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Who is Xi?

/ 04:00 AM May 04, 2021

Minxin Pei is a prominent China expert; he is also a leading scholar on democratization in developing countries. Last December, he gave the prestigious Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World. Building on his earlier research, including “China: From Tiananmen to Neo-Stalinism,” which ran in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Professor Pei focused his lecture on what he called “Totalitarianism’s Long Shadow Over China.” This lecture has now been published in the April 2021 issue of the same influential journal.

Long story short: His analysis of Xi Jinping as undisputed leader of China is deeply concerning. The first since Mao Zedong to amass the three most powerful positions in China—general secretary of the Communist Party, chair of the Central Military Commission and thus commander in chief of the military, and president with no term limits—Xi is a direct threat not only to democratic polities around the world but to the democratic prospects of China itself.

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In other words, Pei used the occasion of the Lipset lecture to challenge the principal theory for which Lipset, a hugely influential scholar on democracy, is best known. Pei started his lecture thus:

“Seymour Martin Lipset’s insight that economic modernization creates favorable conditions for stable democracy is one of the most influential, robust, and time-tested theories in social science …. Today, the case of China, where one-party rule has persisted despite four decades of rapid economic modernization, challenges the validity of the Lipset thesis. In 2007, China’s economic miracle occasioned a forecast that the country could become partly democratic by 2015 and completely free a decade later. Unfortunately, the regime dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not merely endured, but grown more repressive at home and aggressive abroad.”

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But the lecture was as much confession as challenge, because Pei used to be, in his own words, “a true believer in economic reform leading to political change.” Lipset’s own theory was much more nuanced, and Pei’s lecture carefully noted these nuances. (For instance, Pei quoted Lipset’s cautionary words: “The more resources of power, status and wealth are concentrated in the state, the harder it is to institutionalize democracy. Under such conditions the political struggle tends to approach a zero-sum game in which the defeated lose all.”)

Pei sums up the “long shadow” that Maoist totalitarianism continues to cast over China in three propositions.

First: “Legacies of totalitarianism blunt and neutralize the democratizing effects of economic modernization.” Of the examples he offers, the most startling to me (taken from Andrew Nathan’s Lipset lecture of 2015) is the true nature of China’s famed new middle class. It is “less autonomous and more state-

dependent than middle classes elsewhere. The reason is evident: Too much of it still works for the state. According to the Chinese government’s online China Statistical Yearbook 2020, as of 2019, fully state-owned entities employed more than 54 million people. They included vast numbers of China’s professionals, managers, and skilled workers.”

Second: “If the interests entrenched in the Leninist party-state remain in place, economic reform will lose momentum and the CCP regime will grow even more resistant to democratization and hostile to democratic values.” One such entrenched interest: State-owned enterprises, which despite four decades of economic reform still account for about a quarter of GDP and 16 percent of the labor force. Under Xi, we cannot expect great improvement. He told the CCP Central Committee last October: SOEs “must be stronger, better, and larger.”

Third: “Lack of political reform, including democratization, greatly raises the risks of reversion to neo-Stalinist rule.” The irony is sharp; in its attempt to exorcise the ghost of Mao’s totalitarian rule, the CCP ended up haunted by another totalitarian leader. Pei writes: “Deng and his fellow victims of Maoist rule built an elaborate-looking edifice of ‘institutionalization.’ Xi exposed it as nothing but a house of cards.”

Shanghai-born Pei is Chinese-American, and teaches at the Claremont McKenna College. But there are also some flashes of resistance even in the upper reaches of the CCP. For instance, Cai Xia, a professor at the Central Party School, the main party academy, last August called out the party for becoming “a political zombie.” And Xi, she said, “bears a great deal of culpability.” For her candor, Cai has been expelled from the party and now lives in exile. (She has an article out in the January/February 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs, titled “The Party that Failed.”) She writes: “A personality cult now exists around Xi … People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become, how many quiet tragedies it has authored.”

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We must include among those tragedies the cruel occupation of Hong Kong and the slow-motion genocide of the Uighur. Pei is guardedly optimistic about long-term prospects for democratization, but he also writes that the “biggest threat to China’s neo-

Stalinist order is a succession struggle.” That struggle will author more quiet tragedies and unquiet ones, in China and beyond.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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