The key to this lies in understanding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose inner workings have been at the center of Pieke’s research. Not only did the CCP survive the crisis of 1989, but after three decades of continued economic growth it acts with more confidence than ever before. “The CCP is a learning organism,” says Pieke, “and its leaders have taken big risks. It turned out that it was not an ossified organization on its way to extinction but quite the opposite.”
After several decades of economic and social liberalization, party and state leader Xi Jinping has centralized power and increased political controls over society. Despite all this, China has become a hub of technological and cultural innovation, and its society remains highly dynamic. “These aspects challenge the Western misperception of the Chinese population as an object of governance,” says Pieke.
Adding nuance to alarmist discussions
At the same time, he warns that Xi may be taking his authoritarian approach one step too far. He views the current centralization of power in the hands of the CCP as a great risk. “The CCP used to be a chess player, but now it has turned itself into a chess piece,” Pieke says. “As they take on a greater role in policy implementation and sideline the government, failure will bounce back to them.”
Pieke also tries to add some nuance to alarmist discussions about China’s alleged ambitions to upset the current global order. “China’s foreign policy is still primarily driven by national interests. China today has more money and a more refined political toolkit, but it has not won the argument in a systemic competition.”
To Pieke, the real danger is that Europe and the rest of the Western world don’t succeed in restoring the consensus in their own societies. “We currently do our best to show ourselves as weak,” he says. And this weakness provides an opening to the chess players in Beijing.