No wonder, then, that the China scholar Orville Schell describes this record as “one of the most startling miracles of economic development in world history.” The miraculous quality of China’s achievements makes what is happening in the country today especially tragic—and alarming.
Under the guise of fighting corruption, President Xi Jinping is methodically dismantling virtually every one of the reforms that made China’s spectacular growth possible over the last four decades.
In the place of a flawed but highly successful system, he is erecting a colossal cult of personality focused on him alone, concentrating more power in his hands than has any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
In the short term, Xi’s efforts may make China seem less corrupt and more stable.
For 35 years or so—from the time Mao died and Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms in the late 1970s until Xi assumed power in 2012—China avoided many of these pitfalls and defied the law of political averages by building what scholars have called an “adaptive authoritarian” regime.
While remaining nominally communist, the country embraced many forms of market capitalism and a number of other liberalizing reforms.First, in the name of fighting corruption—an important goal and one China badly needs—he has purged a vast number of officials whose real crime, in Xi’s view, was failing to show sufficient loyalty to the paramount leader.Meng Hongwei, the Interpol chief who China abruptly detained two weeks ago, is just the latest, high-profile case; his story is hardly unusual.Rather than let one person exercise supreme authority, as do most dictatorships, Deng divided power among the Communist Party’s general secretary (who also gets the title of president), the premier, and the Politburo.Deng hoped this system would ensure that no one person could ever again exercise the kind of control Mao had—since his unchecked power had led to vast abuses and mistakes, such as the Great Leap Forward (during which an estimated 45 million people perished) and the Cultural Revolution (during which Deng himself was purged and his son was tortured so severely he was left paralyzed).On balance, however, Xi’s campaign will have disastrous long-term consequences for his country and the world.Xi’s efforts may boost his own power and prestige in the short term and reduce some forms of corruption.On balance, however, they will have disastrous long-term consequences for his country and the world.Perhaps the most unusual feature of the system Deng created was the way it distributed power among various leaders.Indeed, more members of the Communist Party’s powerful Central Committee have been disciplined since 2012 than in the entire period dating back to the Communist Revolution.Not content to merely eliminate any competition, Xi has also consolidated his power by abandoning the term limits on his job and by refusing to name a successor, as his predecessors did halfway through their tenures.