- China’s leaders are convinced that the governance model of the party state is proving itself as the superior political system. “The West is in chaos, China is in order” is the CCP’s diagnosis of current global affairs, and the leadership has announced the beginning of a “New Development Stage”.
- The evolving party state is aware of the systemic fault lines that weaken its power. Institutional reforms initiated under Xi Jinping are meant to address governance shortcomings by employing the CCP’s ‘power tools’ of political centralization, mobilization and control.
- Digitalization has become a crucial element in the CCP’s governance approach. It serves both better governance and public service, but also enhances the party state’s surveillance and monitoring capabilities.
- The party leadership considers this to be the most challenging period of its rule. Potential threats to regime security lie round every corner. In response, everything is viewed through a “comprehensive national security” paradigm.
- Under Xi, China has left behind its defensive posture. The party state is translating its more muscular posture at home into its status abroad.
- The sustainability of Beijing’s type of authoritarianism is unclear. Despite the narrative of China’s superior model of governance, it invests growing amounts of resources into a ballooning security apparatus – desperately trying to extinguish any threat to stability.
As the CCP celebrates its 100th anniversary, it presents itself as a political goliath brimming with pride and ambition. The CCP’s Marxist historiography always saw the party progressing towards a better future, but the increasingly confident messaging out of Zhongnanhai is more than the former rags-to-riches narrative. Looking at the past years, China’s leaders are convinced that the governance model of the party state is proving itself as the superior political system.
After four decades of rapid economic growth and impressive social development, confidence in the party’s ability to lead China’s ‘national rejuvenation’ is not without merit. The belief in party-state governance is deepened by Beijing’s sobering view of global trends, including the state of the economic and political capabilities of China’s peers. The tumultuous impact of President Trump’s four years in power, the inability by most Western peers to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unraveling of the US-led global system are seen as a new order. At the US-China meetings in Anchorage, State Councilor Yang Jiechi made it clear that China’s tolerance for what it perceives as being spoken to “… in a condescending way from a position of strength” has come to an end. China wants to be seen and treated as an equal.
A number of analyses have viewed China’s domestic and international challenges as potential last straw moments. China is a fragile superpower, so the thinking goes, awaiting one precipitous, terminal event. Yet others see China as increasingly anti-fragile. For Xi and his fellow CCP leaders, building an anti-fragile China entails not only being able to ‘get through’ systemic shocks such as financial crises, pandemics or disruptions in tech supply chains. It requires an ability to benefit from such uncertainty and stress, emerging from crises even stronger by exploiting others’ weaknesses and eliminating vulnerabilities in the institutional setup. To the leadership in Beijing, a strong party state is the key for unlocking institutional advantages in a systemic competition.
“The West is in chaos, China is in order” is the CCP’s diagnosis of current global affairs, and the leadership has announced the beginning of a “New Development Stage”. This new era will see China propelled to become a high-income economy by 2035 and a global economic center by mid-century. As a key part of the process, the country will gain full strategic autonomy in resources, supply chains, and technology. Xi Jinping wants to be the figure that marked the departure from Dengist reform and opening-up into a distinct Chinese modernity. With term limits abolished, and 10 years of preparing and streamlining the party apparatus around him, Xi is set to become the torch bearer for a China with a global status of wealth and power.
“No one can defeat us or crush us! Accelerating the construction of a new development pattern will enhance our survivability, competitiveness, development and sustainability in the midst of various foreseeable and unforeseeable storms and turbulent waves and ensure that the process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will not be delayed or even interrupted.” – Xi Jinping
Much of the core politics of Xi Jinping remain centered around domestic development. The aim is to show the CCP has not forgotten its socialist roots - putting “the people as the center” of the modernization project. China’s chief economic planner Liu He identified inequality and ‘out of touch’ national governments as two key causes of the 2008 global financial crisis. The poverty alleviation program and now the rural revitalization drive are therefore crucial for the new stage of development, which must establish a broader distribution of wealth.
The evolving party state is aware of the systemic fault lines that weaken its power. Many of the institutional reforms initiated under Xi are meant to address governance shortcomings (短板) by employing the CCP’s well known ‘power tools’ of political centralization, mobilization, and control.
Not only has political authority been centralized around Xi as ‘core leader’, but the party center’s decisions are meant to serve as ‘top-level design’ – governance blueprints for the entire system. Fragmented bureaucracy and selective local implementation of central-level policy are targeted. More centralized decision-making and strong messaging reminds officials to strive towards centrally defined objectives.
Political mobilization has always been part of the CCP’s toolbox, but under Xi Jinping it is being normalized as a governance tool throughout society and economy. The handling of the Covid-19 crisis has shown how effective mass mobilization can be. Deep integration and institutionalization of CCP within social services, public administration and security was taken to new levels. Technological advances in governance and policing are aiding both public service and government efficiency. Sprawling surveillance networks are increasingly putting citizens private lives under the microscope.
Since control is better than trust, sustained rounds of audits, and frequent discipline and anti-corruption inspection teams paying visits to local governments and administrative branches add an incentive to toe the central party line. Xi wants to make sure the vast party state is stable and disciplined enough to pull into one centrally concerted direction, attempting to end centuries of central-local disparities in policy making. Non-compliance with Xi’s political priorities has often been the focus of anti-corruption investigations, and it remains to be seen how effective a sustained discipline pressure on officials is for pushing governance to become more uniform across China.
The unprecedented institutionalization of party rule under Xi is not simply about personal power. It represents a carefully concerted long-term effort to cement the party state as a governance system. The CCP is attempting to build a resilient and adaptive state – an anti-fragile China – that is capable of taking the global lead over the next decades. It aims to do this by building on the development experience of past decades, banking on the economic power of China’s large economy, and mobilizing a network of party organizations, a disciplined administration, and a vast security apparatus. To the leadership in Beijing, a strong party state is the key for unlocking institutional advantages in a systemic competition.