The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from October 18 to 24 is a milestone in the coronation of President Xi Jinping as the uncrowned emperor of the world’s most populous and would-be most powerful country. It is the harbinger of a new kind of dictatorship in the 21st century.
Just five years ago, the notion of China heading back towards absolute authoritarianism by one individual seemed inconceivable. At that time, collective leadership and institutionalised transfer of power through jostling and jockeying among multiple factions of the CCP ensured relatively stable governance of a complex nation undergoing sophisticated socioeconomic changes. Today, the collegiality and sharing of power that stood China in good stead since Deng Xiaoping’s passing in 1997 have been shaken by Xi’s historic power grab.
Quinquennial party congresses of the CCP used to be mechanisms for the division of the spoils and presenting a face of China moving further away from the totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era. But the present Congress is a reminder of how far Xi has dragged China backwards in terms of political and economic liberalisation.
Through unbridled ambition and manipulation, the current president has put a brake on the liberal understanding of China progressively reforming and opening up.
The China he has moulded during his first term in office is a pale shadow of the domestically loosening and internationally modest China of the previous two decades.
Having ruthlessly eliminated rivals and anointed himself as the "core leader" on a par with Mao and Deng in 2016, Xi is aiming for the tags of Chairman for Life and enshrining his "guiding thought" into the Chinese constitution. The propaganda drumbeat from China’s state-owned media surrounding Xi’s personalised "new theory for the new era" to steer the country like the "Mao Zedong thought" and the "Deng Xiaoping theory" leave little doubt that Xi wishes to be the next Great Helmsman and rule endlessly at his whim.
The 19th party congress is being set up by Xi to overturn the principle of rotating power from one bunch of anointed CCP leaders to another every five-ten years, and thus paving the way for replacing the party-state with a one-man show.
And herein lies the extreme danger ahead for China. Unlike democracies, tight autocratic regimes cannot diffuse and scatter mass discontent. When society gets sullen or disillusioned in such systems, people’s anger will be directed at the person at the pinnacle and the edifice that props him up. Excess concentration of power is a high-risk strategy that could backfire and sow seeds of revolution against the foundational principle of the CCP rule.
Xi has carefully studied historical cases where dictatorships crumbled and collapsed due to their top-heavy nature. But his preference for "strong leadership" and drive for maximising his control prevent any meaningful prospects of relieving the stress that is building up and which could explode.
China expert Minxin Pei argues that Xi is ushering in a "disciplinary state" with extreme security, surveillance and punishment capabilities. The more the repression of market forces and of social freedoms, the likelier the chances that Xi will carry China towards a breaking point.
For the international community, the other big worry is Xi’s aggressive foreign policy. In the opening speech of the 19th Congress, he mentioned the phrase "great power" a record 26 times and promised a "world-class military" in the next few decades, presumably to overtake the US. He also starkly warned that no entity should dare to "separate any part of Chinese territory from China", reinforcing the ultra-hawkish approach he has taken to disputes with neighbouring Asian countries.
Having reached the middle-income economic stage, Xi’s China is obsessed with translating its massive financial surpluses into military muscle and political influence over weak states. Even as the Chinese economy periodically slows down or suffers shocks, the narrative that China is marching ahead with a singular determination to achieve the glorious status of a global superpower has been drilled into Chinese minds through Xi’s ideological apparatus.
The CCP’s post-Mao legitimacy rested on delivering mindboggling GDP growth and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Xi has added an imperial dimension to it and forced ordinary Chinese people to don an overly nationalistic self-portrait of No. 1 nation on earth.
Patriotic Chinese citizens and officials often proclaim proudly that they cannot be contained and that they are unbeatable in every sphere. But Xi’s pursuit of international dominance is producing counterbalancing coalitions among like-minded countries in Asia. As in the domestic arena, excess power accumulation by a rising player in the foreign realm increases threats of unleashing catastrophic wars.
In politics, even the most unassailable figure eventually falls or fades away. But the moot question is how much damage and destruction will supreme leaders wreak before they exit the stage. Xi is at the peak of his power now and unable to introspect about the negativities he is generating. Sadly, the disenfranchised Chinese people have no means to make him change course. Calamity awaits.