime our democratic society (usually dominated by 2 opposing parties, often balanced by a 3rd party of fleeting opportunists), has ad hoc decision making based often on simply scoring points over the opposition, then this version of ad hoc is replaced by the next version of ad hoc at successive elections. Socially and economically our democratic system (as it has become) is costing us our leadership in the aforementioned areas.

    Westerners globally have become generally disenchanted/cynical of our politicians, with good reason. Without root and brach change in the West, China will become the undisputed global leader in short time, unfortunately.

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      Centrally-planned, autocratic systems have historically failed. So did China. Their success is accepting that failure and inviting a new system to take root.

      “Who cares whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” ~ Deng Xiaoping

      What we are witnessing is a tussle between two competing systems. I am confident that the democratic, capitalist system with respect for the individual and an independent judiciary (rule of law) will prevail. History has shown that warts and all it is still a better system.

      What the West needs to do is to recognize that and to focus on getting rid of the warts, not the system. That will also help to accelerate the demise of other autocracies.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Request received to post this anonymously.

        After living in both social systems for many years, I personally witness the brutal side of capitalism on ordinary people. I live in Chicagoland. The city of Chicago is well known for gun violence. Too many poor people. They have no hope. There are no decent jobs for many ordinary people. A few miles north from my place, the median house price is ~$80K, and a few miles south, the median house price is ~$1m. When you average them, it looks great. But that does not tell the true story.
        Democracy is great to let people FEEL that they have control of their society. The reality is different. Plus politicians will promise this and that, and gradually create huge debts. Again, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are good example. It looks like all levels of governments will go to the direction of Detroit and Greece.

        In terms of turmoils, the West had two world wars. So democracy will not prevent a country from big sufferings. Also, there are so many democratic countries which are never able to develop themselves out from poor state, such as the Philippines and India.

        Chinese debts are mostly internal. It is money from one internal pocket to another. Plus the Chinese government owns all lands in China and owns a lot of companies. If truly needed, the government can easily sell some of their assets.

        ….Anyway, too long to write. Chinese people are very pragmatic. Whatever works will be adopted. At this stage, people in China are quite happy with their government. Many people traveled (such as tourists) or lived (such as students) abroad saw the problems in the West first hand, and feel disappointed that the West is not that perfect as they perceived. Just talk to some Chinese students in your local cities.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Reply to Anonymous:

        Thank you for your insights. I would like to continue the discussion. It is in the interest of Western readers that they learn more of Chinese culture and the current system.

        The Western system has many flaws and failures, but its strength is that we are free to criticize it. It has the power to evolve where other systems do not.

        I grew up in a country (South Africa) with a strong paternalistic culture (respect your elders, obey your parents). But this obedience is dangerous when it extends to political leaders (power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely) and can lead countries down the wrong path with dire consequences for the country.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Reply from Anonymous:

        The subject is very interesting but it is hard for regular westerners to understand. As you know that Chinese society is a paternalist society, and people prefer that way. They want their lives to be taken care of. People here are brainwashed and cheated. When we put a label of “communist” on to some entity, we just assume it is terrible. But that is not true. The communist party was the one who truly care about ordinary people. They made a lot of mistakes, but they are willing to correct their problems. I am from a family with both parents originally from relatively well-to-do families before the revolution. But even though my grandparents and my parents suffered, we still think that what the revolution did to the country is good for the population. On the other hand, the economic activities in China are more capitalistic than those in the western countries. The competitions are fierce and quite unregulated. It is hard for regular western companies to compete directly with locals unless they have something special.

        Give you one example that shocked me. Two of my close friends went back in 2005 to Shanghai to start an IT consulting business. During the financial crisis in 2008, China’s economy slowed down also. It was hard for my friends to maintain the business profitable at that period. However, one day, they were called into a big meeting organized by Shanghai software industry association. In the meeting, they were strongly “advised” not to lay off people. They can reduce hours or salaries, but no layoffs. It was not an order by the government. But the message was clear. If they did not follow the advice, their future business would suffer. They would be on the government black list. This kind of things will never happen in the western countries. Is it good? Depend on which side you are. But overall, it was good for the society. Surely not good for businesses. So in that sense, a lot of Chinese companies will not be good investment since they have to take social responsibilities dictated by the government.

        After living in the US for many years, I have to say that I become more biased about races. People are not equal in terms of their capabilities and personalities. Most of Chinese are introvert, and are not good at communications. But they are doers. Chinese are especially good at learning math and science. (They may not be creative thinkers, but they are good learners.) In the US, the Chinese population is quite small. But wherever they are, their kids are mostly in the advanced math or science classes. (One of my daughter’s SAT score just came out a few days ago. Math, 99 percentile. English: only 88%.)

        If China can maintain a stable society, which I strongly belie it will, China’s advancement is hard to stop. For industries that depend heavily on previous patents (i.e. semiconductors), China will have difficulties to catch up. But for new areas such as AI and EVs, China can easily catch up and lead.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Reply to Anonymous:

        Fierce, unregulated competition is capitalism’s strength. It is also its weakness: capitalists need to be regulated to ensure that they do not take shortcuts that are harmful to society. That is absolutely essential whether it is mine workers in Africa, pesticide factories in India (Bhopal) or milk formula in China. The problem with autocratic government is normally corruption, where businesses are able to bypass regulations to the detriment of society.

        When it comes to persuasion from central government about social responsibilities, that is not a uniquely Chinese trait. Most countries are good at that.

        We all carry stereotypes. Blacks are good at basketball, Jews are good at business, Russians drink too much (unless you’re Irish ;-)….. some are positive and some are negative. There is a grain of truth in most of them but governments frequently encourage us to develop this further, into a sense of national pride/nationalism. It is a cheaper way of winning support than to deliver real improvements in the standard of living. Autocratic governments are particularly strong on this, because they are particularly bad at raising the standard of living and protecting the poor from exploitation. My point is that there are black mathematicians and Jewish basketball players. No one country or race is that much different in ability to any other. Work ethic is also quite dependent on your background. I have met Chinese kids from rich families who have never done a day’s work (playboys we used to call them in the 60s) and I know others from poorer backgrounds who have achieved amazing success. The same is true of most societies. Hunger or hardship is a strong motivator. But it fades after two or three generations of easy living.

        My wish is that China becomes a stable, successful, fiercely competitive, capitalist society. Democracy, respect for the law and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors (including respect for Tibetan and Uighur minorities) will surely follow.

        My fear is that China follows a similar development path to Germany, with industry and science running ahead of respect for individual rights … with disastrous consequences for both itself and its neighbors.

  2. Daniel H says:

    As a Chinese immigrant living in the US for 30 years, I feel I am the one from a third world country whenever I visit China now. Quite sad. I think that the many people in the western world are too proud of themselves and too arrogant to be open-minded. Chinese civilization has been there for thousand years. It is just different from the western civilization. You really can not use the rules in a fresh-water pond to judge and value the life in a salt water pond. Chinese are smart and hard-working. These two factors are enough to keep China leading in the new era of technological society.

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      China has certainly disrupted the global economy in the last 20 years but only time will tell whether this is a successful system. Japanese are also smart and hard-working, so are South Koreans, Singaporeans, Indians and many other nationalities. Most of these countries have experienced spectacular growth only to suffer a rapid reversal of fortunes as that growth exposed the flaws in their economic model. Dollar peg and massive debt seem to be a common thread. I would be happy to discuss how China could buck this trend.

      “Chinese civilization has been there for thousand years. It is just different from the western civilization.”
      Chinese civilization is a story of spectacular growth and spectacular failures, as are most (dare I say all) civilizations. Growth is normally built on the industry and resilience of ordinary people. Failures normally stem from inadequacies of the political system that organizes those individuals and is supposed to protect them and their property from those less scrupulous/industrious. I would recommend The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982) by Mancur Olson where he identifies how the rise of crony-capitalism leads to the decline of nations. He observed the phenomenal growth that occurred after the two world wars and concluded that countries where the existing ruling clique/distributive coalition was destroyed, normally by defeat, benefited the most. The Chinese have endured tremendous hardships in the last century and I admire their resilience. I hope that the arrogance of short-term success will not blind them to the dangers facing them, as in the past, from within.

      I should add that Western civilization is on the same path of crony-capitalism/decline and needs rebirth to achieve new growth. Hopefully both civilizations can achieve this rebirth without the spectacular collapse that is normally needed to remove the existing ruling clique/distributive coalition.

  3. Wolfgang Bose says:

    If we like it or not – but China has achieved remarkable things within the last 25-30 years and logic tells us that our type of Western Democracies cannot compete with a system where decision can be made and also implemented instantly. One should at least try to understand the reasons of China’s autocratic and partial dictatorial system, as without it China would be divided and would certainly collapse. By the way that does not mean to accept whatever their leaders “dish out”.

  4. blackeyebart says:

    The argument is based on a number of misconceptions about china and about history but the four “challenges to the West” are sound and should be supported. Too bad we don’t appear to be rising to any of these challenges with any determination or conviction.

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