On Wednesday, China’s President Xi Jinping announced a new era of totalitarianism in his 3.5-hour speech to the Communist Party Congress. He spoke about subjugating religion to nationalism, beefing up military aggressiveness, and spreading more socialist ideology.
“Achieving national rejuvenation will be no walk in the park,” Xi declared, rallying more than 2,200 top members of his party beneath the huge hammer and sickle in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “It will take more than drumbeating and gong-clanging to get there.”
The president suggested two major features in this national rejuvenation: a strong dedication to Marxist ideology and an aggressive foreign policy. Behind the scenes, his government is also taking control of the country using technology.
“Ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,” Xi said. He insisted that even religion must be “Chinese in orientation.” Last month, the party ordered schools to intensify efforts to promote “Chinese traditional and socialist culture” among the young.
The Chinese president also set forth his new book, “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” One official at the gathering described it as the “third milestone” in the party’s “ideological innovation,” following previous works by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, The Washington Post reported.
Delegates have even hinted that the party constitution will be revised to incorporate Xi’s twist on communist ideology.
“Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is headed in the direction of strongman rule,” David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The New York Times. “The 19th Party Congress is more likely to look like a coronation than an institutionalized transition to a leader’s second term.”
The president explicitly said the party should rule over all aspects of Chinese life. “The party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country,” Xi declared.
The president’s emphasis on communist ideas and party control of the country reflected his fears that Communist rule in China could collapse the same way it did in the Soviet Union, unless the party can clamp down on the society. In 2017, one hundred years after the beginning of Russia’s revolution, the issue of communism’s failure in the Soviet Union may strike home for the Chinese president.
“Why did the Soviet Union collapse?” Xi asked his officials in 2013. He answered his own question, “There was ideological chaos, the party apparatus at every level seemed ineffectual, the military was no longer under the leadership of the party.”
The president wants to ensure his Communist Party stays in power long after the 100th anniversary of its founding four years from now. Next year, it will overtake the time Russia’s Communist Party ruled the Soviet Union.
“Treating development and security in tandem, enhancing a sense of peril, remaining vigilant in times of peace — this is the major principle of our party’s governance of the country,” Xi said.
Xi Jinping has led China to a more aggressive role on the world stage. In the speech, he mentioned his “Belt and Road” infrastructure project and his controversial island-building in the South China Sea. [Last December, China actually stole a U.S. underwater drone in those waters.] He also promised to strengthen his armed forces.
“A military is built to fight,” Xi declared. “Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work and focus on how to win when it is called on.” The president did not suggest exactly whom the military would be fighting…
Even while Xi spoke about Communist Party power over the society, over religion, and over the military, his apparatus is using information technology to bolster digital control over the country.
As The Wall Street Journal‘s Andrew Brown reported, Xi has crafted a form of “digital Leninism” — a term coined by Sebastian Heilmann. Party technicians are developing a plan to monitor advanced technologies like robotics, 3-D printing, and driverless vehicles, giving regulators an inside lever over the economy.
The government will also be able to monitor credit and investment in real time through corporate data feeds, and employ algorithms to decide how best to manage China’s economy. These techniques aim to set the inner workings of the Chinese economy — carefully hidden from outsiders — on an even keel, avoiding not just large recessions and bubbles, but the expected ups and downs of a market economy.
Chinese chief executives like Alibaba founder Jack Ma have supported the use of big data in macroeconomics. Ma compared it to an X-ray or a CT-scan in medical diagnosis. He predicted “the planned economy will get bigger and bigger” in the next three decades.
As Brown noted, however, free-market theory suggests that state panning can never replace the “invisible hand” of market forces. He cited “Why Nations Fail,” in which economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argued that centralized economies like China’s are ultimately doomed because the elites in control stifle the innovative disruption that drives a free market.
At a time when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un threatens the United States and fires missiles in the direction of Japan, China’s position is perhaps even more pivotal than ever. A strong China might be a check to North Korea, but a more communist China might see the West as a bigger threat and use the Korean crisis to expand its economic and military power in East Asia.
Xi seems more than willing to restrict the freedom of his own people, build up the Communist Party, and use big data to harness the world’s second largest economy. North Korea may be the more immediate danger, but a China dedicated to communism and expansion, both military and economic, is not to be underestimated.
Even if Kim Jong Un is somehow dealt with, China will remain a powerful check on America’s ability to trade with and provide security for various east Asian powers like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It seems Xi Jinping is bent on flexing the might of the Middle Kingdom — and separating China from the West.
If Acemoglu and Robinson are right, however, this very path might be Xi’s undoing, and the Chinese Communist Party may go the way of the Soviets before it. Even in the 1980s, Russia’s collapse seemed almost unthinkable. Could China’s 1989 be around the corner?