China

China and Xi Challenge the World's Constitutions

An authoritarian government that runs smoothly looks like a viable option. Unless it falters.

Get used to that face.

Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

The most important constitutional amendment of 2017 isn’t to the constitution of a country: It’s the amendment approved Tuesday to the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, which enshrines President Xi Jinping’s “philosophy” alongside the thought of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

China's Xi Jinping Consolidates His Power

Talk about a sign of the times. Around the world, from Poland to Spain to Turkey, Israel, India and the U.S., constitutional democracy is undergoing a stress test. Buffeted by the forces of nationalism and populism, democratic institutions are struggling. Meanwhile, China, which doesn’t practice constitutional democracy or aspire to it, is trying to demonstrate that it can structure a legitimate government by evolving its own authoritarian structures of control. It’s a risky process, to be sure. But, from the outside, it seems to be proceeding successfully -- and deepening the challenge to constitutional democracy.

China has its own constitution, but it matters less for governance than the party’s constitution. That’s because de facto power rests entirely with the party and its leadership. The Communist Party Congress, which takes place every five years and is now winding up, is the venue in which the structure of Chinese government is made public -- to the extent it ever is in a system notable for its opacity.

The new amendment elevates what it calls “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics.” Behind this mouthful of words is a twofold message: Xi is a historic, epoch-defining leader on par with Mao and Deng, and he’s not planning to fade into oblivion after his 10-year term comes to an end.

The second part of this message has major constitutional significance for how power transitions occur and are going to occur in China. Since Deng stepped back from political life, China (read: the party) has undergone two highly significant transitions, each separated by a decade. In each instance, generational leaders stepped back from power, making way for younger men (and so far it has been all men).

The process wasn’t as smooth as clockwork. Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, maintained one of his posts and a good deal of influence for a few years after his formal retirement as president. Yet the basic structure of the transition was visible to the public.

RELATED: What Xi Can Learn From Deng

This transition structure represented a new, distinctively Chinese Communist answer to the greatest single problem confronting any polity: how to transfer power peacefully and stably. Monarchy usually does it by a system of identifiable heirs. Democracy does it by elections. Autocracies struggle mightily, often experiencing coups as transition looms.

The Chinese transitional structure has been an extraordinary success, measured by the standards of authoritarian governments. During the period covered by the post-Deng governments, now a bit more than 25 years, depending on how you count, China has experienced spectacular, unprecedented economic growth. That the party has smoothly maintained power during such an era of societal transformation is a fact of historical importance.

Xi has been signaling for years that he is in the process of changing how power transitions in China, and the new amendment is simply the most formal recognition of that change. From a power-sharing, consensus-driven approach, the Communist Party under Xi is circling back to the model of single-leader dominance that characterized it under Mao and Deng.

The fate of governance in China under this back-to-the-future form of governance remains very much in question. On the one hand, consolidating power in a single leader makes some things easier -- like fighting corruption. In a consensus-based system, no one leader has the incentive or capacity to push out others who are corrupt. Consequently, everyone in a leadership position has an incentive to steal what he can for himself and his family.

It’s therefore no coincidence that Xi has made anti-corruption his signature issue. Doubtless he thinks corruption represented the single greatest threat to the party’s legitimacy -- a view that’s very probably correct. By addressing that threat, Xi is improving the party’s prospects for continued authority.

Yet when it comes to economic reforms, a single-leader system is less conducive to experimentation. Multiple leaders can share credit, but they can also share blame. Xi has no such advantage, and it therefore shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s been less open to experimental market reforms than his predecessors. If experiments go awry, he will be blamed.

The greatest worry of the single-leader approach is that it raises the dangers and costs of stable transition. Autocratic leaders don’t like to groom successors, who may get impatient and try to displace their former patrons.

By placing himself so explicitly alongside Mao and Deng, Xi is saying that great leader dominance is the true historical norm for the party. He’s turning his immediate predecessors into transitional figures, rather than the shapers of the new normal.

Globally, almost no country is directly copying the Chinese system of government. But China’s successes are one important reason that constitutional democracy no longer seems like an inevitable or necessary form of government.

How China fares under Xi’s new dispensation thus has major consequences for constitutional democracy around the world. But perhaps most important, China will no longer be able offer an alternative solution to the authoritarian transition problem -- at least not until Xi steps back from power, which isn’t going to be anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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