The most powerful and popular leader China has had for decades must use these assets wisely. THE madness unleashed by the rule of a charismatic despot, Mao Zedong, left China so traumatised that the late chairman’s successors vowed never to let a single person hold such sway again. Deng Xiaoping, who rose to power in the late 1970s, extolled the notion of “collective leadership”. Responsibilities would be shared out among leaders by the Communist Party’s general secretary; big decisions would be made by consensus. This has sometimes been ignored: Deng himself acted the despot in times of crisis. But the collective approach helped restore stability to China after Mao’s turbulent dictatorship.
Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, is now dismantling it. He has become the most powerful Chinese ruler certainly since Deng, and possibly since Mao. Whether this is good or bad for China depends on how Mr Xi uses his power. Mao pushed China to the brink of social and economic collapse, and Deng steered it on the right economic path but squandered a chance to reform it politically. If Mr Xi used his power to reform the way power works in China, he could do his country great good. So far, the signs are mixed.
Taking on the party
It may well be that the decision to promote Mr Xi as a single personality at the expense of the group was itself a collective one. Some in China have been hankering for a strongman; a politician who would stamp out corruption, reverse growing inequalities and make the country stand tall abroad (a task Mr Xi has been taking up with relish—see article). So have many foreign businessfolk, who want a leader who would smash the monopolies of a bloated state sector and end years of dithering over economic reforms.
However the decision came about, Mr Xi has grabbed it and run with it. He has taken charge of secretive committees responsible for reforming government, overhauling the armed forces, finance and cyber-security. His campaign against corruption is the most sweeping in decades. It has snared the former second-in-command of the People’s Liberation Army and targeted the retired chief of China’s massive security apparatus—the highest-ranking official to be investigated for corruption since Mao came to power. The generals, wisely, bow to him: earlier this year state newspapers published pages of expressions of loyalty to him by military commanders.
He is the first leader to employ a big team to build his public profile. But he also has a flair for it—thanks to his stature (in a height-obsessed country he would tower over all his predecessors except Mao), his toughness and his common touch. One moment he is dumpling-eating with the masses, the next riding in a minibus instead of the presidential limousine. He is now more popular than any leader since Mao (see article).
All of this helps Mr Xi in his twofold mission. His first aim is to keep the economy growing fast enough to stave off unrest, while weaning it off an over-dependence on investment in property and infrastructure that threatens to mire it in debt. Mr Xi made a promising start last November, when he declared that market forces would play a decisive role (not even Deng had the courage to say that). There have since been encouraging moves, such as giving private companies bigger stakes in sectors that were once the exclusive preserve of state-owned enterprises, and selling shares in firms owned by local governments to private investors. Mr Xi has also started to overhaul the household-registration system, a legacy of the Mao era that makes it difficult for migrants from the countryside to settle permanently in cities. He has relaxed the one-child-per-couple policy, a Deng-era legacy that has led to widespread abuses.
More muscle needed
It is still far from clear whether Mr Xi’s economic policies will succeed in preventing a sharp slowdown in growth. The latest data suggest the economy is cooling more rapidly than the government had hoped (see article). Much will depend on how far he gets with the second, harder, part of his mission: establishing the rule of law. This will be a central theme of the annual meeting next month of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The question is whether Mr Xi is prepared for the law to apply to everyone, without fear or favour.
His drive against corruption suggests that the answer is a qualified no. The campaign is characterised by a Maoist neglect of institutions. It has succeeded in instilling fear among officials, but has done little to deal with the causes of graft: an investigative mechanism that is controlled entirely by the party itself, a secret system of appointments to official positions in which loyalty often trumps honesty and controls on free speech that allow the crooked to silence their critics.
Mr Xi needs to set up an independent body to fight corruption, instead of leaving the job to party investigators and the feuding factions they serve. He should also require officials to declare all sources of income, property and other assets. Instead, he has been rounding up activists calling for such changes almost as vigorously as he has been confronting corruption. In the absence of legal reform, he risks becoming a leader of the old stripe, who pursues vendettas in the name of fighting wrongdoers. That will have two consequences: there will be a new wave of corruption, and resentments among the party elite will, at some point, erupt.
Mr Xi is making some of the right noises. He says he wants courts to help him “lock power in a cage”. Reforms are being tinkered with to make local courts less beholden to local governments. But he needs to go further by abolishing the party’s shadowy “political-legal committees”, which decide sensitive cases. The party should stop meddling in the appointment of judges (and, indeed, of legislators).
The effect of such reforms would be huge. They would signal a willingness by the party to begin loosening its monopoly of power and accepting checks and balances. Deng once said that economic reform would fail without political reform. Mr Xi last month urged foot-dragging officials to “dare to break through and try” reform. China’s leader should heed his own words and those of Deng. He should use his enormous power for the greatest good, and change the system.
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