Xi Jinping's risky change of China's winning formula

Politics in the West is so dramatic at the moment that China can look relatively staid and stable by comparison. But that impression is deceptive. Chinese President Xi Jinping is taking his country in radical and risky new directions.

If his new policies succeed, then the Xi era will be remembered for the achievement of his often-stated goal of the "great rejuvenation" of the Chinese nation. But if Mr Xi's experiments go wrong, then his legacy is likely to be political turmoil, economic stagnation and international confrontation.

What Mr Xi has done is essentially to abandon the formula that has driven China's rise over the past 30 years. That formula was created by Deng Xiaoping after he came to power in late 1978, and then refined by his successors. It consisted of three key ingredients - political, economic and international.

In economics, Deng and his successors emphasised exports, investment and the quest for double-digit annual growth. In politics, China moved away from the charismatic and dictatorial model created by Mao Zedong and towards a collective leadership. And in foreign affairs, China adopted a modest and cautious approach to the world that became colloquially known in the West as "hide and bide", after Deng's famous advice to his colleagues to "hide your capacities, bide your time".

Under Mr Xi, who assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) towards the end of 2012, all three key ingredients of the Deng formula have changed. In politics, China has moved back towards a model based around a strongman leader - Mr Xi himself. In economics, the years of double-digit growth are over and China is groping towards a new model, driven more by domestic consumption than exports. And in international affairs, the Xi era has seen a move away from hide and bide towards a foreign policy that challenges United States dominance of the Asia-Pacific region.

The three big policy shifts have different origins. In economics, the old model of growth based on exports, high rates of investment and low wages could not go on forever. The sheer size of the Chinese economy, combined with rising costs in China and slower growth in the West, made change inevitable. But the shift to a new model is perilous. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, China launched an unsustainable splurge of credit and investment that could yet culminate in a financial crisis.

Even if that unpleasant fate is avoided, China still has to get used to lower rates of growth. The party leadership used to encourage the idea that China had to grow at 8 per cent a year to maintain social and political stability. But now growth of 6 per cent to 7 per cent would be regarded as a good result.

A healthy economy is crucial to internal stability. The CCP still resolutely rejects any move towards democratic elections as unsuitable for China. Instead, the country's leaders have relied on rapid economic growth to give the political system a "performance legitimacy", which party theorists have argued is far deeper than the mandate endowed by a democratic election. But a faltering economy - or, worse, a financial crisis - could well undermine the party's legitimacy.

When it comes to politics, in the post-Mao era, the CCP has sought a middle path between dictatorship and democracy. The idea was to embrace a collective style of government, with smooth transitions of leadership managed by the party itself. Mr Hu Jintao, Mr Xi's colourless predecessor, epitomised this system. He never encouraged a cult of personality, served two terms in office, and then left power.

Mr Xi has broken with this model. He is now widely said to be the most powerful leader of China since Mao. A sycophantic official media is encouraged, literally, to sing his praises. (The most noted ditty is called "Uncle Xi Loves Mama Peng", a saccharine reference to the President's wife Peng Liyuan.) At the same time, Mr Xi has launched a crackdown on corruption that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of convictions, terrifying much of China's business and political elite.

The result is fevered speculation in Beijing - including rumours of purges, attempted coups and assassination attempts. Many pundits believe that Mr Xi is now determined to serve more than two terms in office - a development that would overturn the model of collective leadership.

At the same time as economic and political tensions within China have risen under Mr Xi, so the country's foreign policy has become more nationalistic and more willing to risk confrontation with the West and with China's Asian neighbours. Beijing's increasingly tough assertion of its territorial and maritime claims, epitomised by its "island-building" in the South China Sea, has led to stand-offs with the US and Japanese navies. These near-clashes may serve a political purpose. In harder economic times, the CCP may need new sources of legitimacy, and confrontation with Japan and the US at sea is liable to stir patriotic support for the government.

The key to the Deng formula that created modern China was the primacy of economics. Domestic politics and foreign policy were constructed to create the perfect environment for a Chinese economic miracle. With Mr Xi, however, political and foreign policy imperatives frequently appear to trump economics. That change in formula looks risky for both China and the world.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Xi Jinping's risky change of China's winning formula'. Subscribe