This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 3: Australia and Indonesia.
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End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise
Oxford University Press
A cursory glance at China today hardly seems to bear out the pessimism of the subtitle of Carl Minzner’s End of an Era. Indeed, by many measures, objective and subjective, China seems on the crest of a mighty wave.
China’s economy, still expanding at a robust pace according to official figures, remains on track to overtake that of the United States in about ten years. In Xi Jinping, China has its most determined leader in generations – in abject comparison to Donald Trump, perhaps the most wayward, ill-disciplined US president in the nation’s history.
While former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once offered the dictum “hide your capacities and bide your time”, Xi’s China has no intention of maintaining a low profile. At home, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shouts its self-professed strength and the vitality of its system from the rooftops, its voice made louder by democratic disarray around the world.
Abroad, Xi is promoting what he calls the “China solution”. We’ve seen the future, Chinese leaders say, and it’s an efficient, made-to-last authoritarian state built in our successful image. Such is the outward confidence in China that some speculate Beijing is aiming to take Taiwan in time for the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021.
Minzner drives his book headlong into this narrative of ascendancy. Wisely, he doesn’t proclaim that China will fail because it has turned its back on any notion of becoming a Western-style democracy. He argues, more persuasively, that the CCP’s China is heading dangerously backwards because of its refusal to adapt single-party rule to creative reforms rooted in Chinese history and an increasingly complex market economy.
Minzner’s book has a number of commendable qualities. At the risk of being gratuitously impolite about the academy, it is worth pointing out that Minzner is an all-too-rare example of a scholar willing to put his profession’s literary strictures aside and write in clear prose. It goes without saying that his clarity helps him make his case.
Minzner is far from alone in believing that China under Xi has regressed politically. The incremental institutionalisation of political norms over thirty years – term limits, a designated successor for the top job, the partial depoliticisation of the bureaucracy (based on loose notions of separating the Party from the state), and a grab bag of bottom-up reforms giving greater space to the law and the media – are being cast aside. In their place, Xi has centralised power in his inner circle; cracked down on activist lawyers and journalists; and extended the CCP’s extra-legal tentacles, used in anti-corruption probes, to cover anyone on a state salary. Deng’s notion of a separation of Party and state, hazy but nonetheless real, has gone out the window.
Minzner describes such changes compellingly, as have many of the expanding tribe of China-watching pessimists in recent years. But he takes his argument one crucial step further: not only are what he calls China’s “counter-reforms” retrograde, they are also destined to fail in building a strong, stable China.
Xi’s China, by unwinding the myriad policies that the CCP has had in place since the early 1980s to build political accountability, resolve disputes and allow scope for everything from complaints against government to genuine spiritual succour, is making the country less, not more, secure. Minzner writes that the CCP, in the process of locking down the political system, is radicalising both the state and society, almost certainly setting up an almighty clash in the future. This is not a simple showdown between pro-Party and pro-democracy forces – it is a debilitating, violent explosion of large sections of the population, angry at the governing elite.
With no off-ramp, these mounting tensions make the CCP ever more reliant on reinforcing a nativist ethno-nationalism to buttress its governing legitimacy. In turn, the CCP has more and more reason to deploy China’s military might overseas, in places such as Taiwan, to distract from growing problems at home.
All of this has happened, by the way, not in response to an economic downturn but during an economic expansion. Imagine how the system might respond when the economy goes into a slump, as it inevitably will at some stage.
Sometimes, Minzner has a tendency to throw everything into the mix to buttress his argument. Confucius made a comeback long before Xi took over leadership of the CCP, for example. And while the state sector has been strengthened under Xi, no Chinese leader has ever envisaged anything but a central role for the government in the economy.
It is true that Xi has accumulated more power in his office than any leader since Deng, and has been happy to throw out evolving norms when it suited him. But Minzner both overestimates how rosy things were under Deng and underestimates the dangers that surrounded Xi when he came to power. After all, two of Xi’s ambitious rivals – Bo Xilai, the CCP chief in Chongqing, and Zhou Yongkang, who presided over the state security apparatus and the oil industry – white-anted Xi before he took over in 2012. If we believe the state media, the pair were plotting a coup to prevent Xi taking on the leadership of the CCP. Talk about challenging the party’s norms! If that account is even half-true, it goes a long way to explaining Xi’s brutality towards his opponents, real and imagined, on coming to office.
Minzner gives an extensive and useful account of the long processes of democratisation in South Korea and Taiwan in an effort to distinguish their development from that of China. In both places, activists battled for years to build up civil society and legal institutions, which ensured that, when formal elections were finally allowed, the system had ballast beyond the results. Minzner makes an excellent point here – far from allowing the sinews of broader political participation to develop, as happened in South Korea and Taiwan, Xi’s China is shutting them down. Yet strangely, Minzner all but ignores another factor in this equation: the enormous US influence in Seoul and Taipei, and its relative absence in Beijing.
I also wonder whether Minzner, in building his gloomy account, underestimates the solidity and deep roots of the Chinese bureaucracy. It is true, as he writes, that China’s technocratic sheen is fading, but it is far from gone. In Nanjing recently, a Chinese professor vented to me one minute about Xi’s abolition of term limits, and then marvelled at the skill of his recent reshuffle of government ministries the next. The lesson for him was that Xi, and the system, could still function at a high level despite the frigid political climate.
Can the technocrats stand up to the ethno-nationalist wave threatening to swamp them? Will China’s famed pragmatism survive the CCP’s renewed effort to politicise every corner of public and economic life? Will Xi’s acolytes really advocate war against Taiwan, as a kind of centennial gift for the CCP?
On the last point, count me sceptical. An invasion of Taiwan, or even a blockade, would be so risky on so many levels that it is hard to see Xi green-lighting it.
On the other big questions, Minzner is pessimistic. I find myself agreeing with much of this book, even as I wish I didn’t.