While leading the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong often referred to the United States as a “paper tiger,” an entity that appeared fierce and powerful but that was ultimately flimsy and incapable of acting on its apparent power. At the time, the United States was one of two global superpowers with the world’s largest economy. To a certain extent, however, the critique made sense. Despite all its power, the United States, with its complex political system and deep integration with the world economy, faced multiple constraints that limited its decision-making to an extent that the wishes and words of U.S. politicians could not always be matched by deeds.
Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader China has seen since Mao. After a years-long anti-corruption campaign that targeted political rivals, Xi filled the country’s highest-level political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, with loyalists during the 20th Party Congress in October 2022. His power over and within the Chinese political system is unmatched by any other leader in Chinese Communist Party history, with the exception of Mao himself.
The China that Xi rules today, however, is very different from the China that Mao ruled. No longer an isolationist, majority-poverty country, China today is a global superpower that is the world’s second largest economy and deeply integrated with the rest of the world. Despite Xi personally having so much power, the complexity of contemporary Chinese society places limits on how much power can advance China’s domestic and international policy goals.
China faces a number of unprecedented challenges, including population decline that could adversely affect the economy, the need to transition to a consumption economy, and the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the history of the pandemic. To be clear, these crises are not only of Xi’s making, and any leader or system of government would face serious challenges in trying to solve these issues. So far, however, Xi has not utilized his accumulated power to make difficult but necessary transitions, or built new institutions to tackle these problems. Instead, he has focused on ideological and mobilization campaigns that have increased his own political power in the system but that have done little to address China’s problems.
Like the United States criticized by Mao, Xi’s China today finds its power atop its own complexities and webs of interdependence with the rest of the world. Without substantive institutional change that inherently includes political change, Xi risks making China, and himself, mere paper tigers.
China faces demographic decline that could turn into a crisis depending on how policymakers respond to it. So far, the government wants women to have more children. While there are examples of local policies implemented by wealthier provinces to try and address some of the economic or other systemic reasons why people might not want to have children (by paying them, for instance), the only national policies, aside from no longer penalizing women for having more than one child, involve ideological campaigns to promote “family values,” crack down on perceived effeminacy in men, and otherwise censor cultural content not deemed sufficiently masculine. There has also been a nationwide push to decrease the number of divorces, largely by making it more difficult to do so, policies that disproportionately affect women suffering domestic abuse. What’s missing is large-scale policies that respond to and alleviate the economic and social burdens faced by couples, especially women.
Similarly, policymakers in China have known for decades that its current investment-based economic system is not sustainable, and that they would need to transition to a more consumer-driven economy to maintain economic growth and increase prosperity. Substantive steps at reform, however, often run into barriers and are abandoned before the government tries again. This is because transitioning to a consumer-focused economy requires China’s people, the consumers, to have a greater share of national income. Shifting income to the people, however, is politically difficult.
So far, Xi has not used his unprecedented power to implement such shifts. Instead, he has given speeches and proclamations encouraging younger generations to work hard, “sacrifice,” and “abandon the finicky lifestyle and complacent attitude.” Mao had the power to command people to go to the countryside. Xi cannot so easily command people to consume more.
The most visceral example of Xi’s power and priorities is the Chinese government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Xi’s signature policy, “zero COVID,” was highly effective at building makeshift hospitals, mass testing citizens, enforcing strict lockdowns, and moving people into quarantine, sometimes forcibly. This mobilization did not, however, focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable populations, or increasing the capacity of China’s healthcare system to care for patients during a COVID-19 wave. Xi managed to mobilize one government official per 250 adults to fight a “war” against the pandemic and methodically arrest students that protested the zero COVID policies. Fewer resources were invested in developing the healthcare system’s capacity to respond to the virus.
There is a common thread to Xi’s preferred ideological responses to each of these challenges: “struggle.” Xi’s own political convictions were forged during the Cultural Revolution; struggle made him so it can “rejuvenate” the nation. He has routinely highlighted a lack of ideological fervor as the source of the Soviet Union’s downfall. Xi’s report to the 20th Party Congress placed particular emphasis on “fighting spirit” and “national security.”
To be clear, policymaking in China is not a simple binary between “technocracy” on the one hand and “ideological struggle” on the other. We will continue to see some policy experimentation, particularly in wealthier provinces. We will continue to see technological innovation and competition (also in the wealthier provinces). However, the institution building required to address the systemic problems preventing people from wanting to have children, or hindering China from transitioning to a consumption economy or more flexibly responding to a global pandemic, will likely be more difficult under the banner of Xi’s ideological methods and goals.
Xi’s policies have expanded the capacity of the government to micromanage people’s lives, including with the hyperlocal shihuzhang system, but they might have also damaged the regional experimentation that contributed to China’s economic and technological development. Xi wants innovation but ideologically prohibits any form of doubt or questioning. How can you have experimentation without doubt? He wants the Chinese people to sacrifice for the nation, but a growing number of people do not want to be “huminierals” (人矿, literally “human mines,” webspeak referring to humans as resources to be exhausted); they want to be people.
Mao may have been comparatively free of reliance on political allies at home or economic ones abroad. With his ideologically focused independence, however, he unleashed the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, devastating policy programs and ideological campaigns that caused great suffering for the people of China but little else. Today’s China is not Mao’s China – it is far richer, more powerful, and integrated with the rest of the world. Xi abhors the sort of chaos that fed the Cultural Revolution; he instead prefers maintaining “stability.” Like Mao, however, he is placing more emphasis on realizing his own ideological vision rather than responding to the complex and diverse needs of China’s population.
China’s strength in some ways makes Xi stronger, but the complexity of modern China and its relationship with the world limit what he can succeed in doing (though not necessarily what he will try). Referring to the policy disasters of the Mao era, sinologist Simon Leys once described Mao’s communism as “break[ing] eggs without ever making an omelet.” Hopefully Xi’s coming choices are not so destructive.