[Editor's Note: This is the second part in a series by Aaron Friedberg on Xi Jinping's leadership in China. The first installment is available here.]
History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as the man who destroyed Soviet Communism by trying to save it. Despite his subsequent veneration by some Western liberals, Gorbachev was no liberal himself. A true believer in state socialism, he nevertheless recognized that the Soviet system was grossly inefficient and that an entrenched and unchecked Party-State bureaucracy posed a fundamental obstacle to meaningful economic reforms. After a few false starts, Gorbachev concluded that the only way to achieve “perestroika” (reform) was to permit a measure of “glasnost” (openness). Like many an out-of-touch autocrat, he believed that he could anticipate and control popular sentiment, directing it against the hidebound apparatchiks who opposed his vision of a “kinder, gentler” form of Communism. Instead Gorbachev unleashed a torrent of criticism and resentment that quickly weakened and then destroyed the very foundations of the Soviet system.
Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev. He presides over an economy that is still growing rapidly, a population whose expectations continue to rise, and a political elite that has not yet lost faith in itself and in its right to rule. But, like Gorbachev, in his zeal to defeat his opponents and bolster the questionable legitimacy of a one party authoritarian system, Xi may have tugged on a thread that could cause things to unravel with surprising speed.
As discussed in a previous post, since taking power at the end of 2012, Xi has raised the stakes of political combat in China by leveling charges of corruption not only against relatively low-ranking officials, but against people in the highest reaches of the Party, State and military hierarchies. While he seems to be winning, at least for the moment, the long-term effects of these tactics on elite cohesion and regime stability are difficult to determine and could be deeply damaging. Whatever their differences, in the 25 years since the Tiananmen Square crisis China’s leaders have accepted that they must hang together if they do not wish to hang separately. Now the rules of the game are better summed up in a phrase that is sometimes translated as “life-and-death struggle” but which, as journalist John Garnaut points out, actually means “you die, I live.”
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is one part of a wider effort to destroy his enemies and consolidate political power. But it is also an acknowledgement that the problem of high-level corruption has become too big to ignore. Since the 2012 arrest and subsequent trial of Bo Xilai, the former boss of Chongqing who was once considered a leading contender for a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee and perhaps even for the position of Party leader, there has been a steady stream of revelations regarding the financial dealings of current and former officials and their families. Some have been embarrassed by stories in the foreign media; others have been arrested, tried and, predictably, convicted. The current campaign is an attempt to “rectify” the Party, reclaiming its virtue and shoring up its legitimacy by demonstrating a willingness to go after “tigers” (powerful figures) as well as “flies” (low-level officials).
The trouble with all of this is that it may turn out to be very difficult to control. Xi seems to believe that he can restore public faith by prosecuting some “bad apples” and visibly tightening Party discipline. But this assumes that the root cause of the problem is a handful of corrupt individuals rather than the intrinsic nature of the system itself. Without transparency, checks on governmental power, an independent judiciary, and police and prosecutors who follow the rule of law rather than the dictates of their political bosses, corruption can never be controlled, let alone eradicated. At some point Xi will want to declare victory in his war on corruption and turn to other issues. But corruption is not going away. Having highlighted its existence and declared his intention to eradicate it, Xi has set the stage for deepening cynicism and perhaps for growing discontent. Future historians may well judge that he weakened the foundations and shortened the lifetime of the system he was trying to save.