CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA — At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China this month, Xi Jinping will almost certainly be confirmed for a third term as general secretary of the Party and president of China.
With this, he will become China’s longest serving supreme leader since Mao Zedong, and the rules and norms that are supposed to govern the CCP regime will be shattered.
These rules and norms were largely put in place by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who took power in 1978.
Deng knew firsthand the damage the Party’s ideological fanaticism could cause. During the Cultural Revolution, one of his sons was paralyzed by rampaging Red Guards.
Deng himself was stripped of his official duties and sent to work in a factory in a remote province for four years – one of three times he was purged from government during his long revolutionary career.
To ensure that China would never fall prey to such terror again, Deng—with the support of other veteran revolutionaries who had survived the Cultural Revolution—restored collective leadership and imposed age and tenure for most CCP leadership positions.
In the decades since, China’s top leaders have served no more than two terms, and members of the Politburo have adhered to an implied age limit of 68.
But Xi revealed how fragile Deng’s “rules-based system” was. In fact, despite all the hype surrounding Deng’s accomplishments, his record on mastering the CPC regime is mixed at best, not least because his own commitment to the rules wasn’t as solid as one might expect. expect.
In practice, Deng disdained collective leadership and formal procedures. He rarely held meetings of the Politburo standing committee, as he wanted to deprive his main rival, a staunch conservative opposed to economic reform, of a platform to challenge his policies. Instead, he exercised his leadership through private meetings with supporters.
Moreover, in dealing with leaders sympathetic to pro-democracy forces, Deng frequently violated the procedures and standards he had established.
His dismissal of two liberal CCP leaders – Hu Yaobang in 1986 and Zhao Ziyang (who refused Deng’s order to enforce martial law during the Tiananmen crisis) in 1989 – defied Party statutes.
At the same time, Deng sometimes avoided introducing a rule, if it might harm his political interests.
Most notably, he – along with other aging CCP leaders – did not impose age or term limits on Politburo members.
Even if they could not hold official government positions indefinitely, they would never lose their decision-making power.
Similarly, Deng did not promulgate any formal rules governing who could chair the Central Military Commission. This allowed him to continue doing so after resigning from his other positions.
Following this precedent, Jiang Zemin did the same in 2002. As for Xi, while he had to go through the motions to have the presidential term limit removed from the constitution in 2018, he took advantage of the fact that the CCP did not impose an official mandate. term of office of its secretary general.
There is nothing shocking about China’s struggles to enforce rules and standards. Even mature democracies like the United States face such challenges, as Donald Trump’s presidency made clear.
But if formal constitutional checks and balances fail, democracies can at least count on a free press, civil society and opposition parties to push back, as they did against Trump.
In dictatorships, rules and norms are much more fragile, as there are no credible constitutional or political enforcement mechanisms, and autocrats can easily politicize institutions, such as constitutional courts, turning these bodies into rubber stamps.
And there are no secondary enforcement mechanisms. China has no free press or organized opposition. If a rule becomes inconvenient — as the constitutional presidential term limit did for Xi — it can easily be changed.
While trampling on rules and institutional norms can benefit autocratic rulers, it is not necessarily good for their regimes.
The CCP’s experience under Mao is a good example. Freed from all institutional constraints, Mao engaged in incessant purges and led the Party from disaster to disaster, leaving behind an ideologically exhausted and economically bankrupt regime.
Deng understood that a rules-based system was essential to avoid repeating this disastrous experience.
But his conviction could not outweigh his self-interest, and the institutional edifice he built in the 1980s turned out to be little more than a house of cards. Xi’s confirmation this month is just the breeze triggering his inevitable collapse.
Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.