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Xi sets China on a collision course with history

The Harsher Kind of Dictatorship

If Mr. Xi remains for life, as many now expect, this will only formalize a process he has been taking for years: power Chinese institutions to take away and for themselves accumulate.

It helps to divide the dictatorships into two categories: institutional and personal. The first works through committees, bureaucracies and something like consensus. The second leads through a single charismatic leader.

China, once an almost Socratic ideal of the first model, is increasingly a mixture of both. Mr. Xi has become "the dominant actor in financial regulation and environmental policy" and economic policy, according to an article by Barry Naughton, a China scholar at the University of California, San Diego.


Mr. Xi in Beijing, in October.

Jason Lee / Reuters

Mr. Xi has also carried out far-reaching anti-corruption campaigns that disproportionately adjusted members of rival political factions, strengthened themselves, but undermined China's consensus-oriented approach.

This version of authoritarianism, according to a study by Erica Frantz, a scholar, is more difficult to uphold authoritarianism at Michigan State University. "In general, personalization is not a good thing," said Ms. Frantz.

The dark sides are often subtle. Domestic politics tends to be more volatile and governs erratic and foreign policy more aggressively, studies find. The biggest risk, however, is the succession.

"There is a question I like to ask Russia specialists:" If Putin has a heart attack tomorrow, what happens? "Said Milan Svolik, political scientist at Yale University." "Nobody knows."

"In China, the answer has been very clear so far," he said. A dead leader would have left behind a set of widely agreed rules for what to do, and there would be a political consensus on how to do it.

"This change seems to disturb that," said Svolik. By defying the norms of succession, Mr. Xi has shown that any rule could be broken. "The key norm, once that's over, seems like an option," Mr. Svolik said.

Group purges risk shifting the political norms from consensus to zero-sum and sometimes life or death, power struggles] And Mr. Xi undermines the institutionalism that made China's authoritarianism unusually resilient. Collective leadership and orderly succession, both introduced after Maos Zedong's catastrophic term of office, allowed a relatively effective and stable government.

Ken Opalo, a political scientist at Georgetown University, wrote, according to China's announcement, that "orderly transitions are perhaps the most important indicator of policy development." Lifelong presidencies, he said, "freeze certain elite groups from power and incentives for those in power

What Does Authoritarian Legitimacy Do

In 2005, Bruce Gilley, a political scientist, wrestled with one of the key questions for any government – is it seen by its citizens as legitimate? – In a numerical result, which is determined by sophisticated measurements of the behavior of these citizens.

China, according to his study, enjoyed greater legitimacy than many democracies and any other non-democracy except Azerbaijan. He attributed economic growth, nationalist sentiment and collective leadership.

When Mr. Gilley reviewed his metrics in 2012, he found that China's points had dropped.

His data showed the lead of an army that left China long behind system. Known as the "modernization theory", once citizens reach a certain level of prosperity, they demand public accountability, freedom of expression and a role in government. Authoritarian states that can not meet these demands, either transition to democracy or collapse amid riots.

This challenge, which is surpassed by any other modern authoritarian regime except those rich enough to buy their citizens, requires new sources of legitimacy. Economic growth is slowing down. Nationalism, once effective in rally support, is increasingly difficult to control and prone to setbacks. The demands of citizens are growing.

Instead, China promotes "ideology and collective social values" that equate government with Chinese culture, according to research by Chinese scholars Heike Holbig and Gilley. Patriotic songs and textbooks have multiplied. So we have mentions of "Xi Jinping Thought," now an official ideology.

Mr. Xi's personalization of power seems to be borrowed from both the old strong men and the populists of the new style rising in the democracies of the world.

But in this way, it is a risky and partial solution to China's needs. A personality cult can last for a few years or maybe decades, but not more.

Strongman on the rise

& # 39; accountability without democracy & # 39;

China is experimenting with a form of authoritarianism that, if successful, could close the seemingly unbridgeable gap between what citizens demand and what they can afford.

Authoritarian governments are by definition not responsible. But some cities and small cities in China open up limited, controlled channels of public participation. For example, a program called "Mayor's Mailboxes" allows citizens to voice claims or complaints, and rewards officials who undertake.

The program, a study found, improves the quality of governance and the satisfaction of citizens with the state. Nobody would call these cities democratic. But it felt enough like democracy to satisfy some.

This type of innovation began with local communities that expressed their will through limited but persistent opposition and protest. Lily L. Tsai, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called her "accountability without democracy."

Now some officials are adapting this once-resisting trend to conscious practices. Their goal is not liberalization, but resistance – to "dissatisfaction dissipate the population without destabilizing the system as a whole," write the Chinese scholars Vivienne Shue and Patricia M. Thornton in a new book on governance in China [19659036] The Most Chinese, it seems, hope will accept authoritarian rule if they at least provide some of the benefits promised by democracy: moderate good governance, some responsive officials and freedom of expression within strict limits. Citizens who demand more censorship and oppression, some of the toughest in the world.

This new system could more than overcome China's conflict with the forces of history. It could be a model of authoritarianism to thrive globally. Ms. Shue and Ms. Thornton write "how non-democracies will not only survive, but succeed over time."

But Mr. Xi's power grips by undermining institutions and promoting all-or-nothing grouping, risks that make this type of innovation riskier and more difficult.

When leaders consolidate power for themselves, Ms. Frantz said, "Over time, their ability to get a good reading on the country's political climate

Such complications have Thomas Pepinsky, political scientist at Cornell University posted on Twitter: "I'm not a China expert, but centralizing power in the hands of a leader sounds most typical of a decaying authoritarian state.

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