22 January 2019
Xi Jinping's relentless pursuit of indefinite one-man rule is undoing whatever new and revitalizing elements Deng Xiaoping had injected into the CPC during his lifetime, critics say. Photo: Reuters
Xi Jinping's relentless pursuit of indefinite one-man rule is undoing whatever new and revitalizing elements Deng Xiaoping had injected into the CPC during his lifetime, critics say. Photo: Reuters

Why Xi’s dictatorship might spell bad news for CPC

President Xi Jinping might be eagerly enjoying his unparalleled political power following his successful bid to have his ideology enshrined in the constitution and getting the presidential term limits removed so as to clear the way for his indefinite rule.

However, in my opinion, as Xi has tightened his grip on power by overturning the framework of collective leadership laid down by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, he may have inadvertently laid the seeds for the beginning of the end of the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, the CPC suddenly found itself caught deeply in a severe crisis of political credibility and legitimacy.

In order to prevent the party from crumbling and restore public trust in the regime, Deng, despite having refrained from introducing western-style democratic reforms into China, did make an all-out and concerted effort to reform the bureaucratic system in the mainland.

At the center of Deng’s bureaucratic reform program was his initiative to replace the kind of absolute one-man rule adopted by Chairman Mao with collective leadership within the CPC so as to prevent the centralization of authority in one particular person again.

Another key component of his reform program was the strict and across-the-board enforcement of term limits and mandatory retirement age among key party and government officials, so that nobody could hold on to political power for life anymore.

In the meantime, on the orders of Deng, more young members were introduced into the party leadership so as to rejuvenate the CPC.

Also, from then on, a person’s abilities and competence, rather than his or her political ideology or “class background”, would become the key criteria for appointing and promoting party officials both on central and provincial levels.

As a result, such pragmatic approach to personnel appointments, under which office holders who were able to fulfil the governing goals designated by their superiors would be promoted whereas those who failed would have to pack up, has facilitated an intense but healthy competition among officials.

Thanks to Deng’s reform initiatives, party and government officials across the mainland became increasingly accountable to the public and more sensitive to people’s needs even in the absence of western-style democracy.

Deng’s efforts apparently paid off. Not only did China witness rapid economic growth over the past several decades, the ruling legitimacy of the CPC has also been largely restored.

However, while Deng’s economic reforms did substantially improve the quality of life of hundreds of millions of average mainlanders, the remarkable achievements came at huge social and environmental costs, which have begun to take a toll on social and political stability of China in recent years.

And almost 40 years on, it has become increasingly apparent that Deng’s political reforms on a limited scale can no longer address the new breed of issues arising from China’s changing political environment, such as the mounting outcry for more protection of human rights among mainland civil society.

Given that, what the current leadership in Beijing should have done is actually to deepen political reforms in order to meet new social needs in the new era so as to ensure that the CPC can continue to rule with a strong mandate in the long run.

Unfortunately, what President Xi has been doing since he took power in 2012 has turned out to be exactly the opposite: rather than enhancing political reforms, he has been working aggressively to revive the specter of one-man dictatorship and lifetime tenure that Deng had tried his very best to eliminate.

Suffice it to say that Xi’s relentless pursuit of indefinite one-man rule is virtually undoing whatever new and revitalizing elements Deng has injected into the CPC during his lifetime.

As we can imagine, Xi’s lust for absolute power is likely to provoke a backlash both within and outside the CPC, particularly among the reformists or younger party members who are in the line of succession to power, even though they might be far from powerful enough to mount any resistance against Xi at this point.

Mindful of any possible upheaval against his dictatorship within the party, Xi is likely to further consolidate his totalitarian rule and toughen his crackdown on dissent in the days ahead, thereby further fuelling the discontent and disaffection among his people as well as partymates and creating a vicious circle.

It might just be a matter of time before their grievances reach a tipping point. And once the vast majority of the population begins to rise up against tyranny, no dictator, not even Xi, can stem the tide.

If that worst-case scenario comes about, the rest of the party could try to defuse the crisis and ride it out by putting all the blame on Xi like it blamed Mao for the Cultural Revolution.

But this time the chances are, once Xi falls from power, the entire party might also go down with him as well.

It is because why would the Chinese people, who have already gone through two nightmares of totalitarian rule since 1949, still give the CPC another chance to redeem itself?

I am not trying to play an alarmist here. However, as nobody can tell whether and when that fateful day would arrive, we must get ourselves prepared for that possible Armageddon.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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