pdf Download PDF

China in Xi’s “New Era”

China is one of the few countries in the world today that does not even pretend to choose its leading national officials through direct popular elections. Instead, leadership changes are typically made by the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which meets every five years. Hence the Journal of Democracy, which generally covers developments in democratic or electoral authoritarian countries in the aftermath of elections, has regularly published analyses of political change in China in the aftermath of Party Congresses.

The CCP’s Nineteenth Party Congress, held in October 2017, proved to be one of the most momentous in decades. It not only reaffirmed and deepened the shifts toward greater authoritarianism in internal politics and governance that General Secretary Xi Jinping had initiated since coming to power in 2012, but also unveiled a new face of Chinese foreign policy. As Xi made clear in a marathon speech lasting almost three and a half hours, China will be taking a more assertive and confident posture toward the rest of the world, one that matches the CCP’s exalted sense of China’s accomplishments at home.

The importance that Xi attributed to the new direction heralded in his speech was emphasized by his repeated use of the phrase “new era,” which he invoked 34 times, including in the title of his remarks. The phrase also appears in the label for Xi’s theoretical contribution, now enshrined in China’s constitution as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” What, then, is the rest of the world to expect from China in this “new era”?

Our analysis in the pages that follow begins with an essay by Susan Shirk recapping the Nineteenth Party Congress and assessing the internal shifts that it has initiated or accelerated. The most consequential shift is captured by the title of her essay, “The Return to Personalistic Rule.” After more than three decades in which the CCP sought to institutionalize a degree of collective leadership by, among other measures, respecting term limits for its top officials, these efforts have been reversed with startling suddenness.

Numerous observers had concluded from the failure of the Party Congress to add a plausible successor to the Standing Committee of the Politburo that Xi might be toying with the idea of extending his time in office beyond his second term, due to end in 2022. But most analysts were taken by surprise when China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, voted in early 2018 to remove from the constitution the provision that limited the country’s presidency (a post also held by Xi) to two consecutive five-year terms. With this restriction lifted, it is now widely [End Page 20] expected that Xi will seek to be president for life. Shirk also explores other changes that have brought Xi a degree of power not seen in China since the days of Mao Zedong.

There follows a set of articles that focus on China’s role in the world. As Minxin Pei points out, China’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era had been largely one of restraint, calculated to allow the country to focus on its own internal development. Pei contends that in recent years, especially since Xi came to power in 2012, Chinese foreign policy has embraced a new strategy aimed at “undermining the Western liberal order while reaching for PRC hegemony in Asia and the expansion of Chinese influence worldwide.” He traces the growth of Chinese ambitions in the areas of economic power, military power, and “soft” (or “sharp”) power.

One sign of China’s increasing boldness on the world stage is its new readiness to tout itself as a model. As Xi put it in his speech, China is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations . . . and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”

The appeal of the Chinese example, of course, comes primarily from China’s economic success at home and its capacity to provide investment and assistance abroad. Pei’s essay includes an analysis of China’s foreign-assistance policies, including its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A separate essay by Shanthi Kalathil examines the BRI and explores the impact on both the theory and practice of development of China’s rising eminence in this field.

Next come four short essays looking at China’s attempts to spread its influence in particular countries or regions. Australia and New Zealand are two of the countries in which China’s activities have recently provoked sharp concern and heated internal debate: John Fitzgerald reports on the controversy in Australia, while Anne-Marie Brady presents a view from New Zealand. Singapore is a small country in China’s shadow; as Donald Emmerson recounts, however, it has not been afraid to stand up to Chinese encroachment. The Central and East European region is not generally thought of as a target for Chinese influence, but Martin Hala shows how rapidly Beijing’s involvement there has spread.

In the concluding essay, Orville Schell argues that, despite the un-democratic attitudes and policies of its current leadership, China can draw upon a rich “treasury of democratic thinking” that dates back to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as well as to the intellectual ferment of the 1980s. He closes on a hopeful note: “This heritage may be buried but it is not dead, and when recovered will be able to serve as an inspiration for generations to come.” At present, however, the prospects for democracy in China appear grim. [End Page 21]

–The Editors