That must be said openly: the Chinese Communist Party, which turns 100 this week, represents the most successful authoritarians in history.
So why does President Xi seem so uncomfortable?
It is a time when there are no obvious challenges facing his rule, and China has never enjoyed such international reach, economic strength or military power. Yet, in considerable deviation from his predecessors, Xi hastened to tighten the screws of disagreement, expand the technological control of his people, establish new control over private business, and strongly strengthen his party’s prerogatives and power.
It is precisely this contradiction between the Chinese authoritarian achievements that turn heads and the nervousness of President Xi about the future that is most worth watching as the systemic competition of our time unfolds.
In these global sweepstakes for the future, the ruthless, technologically enhanced efficiency of autocratic capitalism and the enduring (though dangerously challenged) attractions of democratic capitalism with their magnetic charms of individual rights and freedoms are lined up.
The question of our time is whether these two systems, as represented by China and the United States, can agree with a series of terms that allow them to compete peacefully, and sometimes even to cooperate. Even if they do, one or the other system will become ascending as the dominant setter of rules for the evolving global order. One or the other is also likely to emerge as a more successful service provider for the needs of citizens.
While the fragility of democratic societies has been fully demonstrated in recent years, most dramatically on Jan. 6 during the riots and violent attacks on the U.S. Congress, perhaps less crucial are the less transparent challenges to President Xi’s ambitions.
This weekend The headline story of an economist amounts of contradictions.
“No other dictatorship,” he writes, “has been able to transform itself from a famine-stricken catastrophe, such as China under Mao Zedong, into the world’s second-largest economy, whose cutting-edge technology and infrastructure set America’s creaky roads and railroads in disgrace.” “
At the same time, under President Xi, the Economist adds: “The bureaucracy, the army and the police have been purged of deviant and corrupt officials. Big business is being put in order. Mr Xi has rebuilt the party on the ground, creating a network of neighborhood spies and injecting staff into private firms. to keep them. Even since Mao’s days, society has not been under such strict control. “
History suggests that something must be provided if Xi continues to intensify his repression at home and assertiveness abroad.
Like Jude Blanchette he writes in foreign affairs: “His belief that the CCP must run the economy and that Beijing should curb the private sector will hamper the country’s future economic growth. His demand that party cadres adhere to ideological orthodoxy and show him personal loyalty will undermine the system’s flexibility and competence.” on an expansive definition of national security it will lead the country in an inward and paranoid direction. Its liberation from nationalism “Wolf Warrior” will produce a more aggressive and isolated China. “
Yet recent history also shows that the CCP has shown relentless resilience, brutal efficiency, and ideological dexterity that has repeatedly confused its critics and allowed it to move toward Mao’s The Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 with an estimated death toll from up to 20 million, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the 2020 Covid-19 crisis that China spawned and then killed, and much more.
Shortly after coming to power, President Xi abandoned the studied patience of his immediate predecessors who acted in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping “bidding his time and hiding his power” in approaching world affairs. As they did so, the Communist Party’s power over society also weakened.
President Xi’s dramatic decision to change inside and out is the result of his own belief that the United States and Western democracies are in relative decline.
Xi’s view of the world was colored by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Communist Party in 1989 and 1990, a lesson that triggers almost everything he does about his own Communist Party, and also his own struggle for power.
Back in 2018, he was thinking about how it was possible for the Soviet party to collapse with its 20 million members, when it defeated Hitler and the Third Reich with 2 million members.
“Why” he asked. “Because his ideals and beliefs have evaporated.” He ridiculed Gorbachev’s policy of “the so-called volume,,“which allowed criticism of the Soviet party line. The implication was clear: under Xi there would be no such openness.
Although he spoke less about the experience of his own rise to power in 2012, when the party faced its biggest political scandal in a generation, he can only withdraw from it when he learned how dangerous fighting and corruption can be to keep the Communist Party together. His consolidation of power eventually included discipline 1.5 million officials.
Only now can his haste to overthrow any possibility of internal disagreement and seize every opportunity for international benefit be read as a sharp reading of his own political lifeline, measured by the emergence of the Biden administration with its efforts to reverse the Western democratic decline and Allied disintegration.
Xi is probably only a decade ahead of his country’s demographic decline, its structural economic downturn and the inevitable domestic upheavals that threaten to diminish the historical opportunity currently offered to him by his country’s technological advances, its geopolitical gains and its own current retention.
This hurried man sees the place of the pass to be seized, but only if he acts with swift, determined purposefulness, and, where necessary, ruthlessness.
And under Xi, China isn’t sprinting just to seize the opportunity. Xi, Blanchette writes, at the same time put China “in a race to determine whether its many forces could surpass the pathologies that Xi himself introduced into the system.”
In short, the test is whether the most compelling success story of authoritarianism can overcome its fundamental omissions.
Frederick Kempe is the best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States ’most influential think tanks on global affairs. He has worked for The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and as the longest-serving editor in the European edition of the paper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and was published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look every Saturday at the main stories and trends of the past week.