By Kevin Rudd
The recent decision by China’s National People’s Congress to abolish term limits for the office of the president has sent shock waves through the West: Xi Jinping, the current officeholder, is suddenly being described as a new Confucian autocrat, overseeing a state still governed by a Marxist-Leninist party, presiding over a selectively capitalist economy, with ambitions to make his country a global superpower.
This sense of shock says more about the West than China. For the last five years, Western leaders and analysts have often projected onto China an image of their preferred imaginings, rather than one reflecting the actual statements of China’s own leaders, or in the physical evidence of Chinese statecraft. These have long pointed to a vastly different reality.
Mr. Xi has not suddenly changed. From early on, he demonstrated an unmatched level of political skill in rapidly consolidating power. To get to the top, he has outflanked, outmaneuvered, marginalized and then removed all his principal opponents. The story of his remarkable ascent is hardly a secret. And it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
His anti-corruption campaign has been a master class in political warfare; since 2013 he has used it to clean up the party, clean out any potential challengers and insert his loyalists into broad swaths of the government, with himself at the top. And he’s not finished yet: A “National Supervisory Commission” is now being established to take this campaign beyond the ranks of the party to the entire country.
Mr. Xi now chairs six top-level “leading small groups” as well as a number of central committees and commissions, covering every major area of policy. So-called Xi Jinping Thought is being incorporated into the Constitution — a unique arrangement for a sitting president (unlike his predecessors, who had to wait until they were out of office to have their “thought” incorporated). In this light, the abolition of term limits on his office is just the icing on the cake; even without this change, Mr. Xi was likely to remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s.
Much of the focus has been on Mr. Xi’s “new authoritarianism.” But there is a danger that in doing so analysts miss the broader changes in China’s overall national direction. For the last few years China has been returning to parts of its old Marxist-Leninist ideological orthodoxy, after four decades of policy pragmatism. Along with this change, the Chinese Communist Party is regaining its institutional status over the policy machinery of the Chinese state; before, the party had focused on ideology, while professionals at the various departments of state handled the complex questions of policy and governance.
Today the locus of policy power has shifted from the State Council to the Politburo Standing Committee, including on the core question of the economy. This is a critical change from the days of the previous premier, Zhu Rongji. Mr. Xi believes the party must play a vital role in managing the economy while holding the country together, as China’s transformation into a global great power continues.
There is danger here. Mr. Xi is not an economist, and his premier, Li Keqiang, technically responsible for the economy, is politically weak. This sets up a potential tension between the party and the president’s desire for control over the economy and the party’s previous plans for further economic reform.
In 2013, the party released a blueprint for the next generation of economic change — transforming China from an old model of high growth, based on low-wage, labor-intensive manufacturing for export and supplemented by high levels of state investment in basic economic infrastructure, to a new model accepting lower, sustainable growth rates based on expanding domestic consumption, the services sector and the replacement over time of state-owned enterprises with a new generation of private companies like Alibaba.
However, over the past five years, the pace of reform has slowed, in large part because the party has feared losing control. The 13th National People’s Congress has promised to accelerate the reform program once more, with a renewed commitment to put “the market” at the center of the economy. We will see.
Perhaps the greatest analytical error across the West has been the view that Xi Jinping would want to continue to sustain the liberal, international rules-based order once its economic power began to rival that of the United States. Again, this hope goes against the well-known facts: China has long said that it sees the existing order as one invented by the victors of the last world war, one in which China did not have a seat at the table.
China has never shared the West’s view of human rights. It has long sought to weaken the powers of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. China has at best had an ambivalent attitude to free trade — just look at its qualified support for the World Trade Organization, its opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its own long history of mercantilism.
And as for the global security order, China has never changed its hostility to the global system of American military alliances, in particular those in the Asia Pacific, which it has long attacked as legacies of the Cold War. That’s in addition to China’s assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
For these reasons, Mr. Xi has explicitly called for “a new type of great power relations,” “a new type of international system” emerging out of the “current struggle for the international order” and a new type of activist Chinese diplomacy that puts to bed Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time, and never take the lead.” Hence its efforts to foster an alternative multilateral system with the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Over time Mr. Xi would like to turn the page on the liberal Western order and write a new chapter in world history. If China in the next decade becomes the largest economy in the world with Mr. Xi still likely its leader, the country’s economic success would be based on a form of state capitalism that rejects the notion that rising income parallels broader economic liberalization and political democracy.
None of us knows how much Mr. Xi will seek to apply the principles of this “China model” to the wider international order. There will be tensions here. But we should be very clear about what Mr. Xi wants for China itself, rather than seeing it through the rose-colored glasses of the West, still shaped by the images of Deng Xiaoping’s China, a quarter of a century ago. Xi Jinping’s China is radically different.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 21, 2018, on Page A14 of the National edition with the headline: What the West doesn’t get about Xi.