It must be said bluntly: The Chinese Communist Party, which turns 100 this week, represents the most successful authoritarians in history.
So why does President Xi seem so restless?
It is a time when there are no obvious challenges to its authority, and China has never enjoyed such international reach, economic strength, or military might. Yet in a marked departure from his predecessors, Xi was in a hurry to tighten the screws on dissenting opinions, expand technological surveillance of his people, enforce new controls over the private sector, and enormously strengthen his party’s prerogatives and power.
It is this contradiction between China’s overwhelming authoritarian achievements and President Xi’s head-scratching nervousness about the future that is most worth watching as the systemic competition of our time unfolds.
In these global sweepstakes for the future, the ruthless, technology-assisted efficiency of autocratic capitalism and the permanent (albeit dangerously questioned) attractions of democratic capitalism with its magnetic stimuli of individual rights and freedoms are juxtaposed.
The question of our time is whether these two systems, as represented by China and the United States, can agree on a number of terms that will enable them to compete peacefully, and sometimes even to work together. Even if they do, one system or another will emerge as the dominant rule-maker for an evolving global order. One or the other is likely to turn out to be a more successful provider for the needs of citizens.
While the fragility of democratic societies has come to its fullest in recent years, most dramatically on January 6th during the uprising and violent attack on the US Congress, the less transparent challenges may be more crucial to President Xi’s ambitions.
The Economist cover story this weekend sets out the contradictions.
“No other dictatorship,” it says, “has been able to transform itself from a famine-ridden catastrophe like China under Mao Zedong into the world’s second largest economy, whose state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure of America’s creaky roads and railways to shame. “
At the same time, the Economist under President Xi adds: “The bureaucracy, army and police have been cleared of dissenting and corrupt officials. Big business is being reconciled. Mr. Xi has rebuilt the party at grassroots level, creating a network of neighborhood spies and cadre smuggled into private companies to monitor them. Society has not been so strictly controlled since Mao’s days. “
History suggests that if Xi steps up his domestic repression and his assertiveness abroad, something will have to give way.
Jude Blanchette writes in Foreign Affairs: “His belief that the CCP should run the economy and Beijing should curb the private sector will limit the country’s future economic growth. His demand that party cadres adhere to ideological orthodoxy and demonstrate personal loyalty to him. ”The flexibility and competence of the system of government will be undermined. Its emphasis on an expansive definition of national security will steer the country in an internal and more paranoid direction. His unleashed ‘Wolf Warrior’ nationalism will create a more aggressive and isolated China. “
However, recent history also shows that the CCP has demonstrated ruthless resilience, brutal efficiency, and ideological dexterity that has repeatedly puzzled its critics and enabled it to end Mao’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, with an estimated death toll of up to . 20 million to deal with, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the 2020 Covid-19 crisis that China spawned and then killed, and much more.
Not long after he came to power, President Xi gave up the studied patience of his immediate predecessors, who acted in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping by “biding their time and hiding their power” in dealing with world affairs. With that, the Communist Party’s power over society also waned.
President Xi’s dramatic decision to change internally and externally was the result of his own belief that the United States and Western democracies were in relative decline.
Xi’s worldview was shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist party in 1989 and 1990, a lesson that guides almost everything he does in relation to his own communist party, as well as his own struggle for power.
As early as 2018, he reflected on how it was possible that the Soviet party with its 20 million members collapsed after it had defeated Hitler and the Third Reich with 2 million members.
“Why,” he asked. “Because his ideals and convictions were gone.” He mocked Gorbachev’s “so-called glasnost” policy, which allowed criticism of the Soviet party line. The implication was clear: there would be no such openness under Xi.
Although he has said less about the experience of his own accession to power in 2012, when the party faced the biggest political scandal in a generation, the only way to get away from it is to learn how dangerous power struggles and corruption are for the leadership of the Communist Party can be together. His consolidation of power eventually included disciplining 1.5 million civil servants.
One can now only understand his rush to smash any possibility of internal disagreement and use all opportunities of international gain as a keen reading of his own political lifeline, measured against the emergence of the Biden government and its efforts, the Western democratic decline and Allied disorder to reverse.
Xi probably only has a window of about a decade before his country’s demographic decline, structural economic downturn, and inevitable internal upheaval are the historic opportunity now presented to him by his country’s technological advancement, geopolitical achievements, and his own current stance to diminish threatening threat performance.
This haste sees a turning point, but only if it acts with quick, determined determination and possibly recklessness.
And under Xi, China is not just sprinting to seize an opportunity. Xi, writes Blanchette, has at the same time put China “in a race to see whether its many strengths can surpass the pathologies that Xi himself has brought into the system.”
In short, the test is whether authoritarianism’s most compelling success story can overcome its fundamental flaws.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and was published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.