As China is buffeted by economic crisis, President Xi Jinping is facing growing opposition. Take, for example, his upcoming World War II Victory Day parade. The celebration was supposed to be a confident display of Xi’s successful consolidation and expansion of Chinese power, but it is quickly becoming a national joke. From the Wall Street Journal:
The damage to Mr. Xi’s image is evident in social media comments mocking the parade. A cartoon, widely circulated online, showed haggard-looking stock market investors marching in the procession.“The bears are roaring! The bulls are fleeing!” begins a satirical version of a famous anti-Japanese war song. “This summer’s only memories will be violent rain, violent losses and violent explosions.”The parade will also show how Mr. Xi’s assertive approach to territorial disputes in Asia has antagonized the U.S. and many of its allies. No major Western nations are sending leaders or troops to the event.
Xi and China face some real issues. The country’s shift away from the old economic system of easy credit and export-fueled growth means lots of pain for many powerful interest groups—and, inevitably, an overall slowing of the blistering rates of growth in China’s recent past. But it is a shift that must be made, and a ship the size of China doesn’t change course without a strong hand at the wheel, especially when the new course will mean economic pain in the short term. Xi, therefore, has been working systematically to gather enough power into his own hands to ram through the necessary changes to reshape China’s economy.
To get that power he has resorted to the classic methods of Communist leaders from the time of Lenin and Stalin: “anti-corruption” purges that spread terror through the bureaucrats and factions who might oppose the Leader, combined with heavy crackdowns on the intellectuals, scholars, and journalists who might otherwise be tempted to make snarky remarks about the emperor’s wardrobe. The latest of these measures is a crackdown on stock analysts. According to the BBC, Chinese officials have punished 197 individuals for spreading rumors about the stock market crash and the recent massive chemical explosions in an industrial area of Tianjin. Xinhua, China’s state news agency, announced that one analyst admitted he “wrote fake report on Chinese stock market based on hearsay and his own subjective guesses without conducting due verifications.” (Imagine! Sharing your opinions! One eagerly awaits news that China will now prosecute all the rumormongers whose unfounded opinions and shoddy analysis helped drive the markets up.)
Humor aside, this overall strategy has worked, up to a point. Xi is unquestionably the strongest leader in China since the days of Deng Xiaoping and maybe even since Mao. But the power comes with a price tag attached—two price tags, actually.
First, power comes at the expense of responsibility. Now that Xi is as close to all-powerful as human beings get outside the city limits of Pyongyang, anything that goes wrong looks to hundreds of millions of Chinese like it’s his fault. The stock market goes down: blame Xi. The government’s measures to stop the decline fail: blame Xi. A warehouse blows up near residential neighborhoods in a major city: blame Xi, again.
Second, his growing power comes at the price of more opposition. Xi’s centralization of power scares a lot of party officials into compliance, but not everybody is ready to jump on the bandwagon. And with the purge creeping closer to powerful former leaders every day, the very success of Xi’s strategy is creating a determined opposition who are beginning to think that either Xi goes down or they go to jail—or worse. (China still executes criminals.)
What Xi may not have counted on is that the two problems can interact: The opposition can use the failures and shocks that the public already blames on Xi against him. That seems to be happening now. Xi’s many enemies are looking for ways to use China’s economic and political problems to mobilize opposition to his power grab.
Meanwhile, there are all the people who hate and fear even the good reforms Xi wants to make—and that for China’s sake need to be made. They are a significant crowd: the heads and managers of the giant, no-good State-Owned Enterprises that are dependent on cheap credit and bailouts; the millions of Chinese who like the “iron rice bowls” those enterprises still provide; local party officials who love the old system of bribery and collusion that has enriched millions of crooked Commies from one end of China to the other; all the owners and managers of the companies, state-owned or not, who benefitted hugely from, and are still tightly tied to, the old “invest for export” growth model; the bankers and private lenders who loaned heavily to companies and local governments in the belief that the good times would roll on forever and who face ruin if the economic shift destroys (as it must in most cases) the business model of their indebted clients.
None of this is a recipe for political serenity or economic success, but this is what China now faces and what Xi must overcome.