Perhaps the biggest challenge to dictatorship, and its greatest weakness, is the danger and uncertainty associated with leadership transition. No one — including the incumbent ruler — knows the real rules of transition, such as how a candidate is chosen and how the incumbent should exit. All these are determined secretly based on brutal power struggles. This is why, as Xi Jinping’s second term as China’s leader nears the end, predictions of what will happen to China’s leadership proliferate.
Xi has two titles: general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and president of the Chinese government. Based on the CCP charters, the term of the general secretary is five years, and there is no limit on how many terms one can serve. The Chinese constitution had a presidential term limit of no more than two five-year terms, but the People’s Congress of China removed it in 2018, essentially enabling Xi to rule indefinitely.
Two predecessors of Xi, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, each served as general secretary and as president for two five-year terms. This year is the last year of Xi’s second term, and the CCP will hold its congregation this fall to determine whether he will continue to rule.
Many analysts predict that he will rule forever, some say he will be replaced, and a few forecast a crisis in China.
Dictatorships have been dotted with thaw periods, such as the Khrushchev Thaw after the death of Stalin in 1953 and China’s thaw in the late 1970s. In general, after a long period of harsh repression, a totalitarian regime tends to precipitate a period of limited political and economic liberalization to deflate the high pressure accumulated. Under Xi Jinping, China has experienced the most repressive and anti-free market era since Mao Zedong. Thus, there is a high likelihood that post-Xi China will be a period of thaw.
During China’s two thaws, the democracies did not seize the opportunity to push China for structural changes.
There have been two thaw periods in Chinese history: after Mao’s death in 1976 and after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Deng Xiaoping, the de facto leader of the CCP during the post-Mao thaw, designed a strategy of avoiding confrontation with the West and quietly building capabilities known as “hide one’s claws and bide one’s time.”
Thaws provide rare opportunities to make meaningful changes in the political and economic systems — or what we call “meaningful structural changes” — such as making laws more independent from the ruling party and allowing some press freedom. Unfortunately, during China’s two thaws, the democracies did not seize the opportunity to push China for structural changes. Instead, the democracies were disarmed by Deng’s strategy and spent their time praising the CCP for the thaw and investing in and profiting from the newly opened markets.
U.S. China-policy analysts are very good at war games and scenario analysis, such as formulating plans for a sudden collapse of the CCP. But if a thaw comes, they usually are unprepared and leave a glaring white space for the power brokers who have benefited from doing business with China or who have been deeply entrenched in their pro-China stance. And these elites will waste no time promoting the peaceful rise of China and further cooperation with the CCP.
If we have learned anything from history, we must not allow this to repeat.
How should China-policy analysts help their governments in democratic countries, especially the U.S., to prepare for the next thaw? Below are some points that I believe they should consider.
First, embrace the liberalization and express support for the thaw because it provides an excellent opportunity for making structural changes in China. Second, suggest concrete steps for the new leadership to take and explain why taking these steps is in the best interest of China and the world.
The CCP always labels such suggestions from democracies as “foreign interference.” To reduce such resistance, policymakers in the democracies must explain why their suggestions are warranted: China, being the largest economy and global trader, interacts with and affects the welfare of the rest of the world, and therefore the rest of the world must play an active role in China’s policies, just as China exerts its influence on other countries’ policymaking. The most important structural changes we should push for are the development of the rule of law and the free flow of information. (READ MORE from Shaomin Li: China’s Zero-Tolerance COVID Policy Is to Protect One Man)
If we don’t seize the opportunity of thawing and instead merely praise it while increasing economic activities with China, what will likely happen during the thaw? Here is a likely scenario:
Under the current repressive policy of Xi, the Chinese society has been increasingly divided into two camps: Xi loyalists and the liberal-leaning people, mostly intellectuals, who despise Xi. Xi’s policy widens the gap between the two and drives the liberal-leaning camp from being merely liberal to disliking him to becoming anti-CCP. Currently, in China, especially among the liberal-leaning people, there is an overwhelming nostalgia for the post-Mao thaw and a strong desire to restore Deng’s policy. If the post-Xi leadership takes a more liberal stance by downplaying party ideology and emphasizing national unity and harmony, the people of the liberal camp will likely abandon their anti-CCP stance, and the CCP loyalists will likely support the call for national unity. This will narrow the gap between the two camps and unite them on liberal nationalism, a new version of Deng’s policy. This, plus the renewed enthusiastic support from the vested groups in the democracies, will provide much-needed breathing room and resources for the CCP to restore its eroded base, reboot China’s economy, and cement CCP’s rule. Needless to say, structural changes will be all but forgotten. Eventually, if the society becomes too liberalized for the CCP to stomach, a more repressive era will follow, repeating the repression-thaw-repression cycle.
If the CCP fails to replace Xi and he stays in power for a long period and continues his iron-fisted rule, it will make China ripe for a bigger thaw or even for the collapse of the CCP. That will provide a bigger opportunity for structural changes.
So we must be prepared not only for a prolonged Xi era or the sudden collapse of the CCP but also for a thaw period after the current repressive leadership in China.
Shaomin Li is Professor of International Business at Old Dominion University and author of The Rise of China, Inc.: How the Chinese Communist Party Transformed China into a Giant Corporation.