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The buzz from Western media had started years ago. It reached a crescendo recently with China’s 19th Communist Party Congress, which approved a second term for Xi Jinping as national leader.
The chatter has been fulsome about how Xi is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao and Deng, or even Mao outright. He had prevailed in the customary power struggles and grabbed authority from rivals, goes the narrative. The latest coinage is “Xiconomics,” suggesting he has taken over China’s economic helmsmanship as well. A persistent undertone has been innuendoes recalling the dangers of dictatorship, overconcentration and abuse of authority, repression, etc, etc.
That Western narrative is but another demonstration of the ignorance and prejudice its creators have long held towards China. To understand Xi Jinping’s position, it is necessary to take a closer look at what Chinese governance is today, and how it got there.
Today’s China is a genuine collective leadership, and a meritocracy. These two defining characteristics began to take shape during the Deng Xiaoping era. For Deng and his reformer comrades, the devastating excesses of the Mao period made it crystal-clear that unchecked power at the top was highly hazardous to the nation’s health. Deng forbade anything hinting at a personality cult around himself. In any case, the presence of other first-generation revolutionaries — like Chen Yun and Li Xiannian — meant Beijing no longer had one-man rule.
Early in the post-Deng era, China settled into a system whereby the Communist Party head shared authority with colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). They began to institutionalize today’s mature meritocracy, resurrecting the imperial-examinations ideal of ability as the ultimate measure of suitability for high office. In the 21st century, that has meant experience and achievements in governance. The result: a senior party and government leadership with far richer, more impressive track records than is possible among counterparts in any democracy.
With 85 million members, the Communist Party itself is larger than most nations on Earth. The “one-party dictatorship” of ignorant Western fantasy is actually a collection of many factions, with diverse interests, under a single roof. Differences among the factions are greater and notably more meaningful than those among, say, the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. Intra-CPC debates on policy are frequent and vigorous. In the end, unresolved issues are settled by the PSC.
The best governance brains of the nation debate and decide the best governance policies for the nation. So it’s no accident that in recent decades, China has accomplished what is increasingly recognized as the greatest uplift in human welfare in all history.
It is this governing mechanism that decided, about a decade ago, that Xi Jinping was the best person to lead China into the next phase of its momentous comeback from a historical nadir. Contrary to Western mythology and obsession, Xi did not “struggle” for or “seize” power on his way to the top. It was the Chinese meritocracy, evolved over several generations, that decided to put him there, after he came through its screening systems with flying colors.
The meritocracy chose Xi to tackle an immensely difficult task. His brief is two-pronged: resolving the awesome problems accumulated from decades of rapid reform (rampant corruption, lax military discipline, intensifying hostility from the US Empire, etc), and taking China’s development to the next level. And to ensure he stood a chance, the collective leadership vested him with the most authority since Deng Xiaoping.
Next time you hear about Xi the dictator or Xi the power-grabber, keep all this in mind.