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  • Xi Jinping's China:On the Road to Neo-totalitarianism
  • Jean-Philippe Béja (bio)

more than a whole cycle of the chinese zodiac has elapsed since the special issue of Social Research, "China in Transition," was published in 2006. After 12 years, China's transition is not towards democracy but towards a kind of neo-totalitarianism. During this period, Liu Xiaobo, who had written in that issue on the growing influence of civil society, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and died in prison, while his wife was placed under house arrest for almost a decade. The year 2008 was a watershed, as the financial crisis dealt a serious blow to the Washington Consensus, while the successful organization of the Olympic Games by Beijing impressed the world. The Chinese leadership used this opportunity to become more assertive on the international scene, presenting its regime as a credible alternative to Western democracy and the market economy that had led the world to an unprecedented crisis. Liu Xiaobo's dream of a strong civil society capable of putting an end to the Communist Party's dictatorship has vanished.

Donald Trump's election, the success of populist candidates in Central and Eastern Europe, and the advent of a coalition government in Italy that includes the far right have dealt a further blow to liberal democracy: Francis Fukuyama's expectation of "the end of history" has faded. Whereas in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, there had been an attempt at reconstructing an international order according to the principles of democracy and multilateralism, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, conflicts have multiplied, [End Page 203] multilateralism has lost its luster, and the rise of nationalism in many parts of the world has challenged the mere idea of an international community. The ascents to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have signaled the rise of a new era of authoritarianism. Xi Jinping's rule is one of the best examples of this new trend.

Since Xi became the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head in 2012, the international situation has been very favorable for China. Trump's decision to withdraw from the leadership of the Western world in order to "make America great again" has paved the way for Xi's achievement of the "China Dream" (Zhongguo meng)—an appeal to patriotism with the promise that he would restore China's position in the world. Putting an end to Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy, which consisted in China biding its time, Xi has adopted a proactive attitude in order to establish an international order more favorable to his country's interests. While Trump was denouncing globalization and multilateralism, the leader of the world's second largest economy presented himself as the champion of open markets and free trade, attracting the support of Europe and Canada (Xi 2017a). Since his ascent to power, he has developed relations with many African nations, organizing summits with heads of state (the latest in September 2018) and opening a military base in Djibouti. His major foreign policy initiative, the equivalent of his China Dream on the international scene, has been the launch of the Belt and Road initiative, the goal of which is to put China back at the center of the world. It consists of huge (at least nominally) infrastructure projects, especially (high-speed) railways, which are supposed to promote development and trade between Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.

"Beijing consensus," "Chinese model," "Chinese solution"—Xi's leadership has gone to great lengths to popularize his mixture of state capitalism and authoritarianism (even neo-totalitarianism) as a solution to the quandary of development. The People's Republic has thus achieved an impressive degree of success, especially in Africa. [End Page 204]

Since 2008, not only has China become the second largest economy in the world, but it has also begun to assert itself as a great power (Economy 2018), extending its influence beyond its immediate geographical environment, developing an increasingly strong navy, and playing an important role in the resolution of the conflicts that shake the world. Its positions on the environment, on...