China doesn’t need democracy, it needs a strong leader like Xi Jinping

Will Donald Trump’s presidential legacy reflect the success or failure of American democracy? Pessimists can argue that the election of such a polarising figure who routinely ignores established norms and espouses the nation’s worst racist, sexist, and xenophobic impulses is indicative of the death of American democracy.

Optimists can argue instead that Trump’s degradation of democratic norms will lead Americans to appreciate and hold on to them more dearly in his wake. It is unclear even now which outcome is more likely, but it is difficult to find the state of the nation encouraging today.

Even after the tenuous cessation of a 35-day shutdown, the government, and seemingly the nation as whole, is still divided, as much over policy as it is over ideals for its future. 

China lacks such division over government policy, for obvious reasons; Xi Jinping’s hold over China is so strong and disciplined that there is virtually no acceptable room for debate or venue to voice dissent. Herein lies another key difference between the US and China, and between the democratic and the authoritarian: however much Trump may be despised by a significant portion of the American public, they are at least able to track, analyse and assess how it was that he came to power. In China, however, Xi’s rise is just as big a question mark to Chinese citizens as it is to foreign observers.

Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to meet nearly every Chinese leader since the 1930s (with the exception of Mao Zedong), including Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei, and more contemporary figures such as Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and Xi. As individuals, they frequently came off as kind, caring and intelligent. From afar, as I watched them govern, I would view them in a different light, as dictators. This is the reality of leadership in China.

Previously, emperors in China were said to rule because of their “Mandate of Heaven”. When Mao seized power, it was clear that he had won his position through revolution. Yet the selection of Xi, like the selection of his predecessors since Mao’s death in 1976, is cloaked in secrecy.

Even those in the US who question whether, and to what degree, Russian interference influenced the 2016 election will concede that, based on US law, Trump is a legally elected president. These results are publicly available, and have been analysed repeatedly by the media, politicians and the American public. But China lacks such luxuries. Its citizens have no official records to turn to for an explanation of why and how Xi was chosen.

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When Xi was named vice-president in 2008 and the presumptive successor to Hu, it came as a surprise to many China watchers. Yes, Xi had a strong background in the Communist Party and held the distinction of being a “princeling”, a son of a first-generation party member. Yet there were many other senior officials with similar credentials who were arguably better positioned for leadership positions.

Under Xi’s leadership, China has adopted a more aggressive stance internationally, imprisoned thousands of party members on corruption charges, and removed constitutional limitations on presidential term limits. Amid these developments, the question of how Xi was chosen again comes to mind. The short answer is, we can only guess.

Following 70 years of rule in the People’s Republic of China, authoritarianism has arguably only grown stronger, even as its people have become increasingly aware of alternative forms of government. The current generation in China has the opportunity for more exposure to the outside world than their parents, through the internet, social media, and the lifting of many restrictions on trade, travel and student exchanges.

Yet alongside these developments, Xi’s government has found ways to tighten his grip on power and to close potential forums of dissent. Through the anti-corruption campaign, Xi quiets opposition and strengthens his monopoly on power. By abolishing presidential term limits, Xi destroyed what was arguably the only check the Chinese people had against their government and the rise of another tyrant like Mao. Passed by the puppet state parliament, this critical change that will affect future generations of Chinese came without their awareness, debate or consent.

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Does it have to be this way? Could China elect its leaders democratically like we in the US do, where even those who oppose Trump largely concede that he was elected by the people’s will?

Putting aside the question of whether China even has the institutional capacity to support a democracy, or any indications of a democratic reform mindset, at either the grass-roots or government levels, it doesn’t seem that the nation could support a democracy. China lacks the ideological framework under which democracy could spontaneously develop or be fostered. Confucianism is inherently undemocratic; it encourages obedience, not freedom or personal liberty.

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Most strikingly, China lacks any history with democracy or true representative government and the rule of law. Prior to the establishment of the Republic of China, China was ruled for thousands of years by successive dynasties. Even the Republic of China could not be categorised as democratic, as the people had no say in choosing its leadership. Further, it did not establish definitive control over vast swathes of Chinese territory.

Instead, many areas of China descended into rule by warlords following the Qing collapse. China’s large population, stretched over a wide area separated by geological, societal and climatic boundaries, fosters a government that rules through authoritarian means, where power is taken by those with the strength to do so, not because of the people’s will.

Understanding these realities of leadership in China, it becomes apparent that regardless of how Xi was selected, he is the leader that China needs right now. The crime and corruption that accompanied reform in China threatened to collapse the government in on itself. Further, with the US president leaning increasingly towards hawkish China policies, China cannot afford weak leadership.

At this critical junction, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Xi is the right person to lead China.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation