The problem with authoritarian control is that when things go wrong you own the consequencesby George Magnus / August 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s summer in China and, as usual, Beijing is hot and humid. The political climate is not dissimilar. According to recent stories emanating from the capital, not everyone in the Communist Party hierarchy is happy with Xi Jinping’s handling of the trade disputes with the United States. But disquiet goes further than this.
Remember that at last autumn’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi was almost deified, cast as one of China’s great leaders alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Having already established strong control over the party, the army and the internal security apparatus, Xi was hailed as an unassailable authoritarian to lead China towards 21st century prosperity and great power status. At the National People’s Congress in March this year, the 10-year term limit on the presidency was abandoned and extensive institutional reforms were announced, designed to strengthen the control of both party and Xi.
This no-nonsense approach to government was contrasted with the huffing and puffing of western democracies nowadays. But more savvy observers warned that the trouble with strong-man government is that when something goes wrong, there’s only one person to carry the can. This problem is exacerbated by Xi-style authoritarianism that tends to stifle opponents and dissent, and discourage alternative ways of thinking. We can see in China this summer why this more sceptical view is now holding sway.
Last week, the Communist Party announced a new ideological campaign, or “patriotic struggle,” targeting specifically the country’s intellectuals. This dovetails with other campaigns that have targeted western values, universities and trade unions, religious minorities, human rights activists and poor urban migrants. The new campaign follows the publication of a widely shared essay published on a Hong Kong website by Xu Zhangrun, a Tsinghua University legal scholar, which has captured opposition to Xi’s China. It warns of the danger of the return to totalitarianism, and appeals to end the cult of personality and reintroduce presidential term limits. The government’s reaction was not typical of one that is comfortable and secure.
There are more problems for Xi. Officials in Jilin province have uncovered a scandal involving a private pharmaceutical company with deep political connections to the party. Changsheng Biotechnology Company falsified production data for a diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine. The party admitted, after finding faked data for its rabies vaccine last month, that this company had supplied more than 250,000…