China’s great leap backward

China’s great leap backward
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China took a great leap backward last week. By arranging to be president for life, and by instituting Xi Jinping thought as a new ideological requirement for China, Xi went beyond his well-known admiration for Mao Zedong to outright emulation. This decision cannot fail to be of the utmost importance, not only for China but also for the rest of the world.

Indeed, foreign observers and diplomats may have expected something along these lines since Xi had effectively neutralized any opposition to his power well before this announcement. Therefore it was not necessary to proclaim these changes unless he wanted to scrap the tacit rule on term limits and impose the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological and political control under him for the rest of his lifetime.

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In other words, Xi announcement is not just a manifestation of power it is also a transparent, even possibly desperate attempt to cover up the fact that a great deal is rotten in the state of China.

 

Abroad it is already clear that this ascension to unchecked absolute power invalidates the theory that has governed not only U.S. policy but also European policy. That theory held that by integrating China into the global economy and its networks China would gradually liberalize not only its economy but also its political system. This decision makes it clear that the leadership in Beijing will not tolerate any such evolution. There is no force in China that is as yet capable of guiding China along that trajectory.

Not only will this decision knock out the intellectual support for Western policy of integration it will also eliminate indigenous Chinese interests. China will undoubtedly seek to extract maximum advantage from its participation in the global economy but the logic of totalitarianism under an absolute dictator and supposedly revivified party enforcing ideological and economic control betokens return to the past of Maoism and its Stalinist Soviet cognate.

Most likely it will also not take long for China’s economic potential to sputter and show the signs of stagnation inherent in any Soviet-type economy, whether it be Maoist of the Russian, or East European type. As this gradual economic stagnation makes itself felt, the regime is likely to dig in its heels and revert even more to imperial motifs taken from China’s past as leading ideological and political factors of governance and political objectives.

Thus ideological militancy and more totalitarian-type rule by an absolute leader at home will also entail a less cooperative and more truculent China abroad. While there will probably be some areas of overlapping interest with Washington, which will remain Beijing’s main interlocutor and rival, cooperative solutions will be harder to come by even if President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE were absent from the scene. If China thought it was truly confronting a strong, aggressive, and advancing U.S. it is unlikely this decision would have been taken now.

Instead, China, like Russia sees a tottering, erratic U.S. led by a capricious and unsteady president and consumed by domestic gridlock. It thinks that it need not fear or even show too much respect for American interests, especially as Trump has made clear his admiration for Xi’s move and contempt for the democracy that elected him president.

In this respect, Xi also shows his emulation of people like Vladimir Putin who is also taking Russia along a trajectory that daily becomes more totalitarian like in its imperial foreign and domestic ambitions and aspirations every day. Xi, like Vladimir Putin, by opting for absolute power, has all but ensured the long-term stagnation of his country.

While outwardly this proclamation is a show of his strength and of China’s growing assertiveness in world affairs, it really is a confession of weakness. Clearly, Xi has reckoned that unless he alone has the mandate of heaven the current system cannot go forward economically or in foreign affairs. Without his dictatorship, the system will degenerate into entropy, and bankruptcy or, even more dangerously will become increasingly open to demands by the public for more transparency, accountability, and democratizing pressures.

Therefore we should not be deceived by this dangerous move. It’s an attempt to show resolution, power, and strength and certainly betoken a much more offensive China whose ambitions are global. Already this year China’s Arctic White Paper signifies Beijing’s desire to be a great polar power as well as a great continental one. But, in fact, it is a great leap backward that will lead to a replay, albeit under vastly different circumstances of the chaos and violence of Mao’s tenure. Xi may have intended to show his power but in actuality, he has shown his fears and confessed the failure of his own system to reform itself.

However, as was the case under Mao, while the Chinese people may suffer the greatest burden of Xi’s power lust, the world at large will also not be spared those consequences. In a real sense, XI is undoing his predecessors’ achievements that gave China and Asia 40 years of peace and strengthened China immeasurably. Although Xi has now reached for a unilateral mandate, the most likely result is that instead of peace and harmony there will probably be much more trouble both in China and in the world.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.