As they gather in the autumn for their five-yearly congress, the nearly 400 members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee will see their place in history take shape. This congress, the 19th, comes after 68 years of uninterrupted rule by the party. If it stays in power until the 20th, China will have overtaken the former Soviet Union as the world’s longest-lasting communist dictatorship. The comrades may be congratulating themselves already: there are few imminent threats to their control. Under Xi Jinping, the leader they appointed in 2012, economic growth has slowed but remained above 6% a year. Pro-democracy dissidents and separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang are easily quelled. America, far from preparing for the collapse of communist rule, is scrambling to cope with China’s rise.
Since preserving their own power is their prime motivation, most delegates will nod through Mr Xi’s plans for his second term and beyond. They will acquiesce out of timorous self-interest: one hallmark of Mr Xi’s tenure, a fierce anti-corruption drive, is a weapon that can be trained on his critics. But far-sighted committee members know that he is leading the party and the country in dangerous directions: politically, economically and internationally.
The dangers of despotism
Mr Xi has spent much of his first term concentrating power into his own hands. The “collective leadership” of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whereby an anonymous cabal of raven-haired techocrats managed the country, has been supplanted by a more individualised despotism—with the occasional stirrings of a personality cult around Mr Xi. “Small leading groups” within the party set policy in virtually every area, taking control of the economy, for example, away from the prime minister and the cabinet. Mr Xi, China’s “chairman of everything”, leads most of these groups.
The congress is an opportunity for him to cement his power by putting more of his supporters in key roles. They might allow him to flout the rules that have limited his predecessors to two terms. China has enjoyed nearly 30 years of political stability since the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, but this has partly relied on two orderly transfers of supreme power. If Mr Xi bucks the system, that stability will be jeopardised.
Mr Xi’s supporters might argue that strongman rule is as necessary now as it was when Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the Maoist legacy of collectivism, planning and economic stagnation. After nearly four decades of spectacular growth, China is again at a critical juncture. The workforce is shrinking; China’s position as the world’s workshop is under threat from rising labour costs; years of debt-fuelled investment threaten an eventual bust.
Mr Xi, however, does not seem to be accumulating power with the objective of executing the bold reforms China needs. Despite lofty promises early in his tenure, his economic instincts run parallel to his political ones. He is suspicious of freedom, risk-averse and unwilling to surrender the party-state’s overarching control.
As the economy falters, Mr Xi will rely ever more on Chinese nationalism as a source of legitimacy and popularity. This is dangerous, given that he seems to have decided that American strategic primacy—which facilitated China’s peaceful rise—needs to be challenged. His aggressive pursuit of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea has rattled the region. China seems unconcerned, apparently confident that in the long run its neighbours will realise that China’s proximity is a fact of geography, its growing power an inexorable trend of history, and that American avowals of support against Chinese expansionism will prove empty.
In this, too, Mr Xi is taking a big gamble. A miscalculation could oblige America to push back forcefully, or mutual naval muscle-flexing could lead to an accidental clash that might escalate. Far better to realise that American governments have been willing to accommodate a rising China not out of weakness, but because they are confident of America’s own strength.
The workings of Chinese politics are opaque. It is impossible to know exactly how much opposition exists within the Chinese Communist Party to Mr Xi’s remorseless accretion of power. We can, however, assume that it is considerable. The world should hope it is also effective.