Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xioping. The centralisation of power that has occurred during Xi’s still relatively recent ascendancy is remarkable. Not only is Xi the president and head of state, but he is also general secretary of the pivotally important Communist Party of China, not to mention chair of the Central Military Commission, which controls China’s armed forces.
Barack Obama may routinely be dubbed “the most powerful man in the world”, but he faces many more constraints on executive political power and a much more effective – if not very constructive – political opposition than does his counterpart in China. Indeed, Xi has eliminated some potential sources of resistance to his rule in his anti-corruption drive, which has famously begun to net “tigers” as well as “flies”.
So powerful has Xi become, in fact, that his leadership bears comparison with the dynastic rule of pre-revolutionary China – with all the potential pitfalls that implies. Not only is China’s leadership still imperious and autocratic, but the concentration of power in one person’s hands means that Xi’s personal qualities and abilities have potentially profound implications for the nation as a whole. The fate of China is once again vulnerable to the bad emperor syndrome.
With great power comes great responsibility. The central problem and question in China’s imperial order was what happened when the incumbent was incompetent and failed to exercise power wisely. In a system that lacks transparent legal processes to regulate executive authority and to determine who wields it, this is still a potentially fatal flaw - and far from an historical curiosity.
On the contrary, while Chinese intellectuals will privately unburden themselves about the destructive and megalomaniacal nature of Mao Zedong’s rule, for example, public ventilation of such views remains off-limits. And yet the Cultural Revolution remains a sobering and traumatic reminder of the horrors a modern bad emperor can unleash.
Thus far Xi’s rule enjoys widespread popular support, in large part because of what looks like a genuine attempt to crackdown on the widely resented corruption that had become such an endemic part of politics and business in China. Attacking high-profile, powerful figures such as the former head of internal security Zhou Yongkang in the course of this campaign is both an indicator of its seriousness and fraught with risk. Certainly Xi could cement his popularity with the general public if this campaign proves successful, but the tens of thousands of other public officials who have also been caught in the anti-corruption net represent a growing pool of disgruntled potential enemies.
Yet one of the potential benefits of authoritarian rule is that it’s possible to implement unpopular reforms despite powerful vested interests – a possibility clearly not easily open to Barack Obama (or Tony Abbott, for that matter). The potential to act on pollution and climate change, for example, is something that China’s leadership appears to be taking increasingly seriously, despite the magnitude of the challenge. The performance of some of the world’s democracies – especially our own – stands in revealing contrast.
And yet for all its flaws democracy has normative attractions and practical strengths that even the most enlightened authoritarian rule does not. Most importantly, there are institutionalised, legal mechanisms with which to rid ourselves of bad rulers. True, we may not like the replacements much better, but they are still directly answerable to the people and will surely accept their electoral verdict. No such process exists in China.
While leadership transition in China has become more routine and formalised, it remains opaque and entirely undemocratic. Crucially, it is still something that is determined exclusively within the very senior ranks of the CCP. This is one of the reasons so many in Hong Kong are so concerned about any further erosion of their albeit limited form of political enfranchisement.
The rebellion in Hong Kong is Xi’s biggest test to date. Thus far he has – wisely, perhaps – not directly involved himself in the struggle. It is worth remembering that even though Deng played a crucial in opening up and liberalising China, when the authority of the CCP was challenged too far, he cracked down on the student protestors in Tiananmen Square. It is impossible to imagine that Beijing will give in to the students in Hong Kong either. There may come a time when Xi also decides that things have gone too far and the threat to the status quo is too great.
And yet a wise leader might use Hong Kong as way of experimenting with modest political reforms that might ultimately be adopted on the mainland. This is after all, supposed to be one country with two systems. It’s also an outcome that Taiwan might also welcome, of course. But despite his power, Xi is ultimately beholden to the Party that appointed him. No matter how good an emperor Xi might want to be, in the end this is likely to prove decisive - with potentially tragic consequences.