The Death of China’s Reform Era7 min read

Matt Schiavenza reviews End of an Era by Carl Minzner


In terms of shock value, the announcement on Sunday 25 February that China would abolish term limits for its president and vice president – thus setting the stage for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely – registers several notches below Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election. China’s presidency, after all, is only Xi’s third-most important position, ranking below his chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Party and leadership of the country’s Central Military Commission – neither of which have ever been bound by term limits. Sinologists have referred to Xi as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong since the early days of his presidency, a status only solidified when Xi neglected to anoint a successor at last October’s 19th Party Congress. Removing presidential term limits is, itself, a move of little consequence, acknowledging changes that seem to have already taken place.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant. Now is as good a time as any to declare that the most recent period of Chinese history, one that replaced Maoism with Deng Xiaoping’s nascent market reforms in 1978, has come to an end. A new period – one some observers have dubbed “the Xi era” – has begun.

That China’s reform period has ended is unsurprising. But the way it has ended – and the nature of the politics that is following it – is. For decades since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, conventional wisdom held that China was eventually bound for liberal democracy, a prediction many observers clung to even after the massacre of pro-democracy protestors in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. These expectations informed a push in the West for economic engagement with Beijing, culminating in a hope that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing would finalize China’s inclusion in the existing international order. That a decade later China would regress to allow near-total power in the hands of one man – when such centralized control proved so disastrous in the Mao era – was, until very recently, unthinkable. And yet here we are.

Were the last four decades of Chinese history, then, for naught? Fordham University law professor Carl Minzner, whose excellent new book End of an Era tackles this question, believes that it’s too soon to tell. As he points out, China’s “reform” period ended long ago. The high-water mark for liberalism in China was probably the late 1980s, when intellectuals held free-flowing salons in Beijing apartments and mildly subversive programs like River Elegy were broadcast on national television. This modest blooming came to a screeching halt with Tiananmen. A decade later, a similar crackdown of Falun Gong followers squashed incipient hopes of religious freedom. Advances in establishing the rule of law, a buzzword of every Chinese apparatchik, peaked around 2005. Ten years ago, anyone could access Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and the New York Times website in China without use of a virtual private network. No more.

That China would regress to allow near-total power in the hands of one man was, until very recently, unthinkable”  

This counter-reformation has accelerated under Xi, who has tightened censorship, strangled human rights protections, and allowed Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace laureate, to die in chains. The Chinese leader has also, as James Palmer has noted, abetted a Putin-style cult of personality that has infected both official state media as well as intra-Party discussions. Praise for Xi now appears in once-apolitical spaces such as Lunar New Year floral displays, and his image has become ubiquitous in official Chinese media. Five years ago, analyses of elite Chinese politics focused on factions and competing centers of power. Now there’s just Xi, alone at the top.

How has he pulled it off? Without a doubt, Xi is a capable and cunning politician. But Minzner ascribes his ascension less to the man than to the changes in the country he governs. The economic model that powered China’s rise – the mass manufacturing of cheap goods for export – brought ever-diminishing returns, requiring debt-fueled investment to maintain high levels of growth. This fueled escalating levels of inequality and corruption, issues that emerged as major social problems during the late years of Hu Jintao’s presidency, when the excesses of the country’s nouveau riche aroused public rage at their lavish banquets and fast cars. The old bargain – that inequality didn’t matter so long as everyone got incrementally richer – no longer applied. Xi sensed, correctly, that the public craved a crackdown on government corruption. And all the better to sideline political rivals, such as Zhou Yongkang.

Xi’s accrual of power is more than just the story of a politician who had the right idea at the right time. It’s also a testament to a system of government that is less systematic than we thought. Over the past decade, as hopes that China would democratize slowly faded, it became fashionable to argue that the nation had achieved competent technocratic governance without the messy compromises of democracy. Beijing’s swift implementation of a stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial crisis led the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman to gush that he wished the United States could be China for a day. The Canadian academic Daniel Bell, meanwhile, posited that the Chinese emphasis on meritocracy and slow, gradual promotion through bureaucracy often produces better results than the celebrity-driven populism found in democracies. That Donald Trump was elected president of the United States no doubt validates part of Bell’s thesis. But Trump could never dream of accumulating unchecked power as swiftly and with so little opposition as Xi.

Where does China go from here? An orderly transition to liberal democracy, once a Western dream, is out of the question. Xi Jinping’s China permits no opposition, no alternative political institutions, no civil society, and no powerful non-governmental organizations. Social and cultural trends that might breathe new life into China from the bottom up are not allowed to flourish, creating a calcified state whose raison d’etre is to monitor the lives of its citizens. South Korea and Taiwan – autocratic states who became consolidated democracies after the emergence of a middle class – are no longer apt comparisons. Instead, Minzner looks to Egypt, where the Arab Spring dissolved in Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s paranoid tyranny, as more analogous.

After 40 years, Dengism has presided over more of the history of the People’s Republic than any other era. How long will Xi-ism last? Technology, once thought to be the elixir for democratic change in China, appears to be firmly on the government’s side. It’s difficult to imagine organized opposition forming in an atmosphere of Orwellian surveillance and social credit systems. In contrast to the isolation of the Mao era, major international companies have expressed no reservations to working with China. Apple has begun storing customer iCloud data on servers located on the Chinese mainland, while complying with a Chinese request to delete 700 apps from its mainland app store. The hotel chain Marriott, meanwhile, fired an employee who used an official account to ‘like’ a social media post implying that Tibet was an independent country. Just like foreign governments, companies are willing to accede to Chinese demands when Chinese yuan are in their sights.

How long will the Xi era last? Minzner sketches out several different scenarios, ranging from the emergence of a softer authoritarianism to outright Party collapse. Neither extreme, he suggests, is likely. Instead, Xi Jinping’s duration in office will depend on the number of stakeholders who profit from his presence – Chinese officials and American CEOs alike. China’s reform era, roughly from 1978-2008, was once thought to be a staging ground for a brighter, more open China. Instead, it may be regarded as an interregnum of sanity before the resumption of authoritarian bullying that has marked China’s politics since 1949. ∎

Carl Minzner, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (OUP, March 2018). Header image is a state dinner with Xi Jinping in Mexico City, from Wikimedia Commons.