In recent years there has been a lot of debate about the meaning of the “China model,” including the very definition of the China model. In political economy circles, it is understood to mean the array of state interventions that led China to pursue a development path that was somewhat different from the Washington Consensus. In political science circles, the term evokes the array of institutions erected to ensure some degree of authoritarian resiliency.
A few years ago, the meaning of both China models seemed clear. In “The System Worked,” I noted that China abstained from proselytizing its model in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, if anything, China had rhetorically committed to further liberalization and globalization. Xi Jinping’s crafty Davos speech this year appeared to be further evidence of that move. Similarly, China scholars had taken note of how the Communist Party had routinized the transfer of power in an authoritarian state. The transitions from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi suggested a predictable pattern of 10-year presidential epochs.
After this past week’s 19th Party Congress, which wrapped up Tuesday, I think we can kiss this consensus goodbye.
My Post colleague Simon Denyer’s reporting suggests that there’s been a few changes to how China is governed. There’s the deification of Xi, for one thing:
China’s Communist Party formally elevated President Xi Jinping to the same status as party legends Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping on Tuesday, writing his name into its constitution and setting the nation’s leader up for an extended stay in power.
The move will make Xi the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, with ambitions to tighten party control over society and make his country a superpower on the world stage…
“The amendment of the party constitution effectively confirms Xi Jinping’s aspiration to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century — that means a top leader with no constraints on tenure or retirement age,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As Denyer notes, this move increases the likelihood that Xi will stay in power beyond his second five-year-term as party general secretary. It also seems to nudge Xi’s rule closer to the personalistic regimes of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the America in Donald Trump’s head. Further evidence of Xi flexing his power? The Castro-like 205-minute speech he delivered to the Party Congress.
What Xi said in that speech also marked a change in tack from how China views its own economic model. Five years ago, China’s ruling party recognized the need to take liberalizing steps to maintain economic growth. Beijing’s leadership also disdained telling others to follow China’s model, despite such high rates of economic growth.
As Denyer reported, Xi sounds more boastful now:
American presidents are fond of describing their nation as a “city on a hill” — a shining example for other nations to follow. But China is now officially in the business of styling itself as another polestar for the world, with a very different political, economic and cultural model.
“The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a mammoth speech to the Communist Party elite on Wednesday.
“It means the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization,” he said in the Great Auditorium of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
“It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence, and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”
This comes on the heels of a Xinhua commentary trashing democracy as a model for political development: “Endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals, which make the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens.”
What is odd about this is the timing. Sure, right now liberal democracy is facing some difficulties — but so is the China model. A decade ago, Beijing’s development path looked both resilient and rewarding. In recent years, however, China has had to cope with a growth slowdown, financial turmoil and an exodus of capital stopped only by stringent controls. Indeed, as Denyer reports, the rest of Xi’s discussion of the economy focused more on increasing state control over the economy than relying on market forces.
Until now, the primary concern about Sino-American relations has been realpolitik in character: How will the United States handle a rising China? Regardless of domestic politics, realists argued that the distribution of power automatically injected tension into the bilateral relationship. The shift in Xi’s rhetoric, however, suggests that there is the potential for idealpolitik to be another source of tension. The more that China brags about the China model, the greater the possible zones of conflict between Beijing and Washington.