Broken China

China was on its way to becoming more democratic. What happened?

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wu Hong - Pool/Getty Images.

On Sunday, China’s Communist Party declared that the country was doing away with term limits for the presidency. The clear driver of the move, and the man who currently runs the party and the country, is Xi Jinping, currently finishing up his first term as president (which began in 2013) and now able to rule well past the end of what would be his second term, in 2023. Xi has already taken command of the country like no other Chinese leader since at least Deng Xiaoping, spearheading an “anti-corruption” drive at home and asserting Chinese power abroad. And now, like many leaders around the world, he is dispensing with his country’s norms, and strengthening his own power.

To discuss Xi’s move, and China’s future, I spoke by phone with Richard McGregor, the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers and Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific. He is also a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Xi amassed so much power so quickly, the enemies he has made along the way, and the prospects for political reform in this new Chinese era.

Isaac Chotiner: Could any post-Mao Chinese leader have done this? If the answer is “yes,” why didn’t they? And if the answer is “no,” what made Xi able to pull it off?

Richard McGregor: Well I guess the answer would have to be no. The best guide for that is that he has done it and they didn’t. I think there are a couple of things that would explain it. The first is Xi himself. He is from a particular pedigree in the Communist Party. I think he has a sense of hereditary right to rule. He has deep red blood, as the Chinese would say, running in his veins. His father was a revolutionary hero.

I guess the second thing is that you could argue also that he is a man of his time. The previous 10 years under Hu Jintao, even though the economy grew rapidly during that time, was considered to be a time when little else got done. The consensus system in the Politburo, which built up under Jiang Zemin to an extent that it really ruled the roost under Hu, had sort of calcified decision-making. And the time was ripe for somebody to come in and shake the place up.

The third point is that Xi Jinping, to hark back to the past again, has a particular view about how to get things done in China. He looks back to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and sees that the only way to get things done in both a good and bad way in the Chinese system—this vast continental system with multiple interlocking bureaucracies—is to be dictatorial. Otherwise you will be lost in the bureaucracy. So those three things: His political personality, his political views, and the time in which he came to power make him stand out.

Can you explain more about what it is about his standing and his relationship to the party that has allowed him to take these steps? How is he respected or feared?

I think he was respected and feared in equal measure when he came to power. Now I guess maybe more feared than respected. The thing about the leader of the Chinese Communist Party is that they have enormous executive power if they use it. In other words, they are the head of the anti-corruption bureau—or their nominee is. They are head of the military. They control, one way or another, all major appointments in the country. So if you have conviction and ruthlessness and confidence, all of which Xi has and Hu didn’t have, then you can wield dictatorial powers.

Do you think that the impact of this move is going to be felt more in foreign or domestic policy?

I think the main impact is domestic, on two levels. I think it does mean for the moment that he is unassailable and all-powerful that he’s able to push this through. But I think in the longer term he might be generating a massive backlash. His anti-corruption campaign has made him a legion of powerful enemies—families who were once powerful and may come back and will never forget what he has done to them. But the second thing is that there are many Chinese officials and scholars who believed in the system as it was evolving, meaning institutional checks and balances, a system for an orderly transition of power, no more leaders for life, no more dictators, and I think they are already very angry about the Xi era, and will be even angrier now. So, in that sense, the biggest impact of this will be inside China and domestic politics.

Foreign policy—not so much.

China wasn’t a democracy, but what does this say about the long-term future of political reform in China?

It’s undoubtedly a setback. We are not talking about China morphing into a Western-style democracy in five to 10 years, but we had seen, over many years, many people pushing reforms, most notably in the legal system. China has trained lots of lawyers who want to have the country run by law. That’s going backwards under Xi. China has a professional class, or did have a professional class of journalists who were gradually making more room for them to do their jobs. That’s gone backwards under Xi. I would say even under one of the areas that has been one of China’s greatest successes, economic policymaking and policymaking in general, it is much more difficult to be an adventurous bureaucrat now and put forward risky policies. So in terms of China becoming more democratic, it’s going backwards.

When did your book on the Communist Party come out?


What’s the biggest difference between the party then and now?

One thing I did get wrong was that I described a system moving into a much more consensus-based decision-making polity. The era of strongmen rule was over, I said. That looks embarrassing in retrospect, but it was also a reasonable and probably broadly consensus position at the time.

I wouldn’t say Xi is a new Mao. Xi’s China is not Mao’s China. But he has gone back to a period of strongman rule, and I missed that.

Do any institutional forces stand in his way?

That’s a very good question. I think he has cowed most of the institutions at the moment. He has strong control of the military with the latest round of personnel appointments late last year, and coming in the following weeks after the National People’s Congress he will have more of his acolytes and loyalists in positions. So when people like me say there is a backlash coming, others will counter and say, “Well where is it coming from?” And it’s a good point. It’s very hard to see right now. But I just think that Xi Jinping’s current governing style is not China’s future. I think China will have a more open and democratic future, even if not a Western-style democracy. And he is holding back all those forces right now.