October 20, 2022 1:01 pm
On the occasion of the twentieth national congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), Xi Jinping will almost certainly obtain confirmation for a third term as party general secretary and president of China. He will thus become the longest-serving leader after Mao Zedong and the rules and norms that are supposed to govern the Chinese Communist Party regime will be torn apart.
Those rules and norms were largely instituted by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who came to power in 1978. Deng knew from personal experience what the harms of the party’s ideological fanaticism could be. During the Cultural Revolution, one of his sons was paralyzed due to the fury of the Red Guards. Deng himself had been stripped of his official positions and sent for four years to work in a factory in a remote province. During his long revolutionary career, he was purged of the government three times.
To ensure that China could no longer fall prey to such terror, Deng – with the support of other veterans of the revolution who survived the Cultural Revolution – had introduced collective leadership and imposed age and mandate limits for most highest positions within the Chinese Communist Party. In the following decades, Chinese presidents never went beyond two terms and politburo members respected an unofficial age limit of 68.
However, Xi revealed how fragile Deng’s “rules-based system” actually was. In fact, putting aside the noise about Deng’s achievements, judgments about his reign within the CCP are mixed, not least because his personal commitment to abide by the rules has been well below expectations.
In fact, Deng despised collective leadership and formal procedures. He seldom called meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee because he wanted to deny his main rival, a bitter conservative opposed to economic reform, a platform from which to challenge his political line. Instead, he preferred to exercise his leadership through private meetings with supporters.
There is nothing extraordinary about China’s difficulties in complying with rules and regulations. Even mature democracies like the United States face similar challenges
Furthermore, in his dealings with leaders close to pro-democracy forces, Deng often violated the procedures and rules that he himself had established. With the ousting of two liberal-oriented CCP leaders – Hu Yaobang in 1986 and Zhao Ziyang (who rejected Deng’s order to apply martial law during the Tiananmen crisis) in 1989 – he defied party regulations.
There have also been cases where Deng has not introduced rules that would have undermined his economic interests. More importantly, in agreement with other senior CCP leaders, it did not impose an age or number of mandates limit on the members of the Politburo. Even if they could not hold formal government positions indefinitely, they would never lose the authority they exercised over decision making.
Similarly, Deng did not put in place any rules to determine who could chair the Central Military Committee. This allowed him to continue to preside over it too after he resigned from other posts.
Following this precedent, Jiang Zemin did the same in 2002. When it came to overcoming motions in 2018 to remove the mandate limit from the constitution, Xi benefited from the fact that the CCP had not imposed an official mandate limit. to its general secretary.
There is nothing extraordinary about China’s difficulties in complying with rules and regulations. Even mature democracies like the United States face similar challenges, as Donald Trump’s presidency clearly demonstrated. However, should the formal system of constitutional checks and balances fail, democracies can at least count on the reaction of a free press, civil society and opposition, as happened against Trump.
In dictatorships, rules and norms are much more fragile because there are no credible constitutional or political mechanisms to put them into practice and autocrats can easily politicize institutions such as constitutional courts, turning them into paper pass offices. And there are no secondary enforcement mechanisms. China does not have a free press or organized opposition. If a rule becomes uncomfortable, as in the case of the presidential term limit for Xi, it can be changed without much difficulty.
While tinkering with institutional rules and norms can be good for autocrats, it is not necessarily good for their regimes. The CCP’s experience under Mao’s leadership proves this. Free from any institutional limitations, Mao launched into endless purges and led the party from disaster to disaster, leaving behind an ideologically exhausted and economically failed regime.
Deng understood that a rules-based system was essential to prevent this disastrous experience from happening again. However, his personal interests got the better of his convictions and the institutional building he built in the 1980s turned out to be little more than a house of cards. The confirmation of Xi expected for this month is nothing more than the gust of wind that will cause the inevitable collapse.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)