After months of opaque internal Party power struggles leading up to the 19th Party Congress, core leader (核心领导), President Xi Jinping, appears to have successfully consolidated power, emerging as an all-powerful emperor to fulfill the people’s aspirations and to lead China boldly forward in a new era to take its rightful place at “the center of the world stage.”
Through military personnel changes and the appointment of loyalists onto the Politburo and its Standing Committee, with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) enshrined in the party constitution, Xi now controls China’s armed forces, influences the highest governing bodies of the party and country, and has established China’s guiding ideology through the middle of the 21st century.
Placed within its ideological lineage and relative significance (equal to Mao Zedong Thought, perhaps higher than Deng Xiaoping Theory, and clearly more significant than both the Theory of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development), Xi Jinping Thought aims to provide a comprehensive policy to realize the China Dream of national rejuvenation. The 14 points—or in the Chinese media locution, 14 points that must be upheld (坚持)—can be loosely organized into three categories:
Development: The “people”, nature, and a global shared future
- Adopt a new vision for development (坚持新发展理念)
- Commit to a people-centered approach (坚持以人民为中心)
- Ensure and improve living standards through development (坚持在发展中保障和改善民主)
- Ensure harmony between people and nature (坚持人与自然和谐共生)
- Promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind (坚持推动构建人类命运共同体)
Security: Everything is a potential or existing security threat
- Pursue a holistic approach to national security (坚持总体国家安全观)
- Uphold absolute Party leadership over the people’s forces (坚持党对人民军队的绝对领导)
- Uphold the principle of “one country, two systems” and promoting national reunification (坚持”一国两制”和推进祖国统一)
Law: Not rule of law, but govern the country by law
- Ensure Party leadership over all work (坚持党对一切工作的领导)
- Continue to comprehensively deepen reform (坚持全面深化改革)
- Exercise full and rigorous governance over the Party (坚持全面从严治党)
- See that the people run the country (坚持人民当家作主)
- Ensure every dimension of governance is law-based (坚持全面依法治国)
- Uphold core socialist values (坚持社会主义核心价值体系)
China faces complex social, environmental, and economic challenges, including the “key contradiction” of inequitable and unsustainable development (clearly identified and prioritized by the Party). Instead of effectively addressing these challenges, China’s new guiding ideology poses serious risks of exacerbating already serious human rights, rule of law, and governance problems.
First, despite the invocation of a people-centered approach, the development-related upholds are not intended to empower people, or protect the citizens’ rights to participate in policy decisions that affect them and their communities.
In recent UN sessions at the General Assembly and at the Human Rights Council, China has made clear its rejection of a rights-based framework, a framework that is critical to sustainable and equitable development. In fact, China’s “new vision of development” has been asserted for some time, especially to block international scrutiny or criticism of its human rights progress.
In China’s “new era,” a political elite still heads an authoritarian government that controls the dreams and aspirations of over 1.3 billion people under top-down dictated political projects. To borrow a phrase from Yu Hua, the “people” are still “nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.” The current product? The China Dream.
The realization of the China Dream, the rejuvenation of the nation, will also have regional and global effects, in particular where China’s development model is already being exported through its soft power initiatives and through aid, development, economic, and military packages. Official assurances published by Xinhua News Agency that China will “never seek hegemony or engage in expansion” are unconvincing.
For example, the One Belt, One Road Initiative stretches across 60 countries, involving to date $500 billion in infrastructure and loans, and $14.5 billion in direct investment. In the face of such a major expansionist project, countries eager to be part of this “new Silk Road,” are willing to accept the social, environmental, and economic costs of contributing to a China-dominated future, and are even willing to mortgage their futures to help build it.
Second, the “holistic security” approach is not a new approach for a new era, but rather is a continuation of policies to ensure stability (read: comprehensive social control), unified correct thinking, and national unity through ideological propaganda to instill and demand complete loyalty to the party from the media, educators, lawyers, and the general population.
Alternative visions and views, even if peacefully expressed—for example, Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08—come at great risk and tragic human cost. Upholding the “absolute Party leadership over the people’s forces” ensures the military power to back up this holistic security approach.
The comprehensive approach to security is also implemented through a raft of restrictive national security-related legislation promulgated over the past few years, regulating cyberspace, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, religious and cultural practices of ethnic groups, and foreign NGOs. It is given teeth through criminal prosecutions of peaceful expression for incitement or subversion.
These laws and regulations are deployed to punish any voice that refuses to be “harmonized,” individual peaceful expression, and other exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to hold and impart opinions and views—even, or especially satirical and humorous ones—and linguistic, cultural, and religious rights.
Through China’s national security lens, these exercises of protected rights are treated as potential or existing threats to the national security, honour, and reputation of the country, that is, actions that threaten the Party’s authoritarian hold on power.
“One Country, Two Systems” is specifically mentioned in the 14 Upholds, but is tied to promotion of national reunification (another shot over the bow of Taiwan). But Hong Kong’s autonomy under upholding the principle of One Country, Two Systems appears to be more and more at risk of being gutted by “interpretations” of the Basic Law and local interference.
In an effort to send a firm but warm message during the handover anniversary this year, President Xi told the Hong Kong people, “Believe in yourself, believe in Hong Kong, and believe in the country.” But under this “new era” approach to security, this probably means, “Believe in me, President Xi. Believe my social media image as a leader in touch with ordinary people, who takes taxis and eats steamed buns (包子), a champion fighting the rampant corruption so hated by the common people (老百姓).” And the red line was clear: no independence talk will be tolerated.
Finally, governing the country by law: For some time, either intentionally or not, “rule of law” and “govern the country by law” were interchangeably used in translation and interpretation at the UN and in bilateral discussions. This translation slippage masked what is now clear. China is an outlier when it comes to its legal system.
Despite the old ideological chestnut being repeated—people are masters of the country—this is only a fiction for the “democratic dictatorship” of the CPC. That every dimension of governance is law based, is also not reassuring in light of the terrible human holocaust that led to the creation of the modern human rights system. The road to fascism was paved by law and wrapped in legality. So governing by law will not ensure that people’s rights, human dignity and freedom will be protected.
Although there is no single universal definition of “rule of law,” the principle is at the heart of the international human rights system. It refers to a “principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.”
When the Party exercises leadership over all work and demands the complete loyalty of the judges, lawyers, and prosecutors; when the Party not only calls all the shots, but remains above and outside the law, even if a pending “supervision law” replaces the current double detention (双规) system; when there are no independent mechanisms to ensure official accountability, then governing the country by law is simply governing by authoritarian rule.
Looking ahead, consolidating power is not the same as maintaining and exercising power responsibly to benefit the people. While Xi appears to have effectively consolidated his power, the internal machinations, power struggles, and negotiations cannot be cost-free. Certainly, in the anti-corruption campaign, among the targeted tigers and flies, there may now lie future enemies.
To maintain power, the leaders must solve actual problems, which is not a strong part of the DNA of the CPC. The tried and failed method of the CPC to address problems—control, censorship, and propaganda— will not work in the short or long term, even if labeled and welcomed as new.
For a truly effective approach to sustainable and equitable development, ensuring true security and stability, and building accountable governance, civil society—individuals, NGOs, and independent media—must be able to meaningfully contribute and participate in creating, monitoring, and promoting the solutions. Now, that would be a truly new vision, one in line with international standards and China’s obligations.