The centralisation of authority under President Xi Jinping has exceeded that under Mao Zedong, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
In 1945, Mao Zedong felt confident enough to convene a Plenum of the Communist Party of China that would endorse a set of resolutions that made him the effective supremo of the party, and committed the CCP to any line favoured by the Chairman in the course of his rule. In 1981, Deng Xiaoping had wrested control of the party machinery from those who sought a continuation of the policies of the past, and who refused to endorse Deng’s moves to reform the PRC economy. The Plenum that year formalised the change from the diehards of the past to the policies of Deng Xiaoping. Subsequently, Mao went on to double the land area of China by absorbing Xinjiang, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Tibet into the PRC. He was also responsible for some catastrophic events, such as the 1950s famine that killed tens of millions in China, and the chaos and destruction of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and lasted a decade.
The ensuing chaos wiped out much of the senior cadre of the CCP. Fortunately for China, Mao spared Deng Xiaoping, and after the clearing out of senior CCP cadre by the Cultural Revolution, it was relatively easy for Deng in 1981 to establish his supremacy over the Chinese Communist Party and follow through with reforms. These ensured that by 2012, the year Xi Jinping took over as CCP General Secretary, Greater China (the construct created by Mao Zedong) had reached the ranks of the superpowers, occupied since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992 solely by the United States. It becomes clear from Xi’s subsequent trajectory that his intention was to go one better than Mao by making the PRC the most powerful country on the planet. Mao was transparent about his territorial expansionism, as was Deng about his economic reforms
In a similar way, Xi Jinping is open about the objective of displacing the US and making China the centre point of global geopolitics. This determination had been obvious for some time, but it was only after Donald Trump replaced the confrontation-averse Barack Obama as the 45th President of the US in 2017 that a real fightback against Xi’s efforts accelerated. This fightback has been continued by President Joe Biden, somewhat to the surprise of General Secretary Xi, who must therefore have accelerated efforts aimed at weakening Biden domestically in the manner that was so successful with Trump since 2018, the year when steep tariffs on selected Chinese imports were imposed by the US, to the consternation of Wall Street, which has long remained an apologist for the CCP.
The CCP Central Committee meeting that General Secretary Xi convened this month was designed to help establish him as undisputed supremo, much the way the 1945 plenum established the foundation for a similar lifetime takeover of the party by Mao. That plenum, as in 1981(that enshrined Den as the Supremo for Life of the CCP) saw an immense churn in the top echelons of the party, with a similar shakeout of mid-tier cadres loyal to displaced and often disgraced higher level party leaders. Party policy was made into a blank slate, for Mao, Deng and increasingly for Xi, so as to imprint the policies they favoured. On 23 July 2021, the party began the year it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
By 23 July 2022, Xi Jinping seeks to ensure that a legacy gets created that will ensure that he remain the party supremo for life, as was the case formally with Mao until his passing in 1976 and with Deng until his death in 1997, the year of the Hong Kong handover from London to Beijing. In the case of Xi, his emerging as the Leader for Life of the CCP has become an existential necessity for him, as his ruthless treatment of foes real and imagined has generated suppressed anger against him among many who are waiting for Xi to have his authority weakened before striking out. The chopping off from authority, or in the case of some, their freedom or even lives, of those regarded as being uncomfortably close to either Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao has caused resentment within the CCP that is forced to remain concealed but will continue to simmer, awaiting better times before coming into view.
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It is often forgotten that from 1943 onwards, Mao Zedong made an intense effort to befriend the US, and succeeded in getting assistance from that superpower that he used to replenish the PLA after its battles with both the Japanese military as well as the KMT forces. This was continued after 1945, so much so that there were large clusters of individuals in the US who saw Chairman Mao as an “agrarian reformer” rather than as a diehard communist committed to the downfall of the capitalist system. The wind turned by 1949, after Mao had chased off Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to take refuge in Taiwan, in which the retreating KMT forces took over control from the existing population of an island.
Taiwan had been self-governing since Japan surrendered in 1945. During the close of the 1980s, the KMT remade itself into the leading political party in Taiwan, a role first been ceded to the DPP at the start of the 21st century and subsequently in the 2016 elections. By the 1970s, Washington had changed its affiliation to Beijing from Taipei, and to the present, several corporates in the US, Japan and Taiwan continue to be a force-multiplier for the PRC’s efforts at making the US and Japan weak and converting Taiwan into another Hainan.
General Secretary Xi has to show to his cadre and his country that he is standing up to the US and fulfilling his expansive ambition of securing Chinese leadership at the cost of major powers that seek to avoid another unipolar world. This has resulted in a movement of capital away from the PRC, which is raising the economic cost to China of the way in which Deng’s policy of “speaking softly” has been replaced by Wolf Warrior tactics and the frequent wielding of the big stick. This happens especially against several countries including members of ASEAN. They too must be reconsidering their options, although as yet being too wary of Beijing to do so in an overt manner. Xi is hyping up the “threat” faced by China, when in reality it is the threat caused by the PRC including through the PLA that is leading to a reaction from Washington, Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra, to name a few of those banding together to protect a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” in the words of Narendra Modi.
The centralisation of authority under Xi has exceeded that under Mao, who was lackadaisical about his work except for occasional periods of hyperactivity. In contrast, Xi is a workaholic with a penchant for working long periods of time with few breaks. Much of his efforts have been in dismantling the economic superstructure created under Deng, Jiang and Hu. Control by the Office of the General Secretary, has become the objective. This is affecting the autonomy and freedom of action of enterprises across the country, whether these be private or State-owned. Decisions are taking longer, and the insecurity of dreading a knock on the door by the police as a consequence of the Anti-Corruption campaign has taken away the efficiency and enthusiasm that was the hallmark of Chinese business since the 1990s. Xi Jinping may get his way in 2022 and thereby ensure his coronation as Leader for Life of China. The more difficult part will be to ensure that the living standards of the Chinese people (especially the young) not go downward after two generations which saw rising incomes thanks to three of his predecessors. Wolf Warriors may not be the best managers of an economy as large as is that of the PRC.