China tilts back towards a cult of personality
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It is an article of faith for many in the west that countries democratise as they get richer. China is proving a glaring exception. As the Communist Party of China wrapped up a quinquennial congress on Wednesday, the country looked more like a dictatorship than at any time in 40 years.
President Xi Jinping broke with decades of precedent by stacking the top leadership with staunch allies and acolytes, declining to elevate an obvious successor and enshrining his name in the Communist party constitution. Since the revolution in 1949, only Mao Zedong was able to achieve that honour while still in office. On the surface Mr Xi now looks like the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao’s death in 1976.
In one fell swoop he has demolished decades of painstaking efforts to legitimise party power and institutionalise a peaceful and orderly succession process. Of his three main titles — head of state, head of the military and head of the Communist party — only the state presidency, by far the least important of the three, comes with formal term limits.
Very few people now expect Mr Xi to relinquish control of the party and military in 2022, as his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, did in 2012 after serving two five-year terms.
Mr Xi’s consolidation of power is important for the rest of the world because he has defined himself in opposition to the “hegemonic” west and, again for the first time in decades, put forward China’s autocratic system as a model for other countries to follow.
At the height of the Cold War, China exported armed revolution throughout the third world but after the disasters of Mao, his successors turned their attention to importing capitalist ideas from the west.
Now Mr Xi believes the west is declining as China rises and it is time to redouble efforts to boost Chinese influence around the world.
While building a vast and powerful military that can “fight and win wars” and lavishing large sums on infrastructure projects along a “new Silk Road”, Mr Xi’s government is also intent on enhancing China’s “soft power” — its ability to attract and convince others without resorting to coercion.
At the vanguard of this effort is a secretive arm of the Communist party known as the United Front Work Department, which is tasked with co-opting or subverting all non-party groups inside and outside China, with a particular emphasis on the ethnic Chinese diaspora.
As part of his soft power push, Mr Xi has called for China to become a football and entertainment superpower so it can influence global audiences and provide distractions for the urbanising Chinese masses who might be tempted by the evils of political participation.
The west is well used to the “panda diplomacy” which has seen the worldwide symbol of conservation used as an instrument of China’s soft power. But more significant are the now-ubiquitous Confucius Institutes established in more than 500 university campuses around the world, through which the Chinese state is also trying to control international academic discourse on topics related to China.
Given its sheer size and its status as a high middle-income economy it is inevitable and desirable for China as a culture and a nation to become more influential on the world stage.
But in welcoming that engagement the rest of the world must not forget that China under Mr Xi is promoting a governance model internationally that is anathema to the democracy America and the west have championed since before the second world war.
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China may be a superpower-in-waiting but it has struggled to appear as an attractive alternative to the US-led liberal world order. This series explores President Xi Jinping’s dream of boosting his country’s appeal and turning it into a soft superpower