China in Transition

Xi Jinping Regime Aims to Strengthen China's Authoritarian System: Is the strategy of "a leftward tilt in politics and a rightward tilt in the economy" sustainable?

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Xi Jinping's agenda is characterized by a leftward tilt politically and a rightward tilt economically

It has been over a year since Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012, and his agenda, which can be characterized by a leftward tilt politically and a rightward tilt economically, is gradually becoming clear. The political leftward tilt seeks to strengthen the Communist Party's one-party rule and Xi Jinping's power base in particular. On the other hand, the economic rightward tilt seeks to reduce government intervention in economic activities as much as possible so that both the market and enterprises (private sector companies in particular) can demonstrate their strength.

In politics, the following leftward trends have been observed. First, the Communist Party has tried to solidify its leadership authority and that of General Secretary Xi as the successor of Chairman Mao Zedong by praising Mao's achievements. General Secretary Xi has been repeating the following comment: "People should not use the second 30 years (of the People's Republic) to repudiate the first 30 years, and vice versa." In July 2013, Xi visited Xibaipo and the former residence of Mao, which are the holy places of the Chinese Revolution, and gave instructions to make Mao's former residence an educational base to learn the tradition of nationalism and revolution. In addition, in December 2013, all seven members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee, the top leadership of the Communist Party of China including General Secretary Xi, attended a roundtable discussion and visited the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall as part of the events commemorating the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth.

The Communist Party has also stifled freedom of speech in the media to suppress criticism of the regime. The mini blogs of scholars with different ideas or opinions from that of the Communist Party have been shut down one after another since May 2013, and some well-known bloggers have been arrested. Over the same period, major media such as the Hongqi Wengao (The Red-Flag Manuscript), the People's Daily, and the PLA Daily have published a number of articles criticizing the constitutional government system while praising the current political system. Foreign media have reported that universities in Beijing and Shanghai have issued an internal notice stating that seven subjects must not be discussed—namely, universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, the historical mistakes of the Communist Party of China, the powerful and wealthy privileged class, and the independence of the judiciary ("Direction regarding the Seven Prohibited Topics [Seven Subjects that Must Not Be Discussed] to Universities in Beijing and Shanghai," Ming Pao Daily News, May 11, 2013).

In addition, the Communist Party is rectifying its disciplines and strengthening its anti-corruption campaign. Its aim is not only to gain popular support, but also to enhance the authority of the leadership and deliver a blow against conservative forces hampering reforms. Based on the slogan of "targeting both tigers and flies" (a crackdown on both corrupt leaders and low-level officials), a large number of high-ranking officials have become subject to corruption investigations, including Jiang Jiemin, who was a member of the Communist Party Central Committee and chairman of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) of the State Council (Table 1).

Table 1: High-Ranking Officials Subject to the Corruption Investigation in 2013a) Officials transferred to judicial organs
NameHighest position prior to the investigation
Zhou ZhenhongMember of the Standing Committee of Guangdong Province Communist Party, Head of the United Front Work Department of the Regional Party Committee
Liu TienanDeputy Director of the National Development and Reform Commission
Ni FakeVice Governor of Anhui Province
Wang SuyiMember of the Standing Committee of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Communist Party, Head of the United Front Work Department of the Regional Party Committee
Li DaqiuVice Chairman of the Political Consultative Conference of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Chairman of the Provincial Federation of Trade Unions
Tong MingqianVice Chairman of the Hunan Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference
Yang KunExecutive Director and Vice President of the Agricultural Bank of China Limited
Qi PingjingDeputy Director of the China International Publishing Group
b) Officials under internal investigation from the Communist Party
NameHighest position prior to the investigation
Jiang JieminChairman of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, Member of the Communist Party Central Committee
Li DongshengDeputy Secretary of the CCP Committee of the Ministry of Public Security, Vice Minister of China's Ministry of Public Security
Li ChongxiDeputy Party Secretary of Sichuan Province
Li ChunchengDeputy Party Secretary of Sichuan Province, alternate member of the CCP Central Committee
Guo YongxiangDeputy Director of the Sichuan Provincial People's Congress Standing Committee, Vice Governor of Sichuan Province
Ji JianyeDeputy Party Secretary of Nanjing, Mayor of Nanjing
Liao ShaohuaMember of the Standing Committee of Guizhou Province, Party Secretary of Zunyi
Chen BaihuaiVice Chairman of the Political Consultative Conference of Hubei Province
Guo YoumingVice Governor of Hubei Province
Chen AnzhongDeputy Director of the Jiangxi Provincial People's Congress Standing Committee, Chairman of the Provincial Federation of Trade Unions
Yang GangDeputy Director of the Committee for Economic Affairs of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Deputy Director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine
Wang YongchunVice President of China National Petroleum Corporation, alternate member of the CCP Central Committee
Xu JieDeputy Director of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls
Dai ChunningVice President of China Export & Credit Insurance Corporation
Source: Compiled by the author based the "Report on the Current Working Status of the Establishment of a Party Culture for Incorrupt Politics and Anti-Corruption in Fiscal 2013" (January 10, 2014) of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China.

Lastly, the Communist Party has tried to concentrate power in the leadership, particularly in General Secretary Xi. Following the decision made at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China ("Third Plenary Session") held in November 2013, the National Security Committee and the Leading Group on Comprehensive Deepening of Economic Reform, headed by General Secretary Xi, were subsequently established.

On the other hand, with respect to the rightward tilt in the economy, a series of market-oriented economic reforms have been implemented, such as deregulation, the abolition of minimum lending rates, the reduction of entry barriers facing private companies, financial system reforms, and the establishment of a China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone. In the Third Plenary Session, it was also stressed that the market should assume a decisive role in the allocation of resources.

The authoritarian system has entered a new stage

That said, a leftward tilt politically and a rightward tilt economically is the basic agenda that past leaders have taken to one extent or another since China shifted to its reform and open-door policies in 1978, and these are widely seen as characteristic of an authoritarian system. Xi Jinping's agenda is simply to try to strengthen it.

China, which had been under a totalitarian system for 30 years since the establishment of the communist regime in 1949, shifted to an authoritarian system in the wake of its transition to reform and open-door policies in 1978. An authoritarian system is positioned in between a totalitarian system and a democratic system in terms of the extent to which political power is concentrated, the relationship between power and freedom, the governance method, ideology, and the legitimacy of the political regime. Under an authoritarian system, China has aimed to maintain the Communist Party's one-party rule and aims for economic development by promoting market-oriented reforms and opening up the country to the world.

Xiao Gongqin, a professor at Shanghai Normal University and a leading advocate of authoritarianism, regards the agenda centering on reform and open-door policies adopted by Deng Xiaoping as Version 1.0 of China's authoritarian system, and the agenda adopted by Xi Jinping as Version 2.0 (Xiao Gongqin, "Relaunching Reforms in China: From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping," Daxuewen, No. 89, January 10, 2014). According to Xiao, in Version 1.0 of this authoritarian system, the government paved the way for market-oriented reforms, while in Version 2.0, in addition to developing a market economy, the government has to solve problems stemming from government-driven reforms, such as corruption and market monopolization by state-owned enterprises and the emergence of vested interest groups. With General Secretary Xi addressing these problems seriously, Xiao expects China to enter a "golden age" of authoritarian rule.

Wu Jiaxiang, who was a policy advisor to former General Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, also believes that General Secretary Xi will become a strong, authoritarian leader (Wu Jiaxiang, "Three Characteristics that have Emerged in Politics since the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China that were Missing for the Last 20 Years,", December 18, 2012). As the basis for this view, he points out the following: 1) Xi Jinping gained control of the military at the same time that he became general secretary of the Communist Party, which is the first time this has happened in 30 years; 2) the premier of the State Council and the general secretary of the Communist Party share similar viewpoints; and 3) political interference by former leaders has basically disappeared.

Political reforms have emerged as urgent issues

Against this championship of authoritarianism, scholars outside of the regime, centering on neoliberals, argue that for China to solve the many problems it faces, democratization and the rule of law are necessary, rather than strengthening the power of the government (Note).

First, under China's "one-party system," efficiency tends to be emphasized more than fairness when targeting economic development. In fact, income disparity is growing in China, and this is one reason why social stability is being threatened. To correct this income disparity, the right to vote should be given to the weak by implementing fair and equal elections, so that their demands will be reflected in policies.

Second, a long lasting government inevitably will become corrupt. The Communist Party of China is no exception. To prevent corruption, a democratic political system that enables the ruling party and the opposition party to change the government through elections should be established.

Third, the environmental problems have become serious. As the experience of other countries indicates, the development of laws, the monitoring of companies by civilian groups and mass media, and fair court decisions are essential to solve environmental problems. However, a one-party system lacks this checks-and-balances mechanism.

Lastly, in China, since societal values and interests have become more diversified with economic development and an increasingly market-oriented economy, the traditional ideology of communism, which calls for class conflict, has lost its unifying force. Getting the blessing from the people through fair and equitable elections should provide an effective way for the Communist Party to gain new legitimacy.

In fact, since the mid-1970, the transition from authoritarian systems to democratic ones on a global scale, which has come to be known as the "third wave," has accelerated (Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). Thus, in Asia, authoritarian systems (widely known as "developmental dictatorship") in the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. have given way to more democratic ones. China is currently having difficulty ensuring its economic development while maintaining social stability under an authoritarian system, and is under pressure to shift to a democratic system. For the Xi Jinping government, political reforms in that direction seem inevitable.

The original text in Japanese was posted on February 5, 2014.

  • ^ Authoritarians also believe, as neoliberals do, that China should aim eventually to establish a democratic system. However, authoritarians recommend that as China proceeds with democratization, it should carry forward the process in the order of moving from a totalitarian system to an authoritarian system and then to a democratic system. They claim that society could be destabilized if China ignores this order and tries to shift to a democratic system all at once. Thus, China should aim to make a democratic system a long-term objective, instead of a short-term objective. Toward that end, under an authoritarian system, the government must not only promote economic development, but also develop preconditions for a democratic system, such as a market economy, private property, civil society, and the rule of law.

February 5, 2014