Xi Jinping’s ideological ambitions
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Xi Jinping’s ideological ambitions

World communism isn’t Beijing’s goal, but it is encouraging the spread of authoritarianism. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Xi Jinping isn’t going anywhere. This week the Chinese Communist Party proposed amending the country’s constitution to abolish presidential term limits. Under the current rules, Mr Xi is due to step down in 2023, after two terms. Once that formal constraint is eliminated, there will be nothing to stop him from staying in office however long he likes – as the Communist Party’s chief and China’s president.

Behind this news, sidelining constitutional restraints is a deeper trend: Under Mr Xi’s leadership, the Communist Party is devouring China’s governing institutions while promoting its ideology for export like never before. Mr Xi’s message to the world is that autocracy is a viable system of government. That makes China not only an economic and security rival for the US but an ideological one.

If such a change isn’t obvious, that may be because the old habits of Leninist secrecy die hard. The Communist Party’s powerful departments that control personnel and policy still do not list their phone numbers or display signs outside their offices. Likewise, the party continues to enforce a strict code of silence about its internal operations.

But elsewhere the party has become more open about its grip on business and society. To take one example, Chinese state companies listed abroad have long filed misleading prospectuses that omitted the party’s pivotal role in their operations, including the hiring and firing of senior executives. Recently Beijing reversed course. Some state companies listed in Hong Kong now include in their articles of association a broad description of the party’s role in “managing the overall situation.” The meaning of this change is clear: Power over corporate decisions and personnel that the party used to wield behind the scenes can now be exercised explicitly.

Meanwhile, the party has solidified its formerly haphazard effort to establish cells inside large Chinese private enterprises, as well as within foreign companies and joint ventures operating inside China. Any substantial private company, whether local or foreign, is now expected to include party cells.

Since the party sits above the law, this means that core functions of state-owned enterprises and private companies alike are free from legal and regulatory oversight. European businesses have tried to push back. “A fundamental change of this nature would introduce an additional layer of governance and would have serious consequences for the independent decision-making ability” of these ventures, the European Chamber of Commerce in China said in a statement last year. But Beijing has airily dismissed these objections as little more than a failure by foreigners to understand Chinese corporate governance.

This new direction is being set at the top. As Mr Xi said in October at a party conference that convenes every five years: “Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party leads them all.” He delivered the same message to the world in December at a conference in Beijing hosted by the Communist Party. Delegations from more than 100 countries attended, according to a Reuters report, including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives from the United Russia party and America’s Republican National Committee.

Yes, Beijing is flaunting its growing diplomatic and military power on the world stage, but it goes far beyond that. Increasingly, China is promoting its system as an alternative to Western democracy, something that was rare even five years ago. Mr Xi now talks about the “China solution” for a world facing political and financial turmoil. In place of such uncertainties, which Beijing blames on the West, Mr Xi lauds China’s “wisdom” of global governance.

In steering China toward his vision, Mr Xi has had to be more open about both the communist system and the country’s ambitions. Since Mr Xi came to power in 2012, he has centralised power in his office and within the party, while allowing the policymaking functions of the broader bureaucracy to wither. Overseas, China has become more strident in its drive to become a superpower, particularly in Asia, where it aims to dislodge the US as the dominant force.

At the December conference, Mr Xi promised that Beijing “will not import other countries’ models, and will not export the China model.” But this is true only up to a point. The Chinese system, which combines a Leninist-style party with a centuries-old bureaucratic culture, can’t easily be replicated elsewhere. What Mr Xi is really promoting is something else: the idea that authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies.

China’s rivalry with the US is not the same as the Soviet Union’s competition during the Cold War, which pitted capitalism against Marxism. Beijing formally follows the dictates of Marxism-Leninism, but its ideology is one of state power. Although China has always been ready to support other autocracies when doing so was in its interest, Mr Xi’s party is now touting itself forcefully as an example of a governing system that works.

It is a pity, then, that America’s political system remains in such upheaval. Rarely has the soft power of a thriving democracy been more needed.

Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.