China’s Communist Party has let the cat out of the bag. Things are so bad for their country right now that they fear the coronavirus outbreak could threaten President Xi Jinping’s grip on absolute power.
It’s possible, especially if reports about the extent of the outbreak are to be believed. (In all likelihood, the severity of the outbreak is being downplayed). American policymakers would do well to consider that a fundamental political shift may be underway in China, as thousands of Chinese continue to chafe under the increasing authoritarianism of President-for-life Xi.
And, while Xi’s fall from power would be a moral good, the question of what comes after his reign (or how Xi fights to retain power after China’s current crisis abates) is likely to be just as dangerous to the United States as the status quo.
Throughout China’s long history, the dynastic cycle has often come in waves: first a regime is given the “Mandate of Heaven.” It is the source of legitimacy. The regime then quickly engages in a campaign of national greatness and expansion. From there, however, the regime becomes corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of the people. Disunity soon follows—emanating first from the hinterlands and then from the center of power itself.
Historically, rebellions and plagues were viewed by the Chinese people as signs that the Chinese emperors of old had lost their mandate and they waited for a new, morally upright, and strong ruler to replace the emperor. Inevitably, that new regime would lose the mandate just as certainly as its predecessor did and the dynastic cycle will follow a very similar pattern.
For more than a year, rumors have swirled around China that there were rival cadres quietly forming against China’s President Xi Jinping. Since assuming power in 2012, Xi has methodically pushed out any potential alternative power centers within the Chinese Communist Party. He has expanded his control of the People’s Liberation Army while enhancing its military capabilities. Xi has been obsessed with “splittism”—Chicom-speak for political opposition—to his reign. That is why Xi’s regime has embarked upon a brutal wave of crackdowns, not only in Hong Kong, but also in Tibet and in theXinjiang Province; against the Falun Gong minority as well as against the growing Christian community in China.
It also explains why China under Xi has become much more aggressive with its neighbors. In 2017, it engaged in a long-running spat with India over their shared border. Xi has presided over a massive naval buildup that is clearly aimed not only at projecting Chinese military power deeper into the Pacific Ocean, but also at threatening Taiwan.
Xi May Be Destroying Himself
At the same time, Xi has broken nearly every standard that his predecessors had put in place as a bulwark on his power.
Usually, the party leadership operates more like a corporate board; it has a closed hierarchy that acts in tandem. Yet, Xi named himself president-for-life. This effectively ended the system that Deng Xiaoping and those who followed Mao Zedong’s rule had spent decades putting in place to ensure regime stability. Xi has aggregated an immense amount of power and used it with great brutality and efficiency against any would-be rivals.
Xi doesn’t realize he’s following China’s old dynastic cycle. Historically, whenever a dynasty loses its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, the ruler would lash out and attempt to sweep away any rebellious factions. The coronavirus is but the latest in a long line of crises facing Xi’s rule. Since Xi became absolute ruler in China, he accepted all responsibilities, blame, and rewards for whatever may happen under his long reign.
Even if the Chinese people are unable to rally against Xi en masse, other party elites might be willing to try their luck against him—especially as Xi continues to preside over an economy in severe contraction (by Chinese standards) and as the coronavirus spreads among the Chinese people. Ironically, Xi’s autocratic actions may be precipitating the very leadership crisis in Beijing that he has worked to avoid.
Don’t Break Out the Champagne Bottles Yet
Any significant leadership crisis in China could lead to devastating civil conflict. Or, it might herald yet another terrible period of disunity and warlordism (as occurred in the early 20th century, after the Qing Dynasty collapsed and before Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalists rose to power).
A leadership crisis in China, even if it did not bring about the apocalyptic scenario above, may simply empower an even worse autocrat from the party who would only add to Xi’s program of hostility toward the West.
Then again, the great dream of democracy could become a reality in China in much the same way that a semblance of capitalism became the preferred economic model there. While most political scientists believe that democracies are unlikely to wage war upon each other, democracies most certainly do compete against each other in other important domains.
A democratic and capitalistic China would be a moral good for humanity (especially the Chinese themselves) and likely would remove a critical strategic competitor from threatening the United States. But, should China retain its current technological and economic development, there is no telling how much damage in the areas of trade and economic policies that China could do to the United States.
The coronavirus outbreak and its impact on Chinese politics is probably the most important event for China since Mao’s Great Leap Forward. China’s long history indicates that there is a pattern to these events that ends with the old regime being swept away and replaced by another. Again, it is not a certainty that such a new regime would serve American national interests. It could be even more aggressive and hostile toward the West than Xi has been.
Still, President Xi’s position atop the Chinese Communist Party is threatened and there is no guarantee that what happens next will be kept away from the United States. American leaders should be planning for all contingencies and proceed with extreme caution, as things are likely to get worse before they get better in China.