The true history of the liberal systems that are now the political hallmarks of the West actually started off with a massive concentration of power. In the 17th and 18th centuries, England and France first massed all the power in the hands of a top leader, Oliver Cromwell or Louis XIV, taking it away from aristocrats who had dominated the court and shared the rule with the king basically since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
The new guiding authorities were seeking to make their states more effective by introducing officials directly dependent on the ruler, in a move inspired by the Chinese model, as presented by the work of the Jesuits, and a new business class, the bourgeoisie.
The new officials were to become the civil servants who were to mark any modern state thence; the bourgeoisie with its entrepreneurship was to become the engine of growth for modern states. With their new emphasis on personal merit, both replaced the emphasis on birthright of the nobility, either by being effective in the administration (the official) or able to make money (the bourgeois). Eventually their power became so effective and strong that they replaced the absolute power of the king. This occurred smoothly in England, where the king slowly distributed authority, and in fact there is still a monarch; or violently, like in France, where in 1789 the new businesspeople toppled the king.
Is the same happening also in China? And what will be the final outcome?
A very important element, which could have positive or negative consequences, emerging from this plenary session is the strengthening of the party’s role. The distinction between party and state was the theoretical result of the 1987 party congress. Then the army was at the top, the real last source of authority, somehow outside the power of the party.
Then a curious government structure for the country also emerged. The party had a standing politiburo of five people (led by Zhao Ziyang, also vice chairman of the military commission). However, chairman of the military commission, Deng Xiaoping, and the second vice chairman of the commission and president of the state, Yang Shangkun, were not among those five.
China in fact created a kind of bizarre tripartite power that had its summit in the military commission, where the party secretary and the president of the republic were vice chairmen. But the structure lent itself to ambiguity, because the congress reaffirmed the party’s ultimate leadership role. That is, as secretary, Zhao could have power over Deng and Yang.
In addition, the structure had other bizarre mechanisms. There was a commission of veterans (eighty-year-old veterans of the revolution), led by Deng, who had directing but not decision-making duties. However, if the standing politburo was faced with a difficult decision or a stalemate, it could call for an extended meeting with the veterans and they would prevail over the five.
The structure was used to introduce elements of dialectics that would have prevented falling into the mistakes of the Maoist concentration of power, defeated just a decade before, and would have left the veterans in charge. However, given their age, they would not have been involved in the heavy-duty daily management, which was entrusted to the younger ones.
It was a shaky architecture that did not imitate the division of Western power, still considered too indigestible and insecure for the Chinese Communist Party, which wanted to maintain its power and political stability in the country. Nevertheless, it winked at the concerns of the tripartition of Western powers.
It was a jam of unstable interests and needs that would have led to the Tiananmen crisis just two years later in 1989, and would have marked the growing confusion of the factual feudalization of authority in China to date.
In this Zhao Ziyang identified a possible solution. In the summer of 1988, Zhao launched a shock economic reform: he suddenly liberalized all prices. The reform led to a huge inflationary crisis, the shops emptied, and the leaders were terrified. Price reform was stopped and the economic portfolio was removed from Zhao. In the autumn of 1988, Zhao and some of his loyalists theorized about a centralization of powers, the theory of neo-authoritarianism, which then had the young Wang Huning (today in the standing politburo) as one of his prophets. The neo-authoritarians theorized that the power should go all in the hands of the party secretary and the latter would then distribute it in democratic reforms after applying the necessary structural reforms.
The theory was criticized by liberals who did not trust there would be a democratization after the concentration of power, and by the old leaders, who were afraid of their power being stolen. The reform was stranded, but for 30 years remained a shadow in the party.
The Tiananmen crisis was born from these paradoxes: was the last decision made by the party (i.e. Zhao) or the army (i.e. Deng)? The paradox itself marked the power struggles of the 1990s with party secretary Jiang Zemin, effectively parachuted in from the outside, trying to make space between the power of the veterans, that of the existing groups, and that of the military.
The paradox was not resolved, but rather it was exalted with the party congress of 2002. Then the standing politburo was extended to nine people, and Jiang held the presidency of the military commission and formally remained the number 1, though he retired after two years.
In addition, the nine had divisions of specific competences, each of which was well defined, and when there were ambiguities on “boundaries” of competences, a discussion opened up.
Furthermore, retired leaders had the power to address and counsel—all without any transparency or control. In the end, nobody understood who commanded seriously and who took responsibility.
Every decision became a laborious transition back and forth through the corridors of Chinese power. Here the only fuel became the exchange of favors or “donations.”
Thus the control of state-owned enterprises, reformed at the end of the 1990s and with great autonomy over their finances, became central. The money of state-owned enterprises financed political ambitions and vice versa.
The case of Zhou Yongkang is a classic. Head of the largest and most successful state enterprise, the CNPC, the Chinese oil company, he climbed to the top as the head of internal and external information, the true hub of authority of the country. From there he then helped the rise, which was almost a coup, of then Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai after 2008.
What happened before 2008, when the American financial crisis made China doubt the effectiveness of the American system, was this: the confusion of power was enormous, a democratization would have served to clarify everything. That is, about a half of the party thought that democracy would formalize and bring order to confusion, while another half wanted the continuation of the confusion, because in the confusion they were enriched.
The crisis of 2008, changed priorities and convinced almost all that it was necessary to be cautious with the political reforms. Meanwhile nothing was clear: who was in charge of the state, the party, or the army? And who was competent for what?
Nothing was certain, and everything was dependent on the ability of individuals to jostle and stab in the shadows. Bo Xilai actually understood and fully exploited the situation to subvert any clarity in the party.
Moreover, in this jam any real political reform was in fact impossible, because there were too many conflicting interests to coordinate. In these five years, Xi’s work was to clarify this jam, a source of constant political instability. This meant to eliminate the differences between state, party, and army and create a clear command line.
Today it is clear that the party is first and the state and the army are under the party. It is also clear that the party that has regained its full centrality is the place where political reforms could emerge in the future. Of course it is not sure that this will happen or that the result will meet Western expectations.
In other words after 30 years Zhao’s theories are put into practice, yet the country has changed and so has the world that is no longer as positive and optimist about Beijing as in 1989. And doubts have returned that power amassed now will not be later redistributed and not in a way acceptable to the rest of the world.