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What are the biggest threats to China’s authoritarian regime?

Author: Victoria Aarons

Editors: Ruth Lucas and Prachi Saraf

Xi Jinping is a significant threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and this might ultimately lead to its downfall.

Xi Jinping’s leadership of China’s authoritarian regime is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) most significant threat, due to the lack of succession planning, silencing of the opposition and suffocation of the economy. The regime’s obsession with control reached new heights at the CCP’s 20th National Congress, resulting in Xi’s norm-breaking three-term rule. This has prompted conversations regarding the consequences for the CCP, especially as there is no apparent heir to Xi. The makeup of The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) has been criticised, as well as the ramifications of the concurrent approach of suppressing the opposition. There is also a significant risk that Xi’s autocratic ruling style will undermine China’s thriving economy. A closer examination of Xi’s rule highlights that although future implications are not set in stone, the current trajectory is towards instability and the CCP’s demise.

Consequences for the CCP with no heir apparent

Last month at China’s National Congress, Xi was granted a third-year term, breaking norms that Deng Xiaoping put in place in the 1970s to safeguard against Maoist-style despotism. Such norms, although flimsy, were loosely upheld by predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, with leadership changes becoming regular and institutionalised. The combination of institutionalised regime change and collective leadership created the stability that laid a foundation for China’s economic expansion. In this way, maintaining social and political stability is a crucial cornerstone of the CCP’s legitimacy and purpose.

Xi’s crowning as China’s leader for the foreseeable future is a return to despotism. As highlighted by Tufts professor Chris Miller, the conference has “reaffirmed Xi’s decisive role in ruling the Communist Party, marking a continued shift away from collective leadership of party elites toward a personalised dictatorship”. No potential heir in the PSC demonstrates Xi’s intentions to remain in his post for at least another decade, leading to a power vacuum after his departure. The lack of a succession plan threatens the regime as the occurrence or anticipation of Xi’s failing health or death will result in power fragmentation and thus elites jockeying around potential replacements, creating significant instability.

Is Xi deaf and blind to honest thoughts?

The PSC’s current makeup consists only of loyalists, shielding Xi from honest thoughts and opposition voices. PSC members only claim the top jobs is their close affiliation with Xi – for example, the promotion of Li Qiang from Shanghai party secretary to Premier. Li was promoted given his devotion and loyalty to Xi’s zero-Covid policy, despite Shanghai’s messy and unpopular lockdown. Xi is surrounded by ‘yes’ men who would risk political suicide to satisfy his slogan. Alongside this is Xi’s famous anti-corruption campaign – essentially a front for the political goal of ridding the CCP of political rivals. The most high-profile prosecutions were Bo Xilai, the charismatic leader of Chongquing, and Zhou Yongkang, a former PSC member. Both were found guilty of all charges which suppressed opposition voices. In particular, the latter’s prosecution resulted in a political earthquake in China, as he was the most senior CCP leader on trial for corruption.

Why is it helpful to keep the opposition on the side of an authoritarian regime? Authoritarian regimes must co-opt the opposition into state institutions to successfully monitor their activities and gauge the extent of their popular support. Moreover, incorporating rivals reduces their incentive to overthrow the regime, and the inability to co-opt political elites and build a winning coalition from within the selectorate threatens stability. A further example of opposition alienation was the unceremonious exit of former president Hu Jintao by security officials from the party congress stage. To the outside observer, it exemplified Xi’s limitless power and distaste for incorporating rivals into the regime apparatus. But no matter how strong, a leader cannot rule by force alone and must persuade their citizens that their rule is legitimate. The repression of opposition voices will do the reverse of what Xi wants, and failure to co-opt and create a secure coalition from within the electorate threatens the CCP’s survival.

Will Xi’s autocratic ruling style suffocate the economy?

Xi’s revival of one-man rule and heavily autocratic ruling style is also visible in economic policy, signalling an end to the Deng-style economic era. The most visible example is within the technology sector, from Didi’s cybersecurity probe to Alibaba, and Tencent’s charges for anti-competitive practices, resulting in the drafting of new strict regulations. Certain experts believe regulations are necessary to protect against monopolies in a competitive economy. Arguably, Chinese regulations follow the global push for anti-competitive regulations in the tech industry, such as the Ending Platform Monopolies Act proposal in the US.

However, whilst the exact implementation of such regulations in Western nations is yet to be determined, the scale at which Xi has curbed private enterprise activities is dramatic and thus the breadth of private companies with state connections has increased significantly. Bai and Hsieh’s 2020 study showed that private companies with state-connected investors increased from 14.1% of all registered capital in China in 2000 to 33.5% in 2019. Although nationalising large shares of successful private companies is not new, the recent acceleration of this policy is self-defeating. China’s private sector comprises 60% of its GDP, and 70% of its innovative capacity and the private-sector squeeze will stifle innovation and sources of growth, especially due to its importance to the Chinese economy. Economists have long emphasised the importance of innovation for competitiveness, firm productivity, and, thus, countries’ capacity for economic growth. Schumpeter’s 1942 theory of creative accumulation underscores how large firms have the capacity for R&D and as drivers of innovation are key to a prosperous economy. Xi’s pivot to repressive regulation and totalitarian economic policy mutes private enterprises, reversing China’s previous industrial recipe for success. The consequential loss of economic stability threatens the CCP, reversing control maintenance.

With no heir apparent, honest loyalists, political opponents, and a suffocating economy, it looks as if Xi has sealed the CCP’s fate and is destined to follow the course of history’s fallen authoritarian leaders and regimes. Although the future is yet to be determined, the current trajectory is towards instability and demise.

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