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Sebastian Heilmann on the CCP’s next century

“We should prepare ourselves for a Chinese superpower with global reach”

Sebastian Heilmann is Professor for the Political Economy of China at the University of Trier. From 2013 to 2018, he served as the Founding Director of MERICS. As part of our series on the “CCP’s next century”, we asked what he considers the party’s main sources of resilience are and how realistic the goal is of becoming a wealthy and powerful socialist nation by 2049. Questions by Claudia Wessling, interview edited for brevity.

Looking back at the CCP’s last 100 years, what has been the essence of its rule?

There are several factors at work. The first one is political control. Even though there have been many crises and disruptions in the course of its history, the CCP has always had a very tight hold on the security forces and on the military in particular. This is a key institutional prerequisite that has served to keep the party in power for so long while facing many domestic and external upheavals.

Another important source of CCP resilience is the campaign style that the party has utilized and refined since revolutionary times. As soon as China’s political system moves into a crisis mode, the CCP still has the capacity to put aside bureaucratic routines and mobilize the entire political machinery for focusing on just one task, such as fighting the virus in the corona pandemic.

A crucial and, from a Western perspective, quite surprising factor for keeping up the agility of China’s political and economic system is sustained policy experimentation. This is the openness to try out new policy instruments and combine broad central government policy goals with concrete local problem solving on the ground. We have seen this pattern since the early days of the CCP, from the base areas during the revolutionary times to today’s special economic and free trade zones.

The contribution of long-term development planning to the strength of CCP rule and China’s economic rise in recent decades is widely ignored in Western perceptions of China. However, the combination of long-term policy programs for setting strategic objectives, from science and education to infrastructure, with bottom-up experimentation for finding flexible solutions has given China’s economic and technological development a rather stable direction while preventing it from becoming rigid and inflexible.

Does this flexibility still apply for the Xi Jinping era?

The Xi Jinping era is, in important respects, a departure from principles that had been in place since the early 1980s. For example, the extent of centralization of policymaking differs quite considerably from the leadership style of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, when China’s administrative system was much more decentralized.

We see this departure from previous policies also in the attempt of the CCP to control the private sector. The party tries to push its political and ideological control deep into the private sector with its, to date, pretty free-wheeling innovation ecosystem. This political push may become a major drag for China’s dynamism due to increasing political restrictions and interventions. Consequently, I see the Xi Jinping era as an aberration from the more flexible patterns of rule that we had seen, especially in the 1992-2012 period.

Will the CCP reach its big centennial goal for China to become a wealthy and powerful nation and global superpower by 2049? 

I think these are realistic goals. I even expect China to become a superpower and leading global rule-shaping power much earlier than 2049. Of course, major catastrophes and upheavals, either in China or in the global context, have the potential to derail China’s course. But without catastrophic disruptions, it is likely that China will overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world by the early 2030s. And as long as the West is not getting its act together, through rebuilding social and political cohesion, boosting its innovative strengths and realizing an effective counterstrategy to China’s advances, we should prepare ourselves for a Chinese superpower with global reach.

You are reading an excerpt of our latest MERICS China Essentials Briefing. 

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