CLAREMONT, Calif. – Almost 40 years after Mao Zedong’s death, Chinese President Xi Jinping is concentrating power on himself, bringing back familiar elements of the personal dictatorship of the Mao era, a noted China expert said on Tuesday.

Xi’s attempt to concentrate power has been visible in several ways, said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program and research professor at the University of California San Diego.

Fearing that China will end up having the same fate as the former Soviet Union, Xi immobilized the State Council, China’s Cabinet, in order for the Party to reclaim control of the government, Shirk said in a talk at Claremont McKenna College in California. Most significantly, he appears to be using his hugely popular anti-corruption campaign to “destroy” rival groups.

“It is both a purge – in communist regimes – of political rivals, as well as a genuine effort to clean up the party,” Shirk said.

Moreover, Xi is preventing backlash against him by reasserting his power over the military. He is also directly leading the internal security apparatus designed to protect potential threats to his power. At the same time, censorship of main media has intensified, with Xi describing it as protecting the public from foreign ideas, which is reminiscent of the type of propaganda spewed during the Cultural Revolution.

By working within the system, Xi is slowly reviving Maoist ideological concepts and practices, Shirk noted.

“Xi Jinping is China’s COE – ‘Chairman of Everything,’” Shirk said, quoting Australian China scholar Geremie Barmé. However, “someone who wants to be COE may actually be ‘Chairman of Nothing’ because he (only has) 24 hours in his day and cannot possibly manage all the different policy areas.”

Xi’s rise to power was unprecedented, as the top party leadership who chose him expected him to be like his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Party elders initially thought that having a princeling – an offspring of a powerful party leader – was good because all of their own “corrupt” assets would be safe under Party rule.

“What nobody expected was the extent to which Xi is consolidating personal authority (that) Chinese people have not seen since Mao,” Shirk said.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, senior leader Deng Xiaoping blamed China’s problems not on Mao as an individual, but on the “overconcentration of power,” which gave rise to “arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of the collective leadership,” Shirk stated.

“Mao’s unchecked dictatorial power and his cult of personality had allowed him to launch mass campaigns, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,” Shirk she said, both of which “had tragic consequences – social and economic – for the Chinese people.”

Because of those social and political disasters Deng, and many of his colleagues, vowed never to allow unchecked dictatorial power again, and sought to modernize the economy and improve living standards.

“Deng never envisioned full electoral democracy, but he did want to regularize and institutionalize the Chinese Communist Party to improve the way it governs China,” Shirk added.

Deng’s main focus was to “distinguish between the responsibility of the party and those of the government, and stop substituting the former for the latter,” Shirk said. To that effect, Deng fixed the terms of office and retirement age for senior officials, easing the problems of succession, and delegated the authority for most economic policy from the party to the government.

“In a country characterized by modern values, how – in this day and age – could a single leader [Xi] achieve this amount of personal control over the system?” Shirk asked. “Xi is using the system, instead of changing the system, to rule with more concentrated authority.”

Thoughtful and collected, Shirk’s presentation reflected her years of experience in Chinese politics, having served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

Though China probably will not have democratic elections higher than the township level anytime soon, it is important for China to reform its legal system and introduce media independence, Shirk said.

“(The Chinese) people want a strong leader, but not one with unchecked powers,” she said.

(Written by Glenys Kirana, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 21, 2015)

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