The argument has intensified since 2012: China, despite having 1.4 billion people, and immense levels of economic, social, and cultural complexity, seems to have reverted to a one-person centred form of leadership that people associate more with the Maoist era than the 21st century. This seems counterintuitive. How could such a complicated place be run by one person? And yet the evidence of the last year or so has shown that Xi Jinping seems to sit in splendid isolation at the center of a power system.
Wang Qishan, Xi’s once immensely influential anti-corruption czar, despite being maintained after reaching formal retirement age as vice president at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, seems to have played no overtly visible role in the trade arguments with the United States – a puzzle because of his previous expertise with this relationship in the Obama era, and the admiration that his political and diplomatic skills are held in. The extent of influence held by Premier Li Keqiang has been the center of speculation for a number of years. The most one can say is that at very least he survived into a second term as head of government, even if the space for autonomous government action now seems to have shrunk to near invisibility as the Chinese Communist Party’s powers have mushroomed (witness the sweeping national supervision laws brought in to assert Party over other powers last year). Beyond these two figures, it is hard to see anyone else with any real autonomy and strong identity of their own when set beside Xi. Vice Premier Liu He has been crucial to talks with the United States, but clearly as Xi’s mouthpiece. The Standing Committee of the Politburo, if they have influence on Xi, exert it with an unsettling invisibility and discreteness. From whatever empirical evidence once can glean from current happenings, China is either a country starkly being largely run by one figure, or doing an amazingly good impression of one.
Before we run away with too many excited conclusions attributing this to China’s one-party system, however, we need to cast our eyes at what is happening in the solidly democratic environments of the United States and the United Kingdom. In the U.S., having driven most of his former advisers and aides into retirement or silence, President Donald Trump has taken to proudly declaring that the whole country is now being run by him. The State Department has been sidelined, with many of its key posts either unfilled, or under acting personnel. Close to the end of Trump’s first term in office, many government positions remain empty. Figures like Steve Bannon and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who were once imputed with at least some influence over the mercurial leader at times, now seem as sidelined as everyone else. The American presidency has been called the world’s loneliest job. Its current incumbent seems to like it that way, and appears to be running U.S.-China relations, negotiations over North Korea, and a host of other international issues entirely on his own.
In the U.K., the travails of Brexit have remarkably exposed a similar phenomenon. Prime Minister Theresa May has a cabinet, a party, a parliament, and in large part massive swathes of the country disagreeing with her – and yet she has so far survived. The most extraordinary aspect of the last few months has been that it has shown a political figure who seems to have only a tiny number of close aides around her – and perhaps only one, her husband, whom she seems to truly trust and listen to. The sudden announcement of the decision in late April to proceed with Huawei and its potential involvement in the 5G telecoms project is a stark example of a huge complex decision largely being made by just one person.
Trump, Xi, and May are very different figures, and are operating in utterly different environments. And yet each seems to be running their countries and making major decisions single-handedly. This phenomenon needs to be explained, because none of them can be called in any orthodox sense all-powerful dictators. Trump is fighting against a Congress opposed to him, a media that daily reviles him, and consistently low approval ratings. May has suffered the worst series of parliamentary defeats in British history over Brexit. Xi has been called the new Mao, but has nothing like the emotional hold that the Chairman and founder of the regime had over the people, and exists in a context where the people he rules over have never been more exposed to, linked into, and dependent on the outside world. How have we ended up with three such different leaders who are all so all controlling and dominant in decision making?
Perhaps one answer will be that in each of these places the space for politics has undergone a transformation that it is hard to properly conceptualize at present. The three are powerful, but in very diminished and carefully circumscribed places. The rest of society just seems to be getting on with life. Decision-making has become harder, because so many others are vocal, and able to express their views. All three leaders in very different ways are also faced with very divided and fragmented forms of opposition. They exist in a context where despite their imperfect politics, economically at least things are proceeding okay. The U.K. has never had higher employment, and while unspectacular growth has at least been maintained. The U.S. growth spurt has, despite the uncertainties almost daily thrown up by Trump, proceeded well. China too has maintained over 6 percent growth. In these contexts, enough people are distracted by the opportunities they have each day to not get too irritated – at least for now.
But Xi, May, and Trump cannot take the current levels of their influence and control for granted. They live constantly worried by the possibility that the fragmented forces facing them might suddenly coalesce and solidify, and that they will be facing their greatest nightmare – a unified opposition with a coherent political program and public support ranged against them. In China, of course, this would be the hardest to achieve – but it certainly isn’t unthinkable. May and Trump may well meet their moment of reckoning far sooner. But despite the very real differences between the separate challenges they face, and the systems in which they work, the fact remains that, at the moment, they are all isolated and operating on their own. And this kind of leadership style, whether in China, the United States, or the U.K., is surely not sustainable. That should worry us all.