Xi Jinping’s only test of leadership was ensuring stable transition, and he just failed it
Whether governed by laws, or the favour of the mighty, the most critical time in any political movement is managing the transition between competing leaders.
The worst tyrannies fall with their creators; the entirety of their political vision – if they had one – disintegrating in the span of a single human career. The longest-lasting survive by consolidating all power into one family, butchering and suppressing opposition, and so impoverishing those they rule that any collective act of rebellion is impossible next to mere survival.
These are all ideological and historical dead ends.
From Rousseau and Locke’s social contract theories, to Hobbes and Hume on inequality and government, philosophers have spent centuries pondering how a single political vision could be transferred, built on, and improved indefinitely even as the creators of those ideals returned to dust.
Their objective was a vision for governance so compelling that people would voluntarily commit to being subjected to it; and that others, under different rules, would aspire to adopt them.
Their ideas lead to a form of mixed governance; the rule of autocrats, complemented by parliaments, ensured distribution of power between men – yes, usually men – who would otherwise engage in violence and chaos to establish their authority. Replacing rule-by-one with multiple centres of power, and multiple routes to those new centres of power.
These were still tyrannies, but they insured that one idiot son wouldn’t obliterate a nation.
We tend – in democracies – to think that voting is the key to peaceful transition, but a quick glance at countries with regular elections and no stability puts paid to that idea. And neither is liberal enlightenment; the Romans managed without it for centuries.
The critical thing is adherence to a common law which applies to everyone.
When ex- and new leaders each obey those laws, and each knows that others will obey those laws, transition is kept vaguely decorous. The absolute knowledge that the incumbent will leave stays the hand of those determined to be a future leader no matter what.
Which brings us to China and Xi Jinping.
As the American Century ends, an ideal, once so powerful that remote communities often knew more about American culture than their own, is being abandoned. There is a unique opportunity to fill that void, and China wants more than just perpetual rule by tyranny.
They want to replace the philosophical ideals birthed by the Enlightenment, of Rousseau and Locke, with that of their own. China wants people not only to respect them, but to admire them, and aspire to be more like them.
The one thing that would derail this rose-coloured vision is a mass youth movement equivalent to 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests, and an equivalent massacre would put paid to China’s economic and ideological suasion.
The perpetual continuity of the state requires seamless, invisible, transition between leaders; each continuing the ideals of those before them.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China produces stable succession through two ends: collective leadership by a vast, hierarchical committee of anonymous identikit comrades in identikit uniforms; and divvying up power through that committee so that an enormous, complex and diverse nation can absorb ambitious psychopaths, each able to retire wealthy from that authority without risk to themselves.
Their faceless grey tyranny only produces personalities when it needs scape-goats.
Xi Jinping threw this careful balance onto the scrap-heap the moment he decided he was the only one who could realise this vision.
He now joins men like Vladimir Putin, whose safety depends on never getting old, never getting sick, and never falling asleep in a roomful of potential successors, lest they follow the path of Robert Mugabe.
As Xi claws onto power, his is no longer a vision shared across the state. It is the vision of one man, and the history of all one-man-tyrannies is that they end in disaster.