Stan Grant: China's communist princeling Xi set to wield his 'fragile superpower'

Stan Grant: China's communist princeling Xi set to wield his 'fragile superpower'

Stan Grant: China's communist princeling Xi set to wield his 'fragile superpower'

Updated 6 March 2018, 19:15 AEDT

Two decades ago, the bet among China watchers was that with riches would come democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

China can appear as a paranoid regime: It represses truth and freedom; it doesn't truly trust its own people; speech is controlled by force.

Raising your voice against the Communist Party is likely to see you locked up.

I experienced this first hand in a decade of reporting the country on and off for CNN.

My crew and I were "detained" (intercepted and held by police); on several occasions roughed up by plain-clothed government thugs.

In one incident, our car was rammed to force us off the road on our way to a regional airport; later we were forcibly held while trying to board a plane. My family was often followed, my young son questioned by police about my movements.

Our CNN broadcast was routinely interrupted, the screen going to black each time a story critical of the government was aired.

The challenges of reporting in China were nothing compared to those brave people who risked all to speak up.

China's soft underbelly

For all its remarkable success, China is a country with a soft underbelly; the heavy hand of the state masks a lack of confidence and self-doubt.

It is wrestling with economic reforms which have made the country rich, while trying to keep a lid on political freedom.

Chinese leaders are mindful of the fall of the Soviet Union: Xi Jinping believes the Soviet leaders were "not man enough" to defend communism.

In China, the party jails dissidents while stubbing out any number of small-scale protests that threaten to erupt.

For a powerful, emerging country undergoing an economic miracle, it often seems afraid of its own shadow.

China watcher Susan Shirk, in her 2008 book dubbed the country "the fragile superpower". China, she wrote, was "strong abroad but weak at home".

Shirk said the regime lacked legitimacy, and she feared that it could "behave rashly in a crisis with Japan or Taiwan and bring it into military conflict with the United States".

The stakes are higher now.

The fault lines have deepened and widened in the decade since she wrote that.

China's claims on the disputed islands of the South China Sea and its increasing militarisation has the region on alert.

Add to that a nuclear armed North Korea — at times dubbed a virtual client state of China — and it is clear why some analysts have referred to Asia as a "tinderbox".

The party leads them all

Shirk was remarkably prescient.

She saw a country under pressure: growing inequalities at home; tensions with the United States; rural unrest; government corruption.

Shirk feared a rise of nationalism: potentially a tiger by the tail.

On the one hand nationalism could be fanned by the government to win legitimacy but also just as possibly turned against the party by an angry population.

As she wrote: "The Party's authority is gradually declining … when a leader feels insecure, he tightens control."

Shirk was writing about China's then-president, Hu Jintao, but those words could even more readily apply to Xi Jinping.

Mr Hu was a colourless leader, a technocrat content to manage China's growth but criticised for not going faster on reform.

Mr Xi is the opposite. He is a man who drapes himself in China's history; who dons old-style Mao suits and talks of his "China Dream".

He speaks regularly about the "hundred years of humiliation", reminding the Chinese people of when they were dominated by foreign powers.

He has used an anti-corruption campaign to imprison potential rivals; and writers, artists, lawyers and other critics languish behind bars.

Mr Xi is a product of the Communist Party, what is called a "princeling": the son of a revolutionary hero.

He has sought to return the party to the centre of Chinese life. Last year he told a party conference: "Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west, the party leads them all."

China's 'ferocious nationalism'

China scholars Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson in their recent book China Matters talk about a "ferocious nationalism", where anti-Western voices are now mainstream.

Now, Mr Xi is set to tighten his grip on power with the National People's Congress — China's version of parliament — set to rubber stamp a move to lift the two-term limit on the country's presidency.

Mr Xi could become leader for life.

The Economist magazine has already dubbed Mr Xi the most powerful leader in the world, and he is widely seen as a strongman to rival China's revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong.

In its latest edition, The Economist says the power grab means that China has now "stepped from autocracy into dictatorship".

The magazine says "the West's 25-year bet on China has failed".

The bet was that with riches would come democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

Now, Mr Xi touts the "China Dream" — tighter controls at home, a powerful military, and expansive economic reach.

Journalist and author Richard MacGregor, now Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute, wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal that "China is promoting its system as an alternative to Western democracy".

MacGregor says Mr Xi is promoting "the idea that authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies".

China is already building its network. It is pumping a trillion dollars into overseas markets with its Belt and Road Initiative, a scheme to develop China's western region, but one that — as The Economist points out — "also creates a Chinese-funded web of influence".

Mr Xi offers the world another model, just as democracy is under strain — some say even retreat — in the West.

Freedom House, which measures the spread and strength of democracy globally, says democratic values and fair elections have worsened in each of the past 12 years.

The West is at risk of surrendering its greatest strength at a time when China is emerging at its most powerful with its most dominant leader in nearly half a century.

Xi a man obsessed with power

Can Mr Xi pull it off? A strong economy; military might; increasing influence abroad; a champion of global trade but authoritarian rule at home.

There are those who predict the collapse of China. They fear a debt-induced economic freefall that destroys the Communist Party rule.

Others see the weakness in Mr Xi himself, a man obsessed with power abandoning a system of collective rule and who now risks becoming an isolated emperor.

The journal Foreign Affairs warned last year that Mr Xi as "chairman of everything" could create a bottleneck where "the consolidation of power into the hands of one individual means that decisions will be more authoritative and there will be fewer of them".

It also potentially limits Mr Xi's room to move: In the face of any potential conflict, how could Mr Xi be seen to back down? A strongman leader cannot show any sign of weakness.

Without any leadership succession there is also the possibility of coup or violent overthrow from frustrated power-hungry future rivals.

As the Brookings Institution pointed out recently:

"Others may see Xi's reversal of constitutional constraints on term limits as heralding a return to an era of vicious power struggles — a zero-sum-game in which they will also ruthlessly engage in the years to come."

Remember Susan Shirk's warnings about the "insecure leader" who "tightens control".

Perhaps we are already seeing that; like Chairman Mao, Mr Xi may come to suspect and fear those around him.

The again, Shirk may be wrong: The fragility may not be China's — ultimately, it may be ours in the West.

Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.