Opinion | What the West is still getting wrong about the rise of Xi Jinping

One of the few issues on which there is a consensus in Washington these days is that US policy toward China was built on an intellectual error. Liberals and conservatives alike believed that Beijing’s embrace of free markets and its integration with the global economy would fundamentally change China . But they didn’t, and (so the consensus goes) we should recognize that this was a naive belief in the power of markets and trade.

In fact, viewing China on the eve of the pivotal 20th Party Congress, I am struck by how little that line of analysis captures what has actually happened in China over the past decades. China has gone through profound economic and social changes. Its per capita GDP has gone up almost thirtyfold since the start of economic liberalization in 1978. Mass education and urbanization have changed the face of the country. Hundreds of millions Chinese are now middle class, use the most cutting-edge tools of the information revolution and have considerable freedom to own property, start businesses and change their places of residence, all previously forbidden.

It is precisely in response to these massive changes that Xi Jinping has launched his program of repression and centralization. When Xi came to power in 2012, he determined that economic liberalization was actually transforming China profoundly — in a bad way. He believed that the Communist Communist Party was on the verge of becoming irrelevant in a society dominated by capitalism and consumerism. So he cracked down in every sphere imaginable — attacking the private sector, humiliating billionaires, reviving Communist ideology, purging the party of corrupt officials and ramping up nationalism (mostly anti-Western) in both word and deed.

In this regard, Xi follows a familiar pattern. In dictatorships where liberalization and growth have produced a middle class, the regime’s first response is to maintain its hold on power. In the era when South Korea and Taiwan were still autocracies, economic liberalization there gradually led to a growing middle class and calls for greater political freedom — prompting the regimes to crack down, often violently. Yet repression did not work and eventually gave way to democracy.

The real question to ask is why China’s response to the changes unleashed by its market opening has been so successful. Why has Xi Jinping’s campaign of repression worked where other East Asian ones did not? The answer lies in a brilliant 2021 essay by China scholar Minxin Pei. Pei points out that China is almost unique in the world today. Nearly every country with a per capita income higher than China’s is either a democracy of some sort or an oil and gas dictatorship. (Abundant resources enable a country to get rich without having to modernize its economy or society, because all it has to do is dig in the ground for natural wealth.) Why is China the great exception?

Pei revives an old distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In the former, government is repressive but not all-encompassing. In the latter, such as China and the Soviet Union, the state dominates all spheres of life and does not allow an independent civil society to develop. The Chinese Communist Party dominates everything in China. When a social movement rises outside of the party, such as the Falun Gong, the party views it as a mortal threat and shuts it down.

At the heart of Xi Jinping’s worldview is his fear regarding the demise of Soviet communism. Xi expressed the view that this happened because the party leaders there lost faith in their ideology and their movement. He sees Mikhail Gorbachev as a foolish reformer who opened up the political system only to see the whole country collapse. The lesson: double down on Leninist party control.

In the conditions of a totalitarian state, Pei points out, the changes produced by economic growth lead to the need for more and more repression — producing, in China (and I would add Russia), a reversion to neo-Stalinism. Vladimir Putin and Xi are similar in recognizing that too much contact and commerce with the West can undermine their rule, inspiring them to search for ways to make their countries less dependent on the West and to consolidate their personalized rule.

The problem for Xi is that he is steering China on a very dangerous path. The state is now dominating the economy again and growth has slowed considerably. Enterprising Chinese businessmen are moving to Singapore and elsewhere. Areas of Chinese society that were once lively and innovative are closing down. Meanwhile, international hostility toward Xi’s expansionism is growing. Pei points out that the neo-Stalinist model bottles up all the forces of change, leaving only one door open — revolution.

As Pei notes, by 2035, China will have about 300 million college graduates. Will they be content to live quietly under Xi’s reign of repression?

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