Deepening dictatorship bodes ill for China

| April 6, 2018

Few had the foresight to predict how bad the political situation in China would be in 2018. The removal of the last effective checks on Supreme Leader Xi Jinping’s power last month, while likely politically disastrous for China, serves as an important reminder about the nature of the Chinese Party-state: it is, fundamentally, a dictatorship.

Revealingly, the Chinese government has never had any problem declaring itself a dictatorship, as stated in the first paragraph of its Constitution. But for international observers, to call the Chinese state a dictatorship appears to lack ‘nuance’. To recognise the Party-state as a dictatorship is to simply affirm the ‘narratives’ of the ‘Western media’ and thereby runs the risk of making the academic ‘China watcher’ obsolete.

Instead, an extensive and at times informative albeit far too optimistic academic literature has evolved in recent decades examining the rise of collective leadership in the Politburo, the expansion of consultation in lawmaking and the gradual approach toward the smooth transfer of power between generations of Chinese rulers.

There was even great optimism that rights lawyers could work within this system to make the Party obey its own laws.In retrospect, such nuance was quite pleasant while it lasted. There is far too little nuance to be found in the Party’s policies in recent years.

The Party clearly wants further control over the state (which it already completely controls), wants further control over a society (within which it already exercises absolute power) and even seems increasingly intent on expanding this control beyond its borders.

This can be seen in the increasingly hard-line approach to Hong Kong, the growth of settlements in the South China Sea in violation of international law, increasingly provocative rhetoric and actions towards democratic Taiwan, and ever more brazen political interference operations that are generating growing debate in countries around the world.

As this obsession with control continues to grow, we should not be surprised that the few self-imposed checks on senior leaders’ power have disappeared. Xi Jinping’s erasure of term limits is to the political field what the crackdown on and disappearance of lawyers in 2015 was for the legal field: a shattering of illusions of nuance.

At the same time, with such recent developments as Brexit and the rise of Trump, nuance is also admittedly not on the rise in democratic polities today. In classroom and casual discussions, I often encounter variations on the idea that while ‘the West’ today is caught up in messy political infighting, filibusters and deadlocked democratic processes, ‘the Chinese’, with their ‘pragmatism’, have things all figured out.

According to this comforting narrative, China’s top-down model supposedly enables the government to master economic growth, or to re-direct resources to beneficial causes like combating climate change or poverty. Perhaps rather than simply criticising dictatorship, there is something we can learn from it, or so the narrative goes.

Yet the Chinese government’s top-down dictatorial efficiency is easily deployed toward ends both beneficial and harmful. This celebrated decisiveness and efficiency, which over the past year has led some to misrecognize Xi as a defender of globalisation or environmentalism, can also be mustered to decisively and efficiently disappear critics, or to abolish the last effective checks on Xi’s powers.

The manifold declarations of the current ‘crisis of democracy’ overlook the fact that democracies have the institutional checks to manage such crises, which dictatorships lack.

Many of us engaged in research on China regularly spend time within this dictatorship. Beyond concerns about visa access, deeper experiential issues also serve to further repress the increasingly obvious reality that political developments will never correspond to, and may even move in an opposite direction from, economic developments.

Many Chinese people would likely disagree with the idea that the Chinese government is a dictatorship. Wouldn’t they know better, after all? People seem happy and their lives are getting better. Is Xi Jinping really concentrating power for himself, or perhaps for the good of China?

And yet, once one meets and gets to know people who are the state’s targets, hidden in the dark corners of a society increasingly driven by political repression, one begins to see just how cruel the Chinese Party-state can be, and how senseless its actions. There are the hacked emails, the computer viruses, the cancelled visas, the ever-watchful eyes of state security, the harassment, the disappearances, the torture, the forced televised confessions and even the deaths.

All come together to buttress a false sanctity, both in China and abroad, around an inherently paranoid state that puts on a friendly smile so long as it is not challenged in its primary mission of self-perpetuation.

Belying the false optimism that characterizes most China commentary, some analysts continue to search for a silver lining behind Xi’s move: perhaps, they claim, he is consolidating power to push through far-reaching, long-awaited and difficult reforms.

Yet the only silver lining on the hardening of dictatorship is that more people may come to realise that there is no silver lining on this system. It is, and will remain, an arbitrary and unaccountable dictatorship that will one day inevitably face the fate of its predecessors.

This article was published on the East Asia Forum.