Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future, by Chun Han Wong (Avid Reader Press, 416 pp., $30)
Despite the impression given by the title of this remarkable book by Wall Street Journal staff writer Chun Han Wong, the reader will learn nothing here of China’s future. The author’s thesis is, in effect, that China is completely unpredictable precisely because of its regime and of the absolute concentration of power in the hands of a single person, Xi Jinping. The author confesses as well that, after spending five years in China and conducting extensive research, he does not know how the Chinese government makes decisions, who makes them, or what principles or strategies guide it. Everything comes down to Xi Jinping, who himself is vague concerning his ideology and his intentions. Xi’s motto is “the Chinese dream,” which tells us little; his ideology is supposedly Marxism, which, for him and for China generally, has long been little more than a contentless slogan. Marxism is what Xi says it is, and the Chinese dream is Xi’s dream. This person who, it seems, decides everything in Beijing remains impenetrable, despite Chun Han’s investigative efforts.
I recall the analysis of Western diplomats and commentators in China when Xi arrived at the summit of power. It was explained to us then that he had been governor of the province of Fujian, the most open in China to the West. His family had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution orchestrated by Mao Zedong; therefore, Xi would promote tolerance and some form of democracy. What has happened is exactly the opposite. No one foresaw that Xi would have no other goal than to exercise absolute power by any means, including technical means unused by or unavailable to his predecessors, such as keeping electronic files on the whole population and pursuing permanent behavioral control via spying on social networks and using facial-recognition technology.
Chun Han’s book thus turns our thoughts inevitably to Orwell’s 1984. Xi has produced the totalitarian nightmare that Orwell imagined. This outcome reminds me further of Machiavelli’s advice to the Florentine prince on how to seize and hold on to power: above all, ignore morality. Morality, Machiavelli wrote, is good for controlling the people, but useless for the powerful. Similarly, Marxism, as Xi defines it from one day to the next, is the pseudo-ideology that makes it possible to eliminate all dissent and all competition. Continuing to invoke Marxism to repress all deviation from the line that he alone fixes, Xi invokes a so-called struggle against corruption. In the name of this struggle, Xi continually eliminates all potential rivals. It is well known that Chinese leaders and their families are extremely well off, but Xi alone decides whether their fortunes result from corruption or from the spirit of enterprise.
Thus, we may analyze Xi’s regime as a kind of slipknot that gets tighter every day. The expulsion of foreign journalists, beginning with Chun Han, was just one step in this long strangling of every form of individual freedom.
Xi alone decides, but he does not govern alone. Chun Han describes how the Communist Party, which is everywhere and controls everything, has become a vast bureaucracy with no other ideology than obedience to Xi and execution of his orders and whims. Does this quasi-totalitarian system at least produce positive results for the population? This is doubtful, as we see from the catastrophic management of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, the decline in production, the failure of external projects under the name of “the New Silk Road,” China’s growing diplomatic isolation in Asia, and the incarceration of the Uighur population for its failure to support the regime. For Chun Han, however—and this is his central thesis—the regime’s fundamental weakness is its concentration of power in the hands of a dictator for life. If he dies, then what? No one knows, since Xi has made sure that he has no successor and, in fact, has eliminated anything resembling a constitution or the rule of law. Because of Xi’s unlimited power, China has become a giant with feet of clay.
Chun Han, who concentrates on the mechanism by which Xi has seized power, does not tell us what the Chinese themselves think of all this. No one can know. Having lived in China, I can offer my own hypothesis, which is that the people will accommodate themselves to the regime, whatever its name, as long as it provides civil peace. Civil war, even more than poverty, is the people’s main nightmare. This is understandable, given China’s turbulent history.
How should we in the West conduct ourselves in the face of this new, unpredictable empire? It would be prudent to prepare for all eventualities. Xi is capable of anything. But since vanity is obviously his psychological motor, provocation would be useless or dangerous. We have everything to gain from respectful relations with the Chinese people and their leaders, and even from exchanges that are beneficial to us. At the same time, we must be ready to confront irrationally aggressive moves. Reason is on our side; let us not depart from it.
Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images