In the days of Mao Zedong, and especially during the so-called Cultural Revolution in China, there was an official song entitled “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.” Obviously, it was about Mao himself as the “Great Helmsman.” The irreplaceability of the leader seemed to be implied without so many words. The chairman of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the party’s leader became the personification of everything. China exists as long as Mao is there, so tertium non datur – there is no third option. Does it ring any bells about our northern neighbors?
Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, was fully aware that such a principle of governance was highly problematic for the state. He and his relatives were seriously affected during the Cultural Revolution, and, in order to avoid such a difficult past repeating itself, Deng introduced the two-term principle.
The secretary-general begins to groom his replacement during the second term, and about two years before the end of his time in office, he nominates a successor at the party congress. Also, it applied the principle of smooth transition of power without the usual swings and excesses.
The Deng system worked without fail until recently, and now everything has begun to go back to that already distant and somewhat forgotten previous era. The current leader of China, Xi Jinping, initiated changes to the party statute which abolished the two-term principle. Amending the constitution comes next, but it is a mere formality. Now Comrade Xi can be elected, however meaningless this term is in modern China, for an unlimited number of terms, and thus rule however long he likes.
The justification provided for the departure from the Deng system is of interest as well. Once again, this is the fight against corruption and the strengthening of party discipline. The first one is a separate matter. It is precisely the orderliness of the ranks of party comrades that forms the basis on which the reign of the chief Chinese Communist will be built.
In other words, party discipline and cohesion implies the absence of any internal opposition. Not only in the party, but also in the state. Mao constantly used such campaigns. Once it was the correction of style, then the course of three red flags, and later still, the Cultural Revolution. Along with large campaigns, there were smaller and less prolonged ones. They were launched precisely when some opposition emerged and the Great Helmsman was beginning to feel his rule threatened.
For the nation and the world, Comrade Xi shows a merciless fight against corruption. It is very much done for public display and affects literally every official and party functionary, up to members of the Politburo.
It is true that corruption really has penetrated into all spheres of the state and party body politic. Fighting it was only declared for a long time, as practically nothing was actually done. Now Xi shows that his friends are also under the microscope of the law, and party comrades are also under that of the relevant discipline commission of the Central Committee.
The campaign’s so-called frankness is telling. Even the highest positions do not guarantee protection. On the contrary, probability of getting hit is higher at the very top, as evidenced by severe sentences, in particular those passed against former members of the Politburo.
However, show trials, executions, and other sentences of that kind have not reduced corruption at all. The amount of bribes and kickbacks has even grown, now including a compensation for fear.
It turns out that it is not so easy to defeat corruption, and therefore the people and the party have been told that there is need to give unlimited time and space for secretary-general Xi to govern. After all, what reasonable person will oppose such good intentions?
There is one problem with it, though. No country has ever succeeded in defeating corruption by force and, moreover, using authoritarian and totalitarian means. Heads rolled, but the issue remained.
Most likely, the strengthening of discipline and attacks on corrupt officials will be used to strengthen the personal power of Xi. Some now-dethroned corrupt officials were until recently seriously considered as possible successors of Xi. The military’s top brass have been hit as well, since authoritarian rulers and dictators are always suspicious of their army. Xi knows perfectly well that Chinese generals and marshals once in fact hid Deng at a military base and did not surrender him to Mao’s spies. Judging by the fact that the fight against corruption is a widespread effort, it will continue to be used primarily as a way of confronting political and personal adversaries.
No one ever steps in the same river twice. The current China is very different from the nation it was late in Mao’s reign. The near future will tell how successful will Xi prove to be in the implementation of his plans. One thing is clear: all this is only very distantly related to the declared fight against corruption.
“THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT USES ITS POWERS WELL”
Andrii HONCHARUK, a Sinologist, expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies:
“China is a country in which the Confucian idea of government was present already a millennium ago, and the supreme power was never limited by anyone in that country. The emperor was the son of heaven and his power was greater than that of any other monarch in the world. It can be compared only with the power of the pharaoh in ancient Egypt. But precisely because such a system of government existed for so many years, it created constraints within the very power of the emperor.
“Turning to recent examples, there were such emperors as Kangxi and his grandson Qianlong who ruled for 60 years each in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even Elizabeth I was not in power as long as these emperors. By the way, Qianlong resigned the absolute power of the imperial office out of respect for his grandfather, so as not to reign longer than him. This system of internal constraints makes power of any Chinese leader less than absolute.
“The Chinese government uses its powers well. The most recent 40 years was a unique period in the history of China, when Deng initiated, in order to eliminate the negative effects of Maoism, a legal term limit for the chairman of the PRC’s time in power. Four generational changes have occurred since, and over the years, the country has grown so much stronger and more developed that such a purely formal constraint has become unnecessary. Therefore, it is inappropriate to say that we are witnessing elimination of some democratic norms regarding the functioning of state power in China. After all, if we look at the Western world, democracy in Europe is only 400 years old, and 200 years old in the US. State power in China is at least 3,000 years old. One should not consider changes in the Chinese government through the prism of the ideas of Europeans and Americans about what power is.
“I would like to remind you that Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao sat next to him at the presidium of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China and during the most recent session of the National People’s Congress. And Hu’s own predecessor Jiang Zemin also sat next to Xi, thus demonstrating that it was not about the concentration of power in one man’s hands, but about sending a completely transparent signal, directed not outside, but above all towards the internal situation in China, and telling people that the changes being introduced today under Xi will stay for a long time, that it will not be possible to sit it out. After all, the fight against corruption was a campaign before, but it has become a policy now.”