By CHRISTINA YOH —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Leadership in China follows a cyclical pattern between strong and weak consolidation of power, similar to the election of U.S. presidents, a leading China expert said Wednesday.
Like Americans, the Chinese people desire a strong leader, one who will address the problems of the nation and provide for a better standard of life for the people, said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program and research professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. She believes the Chinese do not, however, necessarily want an unchecked leader such as President Xi Jinping.
“People felt that (former President) Hu Jintao and (former Premier) Wen Jiabao, in particular, were weak and that they weren’t disciplining the bureaucracy that was going off in its own direction,” said Shirk. During their administration, corruption worsened, and there was a clear lack of coordination and progress, especially on the economic front. Xi’s rise to power in 2012 was, therefore, anticipated. People welcomed stronger leadership because of the failures of Xi’s weak predecessors.
Shirk found a similarity in the election of U.S. presidents wherein the newly elected chief executive has policy platforms that work toward “correcting mistakes and problems with the last administrator.” This is explains the frequent back-and-forth between Democratic and Republican presidents.
When leaders of the Communist Party of China chose Xi to succeed Hu, they expected him to rule under collective leadership and be another mild leader. Xi proved them wrong.
He has completely consolidated authority by modeling his administration after Mao Zedong’s. Xi is the head of all interagency coordination bodies, earning him the title of “COE,” – Chairman of Everything – according to Australian China scholar Geremie Barame. Shirk indicated that Xi takes advantage of the absence of an independent legal system, makes decisions without input of the State Council – China’s Cabinet – and is intensifying censorship to prevent foreign ideas from influencing public opinion.
Shirk, however, found that Xi is not to blame for his arbitrary concentration of power; rather, the system and its cyclical pattern allowed him to do so. Leninist systems, like Mao’s China, have the natural tendency to centralize power because of the ambiguous relationship between dictators and institutions as well as the absence of checks and balances. In a sense, Xi exhibits the failure of Deng’s reforms toward institutionalization in the 80’s, said Shirk.
Xi rose to power at an opportune time; not only did the system give him easy access to centralized authority, but the people also supported a strong leader who would take on more power. Political reform is now virtually nonexistent under Xi. In hindsight, Hu and Wen’s “mild” policies of increasing transparency and accountability seem favorable, causing Shirk and other experts to realize the dangerous imposition of the cyclical pattern in leadership.
Though it is hard to predict what will come after Xi, Shirk sees the possibility of a different type of leader brought forth by the cycle. People support change, especially when a system or individual fails. As seen in American politics, there is an alternating pattern between Republican and Democratic presidents and between more and less government involvement. Shirk suggests the same is true of Chinese leaders and their varying levels of personal power.
“I think that especially some of the controls over the media and the way the anti-corruption campaign is being pursued, these things cause some folks to have some concerns,” Shirk said, “They may prefer a different type of leader after Xi Jinping.”
(Written by Christina Yoh, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)