China’s Xi Jingping is Trying to Combine the Invisible Hand of the Market with the Visible Hand of the Party-State

Workers repaint the Chinese Communist party flag in Jiaxing

Xi Jinping’s China is the greatest political experiment on Earth

Timothy Garton Ash writes: Can Xi do it? This is the biggest political question in the world today. “Yes, Xi can,” some tell me in Beijing. “No, he can’t,” say others. The wise know that nobody knows.

There is a great debate going on in Washington about whether the US should change its China policy in response to Beijing’s more assertive stance under President Xi Jinping. This includes the reported stationing of artillery on the extraordinary artificial islands it is building on underwater reefs in the South China Sea. It also matters to everyone everywhere whether China can sustain its economic growth as it exhausts its ready supplies of cheap labour, avoiding the traps into which some middle-income economies have stumbled. Yet even more than in other countries, the future of China’s foreign policy and its economy depend on the quality of decision-making produced by the political system. It’s the politics, stupid.


“My greatest concern flows not from the moral dictates of liberal democracy as personal preference, although it would be dishonourable to pretend that those don’t matter, but from the insights of political analysis that lead us to liberal democracy.”

By now it is relatively clear what Xi is aiming to do. He is trying to steer a complex economy and society through difficult times by top-down changes, led and controlled by a purged, disciplined and reinvigorated Leninist party. He is doing this in unprecedented conditions for such a party, consciously trying to combine the “invisible hand” of the market with the “visible hand” of the party-state.


“Insights such as this: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.’”

— James Madison, federalist paper No 51

The “great helmsman” Mao Zedong is clearly one inspiration, but the pragmatic reformer Deng Xiaoping is another. “To reignite a nation, Xi carries Deng’s torch,” declared a commentary from the official news agency Xinhua.


Photo: Reuters

Much of the reignition has so far been about establishing control over the party, state, military and what there is of civil society, after the Bo Xilai affair made apparent the internal crisis of party rule.

“Yes, dear comrades, it might be true, even though it was an American who said it.”

Yet, as a hereditary communist, the president may genuinely believe enlightened, skilful authoritarian rulers can handle things best: Lenin’s wager, but also, in different variations, Plato’s and Confucius’s.

The sinologist Ryan Mitchell notes that in a 1948 article, a veteran Chinese communist called Xi Zhongxun was quoted as saying “the most lovable qualities of us Communist party folks are devotion and sincerity”. Speaking to party members in 2013, his son, Xi Jinping, said that “leading cadres must treat the masses with devotion and sincerity”.

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“A communist regime in crisis would probably find it impossible to resist the temptation of playing the nationalist card more aggressively somewhere in its neighbourhood, building on decades of indoctrination, a selective interpretation of the recent past and a narrative of 150 years of national humiliation.”

This experiment is life-changing for the thousands of purged officials, who have disappeared into the tender embrace of the relevant party and state organs. (Being a senior Fifa official is light entertainment by comparison, even if some may miss their five-star Swiss breakfasts.)


“It’s not just the inconvenience of finding it difficult to access Gmail, Google docs and so much else on the internet. More seriously, I noticed a real nervousness among intellectuals who a few years ago were so outspoken; a sense that the boundaries of what can be said publicly are narrowing all the time.”

It is also extremely uncomfortable for those Chinese who believe in free and critical debate, independent civic initiatives and non-governmental organisations. Here I found a striking contrast with earlier visits to Beijing. Read the rest of this entry »