I: Xi’s Rise To Power
III: Anti-Corruption And Centralization
I. Rise To Power
— Erusian on Xi’s rise:
> “Why did Xi succeed at gathering power, where others didn’t?”
Communist leaderships choose their leaders for ideological reasons. You're reducing it to cynical power politics. But this isn't how the the Soviet premier got or the Chinese paramount leader gets selected. They're selected for being good Communists, effectively for outstanding achievements in Communism, combined with pragmatic political considerations. Xi didn't subvert the system. Like Deng Xiaopeng before him he rode a wave, of which he was an intellectual proponent, that it was time for a strong leader to fundamentally reform the government. The fact Xi centralized power was not a surprise. It was what his mandate was. He wrote theoretical papers that basically boil down to, "We need to end term limits and have a strong, central leader for Marxist-Leninist reasons." And then he did that. The key moment was not his removal of term limits but the adoption of his Marxist theories into the formal ideology of the CCP.
Your model is just fundamentally broken if you understand all the premiers as cynical power maximizers. They're a bunch of highly ideological Communists and they do all sorts of things that only make sense if they're true believing Communists. In fact, they have a whole bunch of cultural and even systemic thing meant to keep cynical power maximizers out of power. This can create reform tensions which is part of what Xi, by rolling back reforms, wants to resolve.
— iVarun making what I interpret as a similar point:
Numerous Chinese scholars (these are only relevant when they are aping western or dissident adjacent narratives, no wonder blind spots are so large) have mentioned for nearly a decade now that Xi is this powerful because the Party collectively after internal deliberations decided it. Party is Supreme, Xi on his own is nothing but a figurehead. A medium to get the rest of the structure where it is supposed (relatively, acceptably) to be.
The internal debate (NPC isn't the only place Chinese Party members talk to each other, which is obvious) was settled by the late 2000s and the consensus was, in keeping with Chinese socio-cultural-political legacies in challenging times to have a strong leader/core to safeguard the Party's future.
Every subsequent action was in the tactical domain (the anti-corruption drive, the purges, the CCDI, the Institutions setting-up explosion, term limits, etc).
In fact data shows (MacroPolo often does work which picks up forms of it) that this change pre-dates Xi's ascension and started under Hu in his last 18-24 months or so.
The Party determines what happens in China. Not some individual. This has been the case since Mao died. Not even Deng had his level of personal unilateral power.
The strategic goal is to extend the life of the Party because (The Party reports literally say it constantly) Chinese long term development requires a steady, stable leadership and that leadership according to them is the Party, so it is obvious that the first action on this larger and Ultimate Chinese Rejuvination objective would be to make sure the Party is healthy, as per the norms of the era they currently are (since in the age of rapid information sharing, old methods of political work need to be adjusted as well. The Party's internal survey mechanisms of the general Chinese citizenry allows them to feel the pulse of high order items which need to be tackled on certain timelines. This was not possible over long timeline in earlier times).
I strongly feel like the best summary of the conditions that led to Xi's ascension are outlined in the book "The Party" by Richard McGregor. I did a book review in the SSC comments a few years back, but I'll do a summary here:
Basically - China pre-Xi wasn't a stable system. The patronage network you outlined in this piece has a serious downside: a newly-appointed paramount leader is necessarily at his absolute weakest in terms of influence at the time he is appointed leader. This is because a large part of being paramount leader is the ability to appoint a bunch of people into important positions who will back your agenda. If you're coming into a position where all the important spots were filled by your (likely ideologically-alienated) predecessor, you come in with not that much ability to accomplish much. Conversely, however, the time when you're most powerful as a leader is when you're right on the cusp of being kicked out of power. You've had time to solidify your reign and appoint a bunch of toadies.
Think of this as an exact inverse of the american system. Instead of a honeymoon "mandate" at the start of a term, the Chinese leader has more of a gradual ramp up. Instead of a lame duck period, they have a year or so of basically uncontested rule.
So... if a leader is most powerful right when they're about to get removed, why didn't someone hang onto power before Xi? Well, it's a mix of honest-to-god admiration of Dengism on the part of the former leaders and a shadowy network of retired party officials who still exerted significant sway and could, conceivably, have made life untenable for a would-be emperor. Unfortunately, that network had mostly disolved by the time Xi was facing the boot, so he didn't have to deal with it.
Mostly though, the previous chinese system didn't work. It really weakened the central government and was quickly losing ground to private industry. It was such a flawed system that reform was basically inevitable - either the party would reassert itself through a strong leader that was able to re-centralize power or it would be glasnosted.
And Sohois adds:
I think "admiration of Dengism" and "shadowy network" kind of understates the main force holding Jiang back which is that Deng himself was still alive for a good portion of his rule. Had Jiang tried to seize power, Deng could simply have swept back in. Jiang likely had the same influence on Hu, and indeed reports often pin Jiang as the main opposition to Xi - Scott asked why the Shanghai Gang didn't oppose the Tsinghua Gang, but the answer is that they did, but chances are Jiang's power had just waned sufficiently by then that he couldn't do much. And though he is still alive, Jiang certainly couldn't just march back into power the way Deng could have.
— Jaysmt writes:
> “Why did Xi succeed at gathering power, where others didn’t?”
I agree with the theory about anti-corruption and personnel retirement timing giving Xi a lucky break, but don't give much credence to the Tsinghua connection, since Hu Jintao was also a Tsinghua grad.
One other factor was that the anti-corruption drive coincided with a widespread perception of corruption and party disunity. People forget how common petty corruption was in the Hu and Jiang times. Bribes to civil servants, doctors, teachers etc. were a lot more common. It was also much easier for officials to patronize businesses and demand bribes.
At the same time, the downfall of Bo Xilai was also a gradual process that took months, which publicized fissures within the party unseen for decades. In addition, Xi was well-liked and had a stellar reputation. He was not seen as a close associate of the Shanghai gang, unlike Li Keqiang who was clearly in the CYL faction.
With that backdrop, it became easier for Xi to convince the party to give him greater authority and powers to investigate corruption. In turn, the power to investigate corruption became a key for him to consolidate power, as almost no official can withstand close scrutiny.
Even without public investigations against other CCP Politburo standing committee members, Xi and Wang Qishan having the power to investigate "lower-tier" officials breaks up patronage networks. Lower-tier officials are much more likely to pledge allegiance to Xi, knowing Xi has the power to humiliate and jail them, which in turn weakens his competitors in the standing committee and also gives him blackmail against them.
— Phil H (writes Tang Poetry) says:
On the censorship issue, I want to complicate the picture a bit. I think all descriptions of increasing Chinese censorship are deeply flawed, because they fail to account for the massive general increase in information that the internet has brought.
So: "...to people who grew up in Hu’s China, Xi’s regime feels like a clear step backwards."
I don't know about the regime, but I have access to a lot more information now than I did under Hu, because the internet is better.
> "The censoring of Southern Weekly, previously a well-regarded Chinese newspaper, is emblematic"
Sure - but the Southern Weekly and others in the Southern stable, while "well-regarded," were never actually good. What has happened is this: factional debate in China used to sometimes happen in the newspapers. It was exciting to read when it happened. Western observers salivated at the access it gave them to current Chinese political thought, which is usually very opaque. But it was always opinion within the current acceptable range of political possibility. No one who thought the CPC should not be in power ever wrote in the Southern Weekly.
About 10 years ago (I think), that kind of newspaper debate stopped. It went online, private, and into other channels. Western commentators sighed, and said, oh dear, the newspapers have been censored. But that's not really what happened: they were always very heavily censored. Now they're just heavily censored media where nothing of import is talked about.
As to total censorship: the internet is routing around. The outbreak of Covid is a classic example. The news got out, really fast. Much faster than the authorities wanted. And they cracked down later, notoriously jailing the doctor who broke the story. But the story still got out. That was basically unthinkable under Hu. (Example: the city where I live, Xiamen, was the site of one of China's few successful environmental protests, back in about 2007. I watched them march in the streets to stop a chemical plant being built near our city center. That news never got out - never reached other people, never got into the media.)
So the real censorship landscape is: increasing censorship, yes; but failing to keep up with the internet, so overall we are getting more information, not less.
The same applies here:
"Universities that previously had a long leash..." universities never had a long leash. This is rose-tinted nonsense. Any prof who had genuinely radical/democratic/non-communist views would have been weeded out at any time during the last 40 years. This is just more people going to university, so censorship has become more visible.
The other thing I would like people to know about China right now is that Xi's anticorruption campaign has been very effective for ordinary day-to-day stuff. When my older son was born 15 years ago, we stuffed cash in an envelope and gave it to the doctor to make sure my wife was treated well in the hospital. We don't do that any more.
(There's still plenty of corruption, running through personal acquaintance networks, but the cash bribery part of ordinary transactions has been effectively stamped out in my middle-class city. Teachers react with horror if you try to buy them a gift; we recently had a house refitted and the man who came to check whether our gas main was properly routed wouldn't accept a bribe, so we had to install an extra door.)
From my perspective, this elimination of cash bribery has been a massive benefit. Whatever the intentions behind it, it's made life much better.
Obligatory disclaimer: Anything positive I say about China or its government should not be understood to mean that I support its censorship, oppression, or imprisonment of innocent people.
I posted the NPC joke in a language-related chat group on WeChat (China's Facebook). There were no consequences for two days, because Chinese censors don't waste their time analyzing jokes in English language chat. But after a couple of days the American moderators of the group (resident in China, like me) decided to eject me from the group and break off all communication.
This is how it works. Occasionally, the state heavies do shut down a newspaper. But 99% of the time, it's self-censorship.
Proud I can now say I’ve written a joke that got censored in China!
> “During earlier parts of his reign, Xi deliberately left a small fraction of the public square untouched; he seemed aware of the “dictator’s information problem” where nobody would tell him when things are going wrong, and he valued public protests as a way to find corrupt officials and other problems requiring his attention. He’s since backed off on this and just started censoring everything.”
China has a weird system of open public comments that happen in stages. I've heard these are pretty genuine. That is, the CCP will say, "We are having a debate on corporate tax policy. No businesspeople will be punished for discussing tax policy for the next fifteen days and will have the chance to present their opinions to decision makers at the end of the period." Then they might have periods for other groups. These are, as far as I can tell, pretty genuine. Unless you go off topic they don't consider critcisim disloyal. Likewise, they have this weird system where Party members have specific people they're allowed to talk with (supposedly) without monitoring so long as its the entire group. So, for example, supposedly the entire Congress delegation of Fujian can talk freely with each other without fear. But notably not with other delegations or in public or in private apart from the group.
It's a clear attempt to prevent national level opposition and to particularize it by region and control information flow. But that's their solution as it stands. Xi's actually ramped these periods up. He's also started to distribute powerful people into these dialogue communities so they get more genuine information. For example, Xi now represents Mongolia because he wants more genuine information on the frontier.
III. Anti-Corruption And Centralization
— Thomas Ambrose:
Regarding Xi anti-corruption purges that seem puzzlingly non-power-centralizing:
Apparently, some unusually large number government officials in China were actually spying for the CIA, who compensated them in part by paying the bribes that were required for these spies to advance in their government careers. The income was disguised by the ordinary activities of corruption, and having CIA funding meant US spies could pay more bribes and advance faster politically than non-spies. The anti-corruption purge stopped this by making it suddenly very suspicious to receive large sums of money, by reducing the ability of well-funded spies to advance via bribery, and by enabling the government to be purge and punish spies without suffering the loss of face associated with admitting publicly that they were full of spies.
Summary here: https://www.axios.com/xi-jinping-corruption-drive-intelligence-china-b0adc8ff-8f43-4077-81e1-dab0d05d6c7d.html
Details here (I think; it's been a while and I haven't re-read it): https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/21/china-stolen-us-data-exposed-cia-operatives-spy-networks/
— And: is every single one of these sections going to include an Erusian comment?
> “By its own standards, Xi’s centralization campaign has succeeded: other factions have been marginalized, corruption has decreased, and society toes the party line more closely than ever. His other efforts are more dubious.”
His other efforts are irrelevant. Xi's first stated goal is to keep the CCP in control of China and loyal to ideological doctrine. I've seen nothing in his actions that imply he's not telling the truth there. His goal, as he's stated, is to build Mao-Xi style Early Socialism in China, effectively a form of controlled and directed capitalism that will lead to a smooth transition to real socialism down the line.
Of course, the issue is that capitalism produces wealthy capitalists, celebrities, and other modes of production that tend (in the Communist mind) to produce bourgeois government. Xi was, I suspect, concerned that Party members were becoming capitalists so he severed that link pretty severely. But there's still the issue that that means CCP members are both more powerful and poorer than China's business elite and that the fusion that was ongoing has been, if anything, reversed. Of course, China has a simple way to keep these people in line: a police state. Actresses and billionaires and the like are imprisoned, re-educated, or executed. Enough that I think, especially for businesspeople, it's starting to produce a downward pressure where incentives are to be successful but not too successful. I don't have any broad evidence for this. But I at least think I'm observing that behavior.
— Muster the Squirrels quotes an excerpt from Edward Luttwak, an analyst I’m generally well-disposed to:
Xi made his own Faustian bargain not merely with the Communist Party but very emphatically with Mao’s party: he has been assiduous in restoring Mao’s authority, which his predecessors had cumulatively reduced – a few months ago, reacting to the intensified confrontation with the US and its allies, Xi enjoined the study of Mao’s clever but prolix lectures from 1938, On Protracted War. He constantly elevates the man who jailed and publicly humiliated his father, terrorised his mother, caused the death of his half-sister and imposed many years of acute misery on his siblings as well as himself. What does it mean that China's president, party secretary-general, Central Military Commission chairman and 'core leader' is a Faustian character?
Whenever I fail to resist the temptation to read more psychoanalysis, it’s because of the siren song of one day being able to fit things like this into my picture of the world.
— Stitched together from comments by Henk B (writes Henkalicious) and Majuscule, I have not confirmed any of this:
I read somewhere that after Stalin's death, his successors wanted to make sure one-man rule would not return. They all had experienced first-hand how not even the highest ranking Polit-buro member had been safe from Stalin's vindictiveness. Therefore Khrushchev et al. ruled by committee. Then Khrushchev was deposed, so maybe power was diluted too much. Brezhnev et all reverted to a more authoritarian rule but never killed fellow communists again, and were not nearly as brutal as Stalin's regime.
The story goes that Khrushchev was intensely proud of being shuffled off to his dacha instead of shot in the basement. He supposedly said as he was ushered out something like “See how far we’ve come, that I’m leaving this way instead of that? I did that. I changed the USSR. That was me.”
— Stitched together from a favorite Scalia quote of Joel D’s, and a comment by BronxZooCobra:
“But then I tell them, if you think that a bill of rights is what sets us apart, you're crazy. Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights. Every President for life has a bill of rights. The bill of rights of the former "Evil Empire," the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was much better than ours. I mean it, literally. It was much better. We guarantee freedom of speech and of the press -- big deal. They guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of street demonstrations and protests; and anyone who is caught trying to suppress criticism of the government will be called to account. Whoa, that is wonderful stuff!”
And the UK doesn’t even have a written constitution. They have free speech, a free press, rule of law and due process because they are British, it’s what they do. That sense of - we just don’t - is very powerful.
I have a good example - if you’re in Japan or Germany at 2am and there are pedestrian at an intersection they will dutifully stand there until the they get a walk signal. Even with no car to be seen for miles. In the US most folks would just jaywalk.
[But] if you’re at an intersection in the US as a driver and it’s 2am and there same situation the vast majority of Americans will just wait for a green light. In Brazil or Thailand they will just blow past it like a jaywalking American.
Why do we wait at 2am? It’s just what you do. To say you should just blow through a red light is just ridiculous.
— Jonathan Ray (writes Far-Tentacled Axons) says:
> "Economies usually have a period of impressive catch-up growth as they develop, then stagnate as they near the technological frontier."
FACT CHECK: This is literally the opposite of what's been observed empirically.
If the quoted statement were true, the above log-log scatterplot of GDP per capita in 1950 vs gdp per capita in 2016 would have a trendline slope less than 1. But in actuality it has a trendline slope far greater than 1. This means that the countries that were already above average in 1950 grew faster in percentage terms than the countries that were below average in 1950. China's fast catch-up growth is the exception, not the rule. It's an anomaly caused by anomalously high IQ in global terms, plus the sudden removal of factors that were holding them back earlier (civil war, communism, lack of free trade). Ordinarily, whatever qualities made a country have good economic growth pre-1950 would have made it more likely to have good economic growth from 1950-2016, and whatever factors made a country have poor economic growth pre-1950 would have also made it more likely to have poor economic growth from 1950-2016. These factors are likely to include IQ, economic policy, rule of law, and proximity/access to wealthy trading partners.
This is a major update for me, thanks (see also this response/clarification).
— Stitched together from Yeangster and FiveHourMarathon:
Hmm Scott’s theory about China’s turn to autocracy and Xi’s rise to power reminds me of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, specifically that Sulla is a comparable figure to Deng Xiaoping
Sulla was one of a competing group of oligarch’s who took over after a period of instability and civil war. He then tried to reform the system so that someone like him or Marius could never rise to absolute power again. To keep the oligarchy from becoming a monarchy, essentially. This system collapsed in less than two generations.
Marius would be Mao, the dictator who threatened to install a destabilizing system; Deng would be Sulla, who tried to institute a stable power sharing system; Xi would be Caesar (Julius or Augustus)?
— Finally, the most important question: why is there a person named “Elizabeth Economy”? Answer stitched together from gph and, inevitably, Erusian:
From some quick googling it sounds like it's an Americanization of the Greek surname Economou/Oikonomou.
Oikonomia comes from oikos (household, family, private area as opposed to public) and nomos (literally "distribution/divide/allocate" but also used to mean arrangement or rules). So oikonomia is the practice of arranging private affairs. An oikonomos is someone who does so, usually because they're the head of the family but also on behalf of others.
The name approximates "Steward" or "Freeman" in English.