An empty vase makes the most noise. The grandiosity of the Chinese Communist Party Congress – heralding a New Era of Wondrous Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – is designed to mask a system that has run its course.
The relatively easy (ideology-ditching) recovery from the depths of Mao’s economic disaster was over some years ago. Growth since then has been fueled by debt being channeled into loss-making investments and asset bubbles, with rampant corruption and inequality as side-effects.
The next step through Middle-Income Land should be towards higher productivity. That means the government letting go of the allocation of capital, and ending the protection and promotion of favoured industries. But to oh-so-confident Xi Jinping, ‘letting go’ means hastening the downfall of the Communist Party. He is so fearful that a USSR-1989 collapse could be imminent that he is tightening the centre’s grip on – as we know – everything. (Higher productivity also entails details like rule of law and freer flows of information, which are downright abhorrent to the ultra-conservative princeling.)
Maybe the CCP under Xi will discover the Marxist Holy Grail, where central planning and control – the opposite of competition – boost innovation, efficiency and output. But let’s be cynical and assume that it won’t happen.
Xi is eschewing reform and GDP-doubling as too risky to the CCP’s monopoly of power. So instead he must focus on creating a mirage of continued progress. This means delivering substitutes and placebos like aircraft carriers and anti-corruption campaigns. It means eradicating anything that might contradict the ‘everything is wonderful’ harmony-vibes – so internet access, academic freedom and human-rights lawyers must continue to disappear. It means ever-more insistent and mesmerizing messages and images, hopefully less clunky than the pre-movie Jacky Chan propaganda clips. And to be safe, unprecedented creepy surveillance and control through e-wallets, social credit rating and face-recognition.
Here’s a good summary tracing a line from the global crisis of 2008 to today’s arrests of lawyers. It ends by mentioning the elements of Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, like democracy, justice, equality and all the other goodies. They are thrust tastefully in your face wherever you go (cross the border at Sha Tau Kok and walk for one minute). The word ‘dream’ can mean ‘aspiration’, but strictly speaking it means an illusion. An even bigger fantasy is imagining that the CCP can glide through the coming financial, demographic and environmental mess this way.