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China’s leadership model goes back to the future

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Chinese paramilitary policemen perform a flag-lowering ceremony near a portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, Monday, 9 March 2015. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao and with it one of the lowest points in the political history of the People’s Republic of China.


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The nation that had stood up in 1949 was, at the time of Mao’s death, a much poorer and weaker society following decades of failed economic policies and constant social mobilisation. Out of this mess a new generation of leaders embarked on a project to rebuild the country and make China an indispensable part of the international economy and global society.

This generation made deliberate efforts to build a model of leadership that could withstand generational succession and internal threats to the party’s legitimacy. This so-called collective model of leadership sought to legitimise rival factions in the party, allow for greater local government experimentation in policy and to de-politicise civil society. ‘Good’ leaders were those who quietly achieved economic growth targets. A ‘bad’ leader was one who forced people to spend their time glorifying the Party.

But since President Xi Jinping and the fifth generation of leadership took power at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the old rules of Chinese political leadership, including the collective model, have seemingly reverted. The most striking change has been the reinstitution of the paramount leader as the undisputable ‘core’ of the Chinese political system. This arrangement, once considered a political taboo, has decisively re-emerged at a critical time in modern Chinese history when the Party, the economy and the nation face serious challenges to their future viability.

Xi now enjoys more personal influence over a wider range of areas than any previous leader. In only a few short years, power has been pulled towards the centre of the Chinese political system away from local government, civil society and non-Party actors. Areas such as propaganda, internal security and economic reform, which had in previous generations been delegated to other politburo members, are now firmly under his direct control. His ideological framework of the ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ puts the Party and politics back at the centre of Chinese life, with ‘Big Daddy Xi’ cultivating an image as father of the great Chinese family.

The purpose of Xi’s centralised model of political leadership is to increase the Communist Party’s capacity to deal with the problems it faces on a range of fronts. Perceived threats to the regime’s legitimacy have been put on notice. Xi has moved to change the bases of legitimacy from good economic management, pushing for a more nationalistic and globally ambitious People’s Republic where GDP growth numbers are less important to the success of the government in the eyes of the people.

A more centralised leadership model for China is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Beijing will now have the power to advance policy in areas where it was previously unable to, due to the reform-era desire to empower local and diverse interest groups. Greater regulatory power for environmental agencies, reforms to inefficient state-owned enterprises and a less corrupt public sector are just some goals which are easier to achieve with a more powerful centre.

On the other hand, increased power comes with its own set of risks. The media, a rent-seeking bureaucracy, the influence of Western culture, an unregulated internet, an independent civil society and China’s maritime neighbours continue to endure greater marginalisation as the leadership affirms the position of politics before all other matters.

Many Chinese people worked hard over the last three decades to make China a less authoritarian society, focused more on economic rationalism than issues of ideological correctness. This is likely to be reversed if power continues to steadily move away from a paradigm of collective leadership to one of a strongman at the centre.

The debate over whether Xi Jinping is the new Mao Zedong is less important than the role particular models of Chinese leadership play in the country’s development from one of the world’s poorest nations to its current position as a ‘moderately prosperous society’ that is recognised as the great power it so desperately wants to be. The current generation of Chinese leaders is risking a great deal on its turn to the centre. Only time will tell if China’s latest strongman will succeed where its previous one did not.

Nathan Attrill is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

6 responses to “China’s leadership model goes back to the future”

  1. “The nation that had stood up in 1949 was, at the time of Mao’s death, a much poorer and weaker society following decades of failed economic policies and constant social mobilisation. ”
    Rubbish. In 1949, when Mao took power, average life expectancy was 41 years old. Literacy was below 15 percent. Electricity availability zero outside a few cities. By 1979, before Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, literacy rate was in the 80s, which means 100 percent of young people. Electricity coverage almost everywhere, even in the poorest rural areas. The railways, roads, dams and electricity networks that would make reform and opening possible, were all Mao’s work. And that barely scratches the surface.

    • Granted Mao accomplished a lot in the ways noted which laid the groundwork for Deng’s leadership. But he also put/allowed others to put the country through at least two unfortunate upheavals: the so called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. His pursuit of ideological purity caused a great deal of turmoil and pain for his countrymen.

      • The two upheavals you said were facts and there is no question about it. The first one, the so called Great Leap Forward, however, was not the fault only of Mao even though he should have the greatest responsibility to it. It was the collective work of the then whole leadership including Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, with Mao as the top leader. Most people in the leadership were carried away by the huge success of its first 5-years plan and thought, wrongly though, they could accelerate the development in China. There was an interesting contrast between China and Japan while the latter had two decades of double income plans for every decade at that similar time. One adopted the correct method, while the other went astray. It took a few years to recover from that disaster, before the second, equally if not more disastrous, Cultural Revolution.
        I agree with GODFREE ROBERTS that China had seen great changes due the Mao era, even though they were disrupted severely by the two mentioned disasters.

  2. Just as voters in any countries may choose different parties if they have the freedom to choose, the Chinese people may change their views about their political leaders, both past and present.
    For example, when people see continually increasing inequality even in the context of huge economic growth, as well as rampant corruption over the past 20 years or so, many and possibly the majority may have fond memories of the Mao era when there was little corruption and people were virtually equal in income even though everyone was poor, equally poor.
    The Chinese also would like to have more freedom, that is for sure. Equally, they are likely to prefer a strong, and just, government.
    People outside China need to understand the whole of Chinese people, their way of lives and their way of thinking. There is no point to lecturing them in our own way.

    • It is amazing how too many Americans still revere President Reagan and Bush, Jr., even though they were the worst presidents that the USA ever had. And they hate Franklin Roosevelt for the positive things he had done for the USA after the wealthy people and business leaders created the 1929 Great Depression that led to the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

  3. Mr Nathan Attrill’s claim that “This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao and with it one of the lowest points in the political history of the People’s Republic of China” totally misses the forest for the trees.

    According to Henry CK Liu, the prolific writer and chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group, “Chairman Mao Zedong, the greatest revolutionary in modern Chinese history, has been unfairly vilified by the neo-liberal West, but he set a decaying China on the path to renewed greatness and provided a vision for a new China that will survive for centuries to come.”

    Why decaying? Well, until 1911, China was occupied by the egregious Manchu invaders, during the Qing dynasty. They plundered and looted China’s wealth and desecrated her culture for 267 years, from 1644.

    Liu compared Mao to Abe Lincoln and lamented that ” In fact, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is deified, while Mao is demonized” though “Lincoln’s assault on due process was decidedly more violent than Mao’s alleged autocratic leadership style. The difference between Lincoln and Mao is that Lincoln’s high-minded quest for equality in practice allowed a few to monopolize the resultant national wealth, while Mao tried to distribute it to all equally.”

    In fact, Lincoln was not really an abolitionist of slavery and more than 900,000 Americans died in the Civil War that he initiated. ”On September 18, 1858, Lincoln made his position clear,“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he began, going on to say that he opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with whites.” More here:

    Further, Mr Attrill’s claim that “The nation that had stood up in 1949 was, at the time of Mao’s death, a much poorer and weaker society following decades of failed economic policies and constant social mobilization” ignores the fact, that “Like Lincoln, Mao’s tenure as leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was entirely under wartime conditions, first a civil war with the Nationalists and, after the founding of the PRC, with more than TWO DECADES of total embargo imposed by a hostile US with extreme prejudice.” (emphasis mine).

    Liu added “Still, it was Mao who engineered the US-China rapprochement in 1972, and it was Mao who rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping to carry on socialist construction with Chinese characteristics.”

    I wrote when “the indomitable Premier, Deng Xiao Ping, declared that “it is not the color of the cat that counts (anymore) but whether it can catch mice” and “to be rich is glorious..” the teachings of Marxism were tossed out of the window and today China has adopted Meritocracy, with a socialist bent, after having tried, in vain, all other political systems, including democracy, since China kicked out the Manchu warlords in the Qing dynasty, in 1911… China has today the world’s No2 largest economy and is the world’s largest trading nation, with a stash of over US$3.4 trillion in reserves.”

    Lastly, Mr Attrill’s claim that “since President Xi Jinping and the fifth generation of leadership took power at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the old rules of Chinese political leadership, including the collective model, have seemingly reverted” must not be appraised through the prism of a scholar.

    Lest we forget, it was in 2011 when Obama announced the ‘Pivot to Asia’, (aka encirclement /containment of China.)

    With US defense secretary, Ash Carter sailing in an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, spoiling for a fight and with American B52 nuclear bombers flying over Chinese islands, what does Mr Attrill expect a nuclear-powered China to do? Roll over and pretend to play dead?

    In case the nuance escapes anyone, China is taking US threats seriously and is now, I am certain, on a ‘war-footing’. Is it wrong for President Xi to take on the role of ‘The Commander in Chief’, like Obama does?

    As Sun Tzu once wrote in his 13 chapter ‘Art of War’ manual, in the 6th century BC, a war manual that is mandatory in all military colleges, including West Point, and I paraphrase “A good General makes sure that he will not lose the next war, then he waits for the enemy to start one.”

    I am sure President Xi is an excellent one.

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