A list of contradictions within the Chinese government:
- China is a country run by a Communist Party that practices free market capitalism. The reality isn’t quite as simple as that, there are large parts of the Chinese economy that are still controlled by the state, and Communist ideology is very much a part of the education system (the college students I taught were all required to take a class on Mao Zedong Thought). The Party still presents itself as Communist (I have trouble imagining how it could walk that back), but seems to get quite a bit of mileage out of the elements of Marxist and Maoist thought that were less straightforwardly hostile to market capitalism. I imagine they could maintain this fiction for a long time to come, but Communist ideology doesn’t seem to be the active force of legitimacy for the CCP that it once was.
- China’s apparently content-empty ideology has led the CCP to rely on two sources of legitimacy: economic growth and nationalism. As the economy slows down, it will have to increasingly rely on nationalist sentiment, which often means actively contesting its territorial claims. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute is a personally-felt issue for many Chinese; it isn’t unusual to find signs proclaiming “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” when you are going about your business. I used to own a mug with that very slogan. China has strategic reasons to maintain claims on gas-rich maritime territory, but backing away from those claims for diplomatic reasons would now be very difficult. In the meantime, the claims that China would undergo a peaceful rise ring increasingly hollow, and China’s neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia, are aligning themselves to contain Chinese ambitions
- To the degree that the CCP does still rely on economic growth as a source of legitimacy, it does so by projecting an air of competence and practicality. The Party, however, is only so tolerant of internal dissent (apparently especially so under Xi Jinping), which artificially limits the solutions available for consideration.
- It’s no accident that Xi Jinping followed Hu Jintao, a leader so bland he read from index cards while meeting foreign heads of state. China has been looking for a leader to match its increased stature, someone who would clean up corruption, manage the slowing economy, and begin actively pushing China’s foreign interests. These are tasks that lend to the decisiveness of a single leader, but the Communist Party has been deeply skeptical of allowing a single individual to accumulate too much individual influence after Mao decided to use his own influence to repeatedly purge the party. It’s hard to know who to root for in the growing fight between Xi and the party members grumbling about him. (The recent policies of restricting VPNs and stepping up restrictions on foreign journalists seem to have come from Xi, so I am inclined to root against him.)
- Mao Zedong, a man whose collectivization and industrialization policies were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, is still used heavily in official iconography. He is on every bill from the 1 yuan note to the 100 yuan note (the two or three smaller notes have ethnic minorities on them). Mao seems to be revered and despised in equal measure. Committing to the veneration of Mao, even considering the popular “Mao was 70% right, 30% wrong” line, means the party is committing to restricting information about Mao’s worst excesses.
- I once ran into a quotation by Deng Xiaoping that I can no longer track down, but it went something like this: Corruption will be the end of the party, but without corruption, there would be no party. Real quotation or not, it still hits at an ongoing issue: If you don’t allow low- and mid-tier Chinese officials to expense fancy dinners to the party, what’s the point of carrying out the will of the Central Committee?
- The CCP has maintains the illusion that the leaders don’t enrich themselves and their families through their positions in the party. It’s pretty clear that this is untrue, and Xi Jinping’s enduring popularity in China is linked to the fact that he made fighting corruption a major aspect of his administration. The thing is, Xi’s family is clearly quite wealthy. (Reporting on the wealth of CCP elites is such a surefire way to not get your press credentials renewed that Bloomberg notoriously pulled an article about Xi Jinping’s family. The New York Times remains blocked because of a story they published on then-Premier Wen Jiabao’s family.)
- Allowing foreign journalists to publish what they please means more articles revealing hypocrisy among the CCP elite, which undermines the authority of a party which has used the phrase “Serve the People” as a central slogan for decades. Tightening restrictions on foreign journalists tends to piss off said journalists, which is a really good way to ensure hostile coverage. You don’t need to be in China to report on a stumbling economy and military adventurism.
- China is increasingly suspicious of all aspects of the liberal international which do not provide special allowances for China. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seems to have been a practice in creating an international organization that gives China the pride of place usually reserved for the United States or the OECD countries as a whole. They seem to have invented their own definition for ‘freedom of navigation’. If you buy that the network of international organizations and agreements are a major part of what underpin international trade and allowed for globalization of the world economy, then China may well be tugging apart the threads of the global order that allowed for its sudden rise as an economic power.