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Great Helmsman~I

No empire lasts forever. Dictators look formidable until their edifice of power suddenly crumbles to dust. Yes, under the Chinese system, a leader can misgovern, even cause millions to perish like Mao did, and yet stay secure in power for extended periods.

GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE |

Mao Zedong was not only called the “Great helmsman” ~ he was also the “Great Guide”, the “Great Leader” and the “Great Commander”. In China, the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CCCP) is the top policy making body. Mao was the Chairman of the CCCP, which gave him overwhelming authority over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government and the military, without any set tenure. His next two successors, Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang were also Chairmen of the CCCP, though they enjoyed much less power than Mao. The post was abolished in 1982 by Deng Xiaoping who believed that consensus, compromise, and persuasion were more important for his reforms that began transforming China, and these could only be ensured by collective leadership rather than a single man rule.

Deng was the first to eschew lifelong tenure in CCCP leadership. “My last task is to take the lead in establishing a retirement system,” he said shortly before stepping down in November 1989. Since 1982, the General Secretary of the CCCP has been the highest-ranking official of the CCP and the paramount leader of China, a post being held by Xi Jinping since 2012. Xi is also the Chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission and the President of China. In the Constitution of China written in 1982, the General Secretary’s tenure was limited to two consecutive terms of five years each, a limit that was removed in 2018 through an amendment.

As the 20th National Congress of the CCP ~ the highestlevel assembly of China’s political and military setup ~ held once every five years, began its week-long deliberations on October 16, the 69-year-old Xi stands poised to be re-elected to an unprecedented third term as General Secretary, possibly to remain there for the rest of his life, like Mao. And like Mao, he too is being called the Great Helmsman, and like Mao’s, “Xi Jinping Thought” has also been enshrined in the Constitution, etching a permanent indelible place for him in Chinese history ~ only next to Mao and possibly even more elevated. We are witnessing history in the making, but a history that will likely be ruled by hubris, paranoia and an increasingly assertive China to the perils of its neighbours as much as the West, and one that will increasingly be challenged by a future characterised by faltering growth, heightened geopolitical tension, increasing global isolation, mounting domestic repression and profound uncertainty in many frontiers flowing from the disastrous effects of a single-man rule, the new “Chairman” Xi.

No empire lasts forever. Dictators look formidable until their edifice of power suddenly crumbles to dust. Yes, under the Chinese system, a leader can misgovern, even cause millions to perish like Mao did, and yet stay secure in power for extended periods. Yet, as history has shown, it doesn’t take long for an authoritarian regime to collapse like a house of cards. Given that China is the second-largest economy with the largest military force in the world, the effect of such a collapse ~ should it happen ~ will be devastating for the entire world. Unlike Deng who rejected Mao’s Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy with his blunt statement “Bu zhenglun” ~ “Let’s dispense with theory” ~ and set China upon an astounding growth path by expanding the role of the market while embracing a foreign policy that made China a major player the global economic order led by the USA, Xi formulated a new kind of ideological orthodoxy which the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calls “Marxist nationalism” which made ideology again the driver of economy.

As Rudd says, “Xi has pushed politics to the Leninist left, economics to the Marxist left, and foreign policy to the nationalist right.” He has reasserted the control of the CCP over all domains of public policy to make the party supremely importance in Chinese society and Chinese private life ~ “east, west, north and south and centre ~ the party leads everything”, as the CCP declared after the 19th Congress in 2017. He revived public sector enterprises by diminishing the private sector, stoked nationalism by pursuing an increasingly assertive and belligerent foreign policy, being firm in his belief that “history is irreversibly on China’s side and that a world anchored in Chinese power would produce a more just international order”, as Rudd observed. But China’s aggressive strategy is leading to increasing cohesion between its perceived rivals, manifested in alliances like the QUAD or AUKUS.

Xi spelled out his ideological moorings in a closed-door speech to top party officials in 2013, shortly after becoming General Secretary of the CCP. “The disintegration of a regime often starts from the ideological area. Political unrest and regime change may occur overnight, but ideological evolution is a longterm process”, he asserted, cautioning that once “ideological defences are breached, other defences become very difficult to hold.” Everything that Xi has done ever since ~ silencing all forms of dissent internally and belligerent assertiveness abroad through economic, political and military coercion ~ bears the stamp of this policy and an unshakable belief in the rise of China and irreversible decline of the West and establishment of a world order anchored in Chinese power.

The BRI that has trapped multiple countries in debt, effectively turning them into Chinese vassals, island reclamations in the South China Sea, border clashes with India, repeated intimidation of Taiwan, engaging in “wolf warrior tactics” in foreign policy in which Chinese diplomats aggressively counter criticism by host governments, his utter disregard of human rights in Xinxiang and Tibet ~ all these are examples of setting right the “historical injustices” committed by other nations against China. “The lesson we have learnt from history is not to give any ground to anyone”, Xi had once told Angela Markel. As he reminded in his 2013 speech, “History objectively exists…. A nation without historical memory does not have a future.” Driven by his views of the historical materialism, a series of policy missteps initiated by Xi have already resulted in serious economic setbacks.

Xi perceives the private sector as a threat to his rule and his crackdown on dynamic big tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Didi, etc. in order to curb their power has wiped out trillions of dollars of their wealth. Ever since the property giant Evergrande has started unravelling, the real estate sector has been teetering on the verge of collapse, but Xi thinks State Owned Enterprises (SoE) are the answer, taking China back to the planned economy of the Mao-era. Internet to him is an existential threat, hence he has erected the Great Chinese Firewall which filters out anything that even remotely resembles any criticism. His ruinous “Zero Covid” policy has locked up millions at their homes leading to widespread popular resentment that the Great Firewall hides; it has also exacted its economic costs by pushing the GDP down to 3 per cent or less against a target of 5.5 per cent.

Beside the property market crash, China is also facing a fullblown debt crisis with almost $8 trillion in bonds issued by the local governments at risk of default ~ these bonds financed the construction of everything from apartment buildings to theme parks. There are structural weaknesses that might lock China in the so-called “Middle Income Trap”, like a rapidly aging population, a shrinking workforce and consequently low growth in productivity, etc. Experts believe the growth rate in the GDP will continue to fall, from around 3 per cent in the 2020s to 2 per cent in the 2030s. In these columns, I had written earlier (“Race with China”, Oct 4- 6, 2021) that India might catch up with China in two decades, it could even be earlier. But despite the economic headwinds facing it, it does not mean that China is going to implode anytime soon or face a 2008-like crisis, from which it could emerge only with a huge fiscal stimulus.

But it certainly restricts China’s geopolitical power, which grows directly with its economic muscle. A dictator’s mind is obsessed with threats ~ real or imaginary, which he tries to pre-empt through coercion. Xi cleverly used a tirade against corruption to purge all his possible challengers like Bo Xilai, a powerful provincial governor, Zhou Yongkang, head of China’s security and Sun Zhengcai, a Politburo member ~ by systematically stripping them of positions followed by life prison terms. His power over the party and society is absolute and his personalised dictatorship unconstrained in consolidating institutional and political power in a single individual ~ in a country that was nearly brought to the brink under Mao’s unfettered powers.

Many Chinese believe that such consolidation of power is necessary to push the reforms to rejuvenate China as the greatest power in the world. China’s increasing belligerence against its neighbours in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, India and the West will only become more assertive under an emboldened Xi, now unbounded in his power and authority. Xi’s obsession with making China a superpower under his guidance has already isolated China globally, restricted access to high-end western technology, and expelled Chinese firms like Huawei from western markets.

The Great Firewall not only shuts dissenting opinions, it also shuts the inflow of creative ideas. The Zero-Covid policy once touted as a success of the socialist system cannot now be reversed as it will be seen as the defeat of the Chinese system, no matter what terrible consequences it unleashes upon the economy and people. Xi will continue with his ideology without giving any ground to anyone