Deng Xiaoping is back … but only on television.
This year — the 110th anniversary of his birth — Beijing is sparing no expense to commemorate the former leader who launched China's modern reform era in the late 1970s, bringing decades of blazing economic growth and steady resurgence as a world power.
Unsurprisingly, Deng's mantle is being deployed for political ends. A new 48-episode documentary on his life airing on state networks draws a thinly veiled analogy between Deng and Xi Jinping, China's current top leader. The suggestion is clear. Xi is a new Deng. And when top Communist Party leaders assemble at their annual conference this week, China will witness a revival of the spirit of reform.
But China's reform era is over. A different — and more unstable — one is dawning.
Ideologically, Deng decisively broke with Maoist isolationism in the late 1970s. China opened up. Students flowed out; outside influences flowed in. When other party leaders criticized such policies for allowing dangerous foreign influences to circulate, Deng famously responded, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”
Now, China is again slowly turning in on itself. New party slogans stress “traditional” culture and values. The language of Confucianism is increasingly being invoked to legitimize a new dynasty of red emperors. Windows are being shut. State researchers are being warned against foreign collaboration. Archives previously open to Western scholars are being closed off. And Beijing is reaching for a fly swatter — or a hammer — to deal with influences it perceives as threats. Liberal public interest lawyers are being subjected to a chilling crackdown; Christian churches in Zhejiang province to a selective demolition campaign; Hong Kong pro-democracy media to increasing intimidation.
Economically, the decades of double-digit growth rates that marked the reform period have ended. The infrastructure and real estate booms driving China's economy since the 1990s have peaked. Even the state media now speaks of adjusting to the “new normal.”
Attitudes to foreign investors are shifting as well. Since the early 2000s, the rise of state industrial policies has favored the growth of domestic “national champions.” The announcement in August that China plans to launch a homegrown operating system to replace Windows and Android is simply the latest reflection of these trends. And a spate of state actions — jailing of corporate investigators, aggressive antitrust raids on firms that included Mercedes and Microsoft — have left expat managers nervously seeking transfers.
Most important, Chinese elite politics are shifting dramatically.
With Deng's rise, key elements that marked Maoist rule during the 1950s and '60s vanished. Gone were the all-powerful supreme leader, the frenzied cult of personality and the regular purges of the top ranks. Deng and his successors settled into a low-key style of collective governance marked by a search for consensus. Elite politics became institutionalized. Sure, periodic campaigns occasionally ensnared mid-level cadres. But unwritten rules guaranteed that the very top echelon was immune, untouchable.
Now, these norms are steadily being broken.
Since 2012, Xi has concentrated an astounding array of power in his hands. Special leadership groups on economic reform, on domestic security, on media propaganda now report to him. A whiff of a personality cult has emerged.
And Chinese elite politics has suddenly become very interesting again. A sweeping anti-corruption campaign is shaking the bureaucracy. Retired leaders once regarded as untouchable are falling left and right. These waves are even beginning to lap around the Shanghai power base of China's former top leader, Jiang Zemin, who not only remained a power broker long after he left office, but even facilitated Xi's rise.
What does this all mean?
At a deep level, China is experiencing a backlash against many of the economic, ideological and political winners of the reform era. The last three decades saw the world's most rapid accumulation of economic wealth fuse with an unreformed authoritarian political system. The result: a generation of well-heeled “red capitalists,” furiously texting on their iPhones as chauffeur-driven Audis sped their children past migrant shantytowns to English cram schools in preparation for studies overseas.
Such things might have seemed the very epitome of success to an earlier generation of Chinese leaders ruling over a country just emerging from crushing poverty and Maoist isolation. But they look very different now. To a new leader worried about maintaining one-party rule in a nation with a history of revolution, and where just 1% of the population controls one-third of the wealth, this is not just an image problem. It is a latent threat to the stability of his regime.
In Xi's eyes, the legacy of the reform era poses other challenges too. Entrenched political and economic interests built up since the 1990s hamper his efforts to solidify personal control over the apparatus of governance. Decades of dependence on foreign software expose China to cyber threats from abroad. Cultural imports — Hollywood films or “The Big Bang Theory” — challenge his dream of nationalist revival.
This is precisely why these are all under attack. And it resonates with ordinary citizens, particularly those who feel they missed out on China's go-go years. For them, the sight of cadres who once sped past them in limos being humbled by Xi's disciplinary teams is no small source of pleasure. Unsurprisingly, Xi's popularity has soared.
Nor are these policies necessarily wrong. Corruption must be contained. And if party authorities actually follow through with plans to increase the number of college spots for poor students (presumably at the expense of the urban elite), that would represent a real step toward redressing the education inequality gap that has grown since the reform period.
However, tackling the problems facing China today requires addressing the core political factors behind them. Excessive, unchecked power in the hands of a few has fueled the viral growth of a long list of social and economic problems. Indeed, Xi himself has flagged the need to restrict power in a “cage of regulations.”
But in the years since 1989, party leaders have systematically stymied the gradual evolution of positive local experiments with the kinds of institutions — an independent judiciary, meaningful legislatures, bottom-up electoral participation — that might help seriously curtail these problems.
Instead, Chinese leaders are falling back on what they know. And what they know are tactics drawn from the 1950s and '60s — ones being used now: party rectification movements, politicized anticorruption purges, televised self-confessions by social media celebrities, foreign corporate investigators and alleged terrorists.
And this is dangerous, because it risks taking China backward. And not to the Deng era, but to far more unstable ones that preceded him.
Carl Minzner is a professor at Fordham Law School, specializing in Chinese law and politics.
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