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Rule by Law Versus Rule of Law: Xi Jinping and the Chinese Dream

From October 18 to October 24, 2,287 delegates, representing over 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as part of a twice-a-decade meeting to decide the leadership of the Party for the next five years. Officially, these 2,287 delegates were to select the 205 members of the Central Committee, the 25 member Politburo, and the 7 member Politburo Standing committee. However, backroom bargaining had already determined who most of these people would be. The results of these selections displayed which factions in the CCP are gaining power, and which are losing. Most importantly, it showcased the power of General Secretary Xi Jinping, and his plans for the party.

Ascending to the position of General Secretary in 2012, Xi has consolidated enormous amounts of power in his hands during his tenure in office, as shown by his obtaining the title of “core leader” and by his investigations of possible political opponents. There has been speculation that Xi will seek to continue his ascension by staying on as General Secretary after the unofficial 2-year limit and past the unofficial retirement age of 68, as Xi has in recent months ousted possible rivals and promoted confidants in a possible attempt to consolidate power in the CCP. Furthermore, the newly-appointed Politburo Standing committee does not appear to have any individuals who are young enough to serve as direct successors to Xi, assuming precedent is followed, once Xi’s second term ends in 2022.

Xi speaks often of a “Chinese Dream” that is a version of a less individualistic of the American dream. In this dream, the Chinese state is revitalized and returned to its former eminence in the international system as an economic and political hegemon, as it was under imperial rule, when China from the Ming to Qing dynasties dominated East Asia economically and militarily and extracted tribute from the neighboring states of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Xi’s china would modernize while remaining true to traditional cultural values thanks to the efforts of the CCP. Power consolidation can be a great asset for passing policy. But disregard for precedent and a lack of rule of law in China means that, in the long term, the “Chinese Dream” may just stay a dream.

It is important to note that, indeed, Xi is a skilled leader who has played no small part in the development of modern China. Along with shaking up the structure of his party, Xi has greatly increased Chinese military power expansion abroad, launched the most extensive anti-corruption campaign in recent Chinese memory (although there is speculation that he benefits tremendously from his political opponents being jailed), and spoken often about China’s commitment to environmental protection and the Paris agreement. In Afro-Eurasia, Xi has overseen massive increases in investment in Pakistan and East Africa, along with the announcement of the famous “One Belt One Road” project, which promises to pour an estimated $5 trillion dollars into infrastructure in Asia, Africa, and Europe. China’s economy continues to grow as the government offers more support for entrepreneurs and private industry, and as Xi implements a number of economic reforms, which will undoubtedly increase in quantity if he was to obtain even more power in the following years.

Nevertheless, this development comes at the price of autocracy. Xi has promised to build a “Great Wall of Steel” in Xinjiang, a western province of China that faces an apparent increase in violence, which the government has blamed on separatism and terrorism. This, coupled with China’s increasingly technologically sophisticated military and police force, has led observers to comment about the creation of a “perfect police state” in the area, with extensive surveillance of the population and daily government-mandated security drills. Censorship has increased under Xi with almost no international outcry, and the leader has repeatedly taken a firm stance against separatism in Hong Kong and Taiwan, delivering warnings to activists in both regions – Xi warned Hong Kong against challenging Beijing, and blocked Taiwan from attending a WHO summit.

Xi’s actions have certainly boosted China’s image on the international stage as the country seeks to fill the gap left by an increasingly isolationist United States. And Xi, an ambitious reformer, seeks to shake up his party and implement more of his agenda while silencing dissent. Nevertheless, the fact that it takes someone as skilled as Xi to run the system is evidence of the flaws within the Chinese government, flaws that mainly stem from the lack of rule of law. The Chinese government depends in large part on what Xi Jinping refers to as “rule by law,” which, instead of emphasizing the primacy of the legal code over the actions of prominent officials, sees the law as the main tool used by officials to control the population. This has been the prominent ideology in Chinese legal thought for millennia, but if China seeks to maintain both stability and growth, it must establish a system based more on reliance on fundamental laws and less on the interests of individual people.

China has been promoting innovation and capitalist policy since the “Reform and Opening Up” policies of Deng Xiaoping. However, even today, state intervention in private companies undermine their growth, and companies in industries with existing government monopolies can often find themselves under legal scrutiny or threat of liquidation. Indeed, Dai Guofang, chairman of a steel company which sought to compete with existing government-run steel firms, was found guilty of illegally expanding his company in the 2000s, resulting in the company’s liquidation and the continuation of government monopoly over the steel industry. Even industries in which the government has not “occupied the field” have come under scrutiny; as private tech companies such as Alibaba and Tencent continue to grow, Beijing becomes more wary of private tech companies, and has recently begun talks about increasing state involvement in those companies. That is not to say that Xi’s authoritarianism will inevitably push China up back to a Maoist economic system; the 20th century “Miracle of Chile,” in which the Chilean private sector and GDP grew significantly under a military dictatorship, shows that capitalism and autocracy are not entirely incompatible. Indeed, China’s own experience over the past forty years shows that market forces still work under paternalistic governance, at least for the time being.

Still, China’s lack of economic and political pluralism leaves much to be desired. As Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson point out in Why Nations Fail (2012) one of the reasons of the success of the Industrial Revolution was private entrepreneurs and investors causing Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction,” a process in which new methods of production replace older ones and in the process dethrone existing elites. Such innovation, in the long run, is necessary for continued innovation and economic growth. For example, the United States saw creative destruction when the Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the presence of factories and manufacturing in the Northeast, replacing home manufacturing and guilds, and dramatically changing the economic landscape of the U.S. As the Industrial Revolution transferred power from artisans and guild leaders into the hands of industrialists and factory owners, it caused severe disruptions to traditional social dynamics, uprooting the existing elite and increasing the power of the bourgeoisie. So too must Chinese leaders be prepared to give up power should more efficient and profitable means of governance and economic production come along. Unfortunately, as China’s track record with political dissent indicates, they do not appear to be ready to do this, as any person who presents the slightest threat to the established order faces the risk of arbitrary arrest or detention.

State overinvolvement in the private sector and omnipresent censorship efforts point to structural weaknesses in the Chinese political system. The single-party Chinese government has long been criticized for lack of transparency and lack of democracy, and power remains concentrated in the upper echelons of the party, whose interests, if they ever conflict with those of the private sector, will usually win out. Xi’s consolidation of power may help him pass policies that contribute to China’s economy in the short term. In the long term, however, the fact that his position contains so much more power than before he made it so can only mean bad news for the Chinese state after he the end of his mandate. China cannot guarantee that it will always have a leader as skilled at dealing with and controlling all of the factions that make up the CCP. A less competent leader in the future may clamp down more on private enterprise if it insulates his power, especially if proliferation and advancement in communication technologies allow for more widespread calls for reform.

Indeed, closing off Chinese citizens from the newest technologies and ideas and making it difficult for foreign firms to do business in China is already slowing down innovation in China. The foreseeable trend is a retreat of China from the forefront of the technological cutting edge, and from foreign projects’ investments. Though increasing military spending and encouraging domestic industry works, Xi has emphasized boosting national pride and economic growth in the short term. Yet, this growth is ultimately unsustainable without structural protections for innovators and technologies that challenge the status quo. China might have scoffed at American democracy when it elected Trump, but the Middle Kingdom has to learn from Alexander Hamilton’s ideas about an independent judiciary that can check both populism and government overstretch if it wants to remain a relevant economic player for the rest of the 21st century. China would do well to stamp out corruption and favoritism in its legal system, implement separation of powers to have a judiciary that can interpret laws independent of CCP mandate, and increased political pluralism that allows representation of important socioeconomic groups in the Chinese Congress. Rule of law, in junction with existing nascent meritocratic systems that emphasize competence over the ability to win votes, can alleviate the worst effects of authoritarian rule while ensuring that China doesn’t fall prey to the waves of populism currently sweeping over the democratic West.

Though Chinese GDP is still growing at a healthy 6.7%, and the country itself continues to assert itself as a unified rising power in the age of Trump and Brexit, the prospect of further power centralization is a scary one for those who want to see China on a steady, stable path to economic and political liberalization. For a country like China, with a large, complex, and corrupt of a bureaucracy, shaking up the system may be the only way someone like Xi can implement his agenda. Ultimately, however, for China to fulfill its dream, it must tie its future to principled laws, not skilled politicians.

About the Author

Hans Lei '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Hans can be reached at