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In “China’s Core Executive”, the first MERICS Paper on China, international China experts examine decision-making structures and processes under Xi Jinping. To mark the publication’s launch, contributors debated their views in a MERICS China Dispute.

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A spectre is haunting China. It is the spectre of, well, what exactly? A Leninist restauration? A Maoist revival? Participants at MERICS’ China Dispute on the “Xi Jinping challenge” offered multiple historic analogies, but all agreed with Roderick MacFarquhar’s summary that, with Xi as head of party and state: “This is a new ballgame.”

Following two decades of collective decision-making and relative openness – to market forces, to the outside world and to some degree even to societal debates –, China has moved back to top-down centralised leadership under Xi Jinping. “His ascent to power resulted in major system-wide changes”, as MERICS President Sebastian Heilmann said in his introductory remarks.

Xi wants to be chairman and CEO

The Harvard professor and former director of the Harvard Fairbank Center Roderick MacFarquhar described Xi as a visionary in the vein of Mao Zedong. His anti-corruption campaign and the renewed focus on ideology express his vision of a pure party and society, the “China Dream” is Xi’s dream of a strong and independent nation. But unlike Mao Xi micromanages the implementation of his ideas by reorganizing the military or by centralising political decision-making. “The difference between him and Mao is that he wants to be both chairman and CEO”, said MacFarquhar.

One of the most dramatic shifts has been the centralisation of power in newly created party organs. Through a system of strengthened or newly established “leading small groups”, Xi and his inner circle take a more direct role in policy implementation, sidelining the government bureaucracy. While this may have reined in centrifugal forces, Richard McGregor said he doubted that “a small kitchen cabinet of hand-picked advisors and technocrats” could effectively run a country of China’s size and complexity.

The former Financial Times Beijing and Washington Bureau Chief and author of an acclaimed book about the Chinese Communist Party argued that this was especially true for economic policy, an area in which Xi has limited expertise. “You can’t mobilise the economy as you can mobilise the party”, he said. Barry Naughton, professor for Chinese economy at the University of California in San Diego, seconded that from the audience: “It is simply impossible to concentrate so much power in the hands of one individual and expect effective economic policy.”

Policymaking in the echo chamber

Participants worried that Xi’s top-down style would also stifle flexibility and innovation. “Policymaking is becoming an echo chamber for technocrats who don’t want to offend Xi as he becomes more powerful”, Victor Shih, associate professor at the University of California in San Diego and author of a paper on Xi’s efforts to exterminate factionalism in the MERICS paper on “China’s core executive”, contributed from the audience. On the panel, Anthony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School warned that, “it will be hard to recruit the brightest into the CCP when the requirement is total loyalty.”

Shih described how Xi got rid of “independent kingdoms”, which had been able to arise under Hu Jintao’s leadership. Saich acknowledged that the power grab at the top had led to paralysis in local governments around the country: “No one knows what the new rules of the game are”, he said. But he was cautiously optimistic that local officials will be able to create a new “symbiosis of central policy and conditions on the ground”, as they did in the past.

Saich used the example of China’s new Foreign NGO Law, which complicates exchanges with western organisations. As a private advisor, he often leads training programs for Chinese officials. Some of his meetings in the US were cancelled after Xi announced that China no longer needed to learn from abroad. His Chinese partners quickly offered him a new solution: “We can’t come to you anymore, but can you come to us?”

China’s new IT-backed authoritarianism

Overall, panelists agreed that it has become much harder to escape state control in Xi’s China. In what Heilmann called a “21st century Leninist approach”, China implemented the world’s most sophisticated system of internet control. The leadership’s ambitions reach further than censoring and monitoring content. In their essay on China’s “IT-backed authoritarianism” in the MERICS paper on “China’s core executive”, Mirjam Meissner and Jost Wübbeke describe how Beijing aims to monitor and steer companies and citizens through a social credit system, which integrates data on financial behaviour, compliance with laws and rules, conduct on social media, and others.

In this climate, it should be no surprise that neither the panel nor the ensuing two-day conference on “China’s Core Executive” included mainland Chinese contributors. “We tried hard to bring mainland scholars to this project. But all of them, even the most internationalised, declined”, MERICS President Heilmann informed the audience. One of those scholars gave the following reason for refusing to participate: “We are not supposed to analyse the leadership, we are supposed to be loyal to the centre.”