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Delinking political and economic liberalism

Chinese President Xi Jinping heads the world’s second largest military and economic power, and calls the shots in the country. The recent amendment to China’s constitution that states that a person may serve as president for an unspecified number of terms – even for life – will make him more powerful.

To be sure, the amendment is not person-specific. Unless repealed, it will benefit Xi’s successors as well. At the same time, however, there is no gainsaying that the amendment has primarily been made in his interest. The cap on the president’s number of terms was not mentioned in China’s constitution when it was drawn up and approved in 1982. A decade later, the constitution was amended to set a limit on the president’s tenure as part of the efforts to make the political system less authoritarian.

The amendment does not make Xi irremovable, but enables him to retain office beyond 2023 when he was set to retire. Xi is not only the head of the state, he is also the general secretary of the mighty Communist Party of China (CPC). The party’s constitution, however, does not set a limit on the tenure of its leader, which means the incumbent may continue to hold the office indefinitely. Being the vanguard of the revolution, the CPC, as was the case in the former USSR, is the most powerful political entity in China. The party effectively controls both executive and parliament. Therefore, the man who is in charge of the CPC rules the country. Having secured himself as president, and legally not bound to vacate the party office by a particular date, Xi will henceforth be in a position to lead all state institutions by the nose.

But power is paradoxical in character. The more a person has it, the more insecure they feel, needing an even greater power to satisfy their increased sense of insecurity. In this way, the power-insecurity spiral goes on. Thus, in the months to come, Xi is likely to arrogate to himself more powers to consolidate his position. His thoughts or political ideology is already enshrined in the CPC’s constitution, which means it would be binding on both the party and the government. This will elevate his stature and make opposition to him exceedingly difficult.

Not surprisingly, Xi is being compared to Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China as well as the country’s undisputed leader until his death in 1976. The flip side is that within the country few would dare to put the government’s policies under question. The rulers themselves will be the judge of how they govern.

Xi’s success in having made himself virtually unassailable must have whetted the appetite of many a world leader. Donald Trump remarked in a lighter vein: “President for life… I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” Americans, not to speak of the rest of the world, will simply shudder at the thought of having someone like Trump as president for life. Such covetous remarks and dreadful thoughts aside, the larger significance of the amendment to the Chinese constitution is that it questions the notion that economic and political liberalism go hand in hand and forcefully present an alternative governance model to the world.

China represents one of the two major experiments of states fashioned on Marxism. The other was located in the Eastern bloc of the former USSR. And like the USSR, the Chinese experiment might also have ended up in fiasco. However, in the beginning of the 1980s, China under the stewardship of Deng Xiaoping kicked off economic reforms of far-reaching significance. Though the state remained the major player on the economic scene, the economy opened up to private businesses at home and foreign competition internationally. The changed economic system was a blend of a centrally planned economy and market-oriented policies, and has been referred to as market socialism or state capitalism. For the first time since 1949, the Chinese accepted that ‘to be rich is glorious’.

Significantly enough, in the sphere of politics, China remained remarkably conservative. Far removed from the liberal political ideals of multi-party democracy and individualism, China remains a one-party state with the CPC governing with the proverbial iron hand.

The economic reforms, though, did wonders, making China a shining star on the international horizon. It is the world’s largest exporter of merchandise goods ($2.1 trillion), the second largest trading nation ($3.7 trillion), and the globe’s second-largest economy ($11.9 trillion GDP). China’s per-capita income has shot up to $8,123 from a paltry $195 in 1980.

The West, particularly the US, saw China’s sudden economic strides first with satisfaction, then amazement and then apprehension. The West drew satisfaction from the fact that China shunned socialism and embarked on capitalism, and so it had no alternative economic doctrine to espouse. The West was amazed, because the state, and not the market, had been the author of the economic miracle. This runs counter to the liberal view that government intervention in economy makes things worse.

The West was apprehensive of the rise of China since the Asian giant seemed capable of challenging their economic and political domination as well as their assumptions – that economic liberalisation is not possible without the opening up of the political system and social milieu – on which domination was postulated. The developing world has seen in China a role model of economic transformation.

As a rule, political changes generally lag behind economic changes. However, the former do tend to follow and finally match the latter. The West, therefore, pinned its hopes on the relationship between political and economic changes and expected that the opening up of the economy in China would create an irresistible demand for the opening up of the political system. The West was not altogether mistaken. In China, such a demand was forcefully made in 1989 – but was put down by the state.

However, the West erred in supposing that China would face a sustained demand of change in government, which would compel the authorities to cave in. Although in recent years, the Chinese have increasingly spoken against the state of human rights and political liberties in their country, such voices have not been strong enough to force a fundamental political change. To make matters worse, in the eye of the exponents of liberalism and in the wake of increased economic prosperity, the Chinese political system has stiffened up. Under President Xi in particular, the government has focused on eradicating corruption rather than political restructuring which has served to make it more authoritarian.

How long will the Chinese leadership successfully disregard the link between economic and political liberalism is difficult to predict, but it seems that they believe they can continue to do so for long. Whether one likes it or not, at present, it’s their view that matters.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H Zaidi, "Delinking political and economic liberalism," The News. 2018-03-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Political changes , Political domination , Economy , Democracy , Corruption , President Xi Jinping , Mao Zedong , China , USSR , CPC