“Governing a big country like China is as delicate as frying a small fish,” says Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first volume of his book The Governance of China. (Its second volume has also come out a few months ago.) He continues, “We, the leaders of China need to be fully aware of China’s reality and aspirations of the people, and treat our responsibilities with utmost care as if we are walking on thin ice or standing on the edge of an abyss” (emphasis mine).
For those who want to know how China is governed, and Xi’s own style and vision of governance, these two volumes containing his speeches and writings are essential reading. You may be an admirer or a critic of China, or both, but if you are a serious student of world affairs, you are sure to find that these are not propaganda tomes. In fact, there is a lot more propagandist and self-congratulatory content in the speeches of, say, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi because they have to constantly rail against their political opponents and present themselves as paragons of virtue. This is the price democracies pay for being democracies.
China is not a democracy. This is its biggest systemic shortcoming. Yet, China has adopted and evolved a system of people-centric and nation-centric governance that has helped it become a strong, prosperous and self-confident nation with impressive achievements. It has provided to its citizens what many democratic nations with comparable historical experience (India included) have failed to do — freedom from poverty, hunger, disease and early death, inhumane living conditions, etc. It has surpassed the US and Europe with its superior physical and cultural infrastructure. The Chinese people are proud that they have built, with essentially self-reliant efforts, one of the leading nations in the world in four short decades. Only the purblind or prejudiced will claim that China’s system of governance has nothing to do with these achievements, or that it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of its people, which is an essential feature of any democracy.
Western and Indian critics of China censure its system of governance because “it is not like ours”. As if ours is the only ideal system of governance that every country in the world, including China, must emulate. This one-system-fits-all approach has led many China-watchers to respond to the ruling communist party’s decision to scrap the two-term limit for its president by saying that Xi has become the country’s new “emperor” or “dictator for life”. Not true.
Xi has undoubtedly emerged, after the conclusion of the landmark 19th congress of the CPC in October last, as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The Economist magazine has even described him as the “most powerful leader in the world”. But by no means does he have dictatorial powers. The seven members of the country’s highest decision-making body, the CPC’s politburo standing committee, or the 25 members of its politburo, are not “yes-men” blindly following Xi’s dictates. There is a very high degree of structured internal consultation, coupled with collective decision-making, within these and other bodies of the party and the state. As shown by David Shambaugh, an acclaimed American Sinologist, in his book China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, China has evolved self-corrective and highly meritocratic governance mechanisms which have helped the CPC re-innovate itself from time to time.
So, unlike an emperor or dictator, Xi cannot exercise his power arbitrarily. After the disastrous “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76), when Mao became more powerful than the party and caused chaos in the country, the Chinese communist party has learnt, for the sake of its own survival, not to create another dictator.
Why, then, has the CPC now paved the way for Xi to continue as China’s president for the third term beyond 2023? This can be better understood by viewing the communist party as China’s “collective emperor”, a successor to the many dynasties that ruled the country in the past. The CPC becoming its sole ruler was both an outcome and a necessity of China’s history in the 20th century. This system will surely change as the Chinese citizens’ urge for democratisation in an orderly manner grows — it is already growing. But right now, the party wants to stay in power and a majority of Chinese citizens, despite their grievances with the system of governance, also want its rule to continue. And the “collective emperor” has now decided that Xi should continue as the nation’s president — also perhaps as the head of the CPC and the Central Military Commission for one more term (not indefinitely).
This decision is prompted by the CPC’s long-term internal and external goals, which are captured in its ambitious new term, “Building socialism with Chinese characteristics in the New Era”. The italicised words are Xi’s audacious addition to a well-known formulation from the Deng Xiaoping era, connoting both continuity and change. In the new era, China, internally, is aiming to achieve far higher levels of quantitative and qualitative development for its people, including the aim of becoming the most prosperous nation in the world, surpassing the US, which it soon will. Externally, it wants to play a much bigger role in world affairs, to which China (as also India) is fully entitled. China faces stiff challenges in the smooth realisation of both these objectives. Therefore, the communist party has collectively concluded that Xi’s strong leadership is needed for some more time, before a younger set of leaders can take over.
Those who disagree should answer a simple question: Will any dynamic, goal-driven and self-confident organisation — be it a nation, a corporate, or a media company — permit its rules to constrain its goals or change them, when circumstances change, to pursue its goals with a single-minded resolve?
A final thought. It’s high time Indian commentators stopped viewing China through the tinted glasses of a West fearful of the coming end of its global domination. Let us bring innate Indian wisdom to bear on reforming our own flawed system of governance and also offer it to China to democratise itself, while simultaneously learning from the latter’s innate strengths. And there is much to learn from Xi Jinping’s Thought.