The recently completed onec-every-five-years Party Congress in China, which confirmed Xi Jinping for a third term as General Secretary of the party, punctuated his apparent assumption of essentially total power by humiliating his predecessor, Hu Jintao, in its final session. At the beginning, he was forced to leave the session, with two men clearly pulling on his clothing in a widely seen video to make him get up and go. It is unclear how much of this was reported to the Chinese public, but the English language Chinese media insisted that he left the meeting for health reasons. Apparently his health is not all that great, but he was not obviously immediately ill when made to leave, and he was most clearly made to leave.
So, why this humiliation? The general view is that indeed it was Xi asserting his total control very clearly to everybody in the room and more widely. Later that session pretty much all remaining allies of Hu in either the 24 member Politburo or its 7 member Standing Committee were removed and replaced by loyalists of Xi’s, with this reportedly going further and deeper than expected, although it was expected.
Reports have tried to argue that rule by Xi is a great improvement over that by Hu, with this supposedly justifying this humiliation heaped upon him. Of course, China now has a higher GDP and larger military, with deep poverty eliminated in the last decade, and many scientific achievements occurring, along with a space program happening. But pretty much all of this probably would have happened if Hu had been in power over the past decade. Growth was rapid under his rule in 2002-2012, indeed more rapid than under Xi given the slowdown in growth in the last few years. Most of these activities and trends were already well in place and ongoing under Hu. It is not clear Xi has added anything at all to any of it himself, aside from perhaps a greater acceleration of military buildup.
The latter has been accompanied by something not at all admirable, a more aggressive and hostile approach to neighboring countries. This is supposed to justify Xi’s assumption of total power and imposition of massive surveillance on citizens in a way unseen anywhere in the world ever. Fights are being picked with India, although there have been wars with India decades ago, all of which China won. The policy of expanding into the South China Sea, which international courts have ruled China does not own, was happening under Hu, but has been accelerated under Xi. Xi has also taken more direct control of Hong Kong, with the prospect that this economic golden egg is going to be severely damaged and stop producing what it did in the past, with the suppression of human rights now going on there, leaving to many fleeing. And, of course, we have seen heightened threats against Taiwan, a place that is superior in every single regard in per capita terms to the Peoples’ Republic, which seeks to control it and do to it what it is now doing to Hong Kong.
All this is being emphasized further by Xi’s first action after the Congress, to go to the Yan’an cave, a founding place of significance to the Communist Party. Xi there emphasized “arduous strruggle” as he did in his long speech at the Congress. But why should a nation not at war with neighbors and enjoying a still rapid growth into solidly middle income status, and moving into its higher levels, have to engage in “arducous struggle”? Why cannot people achieving a higher standard of living enjoy it? This is what goes on in democratic nations with high incomes. They do not threaten their neighbors and go around shutting down cities while super surveilling people. China is increasingly going on a dark path as its leader becomes a totalitarian dictator whose bad decisions will not be countered by any checks or balances by anybody. This is the phenomenon of degnerate autocracy, whose path and model is that set by Xi’s pal, V.V. Putin in Russia, with his now clearly disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
I shall note two items that have been put forward in the media with little comment or questioning as supporting the claim that Xi is somehow some improved leader over Hu. One has to do with corruption and the other has to do with income inequality. Supposedly Hu was very bad on both of these, Xi is a great improvement and a hard charging reformer on both. There is some basis for this, but it is seriously exaggerated.
The stronger case is on the matter of corruption. The pro-market and essentially capitalist reforms set in motion by Deng Xioaping did lead to the emergence of a wealthy elite, with this emergence accompanying an apparent increase in corruption. The trend to this was in place when Hu took power, and he did little to combat it. Xi very publicly engaged in an anti-corruption campaign when he took office. It has indeed led to some improvement in China’s international ranking on this matter, with China moving from being the 80th to the 66th most corrupt nation in the world according to Transparency International, over the past decade. A major problem with this campaign is that it appears to have been heavily directed at critics of Xi, thus with this campaign also being part of his consolidation of personal power. These days one must be one of his cronies to get away with being corrupt, with there still being plenty of that around.
The matter of income inequality is less clear, with a not so good story involved. When Hu took power in 2002, income inequality was rapidly increasing. He came in with a call to turn that around, and in fact he succeeded. He especially focused on the regional inequality and also the gap between the urban and rural populations. He made moves to reduce taxes on farmers, and he also introduced in 2005 and old age pension program. Richard Easterlin has documented that citizens had been becoming less happy in China up to about 2005, with this turning around then and going the other way, coinciding with these reforms implemented by Hu. As it was it still took until 2008 for aggregate inequlality to peak with a Gini coefficient around .49. It then began to decline and did so quite noticeably to about a .47 level by 2012. This decline continued for three more years after Xi replace Hu to 2015, when it bottomed out at around .45. But since then it has returned to creeping upward, getting back up to about .46 most recently. So, Xi can claim to have a lower Gini than when he started, but this masks an unfortunate turnaround with a return to a gradually increasing income inequality under his rule.
It should be noted that while Hong Kong has much greater income inequality than mainland PRC, Taiwan has much greater equality, with a Gini in the low 30s.
A final matter that cuts in several directions, has been Xi’s crackdown on high flying CEOs of major corporations. Arguably this is a move to increase income and wealth equality, although as noted already, income inequality is actually increasing again. It may also be directed at possible corruption, although it is not clear that all of those Xi is attacking are all that corrupt. It seems more that he wants to squash them as possible alternative power centers, and indeed a curious fact about the most recent Party Congress was the much greater absence of any executives from major private companies in China. The Party is clearly emphasizing a return to more of a command and state-centered mode of operation in the economy. This may not pay off so well, as many of these CEOs are leaders of the highest tech companies in the nation. Going after them may aggravate the clear slowdown in economic growth that is happening, with this also being driven by ongoing lockdowns that increase social control, as well as the collapse of the real estate sector in China. Xi Jinping’s assumption of total power for an unclear time in the future may in fact lead to economic and social stagnation in China, with all this to be distracted from by calls for “arduous struggle” and aggressive actions towards neighboring powers. This is a sad and disturbing outcome.
Frankly, Hu Jintao looks to have been a more humanitarian and in many ways more effective leader than his successor. He did not deserve the humiliation he received.