Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This week’s visit to Seattle , the District and New York by Xi Jinping , widely viewed as China’s strongest dictator since Mao Zedong, will give Americans another occasion to take his measure and ponder the many dilemmas of Sino-American relations. Xi arrives fresh from Beijing’s extraordinary Sept. 3 military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II . It was an extravaganza designed to demonstrate to his country and the world not only China’s power but also Xi’s. In the United States, the pomp and circumstance accompanying Xi’s state visit to the White House, the media attention to be given speeches by him and his glamorous wife at the United Nations, and the banquet toasts of business and civic organizations are all likely to enhance his prestige.
Yet, if the truth be known — and China’s pervasive censorship and propaganda make it hard to come by — Xi is an insecure leader. To be sure, the dramatic drop of China’s stock markets and the more significant slowdown of its formidable economic development are not secrets to the many countries that have quickly felt their impact and to those in China who have lost nest eggs or jobs. The world is also increasingly aware of the Chinese people’s dissatisfaction with Xi’s inadequate efforts to curb massive pollution and other threats to health and safety.
Less obvious is the lack of support for Xi’s daring struggle to curb endemic corruption. Although this persistent campaign remains popular with the masses, influential entrepreneurs and the officials on whom they depend live in uncertainty, even fear that they will become the campaign’s next casualties, and remain stubbornly passive. Even more worrisome to the regime are the enduring obstacles to transforming the export-led economy into the consumer and services one required by China’s more advanced stage of development. Cautious bureaucrats are reluctant to implement essential initiatives opposed by powerful vested interests. If the economy continues to go south and unemployment rises, so too will the risk of political instability.
There are increasing, if dimly perceived, signs that internal political struggles are again occurring within the Communist Party elite, despite Xi’s assumption of virtually all the formal levers of authority in a fashion reminiscent of Stalin as well as Mao. Given recent purges of important leaders and their supporters, it would be surprising if the situation were otherwise. Even Xi faced significant repercussions after he and his allies removed two top generals of the People’s Liberation Army, plus Zhou Yongkang (the much-feared former chief of the nation’s internal security system), Bo Xilai (formerly the principal rival to Xi’s ambitions) and Ling Jihua (former President Hu Jintao’s chief of staff). Back-door intrigues and the covert interference of retired leaders may become even more troublesome if Xi’s anti-corruption campaign moves beyond terminating the business operations of previous leaders’ families to actually prosecuting them.
In these circumstances, Xi is extremely concerned about his personal security. Although foreign commentators analyzed the Sept. 3 parade ad nauseam, they generally overlooked one of its most striking features: the unbelievably strict measures devised to hold that pageant within a televised cocoon. The 40,000 invited guests were each carefully inspected and transported to their seats, while no other spectators were allowed to line the streets. Apartment residents were not even permitted to view the parade from their windows.
Xi evidently believes that, if he is to succeed in his plans to purify China’s physical and moral environment, transform its economy, pacify widespread unrest and achieve his vaunted “Chinese dream,” he cannot permit the slightest amount of public disagreement, pluralism and autonomy. That is why repression and manipulation of the Internet and social media have become more severe than ever, and why he has been crushing nongovernmental organizations and their personnel and persecuting human rights activists and those few hundred lawyers willing to defend them. That is also why increasingly popular Christian churches are being desecrated and minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang cruelly suppressed.
While he has preached the importance of the rule of law and fostered some technical improvements in legislation regarding judicial procedures, in practice Xi has tightened party controls over the courts, allowed secret police and their hired thugs to distort legal restraints and sought to silence the legal profession. He is turning China into a state dominated by the internal security forces backed by the military, but this only further alienates intellectuals and professionals.
Although today the world’s focus is understandably on China’s economy, the party’s Leninist legal system presents a crucial challenge to the country’s future. Xi’s core problem is ideology. How to justify the party’s continuing monopolization of state power when Marxism, Lenin’s animating philosophy, has lost its broad appeal and the Soviet model has long since collapsed? Xi has sought to fill the gap with a brand of nationalism that, despite his predecessors’ commitment of their Communist government to some 25 international human rights documents, explicitly rejects “Western, universal values” such as constitutionalism and judicial independence.
To bolster his claim to legitimacy, Xi has seized upon the party’s recent rehabilitation of Confucianism, formerly condemned as the symbol of benighted feudalism, and gone further by resurrecting China’s competing ancient philosophy of legalism, which preached the virtues of a harsh government’s use of law as an instrument of dictatorship. Xi’s emerging rationalization of his unrestricted power might be termed “legalist Leninism.”
After dealing with this week’s challenging U.S. agenda, which is set to cover cyberespionage and intellectual property theft, the South China Sea, Taiwan and international law, currency valuation and bilateral investment negotiations, human rights and repatriation of Chinese both wanted and unwanted by Beijing, Xi will return to yet another domestic celebration — the Oct. 1 holiday marking the 66th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Yet, when all the hoopla has ended, he will have to ask himself, as the insecure dictators of Taiwan and South Korea asked themselves 30 years ago: How long can any modernizing authoritarian regime rely on repression to cope with the mounting problems magnified by the very economic and social progress it has promoted?