China’s leadership is making it clearer that liberal democratisation will not be the path forward. The recent 19th Party Congress all but confirmed President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. However, there are other signs that China’s approach to “Opening and Reform” (改革开放) isn’t heading down the same road as might have been expected in the West. Instead, China is using alterations in the global political atmosphere to tighten its leadership. I argue that these changes in Party structure, especially the consolidation of Xi, is part of a broader aim to resolidify the CCP as China’s legitimate authority in the 21st Century.
The official policy of Opening up and Reform started in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and led to a new chapter in the years of Post-Mao China. Market liberalisation appeared to be a slow but certain sign that the country was stepping away from agricultural communism, towards what is known as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. From the outside, it appeared that China was potentially heading down a path towards democratisation. This all changed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. The incident reaffirmed that the CCP was to be the primary director of the country and not to be questioned. It was a development that prompted a change of attitude among many foreign China-watchers. Xi’s election as party General Secretary in 2012 saw a fresh young face take leadership of the government and military. Once in power, Xi undertook an anti-corruption campaign designed to return authenticity to the CCP following decades of corruption and abuse. The policy was met in general with either enthusiasm or indifference in China. However, the scale of the program was one of the biggest in recent years and saw changes in many key positions in government and the military. But like many anti-corruption campaigns, it is suspected of having been a front for the dispossession of political opponents.
The global political climate has been undergoing certain shifts in the last decade, and this is made all the more evident with the changes in the mood of the international community that President Trump embodies. There exists a perception in China of the US as a democracy at home but an inherently hegemonic and autocratic power abroad and this is being used to justify the leadership’s interest in strengthening the CCP’s legitimacy as the governing body in the eyes of its citizens. By highlighting the alleged political or military threats that the US may present, the CCP attempts to create an image of the people’s protector. The corollary of this is that political instability would be a grave risk to the country, and that a return to higher levels of political centralisation is necessary.
This movement towards greater centralisation is manifested in online censorship. Despite increased foreign influence in many cities such as Shanghai, censorship is stronger than ever. Government sponsored communication APPs are closely monitored for signs of dissent, and popular media is carefully formulated to arouse nationalistic patriotism. Most people are aware of this and seem to accept it with a resigned apathy, or in my own anecdotal experience, overzealous passion as a protective measure against the “cultural harm” that they claim websites such as YouTube have to offer. During his first term there was an online narrative of Xi as the warm and caring “Papa Xi”, or “Uncle Xi” (习大大) who puts the people first and fights against internal corruption. This censorship and narrative grants Xi greater authority in the eyes of the public to further pursue his goals for China.
There may be serious challenges ahead for China, particularly economic, and the CCP may be anticipating this. It might be believed that only through a tighter grip on the government these difficulties might be successfully overcome without addressing the issue of liberalisation. The leadership is aided by the fact that, in a country where almost 92% of the population share a single ethnicity, a sense of national identity is easy to cultivate and direct. Now that the congress has finished it can be expected that China will maintain a façade of market openness, while paradoxically reaffirming centralised policies. Liberal democratisation may have once been viewed as a state’s best chance to achieve high levels of development, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the path that China is presently on challenges this view. Though urban development and economic growth will remain powerful forces, it does not appear that we will see further movement towards democratisation anytime soon.
Damian Meduri is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. He is a final year International Studies/Development Studies student at UNSW. As a recipient of the Westpac Bicentennial Asian Exchange Scholarship, Damian spent a year abroad in Shanghai, China where he also undertook leadership roles in the Australian China Youth Association, which aims to foster the relationship between Australia and its Asian counterparts. Back home, he has also actively participated in initiatives such as Project Hope UNSW, in order to promote and assist the education of children living in rural parts of China. Damian also has a working proficiency of Mandarin Chinese which provides him with a deeper understanding of the Australia-China relationship.