In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, few, if any, countries have repudiated the hope that liberal democracy was on an inevitable march across the globe as much as China.
That was on full display Wednesday at the opening of a twice-per-decade congress convened by the Chinese Communist Party. The party will soon surpass its Soviet forebear as the longest-ruling communist party in history. And in case there was any lingering uncertainty about its intended trajectory, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged his comrades not to “mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” Instead, he said in his opening address, they would work together to build a “modern socialist country.”
“Through a long period of hard work, socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era,” Mr. Xi, who also heads the Communist Party, told 2,300 party delegates assembled in the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square. “This is a new historical direction in our country’s development.”
Xi delivered his speech – which lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours – as China’s most powerful leader in decades. He’s all but certain to receive a second five-year term at the week-long, mostly closed-door congress. With Xi in firm control, liberal reforms in China appear as remote as ever, squashed by the party’s return to its ideological roots.
The general secretary appears determined to return his country to the center of the world stage, bringing an end to China’s so-called century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. In its place is the “China Dream,” a phrase he has popularized and defined as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But at a time when Western democracies face severe challenges, and with the United States’ global leadership seemingly in retreat, the appeal of Xi’s newly bolstered “China Path” as an alternative to democratic values may not be limited to China, some analysts say.
Central to Xi’s rise have been his efforts to revitalize the Communist Party and its vision of ideological uniformity. Analysts say he is haunted by the fate of the Soviet Union: its collapse a cautionary tale of a party that lost its way.
When Xi came to power in 2012, widespread corruption and infighting threatened party’s long-term viability. To help restore its prestige and legitimacy, Xi quickly ordered the largest anti-graft campaign in modern Chinese history. He’s since leveraged this crackdown to sideline political rivals and invigorate party control.
He hasn’t stopped there. To ensure the party remains firmly in command of an increasingly wealthy and diverse society, Xi has tightened party discipline and shown no patience for political dissent. Human rights lawyers have been silenced, while a once-budding civil society has largely vanished under the expansion of vast domestic surveillance. Not all of this started under Xi, but he has zealously taken on the task of ensuring loyalty to the party.
“Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party is the leader of all,” he said on Wednesday.
All of this has led Xi to become China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong. The party gave Xi the title of “core leader” a year ago, an honor bestowed on only three previous leaders. He could cement his power even further if the political ideology he unveiled in his speech Wednesday – “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – is incorporated into the party’s constitution at the end of the congress, joining “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.”
On Wednesday, Xi spoke with confidence as he described a China that is on the cusp of greatness. He called its political system the broadest, most genuine, and most effective way to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people. He said the Chinese model of growth under communist rule was “flourishing,” adding that it had offered “a new choice” for other developing countries.
Though Xi has positioned himself as the leader to guide this “new era,” he did not say so directly. Nor did he explicitly condemn liberal democracy. That work was left to China’s state-run media, which frequently points out its shortcomings. “While some Western countries are stagnating and struggling,” says a recent report from Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, “China remains a beacon of stability across the globe.”
“The Chinese style of governance has gained global attraction,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research on public policy and society at the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, citing Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa as particularly susceptible to its influence. Closer to Beijing, some analysts have argued that China holds increasing sway in countries like Cambodia and Thailand. Longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, has overseen a political and press crackdown criticized by the West as Chinese support stays steady.
But the appeal of an alternative to liberal democracy may extend farther, Dr. Shi-Kupfer says. “It’s probably helpful in forcing us in the West to reflect on our democracies, but this is a governance style which comes with no moral foundation. I am worried that our self-reflection could lead us to deny values that I believe are universal.”
A major focus at the congress will be on whether Xi is able to gain even more power by appointing loyal officials to top positions within the party. Observers will also be watching for signs of whether Xi will appoint a successor or open the way for holding on to power beyond his second term.
Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing, says Xi’s concentration of power over 1.4 billion Chinese poses serious risks. “People will make mistakes,” he says. “Where is your control mechanism?”
For now, little appears to be standing in the way of Xi. Still, his attempt to create a unified national ideology – with the party at its center – is far from a done deal. Xi’s top-down approach has been undermined by a fragmented public opinion in popular online chat forums, according to a paper released earlier this month by the Mercator Institute in Berlin. It found that pro-Western, economically liberal arguments continue to skirt censorship, particularly among educated urban Chinese.
The paper goes on to say this ideological competition isn’t limited to China, where it will determine the level of popular support for Communist Party rule. “It will also become a defining factor in global politics,” the paper concludes. “Many countries and regions will now have a choice between Chinese and Western developmental models and methods.”
Xie Yujuan contributed reporting.